Sermon 8/23/09, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Are you all familiar with the story and music from Fiddler on the Roof? When I was in high school, I was in a community theatre production of Fiddler, and have most of the lyrics and choreography permanently imprinted in my mind. In the opening scene, Tevye, the lead character, a poor milk man, asks the question and gives the answer that frames the whole story: “How do we retain this fragile balance in life?” He can tell you in just one word: Tradition! Throughout the musical, Tevye’s three daughters marry in turn, but each match poses a challenge to Tevye’s sense of tradition and how things are meant to be done. His oldest daughter, Tzeitel, asks her father to be let out of the arranged match for her, so that she can marry the man she truly loves, Motel, the tailor. Tevye groans and complains, but finally agrees that they can marry for love. Then his second daughter, Hodel, wants to marry revolutionary Perchik. When the approach Tevye, they tell him they are not asking for permission, only for his blessing. Again, Tevye is distressed and refuses at first, but finally gives in. And then finally his youngest daughter Chava falls in love with a Christian man, Fyedka. She, too, seeks to change her father’s heart about her match, but Tevye says “enough” – he has bent enough and let go of too much tradition. Here he will not bend. Near the end of the story, he does pray God’s blessing on Chava and Fyedka. Tevye is not able to accept Chava and her marriage with open arms, but he is at least willing to keep Chava connected to his life.
As enjoyable as Fiddler is as a musical, as much as the songs make you (or me at least) want to sing along, and as much as the script makes you laugh, the questions asked are serious ones, important ones. How far should you change traditions to meet the demands of an ever-changing world? How far is too far to bend? When do the traditions hold us to what is good and important, and when do they keep us from moving forward, from growing and changing in healthy ways? What traditions are based on simple habits that have extended over generations, and when to they represent the unchanging truth?
Traditions can be such wonderful parts of our lives. We take comfort in traditions. They give us identity, and order, and bind us together when traditions are shared. No doubt you have favorite traditions that have shaped your childhood, your adulthood, your family and identity. I remember with clarity and affection the traditions, for instance, that guided our Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. I remember being in charge of making the place cards every Thanksgiving – decorating them with stickers or corn kernels, while watching the Macy’s parade. I remember spending every Christmas Eve at my grandparents, first eating dinner with them, then going to church with them, and then opening presents from them. But these traditions eventually changed. The process of change was sometimes hard – indeed, is still hard. My youngest cousin is in high-school now, and it is extremely difficult to gather the full extended family together for holidays, as once was commonplace. And I’m still getting used to my brother and sister-in-law staying home with my nephew Sam on Christmas morning, rather than spending the night at my mothers! It’s hard to let go of these things that have brought us so much joy. But today, my family celebrates new traditions. For a few years, we’ve been going to my aunt’s in
Today we finally leave John 6 and return to Mark in our gospel lesson, and Jesus is gathered with the some of the scribes and Pharisees, and tradition is the underlying topic. In Mark’s account, this scene happens just after the feeding of the five thousand, which we read about in John. The Pharisees and scribes right away notices that Jesus and his disciples are eating with unwashed hands – defiled, ritually unclean hands. Mark goes on to elaborate how concerned the Pharisees are with following the tradition of the elders when it comes to these rituals of cleanliness, rituals prescribed since the days of Moses. The scribes and Pharisees call Jesus out on his behavior – why don’t you and your lot follow tradition and wash your hands before you eat? Why eat with dirty hands? Jesus responds by calling the Pharisees out too – “You hypocrites,” he says. And then he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “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.’” Jesus concludes, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” And then Jesus calls the whole crowd into the conversation. “Listen,” he says, “understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” In the verses we skip in our passage today, there is more of the same – Jesus says to the Pharisees, "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”
Today when we read gospel lessons featuring the Pharisees, we tend to think of them as the bad guys in the story, because Jesus is usually calling them hypocrites and telling them they’ve got their beliefs and practices all mixed up. But we have to remember, the Pharisees were the religious folk of the day – the active folk in the community of faith, who dedicated their lives to studying God’s word. In other words, they were the first century equivalent of active church-goers. Whenever we read a scripture passage featuring the Pharisees, it easy to fall into a pattern of scapegoating these religious leaders. We know we’re not supposed to do what they do. But we should always seek to see in ourselves the Pharisees that Jesus so challenges. How are we like the people he describes? How do we engage in the same practices Jesus talks about here?
As I think about this conversation with the Pharisees, I’m struck that what they’re saying to Jesus isn’t so crazy at core – after all, we certainly would recommend washing your hands before you eat, washing your food, and washing your dishes! The practice itself is not what upsets Jesus. It’s that the practice they’ve developed has become more important than the reason they were meant to do it in the first place. While our washing practices are centered on hygiene, the Pharisees valued cleanliness because these acts of cleaning were part of the law that they sought to follow to the letter. But in following the law so carefully, they forgot that for them, the meaning underneath their rituals was symbolic of being pure in heart when coming before God. They’d forgotten that though, and were following the rules – and enforcing those rules – without caring anymore whether the reason behind the practice was in tact. They may have had clean hands, but Jesus wasn’t convinced about their pure hearts.
I wonder if sometimes we, like the Pharisees, don’t lose sight of why and what we’re meant to be doing, because we’ve become so focused and concerned with making sure we get the details of how we going to do it “right.” I only just recently learned, for example, that the coverings that we use over the cup and bread during communion came into usage simply to keep flies off the food and out of the chalice. They didn’t begin with any spiritual significance. But now covering the elements is seen as a sign of respect, perhaps even indicating the veiled nature of the mystery of the gift of communion. There’s no problem with viewing the communion coverings with this extra layer of meaning, but only as long as we don’t confuse the tradition of the practice with something that God is actually worried about whether we do or not!
For Jesus, the way in which we do something, how we go about doing it, is never as important as actually doing the thing in the first place. It’s about following God’s commandments to us – that’s much more important than how we follow, the details, the practices. Jesus told us that the greatest commandments are that we love God, and that we love one another. But too often, we worry so much about how we will implement a plan for following those commandments. We become obsessed with the details, the plans, and the right ways to do it. We get upset when others won’t agree to our plans. We’re sure we’ve got the best way figured out. And somehow, before we know it, we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out a good system for loving God, and loving others, and spent very little time actually loving. Jesus calls us, as he calls the Pharisees, to put things back in the right order. The way we do things isn’t unimportant. And Jesus isn’t saying you should change things for the sake of changing. But the methods and practices we use to carry out our mission, following God, can never become the most important thing. Because whenever we hold too tightly to how we want things to be done, we end up not having room in our hands for God’s grace, and then, we are really in trouble.
Jesus reminds us that it is not the things outside ourselves that make us who we are. Our practices, traditions and rituals can and should show our love of God and our service to God, but God does not love us because of our traditions. Who we are is what is inside of us, and God hopes that what is inside of us is love. Love for ourselves, love for God, love for one another, without condition. Let us live as God’s precious children, a life of love from the inside out. Amen.