9/2/2018 Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, here we are, at Labor Day weekend – the traditional end of another summer. When I was a child, this weekend meant it was time for the final cookout before the BBQ was cleaned and put away for the season. Unlike today when many schools have already begun classes, for me, Labor Day meant that school was about to begin. And yet, as time has passed, the traditions for this day have changed. Instead of preparing for another school year, this weekend marks the time to put away the air conditioner, to pull up the hoses, and to prepare for the fall.
Traditions are amazing things. Years ago Harry Emerson Fosdick told about a tradition in a church in Denmark where the worshippers bowed regularly before a certain spot on the wall. They had been doing that for three centuries – bowing at that one spot in the sanctuary. Nobody could remember why they did it. Then one day, in renovating the church, they removed some of the whitewash on the walls. At the exact spot where the people bowed they found the image of the Madonna under the whitewash. People had become so accustomed to bowing before that image that even after it was covered up for three centuries, people still bowed.
I know that sound ridiculous, but traditions can be that powerful. During the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had learned to substitute tradition, custom, and habit for a life-giving relationship with God. They kept the rules. Did what their ancestors had done, but had forgotten that the reason for the traditions and customs was to strengthen their relationship with God. In and of itself, tradition finds its place in the past or in a moment in the present while relationship is alive in the present and finds its roots in the past. Tradition loses its meaning when tradition is done for tradition’s sake. And when tradition becomes the rule of the day, it hinders relationship.
Now, traditionalism rears its head in many ways, in many times and in many places. Here, at Emanuel, there are traditions unique to this place. Some of those traditions have changed over the years while others remain as firmly in place as those in the church in Denmark. Whether these traditions have changed or whether they have remained unchanged these traditions are part of the collective history of Emanuel. The Santa Lucia festival and, of course, the traditional singing of Silent Night in Swedish on Christmas Eve may no longer take place, but they are remembered fondly by those of a certain generation. In light of changing life styles, the midnight candlelight service on Christmas Eve was replaced by a Christmas morning service and the 8:00 am Sunday service has faded into the background as year-round Wednesday evening services have grown. The public examination of students before confirmation was one tradition that today’s youth do not have to endure, even though they still need to attend classes and memorize Luther’s Small Catechism. Acceptable attire for church has also changed over years, but one of the funnier traditions that remain involves where people sit in the church. Joe C. sits over there, the Bob and his wife sit over here. So, I can take “attendance” by simply looking at the pews.
Tradition is a powerful thing. But sometimes, we substitute tradition, custom and habit for a relationship with the living God. Whether we realize it or not, at Emanuel we do this regularly. We put Sunday school during worship hour and prevent children and teachers from gathering around word and sacrament. Yes, the first Sunday of the month is set aside for family worship, but habitually, on that first Sunday few children and parents are in worship, thereby teaching the younger generation that worship and developing a relationship with God is not important. I wish that this was the only custom that hinders the development of a relationship with God. But it isn’t. This year, as confirmation classes begin, at least half the class will be made up of youth who seldom, if ever, attended Sunday school. And, the list can go on and on. We may not observe ancient traditions regarding the washing of hands, but we surely have a bunch of traditions around coffee hour. We have substituted convenience, sports, sleep and a plethora of other activities for the short time we set aside each week for gathering as the family of God around the table of the living Lord.
Now don’t get me wrong – traditions in themselves are not good or bad. In fact, some traditions are helpful for they keep us from having to “reinvent the wheel” every time we do something. That’s why we have hymnals sitting in the pews. But traditions are unhelpful and maybe even destructive if we are so tied to them that we cannot imagine another way of doing things or, even worse, if they keep us from God and his leading us in new directions.
In our Gospel for today, Jesus condemned the Pharisees not for the tradition of washing their hands before meals, but for not making the essential distinction between God’s commandments and man-made traditions. My friends, God doesn’t want tradition. God wants relationship. Tradition is steeped in the past. Relationship is alive in the present. If we gather in this place only because it is traditional to be here on Christmas or Easter or Rally Sunday, then we will not be here except for those occasions. But if we gather here to renew our relationship with God and each other, then it is important for us to be here for our everyday life and it helps us to remember that God cares about us and wants a relationship with us, in the present, not in the past, even if our hands happen to be dirty. And God wants us to care for others in his name even if their hands are unclean too. For Christ did not die for perfect people. Christ died and rose for people like you and me who sometimes forget what is really important in life.
My friends, it all boils down to relationship. We are only as strong as the relationship we have with Christ. Traditions are no substitute for the living presence of God. A faithful heart and godly words and deeds come from our connection with the ever-present Lord. So while tradition may serve a purpose in that it can enhance our connection with God and each other, tradition for tradition’s sake is no friend at all. So, as we go forward in faith, we need to keep the traditions that help us stay connected to God, change the ones that need to be changed and relegate those traditions that hinder our relationship with the living, ever-present Lord to the past.
May we live in a relationship God and may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.