Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” Matthew 15:1-20
Years ago, when I was in my final year in seminary, I got to be part of an extraordinary event. Barbara Harris was elected in Massachusetts as the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church. As a woman and a seminarian I was awed by her accomplishment, and daily heard of the many, many challenges she faced. Before the service (and after) her life was regularly threatened and she had escorts for her safety every where she went. She was heckled and discounted but she held her head high understanding mission and serving God as her priority. At the consecration, despite the voices who challenged her ordination, she was gracious and dignified, as was the Presiding Bishop. We had been briefed the night before as to the protocol for a violent attack, and heard from the Boston Police as well as the FBI as to how to conduct ourselves. As a woman about to be ordained I was overwhelmed with gratitude for her courage and her zeal, and honor her to this day for being willing to break tradition. She made my election possible, and all of the women bishops, and there are still only a handful of us, have Barbara Harris to thank for her leadership and example.
The religious leaders are attacking Jesus and his followers for not following the letter of the law, the human traditions that served practical purposes in previous generations but which did not necessarily apply to the present circumstances. Jesus reminded the authorities that these laws were made by men, and that God's laws are born out of compassion and love in response to the needs of the people. He was not a law-breaker, but one who knew all too well that tradition and rules can choke out the Holy Spirit, can sideline important people and their gifts. Standing up to tradition and long held rules can be very daunting. And God invites us to honor the gifts of all those who come before us, honoring them and the people who have been moved to change for the kingdom of God.
Today I want to honor all those who are willing to answer God's call in the face of traditional restrictions, that have called them less than and not qualified. We have shut many from leadership due to language, race, gender and sexuality, and a plethora of other reasons that challenged our traditional notions. May we have the courage to see the spirit moving in the most unlikely, and may we see God's hand on those who we have so completely shut out and dismissed. May God break open our hearts and minds today, to see with compassion and creativity to the heart of God.