Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"Tradition" (Homily from Sept. 2)

Here's the text of the homily I presented on Sunday. The service went well overall and the message seemed well received.  We had 25 people in attendance, which is pretty good for our congregation, especially during a holiday weekend in the summer.


You may be aware — or you may have guessed — I'm not personally a particularly traditional guy.  It's only because I'm traveling fairly light this trip and didn't bring a garment bag that I'm preaching today without suit and tie; you'll probably recall that I've had a tie fewer times than not.

I first grew my hair out 20 years ago when I went to graduate school.  It wasn't really the norm for men then and it still isn't.  My job has become non-traditional since 2007, when I ceased to go into work at a real office and began working from a “virtual office” — which has allowed me to travel frequently, always taking work with me everywhere I go. In some facets of my life, the lack is taken to places most people find extreme.  For example, although Mike and I very much enjoyed celebrating a Christmas meal with Chuck and some of you here last year, just as often when left to our own devices, we haven't celebrated the holiday at all.

But my lack of enthusiasm for some traditions is not, by any means, the whole picture.  In fact, my fondness for history, is connected with fond feelings that can include interest in and even nostalgia for all kinds of traditions — from old hymns to old stories to old rituals.

And it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that among the loves I treasure most, books rank very high.  My love of books extends back as far as I can remember.  Of course, books are primarily important because of their content.  But I've also loved them for more than their content.  I've loved to hold them.  I love for them to be beautiful.  I love to make them.  My love for them is at the root of why I went into publishing in my professional career.  And although I'm sure they are ever more wonderful, and although I'm sure I will eventually have a Kindle or some other kind of e-book reader, I have not been an early-adopter of this technology.  I'm not excited about the oft-predicted (and ever more likely) demise of print.  The printed book is one of those traditions that I find myself quite attached to.

Our scripture reading talks about other traditions.  It comes from the gospel of Mark (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23):
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 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.” 
... 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.”
The last part here is an adage — and it's just the kind of unexpected adage that marks the teachings of Jesus: “ there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile”.  The more common adages, reflecting more conventional wisdom, are sayings like “You are what you eat” and “garbage in, garbage out.”

Jesus's adage turns this on end.  And in so doing, I think he forces us to take a significant amount more responsibility for our own actions than we might have wanted.  If “you are simply what you eat,” we have a ready made excuse for why we act a certain way.  You can't blame me.  I was just doing things the way I was taught.

We don't have that excuse here.  It's not what goes into us that defiles us.  We're only defiled by what we choose to do with it.  This hearkens to our Enduring Principle of “Responsible Choices.”
God gives humans the ability to make choices about whom or what they will serve. Some people experience conditions that diminish their ability to make choices. Human choices contribute to good or evil in our lives and in the world. Many aspects of creation need redemption because of irresponsible and sinful human choices. We are called to make responsible choices within the circumstances of our lives that contribute to the purposes of God.
Returning to Mark and our scripture.  As I read this passage and thought about it all the past week, I've been struck by the profound implications of this teaching — which, I think are several.

In the first place, there's a debate here.   The Pharisees are questioning Jesus's apparent rejection of religious purity rules.  Their argument is that observance of these rules is an essential component to living a righteous life.  Both they and Jesus were Jews in 1st Century Galilee, and Mark himself here tells us that “all Jews” at the time recognized and observed these purity rules. These were the traditions that had been handed down and they held an honored place for everyone.

And yet here was a religious teacher — Jesus — with disciples.  One might expect them to do everything that was expected and then some.  Give every last commandment 110% — go the full mile and then go the extra mile. Instead, they're not even doing the basics.  They aren't doing the minimum standard of what all religious people of the day agreed is necessary to live an observant life.

When challenged, Jesus isn't merely defensive.  He goes on the offense, offering a teaching that is absolutely radical — with implications that go way beyond purity laws, Judaism, and the time and context in which the Pharisees and Jesus lived. Jesus' argument is that all these observances that we have, all these traditions that we revere, all these things that we do because we've been taught they are what makes us good people — all of this inheritance — it's nothing more than human contrivance.

Jesus declares that the basic rules we live by are nothing more than inherited social convention.   We've accumulated them without thinking about them and we're following them blindy. Worse, although we imagine that observing social conventions marks us out as good, religious people, Jesus tells us that we couldn't be more wrong. By blindly following our social conventions and traditions — we're actually missing the whole point.  We think we're obeying God's law.  Instead, we're worshiping human law.  And, by worshiping human law, we're actually doing the exact opposite of obeying God's law.

For Jews in 1st century Galilee, this was radical stuff.   For us today, we don't care much about Levitic law.  But if we understand the implications of Jesus' teaching beyond Jewish purity rules and aim them at the traditions and conventions we hold dear — this remains for us today every bit as radical. What are the traditions that we're worshiping today as if they were God's law?

As a church, in the past half century or so, I think we've done a fairly good job of being vigilant about this. I was working on a new website for the congregation this week and I asked Doris if she could track down some information on the history of congregation that we could put online.  The essay that she sent me indicated that members of our congregation met in this sanctuary for the very first time 49 years ago.  It'll be 50 years next March, if we're still in the building.  And, if we are, we're going to have to plan some kind of special commemoration.

If we could watch that 1963 service today — what would stick out to us?  What traditions were practiced then — perhaps with the idea that they were God's law — which have subsequently been understood to be mere social conventions that we've discarded? Some of you were here then; I wasn't, so I don't know from first-hand experience.  But I think the list is probably enormous — if we get to thinking about it — and hopefully we'll be able to do a little reminiscing on it after the service during the social hour.

For example, I've been told that in a lot of congregations, the tradition that only those ordained to priesthood were allowed to speak from — or even be up here — at the pulpit.  Many of the congregations had an Aaronic Pulpit and a Melchisedec Pulpit, and the rule not only restricted speaking from the pulpit to those ordained; you actually had to speak from the correct pulpit, depending on which office you held.  If that was a tradition here, I've never seen any vestige of it.  There's never been a hint that this area of the chapel used to be a more restrictive zone.  What else has been identified as mere convention and discarded?

Topping the list, in my view, was the tradition that prevented the ordination of women to serve in the priesthood.  The congregation fifty years ago likely regarded that restriction as God's law.  Today, it's hard to imagine that we ever thought exclusion was anything other than the opposite of God's law.

It's never easy to give up things we revere and hold dear, even if we're in error.  Indeed, sometimes our errors can be held very dearly by us.  It's only when we've disinvested ourselves, when we've discarded a tradition, when it no longer has sway, that we can look back and decide — in retrospect — that it had be wrong, even silly, all along.  So as hard as it may have been to change when we were going through any particular change — it's relatively easy for us to look back on what we've discarded in retrospect.  Blessed as we are with hindsight, we can easily point out a host of rules the congregation from 50 years ago observed that we now see as mere human convention.

But Jesus's challenge to us, in this teaching, is not so easy.   It's not about what the rules we used to worship blindly were — it's about what discerning which observances that revere today are, in fact, nothing more than human convention.

Put another way, if we fast forwarded another fifty years and could observe our congregation in the year 2062.  If there is a congregation here in 2062 and I very much hope and believe there will be, and I also can be hopeful that I might still be here and be a part of it (although I would be 92 years young at that point).  What will the congregation be doing?  What of the things we revere now will they have discarded as mere social convention?   Prophecy is much more dangerous even than memory, so speculating about the future is particularly perilous and is wisely avoided.

Nevertheless if we take the forcefulness of Jesus' rebuke seriously here, and if we want accept that his challenge applies to us now, then we have to ask ourselves, how are we being hypocrites?  How are we honoring God with our lips while keeping our hearts far from God?  What human traditions are we currently worshiping, as though they were divine precept?

This is radical stuff, and it doesn't end with one simple answer.  In fact, in order to get this right, we can't “end” with an answer at all.  Because this challenge isn't about bringing things to “ending” or an ultimate conclusion.  It's our conclusions themselves that we're called upon here to challenge.  What's required, then, is a state of openness.  To avoid idolizing error, we have to force ourselves to be continually open to examination of ourselves and our traditions — even those that we hold most dear.  In fact, especially those that we hold most dear.

Jesus challenges us to be open to a spirit of discernment.

As we prepare now for the sacrament of communion, I urge that we all make ourselves open to that spirit, so that we can discern — together as a congregation and each individually in our own hearts — how we might best honor God there, and not merely with our lips.

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