“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Mark 7:5
Every time I hear this Gospel from Mark, I am taken back 14 years to a large, airy church filled with people on a summer Sunday morning in the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania, not far from Selian Lutheran Hospital. A group of 12 of us from St. John’s were worshipping at Ngaramtoni Lutheran Church and today’s Gospel was the text. Pastor Abel Godson had arranged for the only ordained woman pastor in the Arusha diocese to be the preacher. She served on the faculty of the Seminary and spoke with confidence. We were given seats of honor, right up from. Our missionary, Dr. Mark Jacobson, sat next to me and phrase by phrase quietly translated her sermon from Swahili into English. In turn each phrase was passed on in “whisper down the lane fashion” to everyone in our group. She was fine preacher. The women in the church were leaning into her words as they heard the Gospel from a sister for the first time. Then Mark sighed and said, “This is a public health nightmare. She just said you do not need to wash your hands.”
For the Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem to check Jesus out, it wasn’t a public health nightmare but a religious one that might even be more dangerous. Jesus’ disciples were violating the tradition of the elders, ignoring what it means to be a Jew, failing to obey the laws that made them a holy people. A Rabbi once explained to me that Judaism is as much, if not more, about the home and family than it is about a congregation. Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday evening with the family gather around the table as the mother light the candles and prays the Sabbath prayer. The challah, bread especially prepared for Sabbath, and a cup of wine are blessed and then everyone washes their hands. Following the tradition of the elders means food’s prepared in a certain way and hands are always washed before receiving the gifts of God. Following traditions keeps a Jew, a Jew. Not following them puts you in danger of forgetting who and whose you are.
The problem is that things kept getting added to the tradition. The ritual of hand-washing grew more and more complicated. It had to be done in a certain way, with specific actions and if any of those actions were left out the ritual was impure, unfinished. This is often the case with ritual. Religious communities are prone to OCD – obsessive compulsion disorder – especially about worship. One must bow in a certain way, sit or kneel at a certain time, pray just so. This is true whether the worship is defined as traditional or contemporary. Whatever the ritual, if someone does it differently there’s a sense of disorder and it can feel as if all hell is breaking loose. Take the simple task of lighting the candles. There’s a felt picture on the wall in the sacristy next to the candle-lighting sticks. It’s probably been there for 50 years. It shows the altar and four candles, numbered in red in the order in which they are to be lit. The acolyte can check out the picture just before doing the task. Only there are times when the acolyte gets mixed up and the candles are lit in the wrong order. Some hope no one noticed, but others come to me and anxiously say, “Pastor, I’m sorry I messed up worship today.” I usually reply, “It’s O.K. I did too. I mess it up all the time. God’s still here, right?” And they nod, even if they aren’t sure about that.
Religious OCD is dangerous because ritual becomes more important than God and God’s people. It leads us to believe that God, for some utterly unexplainable reason, loves the human past (usually our own group’s recent past) instead of the present or the future of creation. Historian Jaroslav Pelikan put it like this: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. It is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
One of my favorite musicals is Fiddler on the Roof – I especially like the opening song, Tradition in which Tevye and the people of Anatevka sing of everyone knowing who he is, let me add, who she is, and what God expects of them. The song ends with Tevye declaring “Without traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof.” By the end of the show, many of those traditions have been tested and some have been found wanting, while at the core, life and faith persists. As Tevye and his family walk into a future they do not know, the fiddler plays his tune one final time and then follows behind, fiddle and bow in hand ready to play another day.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenges the traditions of the elders. Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’ words with bluntness – “Isaiah was right about frauds like you, hit the bull’s eye in fact: These people make a big show of saying the right thing, but their heart isn’t in it. They act like they are worshipping me, but they don’t mean it.” Jesus is challenging them as to whether or not their traditions are fulfilling their mission. Are they living as God’s people or are they stuck in old habits that no longer bear life? Over and over again Jesus will give voice to this question, then and now.
Next Sunday we will receive the Listening Report which is the first part of our Strategic Planning process. Dr. Elise Brown will help us to hear one another which in a fluid congregation like ours can be hard to do. Like the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof we have our rules, defined by tradition and habit that have served us well. It’s the way we do things, a way tested over time, but if we are honest, it is also a way to avoid the challenge of change. The problem is that, like the people of Anatevka, change comes whether or not we want it to.
Listening is hard. It’s easy to get defensive and instead of really hearing and understanding the other, we get busy formulating our own response. Yet listening, really listening is also a blessing for when doing so we are given new insights and understandings, new ways of seeing the world and are often surprised by insights we could never have imagined.
So, let’s listen, listen to our sisters and brothers who love God, this community of faith and the place we are blessed to be. Let us also listen to God through scripture and prayer, worship and meditation, study and reflection, God who loves us and calls us to live, grow and share his love through Jesus. And listen to our community, the new folks in our town as well as the ones who have spent their whole lives here, to our culture, where it is hurting and where it is strong and especially to our youth and children.
You’ve probably heard the old joke, “How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change? Change? My grandfather donated that lightbulb!” We love our traditions. I love our traditions. They have helped us to share faith in countless ways. But we continually need to ask, is that still true? What if we have fallen into worshipping traditions instead of God? Is our faith living or dead? What if Jesus is calling us to put our mission ahead of even our most cherished traditions? What then?
I feel so strongly about this because two weeks ago, John and I worshiped at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, the congregation I grew up in up in, for the last time. The oldest Lutheran church in Allentown, St. Paul’s is closing on December 31st….Stunningly beautiful…amazing ministry….
True listening to one another, to God and to the culture leads to change and that’s not easy, but absolutely essential. Dare we embark upon a new adventure or stay with what seems safe and secure? The fiddler is ready to play a new tune. From time to time we will hear a melody line from the past, reminding us of our history and heritage and the deep wisdom that can be found there. The tune will bear witness to the present where so many are crucified on crosses of greed and fear, prejudice and ignorance. It will challenge us to work for justice and peace, to share faith and hope and to love, to love, to love. We can trust the fiddler’s tune to carry us into a new day, when death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more for by God’s grace and mercy all things are made new. Amen.
1 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition, New Haven: Yale University, 1984, 65.
2 David Lose, Partner in Preaching.