TRADITIONS ON TRIAL
Upper Rogue UMC, August 30, 2015
Rituals are important markers of the times of our lives. For 64 of the last 68 years, my October 6th has begun with a Bisquick coffee cake. A tradition that began on the day of my birth, when my mother , who was preparing that recipe for Sunday breakfast, had to abandon her efforts and leave for the hospital to give birth to your pastor. Every year during my childhood and youth, my birthday celebration began with The coffeecake. The tradition was dropped when I was in the service, but one of the wedding gifts my mother gave Fay was the recipe for THE coffeecake. And the tradition continues.
Can you imagine Halloween without costumes and “trick or treat?” Thanksgiving without turkey? Christmas without a tree? These kinds of rituals and traditions connect us to one another, anchor our past and propel us into the future. This is especially true of the traditions and rituals of the church. Just a few weeks ago John Cox led us on a trip through the seasons of the church year. Baptisms, weddings and funerals mark important places along our spiritual journey. Baptism celebrates our birth into the family of Christ. Weddings mark the pledge of fidelity; the faithfulness of love; and the formation of a new family. Funerals bring us face to face with our mortality as celebrate the lives of the faithful and the promise of eternal life. The customs and traditions that surround our life events serve to unite us as a culture, as family, and as the church. Holy Communion, Crismon trees, “giving up” for Lent, Easter Sunrise services, just to name a few, are important and valuable traditions of today's church.
If traditions are so important, why does Jesus seem to condemn them? When some Pharisees noticed that his disciples didn't always wash up prior to eating they asked Jesus why? Mar 7:6-13 Jesus answered them, "How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you! You are hypocrites, just as he wrote: 'These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. (7) It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!' (8) "You put aside God's command and obey human teachings." (9) And Jesus continued, "You have a clever way of rejecting God's law in order to uphold your own teaching. (10) For Moses commanded, 'Respect your father and your mother,' and, 'If you curse your father or your mother, you are to be put to death.' (11) But you teach that if people have something they could use to help their father or mother, but say, 'This is Corban' (which means, it belongs to God), (12) they are excused from helping their father or mother. (13) In this way the teaching you pass on to others cancels out the word of God. And there are many other things like this that you do."
Jesus doesn't condemn traditions in and of themselves. What he condemns is the misuse of traditions, and the following of traditions for their own sake. Traditions are at their best whey they are meaningful symbols of a spiritual truth. The tradition of hand washing dates to the days of the Exodus, when God commanded: Exo 30:19-20 Aaron and his sons are to use the water to wash their hands and feet (20) before they go into the Tent or approach the altar to offer the food offering... clean hands, and clean feet represent pureness of heart, without which we cannot hope to enter the presence of the Holy. The Pharisees had twisted this symbol, making it a law that folks had to wash up before eating. Now, as your mother told you, washing up before meals is a good idea...but it is not a substitute for humble obedience and sincere worship. It is said that when Edward VI, the king of England in the 16th century, attended a worship service, he stood while the Word of God was read. He took notes during this time and later studied them with great care. Through the week he earnestly tried to apply them to his life. That's the kind of serious-minded response to truth the apostle James calls for in today's Scripture reading. A single revealed fact cherished in the heart and acted upon is more vital to our growth than a head filled with lofty ideas about God.
Just as the laws of cleanliness had been twisted, the laws of giving had been perverted to allow a person to declare his possessions “Corban,” or dedicated to God. This, in essence, made one a trustee of his own estate, allowing them to care lavishly for themselves, while ignoring the command to honor their parents. They had not just twisted the intent of the law, they were using it to justify sin. A colleague tells of a parishioner who came to her complaining about his widowed mother who was sharing living quarters with a man in order to stretch her meager Social Security check. “It's not right!,” the son complained. “she's living immorally and setting a bad example for my children.”
“What are you doing to help her? Do you honor her?” my colleague asked.
“Of course I honor her. I try to live the way she taught me. I've always been an obedient son.”
“But are you providing for her? That's what the second commandment is about. Honoring our parents means being sure they have the basic needs of life: food, housing, medical care and so on.” Like the pharisees, my friend's parishioner had lost sight of what the second commandment really means.
What the Pharisees missed, and James reminds us is that (Jas 1:27) What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world.
When we try to replace pure hearts and sincere worship with lip service religion and empty rituals, we become modern day Pharisees; modern day hypocrites.
Deeply immersed in meditation during a church service, Italian poet Dante Alighieri failed to kneel at the appropriate moment. His enemies hurried to the bishop and demanded that Dante be punished for his sacrilege. Dante defended himself by saying, "If those who accuse me had had their eyes and minds on God, as I had, they too would have failed to notice events around them, and they most certainly would not have noticed what I was doing."
Faith is not a matter of simply going through the motions. (James 1:23 If you listen to the word, but do not put it into practice you are like people who look in a mirror and see themselves as they are. (24) They take a good look at themselves and then go away and at once forget what they look like. (25) But if you look closely into the perfect law that sets people free, and keep on paying attention to it and do not simply listen and then forget it, but put it into practice---you will be blessed by God in what you do. Stanley C Brown tells of A young boy, on an errand for his mother, he had just bought a dozen eggs. Walking out of the store, he tripped and dropped the sack. All the eggs broke, and the sidewalk was a mess. The boy tried not to cry. A few people gathered to see if he was OK and to tell him how sorry they were. In the midst of the works of pity, one man handed the boy a quarter. Then he turned to the group and said, "I care 25 cents worth. How much do the rest of you care?" Words don't mean much if we have the ability to do more.
Are you simply going through the motions? Or is your faith part and parcel of who and what you are? John Wesley said we are to do all the good we can, wherever we can, to whoever we can for as long as we can. That's our challenge for the days ahead.