Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Many of you know that my youngest brother Todd is a professional actor. Near Christmas, you’ll probably have the opportunity to see him do a bit of acting during worship, as I usually recruit him to help bring to life some of the nativity story. But you might not know that I have a passion for theatre myself. I actually used to have an incredible fear of public speaking as a child. I would hyperventilate if I had to give an oral report in school. But I always wanted to be in plays, and I auditioned for a part in Cinderella when I was in fourth grade. I got cast – everybody got cast. But I got cast as a mouse, which was one of the parts that went to, well, the less talented performers. And I watched with envy as the bolder kids got to play more interesting roles with more interesting songs to sing. After that, I had an epiphany: If I wanted a more interesting part, I would at least have to talk loud enough for people to hear me on stage! I never went on to have starring roles, but I became confident enough to get some small parts, and I fell in love with theatre. I definitely credit my theatre background with helping me prepare for being a preacher, being at ease up front in a space like this. In college, I was already preparing for seminary, majoring in pre-theology, but my minor was theatre, and almost all of my free time was spent at the theatre.
Recently, I’ve been lamenting that since becoming a pastor, I haven’t had much time to work on any shows. Well, as I was lamenting, someone was listening. Chris, briefly our organist, was here long enough to hear my lament, and invite me to play violin in the pit band for the show he’s musical directing: Fiddler on the Roof. I explained to Chris that my schedule isn’t always cooperative, and that I hadn’t done any serious violin playing in quite some time, and Chris promised me a very brief commitment to rehearsals, and a violin part that would be supporting the more experienced players. How could I refuse? Fiddler, here I come!
Are you all familiar with the story and music from Fiddler on the Roof? 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 the answer in just one word: Tradition! Throughout the musical, three of Tevye’s 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 they approach Tevye, they tell him they are not asking for permission, only for his blessing. Again, Tevye 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. Near the end of the story, he does, at least, pray God’s blessing on Chava and Fyedka, even if he cannot fully come to terms with the marriage.
As enjoyable as Fiddler is as a musical, as lighthearted as it is at times, 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?
Today we lay aside our journey with Ephesians and take up the gospel of Mark, as we look in on a conversation between Jesus and a group of scribes and Pharisees. If you are at all familiar with the Bible, I think it is easy to come to a scripture text and see the Pharisees and think: “Aha! The bad guys!” whenever you encounter these religious leaders. But the Pharisees, of course, didn’t view themselves as bad or faithless or villains. They were, in fact, religious leaders, devout Jews, who tried very hard to follow the law of Moses carefully and interpret it for daily living. They emphasized upholding the rituals, the traditions. They insisted on using oral tradition as well as written tradition, and in that way were viewed as quite liberal by other Jewish sects. For example, they added qualifications to laws like "an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" so that executions took place in less situations. On the other hand, however, their additions to the law through oral code sometimes added many new requirements for people to follow, like around issues of observing Sabbath, for instance. And their learning and education began to set them apart from the rest of the people, making them their own aristocracy. (1) These kinds of practices, all these additional rules and looking down on those who didn’t follow them all, these were the practices of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus most often criticized.
The Pharisees have noticed that some of the disciples of Jesus are eating without washing their hands. Their concerns weren’t about hygiene, but about ritual cleanness – an act of spiritual purification before eating. Mark notes for us that the Pharisees have elaborate washing rituals that they engage in before eating, traditions handed to them by the elders. They question Jesus: “Why aren’t your disciples following the tradition of the elders?” And Jesus responds with very pointed words: 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.’ And then, to the crowds he says, ‘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.’ For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Jesus indicates that somewhere along the way, the Pharisees stopped being concerned with carefully explaining God’s law, and started being concerned with doing things a certain way because that’s how they’d always been done. Somewhere in there, actually following God’s commandments got lost, in favor of human tradition. But what matters to God is the shape of our hearts, the state of our souls, not the nitty-gritty of these outside practices we adopt to practice our faith.
If you think about your traditions – your faith traditions, your family traditions – do you know where they all came from? Can you remember their origin? This week I was talking with Eric Holmes, one of our LIFE youth group leaders, about change. I told him about a young person named Al, who was part of the Conference Youth program, who liked to offer prayer during worship. He was eloquent, and the other youth recognized his gift for moving prayer, and whenever I would ask for someone to pray, the kids would say, “Al!” and call his name. Only, eventually, Al graduated. And for the year after he graduated, when I would ask for someone to pray, the kids would still yell, “Al!” But of course, Al wasn’t there to pray. I told the kids: “If you keep doing this, eventually, I will be asking for someone to pray, and everyone will yell, “Al,” but no one will have any idea who Al is or what you are talking about.” We were in the process of creating a tradition, a ritual, but I was worried that it was only leading us away from the main point: praying during worship!
Other times, I’ve noticed that traditions that make perfect sense to those on the inside make no sense at all to people on the outside. For example, in my first church, we also made regular mission trips to Redbird, a mission site in rural Kentucky, like you do here. But we got in the habit of talking about Redbird all the time without adding any more descriptions. Bulletin announcements would refer to a meeting to plan for Redbird, but if you were a new visitor to the church, you would have no idea what this Redbird thing was all about. Have you ever had someone who is looking in at what you do from an outsider’s perspective, and they’re just able to really make you look at your own situation in a whole new way? One of the most important days in my life so far, most meaningful days, was the day I was ordained. I found it incredibly moving. And walking in with my clergy colleagues at the start of the service, with that community of pastors I was joining, was something I found very significant. But I talked with my older brother Jim, after the ordination, and found that what was so meaningful to me just didn’t make sense to him. He said it reminded him of the Imperial Guard in the Star Wars movies, a comparison I’m afraid I will never be able to get out of my head.
Jesus says that the Pharisees – and since he’s talking to religious leaders, we can assume he’s speaking to us, too – he says that we add so much stuff to the list of what we have to do to be a good Christian, and then get so worried about doing this little stuff, that we miss the main point, the core stuff, that Jesus asked us – commanded us – to do in the first place. And when we start worrying more about the stuff we’ve added on, then the stuff Jesus told us to do, all that extra stuff becomes a form of idolatry, which is anything we make more important to us than God.
Did you know that the ability to tell that when I’m pointing my finger, it means I want you to look at what I’m pointing at, rather than at my pointed finger, is a sign of our developed human brains? Only a few other species get this concept: elephants, dolphins, apes, some birds. But as smart as I think my cat is, if I point my finger, she’s going to look at my finger. I think that’s what happens when we spend more energy on the trappings of our faith than on deepening our faith. Our purpose as a community of faith is to point others and ourselves to the gospel, the good news of Jesus. But sometimes we get so caught up in how we do that, and doing it just right, that we end up gazing at our own pointed finger, instead of at Jesus. That’s idolatry. And that’s why Jesus speaks with such passion, warning us not to confuse our human traditions with God’s purpose and call.
At Ohio Wesleyan, where I went to college, there was a big rock outside the main dining hall, and different groups on campus would make a bonding activity of painting the rock, a practice allowed by administrators, I might add. Different groups would either sign their names in paint, or paint it in school colors, or do something creative, like make it into a giant ice cream cone. But I’ve always been curious: how big is that rock, really? I’m not sure how long the tradition of painting the rock has been around. But it’s been a long time. And if you peeled away all the layers, chipped away all the paint, would that rock be so small you could actually just carry it with you?
Jesus told us to love God with our whole selves, and to love one another. Have we added so many layers to these tasks, that we’ve made them into boulders that no one can carry with them?
Let me be clear. The way we do things isn’t unimportant. Having traditions isn’t bad. I love the traditions my family shares, and despite what my brother says, I still love the ordination service! Jesus himself participated in the traditions of his time and place and culture. But the methods and practices we use to carry out our mission, following God, can never become the most important thing. We always have to remember to point to the gospel, and not get stuck gazing at our fingers. Jesus reminds us that it is not the things outside ourselves that make us who we are. Who we are is what is inside of us, and God hopes that what is inside of us is a heart that is seeking after the way of Jesus. Amen.