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Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” – Mark 7:1-23
We’re probably all familiar with the story of “Fiddler on the Roof” – where Tevye, the Jewish milkman in a little Russian village at the beginning of the twentieth century, sings praises to tradition – the social glue, the thing that gave order and meaning to life in the family and the village. But Tevye is living in a time of great social upheaval that’s challenging a lot of those traditions, and he’s struggling to keep up. One of his daughters wants to break tradition and receive his permission and blessing to marry the man she wants, instead of the old man picked for her by the traditional matchmaker. Another daughter doesn’t just want to choose her own husband without the matchmaker, she tells him they aren’t even asking for his permission, just his blessing. And as hard as it is for him, Tevye finds ways to navigate and accept these changes to the traditions that had given order to his own life. He finds a new balance, a new normal. But when a third daughter wants to marry outside the faith, that’s a bridge too far. Tevye disowns her and treats her as dead. In their final meeting, all he can mutter is “God go with you,” and he won’t even say that to her face; he won’t even look at her. In this gut-wrenching scene, he can’t let go of his beloved tradition even when it keeps him from having a relationship with his child.
In today’s gospel text, Jesus faces challenge from the religious leadership – basically, the first-century equivalent of all us official, ordained leaders in the church – because he and his disciples weren’t following some of the long-standing traditions of the faith – in particular, they weren’t observing the ritual hand washing, which was more than just washing for cleanliness. But Jesus called them hypocrites, valuing human tradition valuing form and appearance, over actual substance. As Jesus looked around him, he saw disciples who had given up home, family, career, some even social status, in order to follow him; and here they were now, being shunned just for not washing their hands in a certain way.
In all honesty, the religious leaders were just trying to do what they thought was right in God’s eyes. Observing those traditions were what identified them as a distinct people, the people from all the cultures and religions that surrounded them. The Church has a similar concern – we’re called to be an intentional community of faith, distinct in some ways from the culture around us. A lot of our traditions arose out of that same goal. I suppose you could say that the religious leaders who were challenging Jesus just wanted to make sure things were being done “decently and in order.”
In his criticism of them, Jesus wasn’t saying there was anything inherently wrong with human tradition, rules, or rituals. But there’s a problem when adhering to the tradition becomes more important than the underlying issue of God’s will, and God’s mission.
In the church, we’re living in a time of upheaval that’s just as unsettling as the times that Tevye was going through. Just as his traditions helped him in many ways, our traditions can give us a sense of identity and community and comfort. And that’s all very important, and very good – unless we end up making the same mistake that Tevye did, and we allow our grip on tradition to keep us from being in loving relationship with other children of God. Because what does it say if we – you, me, all of us – think it’s more important to hold onto our traditions as they are, rather than adjusting them in order to be more welcoming to others? What does it say if we won’t welcome others into the fold just because they want to wash their hands in a different way?
There were two small, struggling downtown congregations in a city. Covenant Church was a beautiful old building with a rich history. But the surrounding neighborhood had changed, racially, socially, economically. The remaining handful of members, all well past retirement, had moved miles away into the suburbs decades ago and only came into this part of the city on Sunday mornings. They had talked about ways they could change to reach out to the very different people in the neighborhood around the church, but ultimately they decided it would be too much work for them, and that in any case it would be too much of a culture shock for them. It would have meant changing their familiar patterns of worship and church life too much. Oh, the doors would always be open for any of the neighbors to come in, but there was really only so much they could change in order to be appealing to those people. Really, in the end, Covenant will always be Covenant.
Except that now it isn’t. Membership continued to decline in accordance with the immutable truth of actuarial tables. Finally, the congregation folded and the building was sold. Now, the city’s Arts Council owns it, and they host organ recitals and other concerts there, which is nice – but it’s a failure in terms of advancing God’s mission of outreach and serving and loving the people who live in the shadow of the bell tower.
Less than half a mile away sits Old Trinity Church. Another beautiful, even if badly run down, building with a storied past. They faced the same challenges as Covenant, but they realized the reality of the situation they were in, and they decided to rethink their traditions and ways of being the church. It was hard, but they decided to change their worship to be more appealing to their African-American and Latino neighbors. They set up community gardening plots on their vacant lot, for struggling families to grow some of their own food. They started a neighborhood food pantry, and they supplemented the usual staples with surplus fresh fruit and vegetables from the garden plots.
Today, Old Trinity is still small. It’s still struggling. But it’s still there – and it’s growing, because it was willing to adjust its traditions to meet the new realities of the community that God placed them in.
When we think about tradition in the church and how it should work, I think we need to always keep in mind that God is found precisely at the place where church tradition, and church mission, intersect, and where both are mutually advanced. God blesses traditions that create spiritual nurture, a sense of community, and emotional comfort, while not obstructing the mission of reaching out and welcoming others into the church, into the Kingdom of God.
We understand this idea of adjusting traditions in order to advance the overall mission in our own lives, don’t we? Remember being just married, or just beginning a serious relationship, and your spouse or significant other makes you a nice home-cooked meal of your favorite comfort food – meat loaf and mashed potatoes. And as you look at the plate, you think:
“Mmm, meat loaf and mashed potatoes… but what’s this? This meat loaf was made in a round casserole dish; my mother always made ours in a loaf pan. Who ever heard of a round meat loaf? It’s ridiculous!
…On the other hand… it wasn’t made with oatmeal filler, like my mother’s always was. I never liked that; I always hated finding oatmeal hiding in my meat loaf. This has bread filler, it’s smoother; I like that much better.
…On the other hand, why does it have this brown gravy on top? Everyone knows a good meat loaf has to have a ketchup glaze! And God, if I have to endure gravy on top of my meat loaf, would it be too much to ask for at least a little bit of ketchup on the side?!! (sigh…)
…On the other hand… these mashed potatoes – I’m sorry, Mother, forgive me, but your mashed potatoes were always lumpy and stiff and were as bland as wallpaper paste. But these – these are light and smooth and fluffy, and I think they have some sour cream whipped into them; they’re delicious! All in all, this is really not bad…”
You think about all these things, and you realize that your real mission in this relationship is to start a new life together, living and loving and supporting one another, caring for one another, and even forming new traditions together. So you take another bite, and you say,
You know, I think this is the best meat loaf I’ve ever had in my life! It’s just the way I like it!”
And you mean it, not just because it’s good, but because you love the other person. Loving and working together, you’ve established a new baseline. A new normal. A new “TRA – DITIONNNNN!”
Thanks be to God.