Monday, August 24, 2015
This is one of those weeks when I read the lessons for Sunday and realize right away what I think God is calling me to preach to our congregation. I might be wrong--ask the congregation on Sunday afternoon--but, for now, it seems that the gospel lesson (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) holds great fruit for us. How do I know? Mainly because it makes me uncomfortable, and, when the lesson makes the preacher squirm at his desk, there's a good chance it will make the congregation squirm in the pews.
In this gospel passage, Jesus is approached by some of the religious leaders of their day. They are frustrated (concerned, appalled, confused) by the actions of Jesus' disciples, who, it seems, eat without washing their hands. In the exchange that follows, Jesus brings those religious leaders down from their position of assumed privilege and forces them to confront their own hypocrisy. For the most part, we skip those verses because they're about a confusing concept recorded to us as "Corban," which is actually something biblical scholars aren't sure about. Still, though, the subject of Jesus' criticism comes through. Although I prefer the power of verse 9 ("And [Jesus] said to them, 'You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!'"), the text that we have more or less says the same thing--their fault lies in their blind adherence to tradition.
And that's where I start to squirm. Tradition. Is any word more important in our church? Is any word more important to a clergyperson like me? Of course we want the answer to be yes. "Jesus" is a lot more important. So are "grace" and "love" and "sin" and "forgiveness" and "reconciliation" and "salvation." We might know in our minds that tradition isn't the content of our faith but only the method through which that faith is expressed, but our love affair with the way we do things--our traditions--burns even brighter. As yourself which would be more controversial--questioning the divinity of Jesus from the pulpit or exchanging the altar for a simple table in the middle of the room? Exactly. And that's exactly why Mark 7 begs me to preach on it.
Although I have made it a practice never to mention "the Greek text" from the pulpit, I do study it in preparation for my sermons. This is one of those weeks when the Greek will have a direct influence on my sermon, and those who read my blog may be able to hear those influences in the finished product. The Greek word that is translated as "tradition" is the word paradosis. Over and over, it is translated as "tradition," and there isn't really any wiggle room in that. But the etymology of the Greek word is worth noting. As you can see here, it comes from para, which means "from" as in having come from close beside something, and didomi, which is the verb for "give over." That means that the root for the word "tradition" means "to hand over from close beside." Imagine that. The Latin root for "tradition" isn't far from that (trans + dare = "to give across"), but it carries some etymological connotation shared with "betray," which is another sermon entirely. Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, I'll stick with the Greek and ponder in what ways our "traditions" are merely closely kept things that have been handed over to the next generation.
Last week, someone mentioned to me in passing that he had inherited many sentimentally important things from his mother that have no value except to him. "When I die, I'd guess they will all be thrown away." I understand that feeling. I have it about many things. For example, I still have two soccer goalie jerseys from high school hanging in my closet. They remind me of a chapter from my past, and, even though I can't imagine I'll have an opportunity to wear them (except maybe for Halloween), they still hang in my closet. Shame on me! God forbid one of my children think they were important enough to keep for another generation. Imagine that--our children holding on to something we'd just assume throw away but can't find the will to go through with it. Sound familiar?
As the joke goes, "Do it once, and it's an experiment; do it twice, and it's a tradition." How much of what we do is out of tradition? All traditions have their root in something, but is that something worth holding on to? Last night at EYC, we had an "Instructed Compline," to help prepare the youth to lead the service each Sunday night for the rest of the year. When we got to the Vs and Rs, Kristin explained that those were for "versicle" and "response." In a moment of panic, I worried someone would ask me where those came from. I have an idea that versicle refers to a statement of scripture used as a liturgical call and response, but I can't justify its continued use in the prayer book. Maybe it's time to let that go. Maybe it's time to let a lot of things go.
Jesus doesn't defend his disciples' practice of eating with unwashed hands. Instead, he questions the Pharisees' reliance on tradition. "Do you know what you're saying?" he seems to ask them. "Why is that so important to you? Can't you see what really matters?" Jesus isn't saying we should throw all of our traditions away, but he is asking us to focus on what's important. And, when our love of tradition grows to be out of sync with the content of our faith, we need a realignment of our priorities. Maybe I'll spend the first half of this Sunday's sermon talking about the importance of moving the altar away from the wall (at St. John's it's still fixed as for an eastward-facing celebration of the Eucharist). Then, once everyone is angry as hell, I'll spend the rest of the sermon asking them why they got so upset. That is, unless they've all walked out before the end.