Gut Theology

(sermon 7/14/19)

Bones and Spock

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

=====

A week or two ago, an old friend that I grew up with made a post on Facebook that too many Christians were supposedly making a mistake of letting their feelings and emotions guide their actions, instead of using their heads – and that that led them into bad theology and sin. What he wrote was really just a reflection of a dispute that’s older than Christianity, or religion at all, and that goes all the way back to our earliest human origins – the question of the relationship and relative importance of intellect versus emotion; of thinking versus feeling – Of Spock versus Bones; or in the verbal shorthand of our culture, of head versus heart. In our western society, we’ve tended to strongly favor head over heart, holding that intellect is superior to emotions – that intellect is based on data and logic; it’s supposedly objective; you can put it on a spreadsheet and write formulas for it; where emotions are supposedly soft, ambiguous, fuzzy; they’re unpredictable and therefore, inferior. They aren’t, my old friend would say, a reliable way to understand the reality of a situation, or specifically, a reliable way to understand God, or to understand what God wishes might be in a given situation.

You can see the head-versus-heart debate in the scriptures and in the early church in the debate over what was more important – professing the right things, or doing the right things; or as the theologians would say, the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Paul and James contribute a lot to that debate in the scriptures, and so do many of the ancient prophets, and Jesus certainly jumps into the debate with both feet. And when you look at what Jesus and the majority of those others had to say about the subject, you’ll see that they believed that both our intellects and our emotions are equally important parts of our having been created in God’s image. They’re both important kinds of intelligence. They’re both based on data inputs; different kinds of data to be sure, but important data nonetheless. And frankly, when you look at Jesus’ words and the totality of the scriptural witness, as much as it might upset our Western, supposedly objective, head-based sensibilities, if Jesus and the others did favor any one of the two over the other, it was generally the heart knowledge, the emotional intelligence, that took precedence over the head.

We see that in today’s gospel text, the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man had questioned Jesus about how to inherit eternal life. When pushed by Jesus to try to answer his own question about what it would take, the man rattled off the Law, the scriptural commandments that he’d learned in Sunday School when he was small that he was supposed to believe, and he’d apparently taken them to heart. But then Jesus pushed him further, saying it wasn’t enough to just say he believed these things were correct; he had to actually let his emotions kick in and put those intellectual propositions into actual practice.

In this parable that Jesus offered to explain his point, the first two people who walked by the beaten and suffering man, one of their own countrymen, both were upstanding religious men who professed all those same commandments as the man who had questioned Jesus – they could have rattled off the same list of commandments from the Torah, the Law.

We’ve all seen and heard of the horrible situation on our southern border right now, with refugees, asylum-seekers; men, women, and children; being detained in vastly overcrowded facilities and often being denied the basic essentials of health and hygiene. We’ve all heard about the obscene policy of forcibly separating children, even infants, from their parents. Recently, during a television segment discussing those situations, a well-known commentator on a national news network said that well, yes, it’s a sad situation and all, but actually, you know, those aren’t our children. This was the mindset of those first two men who walked past the beaten men in the parable and did nothing. It was a shame, to be sure, but it really wasn’t any real concern of theirs. He wasn’t their problem.

These two men couldn’t make the connection that the religious Law that they professed and said they believed in was really a call to act with compassion – with their feelings and emotions – and that sometimes, the right practice of the intent of the Law might require them to act contrary to the letter of that Law.

Jesus tells us that the third man to come along was a Samaritan – a foreigner, part of a group who were despised by the Jews, and vice versa. The Samaritan wasn’t a part of the Jewish religious tradition; for all we know, he may not have been an adherent of any religion at all. And he knew that on any other day, the man he saw lying in a pool of blood along the side of the road could very possibly have been a serious threat to him. He’d probably have hurt the Samaritan, thrown a rock at him, or worse, if they’d met on the street. Still, whether he was an adherent of the Jewish faith or not, the Samaritan had the same Law within him that was professed by the others who’d come along, but in his case, it was written on his heart instead of his head.

Our Bible translation says that the Samaritan felt “pity” for the beaten man. That’s an unfortunate translation that doesn’t really capture the full meaning of the word being translated, and it implies that the Samaritan felt a sense of superiority, and was looking down on the beaten man. But this word being translated actually means that he felt deep, extreme compassion for him. Today, we’d say that our heart ached for the man, or that our heart went out to him, or was broken for him. In Jesus’ time they’d have conveyed the same idea by talking about their inner organs, their intestines – their guts. In fact, that’s actually what this Greek word literally refers to; it means that the Samaritan felt a deep compassion to the core of his intestines, his guts, for the suffering man, his would-be enemy. The Samaritan allowed his emotions, his gut, to rule the day, to write his theology, and not his head. And this, of all the possible stories Jesus could weave, was the illustration that he used to teach what’s most important to God, and what eternal life is all about. Head theology is good and important, but only in so far as it’s interpreted and converted into “Gut Theology.”

It’s gut theology that we celebrate today, as we recognize and commission all those in this congregation who will be living out their faith by working with Habitat for Humanity this year. If you’re one of those workers, realize that you are all gut theologians. Realize that in God’s eyes, every one of you who frames a wall in the name of God’s love is as important a theologian as St. Augustine; every one of you who hangs a window or paints a ceiling is as important a theologian as John Calvin; every one of you who makes and distributes lunches is as important a theologian as Karl Barth.

This week our Puerto Rico mission trip workers – our Puerto Rico gut theologians – have come back safe and sound, and now, we’re commissioning another group of people to go out from here to put right belief into right practice. In several weeks, we’re gong to host an event to highlight some of the many ways that all of us can be gut theologians, and a number of the sermons between now and then will highlight some of those ways, too. It’s important that in some way or another, each one of us finds a way to convert right belief into the more important right practice – to become a gut theologians ourselves. Out of gratitude for the grace and the love that God has poured upon all of us, we need to hear the wisdom of our heads, but to act based on the wisdom of our feelings. To do anything less would be… well, illogical.

Thanks be to God.

Advertisements

Coming and Going

(sermon 7/7/19 – Immigration Sunday)

go away doormat
Elisha’s doormat

2 Kings 5:1-14

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

=====

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

=====

The prophet Elisha may not be the strangest person in the Bible, but he certainly ranks up there, which is impressive given just how relatively little the scriptures tell us about him. Unlike his mentor Elijah, who never seemed to be at a loss for words, Elisha actually didn’t say much. Most of the scriptural record of him focuses on supernatural miracles he performed – making oil mysteriously not run out, raising a boy from the dead, making an axe head float in water – usually without much conversation from him surrounding it. In one case, Elisha wanted to say something to a woman who’s been offering him hospitality in her home for years, so he has his personal assistant Gehazi bring the woman to him – in her own home – and while she’s standing there right in front of him, Elisha tells Gehazi, “Tell the woman…” what he wants to say, refusing to speak directly to her while she was standing right in front of him and must have been thinking “Well what am I, chopped liver?”

Another time, in maybe the most bizarre of Elisha stories, Elisha is being hounded by a large crowd of young boys who are teasing Elisha because he’s bald, so he summons two bears to come down out of the woods and maul 42 of the boys, indicating that Elisha had anger management issues, to put it mildly.

That’s all a long-winded way of making it clear that Elisha was not by any stretch of the imagination a people-person, and that sets the stage for the story we heard about him this morning. Naaman, a powerful, highly decorated, well respected five-star general in the army of the neighboring kingdom of Aram, hears that this odd little man of God in the Samaria – this backwater, the armpit of the universe by Naaman’s estimation, might be able to cure him of this ailment that he’s been suffering from for so long. So at least for a little while, he pushes down his substantial ego and goes to get an audience with  Elisha.

Of course, we heard that isn’t exactly how things played out. When Naaman and his entourage arrived at Elisha’s house, Elisha wouldn’t even agree to see this foreign bigshot in person. He sends out some unnamed lackey to tell Naaman to go jump in the lake, almost literally. Elisha instructed the lackey to tell Naaman to just go bathe in the Jordan River nearby, which in that location was likely muddy, and brackish, and hardly more than a large creek, something that looked like if you tried to bathe in it you’d probably come out dirtier than when you’d gone in. This was too much for Naaman’s ego, and he decides to go home, unhealed, until some of his people talk some sense into him. Finally, Naaman gives in, and does what he’s been told, and he ends up heading home healed and humbled, and all without Elisha ever having to debase himself by actually meeting Naaman.

There’s a bit of a reversal of this situation in today’s gospel reading. There, Jesus sends his disciples out to engage directly with people throughout the countryside, to heal the suffering and proclaim God’s good news, rather than waiting for them to come to them, as Naaman came to Elisha, to receive God’s blessings. When the disciples did this, and they return, they’re joyful as they tell Jesus all about what had happened, and their experiences. You can imagine the excitement in their voices. Clearly, this was a transformative experience for them, and you can almost hear them tell Jesus that most  often-heard comment made by people coming back from a mission trip, that they know they helped others, but they’d received so much more than what they’d given. I’m sure that when our group in Puerto Rico gets home, many of them will say the same thing.

That seems to be an important way that God works within us. We’re called to be compassionate toward others, to proclaim God’s good news of love for them, to be the face; the heart, hands, and feet of Christ to them – but at the same time, we experience God, we learn about God, we’re transformed by God, largely by coming into contact and relationship with them.  They have things to teach us – about them, about God, about ourselves. That act of being open to and receiving others seems, in fact, to possibly be the most important way that we grown in our faith and see God in the world.

So let’s think back, then, to that story of Elisha and Naaman. There are all sorts of things that a person could draw out of this story, but I suspect that more often than not, it’s told as a morality play in which the moral of the story is “Don’t be a Naaman” – don’t let our pride and ego get in the way of God working goodness in our lives. And that’s a good enough point, I guess, but today I want to suggest seeing the story from a different angle, one where the moral of the story might be “Don’t be an Elisha.” I imagine Elisha, sitting in his house after this encounter, feeling all smug and superior for having basically just phoned in Naaman’s healing, without ever having any actual personal contact with him. And in the midst of that feeling of superiority, I imagine Elisha passing by a mirror in his house, and stopping for a moment to look at himself in it; and as he’s looking into his own eyes he hears the voice of God saying “Really, Elisha? Do you know what you just missed? Do you really know everything about why I sent that man to meet you? Do you realy think you couldn’t possibly have anything to learn from him? Do you know what I’d had in mind for you, what I wanted you to learn through him, how I wanted to make you a better servant of mine, by meeting and talking with him? Really, Elisha?” And I imagine Elisha realizing what an opportunity he’d just missed, how he’d frustrated God’s good intentions for him, by not opening himself up to this other person, and suddenly, he couldn’t look into his own eyes anymore, and he quietly walked away.

This past week, we’ve been celebrating our American ideal of independence. This coming week, let’s also try to recognize and celebrate the interdependence that God has created us for, and designed us for, and continually is drawing us toward. Let’s be thankful for the good news that God loves us. And God loves and all the people that Jesus’ disciples helped. And God loves the Elishas of the world, and all the Naamans of the world. Let’s remember and be grateful for the truth that just as God uses us to transform the lives of others, God also uses those others, however we go to them or however they come to us, to transform us, too.

So whose life will you transform this week? And who will you allow to transform your own?

Thanks be to God.

Talk Is Cheap

(sermon 10/1/17 – World Communion Sunday)

yes no maybe

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

=====

As a Lenten study series this coming year, Cathy L______ is going to do an educational offering on the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity. I’m sure it’s going to be an interesting and informative session, and I hope you’ll try to attend it when it comes around. Once, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Give me five minutes with a man’s checkbook, and I’ll tell you what he really believes.” Momentarily putting aside the male bias in the words, which just reflect the age he was writing in, and the fact that the youngest generation of adults today has probably never even had a checkbook, I think the point still comes through – that the way a person spends their money, and even more broadly, the things that they actually do, illustrates what they really believe, far more accurately than what they might say they believe.

There’s a lot of that same idea in Jesus’ words in today’s gospel text. In this lesson, Jesus is in the middle of yet another confrontation with a group of religious leaders who aren’t happy with what he’s been teaching. A lot of what he’s said runs counter to their teachings, and in this exchange, they’re trying to pick him apart, to get him to say something that contradicts their official orthodoxy that they can then use to discredit him. And after a brief back-and-forth battle over words, Jesus tells this short story about a man with two sons; the first one says he’ll do what the Father wants, and then doesn’t do it; and the second one says he won’t do what the Father wants, but ultimately goes ahead and does it anyway; and that it’s the second son who was pleasing in the Father’s eyes. He tells the story to make his point clear: having and saying the right words is all well and good, but what really matters – what actually accomplishes the will of the Father, to use Jesus’ terminology – is actually doing the right things, carrying out the intentions behind the words. In this little exchange, Jesus is saying, in essence, that talk is cheap If those words aren’t enfleshed, if their meaning isn’t made real in the world, then the words are meaningless at best, and just weapons used to divide us at worst.

This is an idea that goes to the very heart of our faith. We say that in the beginning, before even the beginning of measurable time, was the Word – the creative power and essence and wisdom of God, and that God knew that the best way for us human beings to understand God, and God’s will, is for that eternal, spiritual Word to become enfleshed – so that we could see, and know, firsthand, what all the written words about God that only partially and imperfectly pointed toward God, actually were trying to say.

Of course, those religious leaders who were trying to trip Jesus up with words were far from the last to go down that path. The divisions across the full spectrum of the Christian faith over words, over theological jots and tittles run deep. We’ve argued, and divided over, issues like what precisely, scientifically, is happening when we celebrate and embrace the mystery of Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Or whether Jesus is divine and eternally coexistent, uncreated, with God the Father; or divine, but still nevertheless created by God the Father. Or whether the Holy Spirit emanates “from the Father,” or “from the Father and the Son.” Or whether, if God is supposedly trinitarian, how that works – are those making up the Trinity “beings” or “persons;” or are they distinct “parts” of God that only together make up God; or if they’re really just like “masks,” or parts in a play, that the same, unitary God just appears through at various points in time.

Did you keep up with all that? Probably not. And yet, we Christians have debated, and divided, and argued, and excommunicated, and tortured, and killed, and fought wars over those exact things. And just as bad, we didn’t limit our awful behavior to just other Christians. We persecuted people of other religious faiths, and those of no religious faith, because they didn’t accept the correctness of our own particular Christian theology – because they had their own “words” for defining how to love and serve God and humanity, and how they fit into the universe. And through all of our division and dissension and especially the violence over words, God must have been disgusted and heartbroken – and must still be when we do the same things today.

Jesus didn’t say in his story that words aren’t important. They are. It’s a good and proper and important thing for us to try to understand and comprehend God as deeply and correctly as we can with our words. But as Jesus points out here, having the right words isn’t enough. What matters most is whether we’re putting our words to use, to advance God’s will for us, and for this world. And taking that one step further, if we are putting our words, our beliefs into practice, and they aren’t really achieving God’s intentions, then maybe we don’t have the right words, the right beliefs, at all.

Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a time when Christians across a wide spectrum of theologies and beliefs – a wide spectrum of words – all commit to come together to celebrate Communion – the Lord’s Supper – on the same day, as a sign of unity in God’s Spirit. It’s a statement that regardless of the details of our words, we’re committed, together, to do the will of the Father in the world – to love God with all of our essence; to love all people as we love ourselves. To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. World Communion Sunday is a global joint statement that as a tenet of our common faith, talk is cheap without follow-through.

And this Sunday, we need to recognize that while World Communion Sunday is a particularly Christian observance, its message of us turning our words into actions doesn’t stop at the threshold of Christianity. God’s will is that we extend those same loving and gracious and accepting attitudes to all people, because we’re all God’s people, regardless of our particular religious beliefs – regardless of our “words.” In a number of ways, through a number of Springdale’s different mission initiatives funded through our annual general offering – through our “checkbook,” thinking back to C.S. Lewis’ comment – we’re trying to do exactly that.

A man had two sons. Or three. Or three thousand, or seven and a half billion billion. The number wasn’t important. What was important wasn’t what any of them might say, because he knew that at any given time they were likely to say just about anything, and at one time or another, probably have. His question was “Regardless of the words, will they do what I want them to do? Will they love one another? Will they accept one another? Will they treat one another with justice and always strive for peace? Because whatever they might say or not say, *that’s* what pleases me. *That’s* what makes them my children.”

So will they do it? Will we?

Thanks be to God.

Trad/ission (sermon 8/30/15)

tevye tradition

Watch video of this sermon here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HP1fFNdqdE4

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.