Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tradition a reflection on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


When I was younger one of my favorite Christian rock groups was Daniel Amos they were totally 80’s and totally cool.  They had a song called colored by  I want to share a few of those lyrics with you.
Colored By!
from the album "¡Alarma!"
Words and Music by Terry Taylor
©1981 Paragon Music Corp./ASCAP
You might not recognize, the truth gets colored by
Wrong things, bad things do disguise
Afraid you might despise the real thing

Down at the little church they all wear hats
They feel they're doing right
Over at the big church they hate those hats
It get's them uptight now is that right?

You might not recognize, the truth gets colored by
Wrong things, bad things do disguise
Afraid you might despise the real thing

            There is a small-town church in upstate New York. They'd had a preacher in that church for over thirty-five years. He was loved by the church and the community. After he retired, he was replaced by a young preacher. It was his first church; he had a great desire to do well. He had been at the church several weeks when he began to perceive that the people were upset at him. He was troubled.
            Eventually he called aside one of the lay leaders of the church and said, "I don't know what's wrong, but I have a feeling that there's something wrong." The man said, "Well, Father, that's true. I hate to say it, but it's the way you do the Communion service."
            "The way I do the Communion service? What do you mean?"  "Well, it's not so much what you do as what you leave out."
 "I don't think I leave out anything from the Communion service."  "Oh yes, you do. Just before our previous preacher administered the chalice and wine to the people, he'd always go over and touch the radiator. And, then, he would--"
            "Touch the radiator? I never heard of that liturgical tradition."  So the younger man called the former preacher. He said, "I haven't even been here a month, and I'm in trouble."
"In trouble? Why?"
            "Well, it's something to do with touching the radiator. Could that be possible? Did you do that?"
            "Oh yes, I did. Always before I administered the chalice to the people, I touched the radiator to discharge the static electricity so I wouldn't shock them."
            For over thirty-five years, the untutored people of his congregation had thought that was a part of the holy tradition. I have to tell you that church has now gained the name, "The Church of the Holy Radiator."
In Jesus' day, Jews not only ate kosher food, but they also observed special rituals at mealtime.  One of those rituals had to do with ritual hand washing.  Ritual hand washing had nothing to do with hygiene.  It involved dribbling a small amount of water over your hands -- not enough to get your hands clean -- but getting your hands clean wasn't the idea.  The intent was spiritual cleansing -- washing away spiritual contamination.  It was a nice idea, really -- an acknowledgement that we need cleansing -- a way of getting right with God three times a day -- rather like saying grace at the table.

But hand washing wasn't required.  At least, God didn't require it of ordinary people.  God required priests to cleanse their hands before performing sacred duties.  The Pharisees decided that, if it was good for priests, it must be good for everyone.  They made a new rule.  Everyone should go through ritual hand washing before eating.  That seems like a good thing, doesn't it!  Except that they forgot that it was their rule --
not God's rule!
At one level, the controversy here is between the Judean elite who were a very small percentage of the population, and everyone else. The elites lived in towns and cities and had access, time, and money for the water needed to follow their interpretation of the washing required to follow the Torah.
This is what the ritual looked like;
Before the Jewish elite would eat, they poured water over their hands with the fingers pointed upward. This water was kept in special jars and guarded to be free from any impurities.  Then they washed their hands and then poured water again over their hands from the wrists; this time holding their fingers downward.  It was thought that in this fashion, they would purify their hands from any ceremonial uncleanness.  Now this action had nothing to do with hygiene.  It was merely a ceremonial washing, and it had become a very important tradition.
The problem with such traditions is that they became more important than the things they represented.  In verse 8, Jesus states, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the traditions of men.” This is to strike against the Pharisees challenge of him and his disciples. When we read it today, we need to be careful to read this as a condemnation of the Judean elites and not of "Jews." Indeed, the crowd of peasant Jews with Jesus was cheering him on in this confrontation. Jesus is condemning hypocrisy not Judaism, and the all-too-human tendency to make sacred what is actually human customs and traditions.

Jesus saw through their tradition and the trap they were attempting to lay.  He saw that they were more concerned with outward things than they were with the things that really count.  Their worship was vain because they exalted tradition to the status of doctrine.
In Matthew 23:25-26, Jesus says, “Woe to you. Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.”
Jesus cut through the superficiality of their outward observances to stress that the inside was more important than the outside.  Jesus was more concerned with their heart condition than their hand condition.  Jesus was more concerned about their spiritual practice than their ritual practice.
The "tradition of the elders" is NOT the teaching of Moses as found in the Bible. It is the practice of the Judean elite which they are seeking to impose as THE one and only correct practice. And, as noted, the amount of water, time and money to follow those practices was beyond the reach of most people, and so most people were seen by the elites as unclean or, more likely, saw themselves as superior.  Only God can lift one human above others and only God was and that was through humble servitude.
There have been times throughout church history when human traditions became a major problem because they were essentially added to the Word of God. Even today we have Pharisees in the world.  There are people that would rather pick and choose Bible verses and traditions that were written for another time and place, they intentionally add words or mistranslations just so the Holy Book can say what they want. They would prefer to take texts out of context and use it to enslave, berate, condemn and persecute others just so that THEY can feel important... and for what; Their Church, memberships, Money, Ignorance, Foolishness? Is that what causes the twisted interpretations of Scripture and formation of the traditions, People in the spirit of the Pharisees? That is just Foolishness!
After all of the miracles Our Lord did in front of these Pharisees...none of that mattered because His disciples didn't wash their hands? The Lords teachings to the Pharisees didn't raise alarm as to who was really standing before them? Why is it that none of these "Pharisees" washed Our Lords hands after performing any one of the numerous miracles He did RIGHT BEFORE THEIR EYES?
Even today we are not immune from making our own tradition-additions to God’s Word.  We still have a nature that loves to make its own laws and decrees and commandments. How many times have we heard, and it doesn’t matter where or when you heard it, that famous line; “but we have always done it this way!”  There is just something innately in us that wants to hold on to the way it was always done. I think this is why the Buddhist teaching of impermanence can be so essential.
The Buddha taught that because all things in existence are in a constant flux of change attachment to them becomes the cause for future suffering. 
Holding onto human traditions as something sacred only gives a place where to establish a hierarchy.   The elitye of the ancient Jewish tradition believed they were better than others for they were performing this extra ritual.  Which really only scorned and belittled those of lesser stature in their community.  There are so many things we use, sometimes unconsciously, to separate ourselves from other.  We use politics, education, jobs, and even our clothing to separate ourselves and establish false sense of importance. I know people who would look down upon us just for not dressing for Sunday meeting.
  Your political party and views do not make you a better person before God.  Your organized and prioritized schedule does not give you license to look down on others.  Your well-behaved children do not merit you a “perfect parent” award except in Marilyn’s case.  Your church attendance and attempts to be nice to the people you like does not make up for a dormant devotional life and for failures to live up to your faith when it is inconvenient.  Inside every one of us is a little Pharisee who loves to elevate his or her own status before God because of some human standard we have set for ourselves and mentally morphed into a divine dictum.  But to that inner Pharisee Jesus says, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” 
We do the same thing in church.  We quickly learn to count on a certain predictability of our activities and worship, and we are very hesitant to see them change.  If we are not careful, some of these expectations become full-fledged traditions.  They take on significance far greater than simply being a convenient routine.  Some things become almost holy and unchangeable.  When that happens they have moved from being a routine to become a sacred cow.  Then, when someone tampers with a sacred cow, people become very upset.
Every church has such traditions that have become sacred cows.  In one church the color of the carpet had become the sacred cow.  They had always had red carpet, but now the property committee was going to change it to blue.  Some people just weren’t sure they could worship God on a BLUE CARPET, God forbid.
At another church, they had the Great Hymnbook Controversy of 1975.  For twenty years, the 1956 version of the hymnal had been used and cherished in that church, but now the music committee wanted to purchase the newly updated 1975 version.  This decision sparked a major debate on the quality of music in each hymnal.  The final decision was made at a two-hour church-wide business meeting where they finally hammered out a compromise that barely averted dividing the church.  The 1956 hymnal would be kept in the sanctuary, and the 1975 hymnal would be used in the chapel.
I have heard about a church where a similar controversy erupted over whether the Communion would be served before the sermon or after the sermon.  Other churches fight over where the piano is placed, where the Doxology is sung, or even how to take the offering.
It seems that every church manages to elevate certain practices from the routine to sacred traditions.  Church growth specialist Bill Easum once wrote a book about this phenomenon.  He called it “Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers.”  Churches that grow have to find a way to eat those sacred cows.
A young rabbi went to serve his first synagogue, and he noticed that on the first Sabbath, when he said the prayers, the congregation on the left side of the synagogue stood at the beginning of the prayers, and the congregation on the right side remained seated.  The young rabbi thought this was a little odd, but continued to say the prayers.  After the first couple of petitions, he noticed a murmuring, which intensified as he continued the prayers.  Finally, it got loud enough that he was able to make out some of the words.
The murmuring in the congregation was a disagreement between the two halves of the congregation; the left half was saying that in this synagogue the tradition was that the congregation stood during the prayers, and the right half was saying that in this congregation the tradition was that they sat during the prayers.
As the prayers continued, the voices got louder, until finally the rabbi stopped because he was sure that God was the only one who could hear him anymore.
Hoping that this event was due to having a new rabbi (and attempting to influence him), the young rabbi did not discuss it with anyone, but the next Sabbath, it happened again.  The argument once again got so loud that the young rabbi stopped before he had finished his prayers - people were actually yelling at each other.  The tone had gotten rancorous, and each side of the congregation started to engage in accusations of heresy and other name-calling.
The young rabbi looked up the elderly rabbi who had served this congregation for years, and told him what was going on.  The question he asked at the end of his story was, "So is it the tradition of the congregation to stand during the prayers?"
The older rabbi stroked his beard and replied, "No, that has never been the tradition of that congregation."
"So the tradition is that they remain sitting during the prayers?"
The older rabbi looked off into the distance, as if remembering the good years serving God as a rabbi and said, "No, that was never the tradition of that congregation either."
The young rabbi threw his hands in the air in exasperation, and said, "There must be some solution to this!  The way things are now, they just end up screaming at each other during the prayers."
The old rabbi's face lit up in a smile as he lifted an admonishing finger to the sky and said, "Yes!  That was our tradition!"
But not all traditions are bad.  Some traditions are important.  They can be a valuable aid in communicating to us the truth about God and the truth about ourselves.
When we talk of tradition, most of us who have seen the movie “Fiddler On The Roof” cannot help but remember the wonderful scene in which Tevya sings the theme song, “Tradition.”  As he sings that song, he explains to the audience the value of tradition as he sees it.  At one point he says, “Our tradition tells us who God is and who we are.”   When tradition can do that, it is a good tradition.  You see, tradition is meant to speak of the reality behind the tradition.
For two thousand years, the Church has observed the twin traditions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and both of them are the very best kind of tradition.  They meet the test that Tevya gave us – they tell us who God is and who we are.  And both speak of spiritual realities behind and beyond the tradition itself. At MCC’s all over the world we returned to the tradition of the open table.  I say returned for there is nothing to indicate that Jesus ever had any boundaries around any table that he partook of. Especially the table of the final Passover he would celebrate, what we refer to as the last supper.
God wants to do a new thing today, and we need to be open to it.  What worked yesterday may not have power for today.  We live in a new day with new challenges, and we need to hear the word of the Lord for today.
Maybe that’s a good way for all of us to look at tradition.  Respect for tradition is good.  Elevating tradition to the level of God’s Word is not.  Following traditions that express Christ’s gospel and demonstrate why the gospel is so important to us is good.  Following traditions because that’s just the way things are done around here is not.  Traditions should not become additions to God’s Word.  Traditions, whether ancient or relatively new, are simply another way for us to proclaim Christ’s message God’s love for all to all who have gathered in his house.  That’s a message that’s worth proclaiming in Word, Sacrament, song, and even tradition! 
 Paul said in Philippians 3:13, “Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Let's be open for God to do a new thing in our lives.  Let's be open for God to do a new thing in our church. Let us be open to all the possibilities god places before us everyday.


No comments:

Post a Comment