Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 31, 2003
The Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Sermon: "Tradition is a two-edged sword"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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."
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Tradition is a two-edged sword
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost - August 31, 2003
Many years ago there lived a man in Charleston by the name of Elijah. He loved to fish and he loved to hunt. He also loved spicy hot food. His barbecued chicken would set off the alarms at the fire department if you drove by the doors. He was also very talented mechanically. He could take anything apart and put it back together.
Elijah was employed at the Cooper River Naval Weapons Station. During the 60's and 70's the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston was the storage facility for the nuclear missiles placed on Polaris Submarines. Elijah's job was to operate the crane and cradle that loaded these missiles on the subs. During his employment he never had an accident in his job. In fact, the missiles did not even slip as they were loaded into the subs. He had a perfect record. You may not think this a spectacular feat. All the other operators had at least one slip. To top it all off, Elijah could not read. He couldn't read the newspaper. He couldn't read a book. He couldn't read the instruction manuals for his job. So how did this man, who could not read, do his job so well? After his death I heard the reason. He was meticulous in what he did. He had a set pattern that he followed. Everything he did while operating the crane and loading and unloading the missiles was done to his exact specifications. He had established his traditions. In his particular job, the establishment of these traditions was important and necessary.
Now, let's compare the establishment of Elijah's traditions to the establishment of the traditions of the Pharisees and scribes in Mark's Gospel. The Pharisees and scribes had traditions of washing their hands before meals. We all know there are perfectly good reasons for washing one's hands. They also washed their food. There are perfectly legitimate reasons for this practice as well. The purpose for the washing of the hands, the food and the utensils was two-fold. First of all, proper health practices were being observed. Secondly, these little traditions reminded the people of Israel that they were different from the other people of the day. The little reminders kept them ever mindful that they were God's people. They were reminded that God was their creator, their preserver, and they were to be faithful to God alone.
However, a problem with the interpretation ensued. The practice of religious faith became the God. The traditions became the god of the Pharisees and the scribes. To not follow the tradition meant that they were committing a mortal sin. They lost their focus and following the traditions replaced following God.
How can we relate our lives to this story? Do we have practices or objects that mean so much to us that we could be worshiping them rather than God? I believe we do. We have seen some of these aspects in the history of the church. Some people literally worshiped the 1928 Prayer Book. The book was central to their faith. I grew up with that book. I enjoyed the book. No text has ever replaced the beauty of the prayers as they were written in that text. Growing up, I knew people who had never read the Bible, but they knew the 1928 Prayer Book by heart. Even though the prayers were beautiful that book can not become the focus of our faith. God must be the focus of our faith.
There are other symbols of our traditions that we cling to with great fervor. For example, we could not imagine having a choir without robes. We would not dream of having a Sunday morning main service without the organ. Some of us would not like to see our particular seats taken. The little traditions can grab us and become our focus instead of God.
When we focus on these little human traditions we lose sight of the traditions that really matter. We push into the cobwebs of our minds the truly divine tradition. We push back the tradition of a Gospel of love. We forget the need we have for reconciliation and forgiveness. We overlook the importance of Jesus' sacrifice for us.
Thankfully, God also uses traditions and symbols to remind us of God's love, reconciliation and forgiveness. In something as basic as water we are baptized. We need water for bathing, for drinking, for our very existence. We also have water as a symbol of God' s acceptance, forgiveness and redemption. Bread and wine are food for the stomach at a bistro. In the context of the Church, they are the bread of life and the cup of salvation. They are the offering of Jesus' own self for our lives. They are symbols of God's love. They are symbols of our hope. Water, bread and wine are part of the central tradition of the church. They are reminders of the love God has for each of us. They are part of the Tradition of the Church. They are constant reminders that we are called to worship the one who created us, loves us, and cares for us.
When I was a youth minister I wrote the following sentence as one of twenty basic truths that I believe. Tradition is a word whose meaning is a double-edged sword. By this I mean that traditions can be cutting. They can obscure the view of God if they are human in nature and not divine. They can also be cutting in another way. They can cut through the little stuff that tries to blind us and remind us of just what is important. The issue for us is to have the wisdom to know where we are. Are our traditions of human or divine origin? If they are divine then allow the tradition to open our eyes so we can see God more clearly. If they are human, then allow the tradition to go away. Perhaps the absence of that tradition will make way for something better?