FUMC News

"Amputations"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 9/30/2018
Mark 9:38-50
“Amputations”
September 30, 2018
 
 
            It should be obvious, but I feel I should say this clearly every time we read this passage: Jesus does not want you to cut off your hand or foot or poke out an eye.  Every so often a hospital will have a patient whose mind has gone off into frightening and horrible paths, and who has latched onto some of these verses, who decides that rather than fall into some sin that tempts them, whatever it might be, that the preventive measure is to harm his or her body.  Let me assure you that even someone who takes every word of the Bible as if it were dictated letter-by-letter would not hesitate to say that these words are not to be taken literally.
 
            The hand and the foot may be used to commit sins.  Smash that windshield, grab the package on the carseat, then run!  There are sins that begin with sight: David, looking down from his palace, saw Bathsheba in her swimming pool and didn’t care that he was married and she was married.  Yet not all theft involves break-ins and some theft is even accomplished through legal means.  Blind people fall in love, and are also capable of forgetting themselves. Changing our physical capacity to sin might eliminate some opportunities, but not the desire, and God, who sees into the human heart, judges that.  Jesus said, after all,
 
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.”  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”  [Matthew 5:21-22]
 
By those standards, most of us would be walking around without being able to speak, because we would have had to cut the tongues out of our mouths. 
 
           What we need to get rid of or to curb are the impulses within ourselves that lead to the actions that our bodies and our minds carry out.  That is an amputation that is far more difficult, and probably more painful, than a once-and-done lopping-off of a limb.
 
           A good example is what happened one day when the disciple John discovered someone that neither he nor the other disciples knew had been going around and casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  Instead of being glad for the people the man was helping, John just saw this as a sort of copyright infringement, stepping on the disciples’ prerogatives, diluting their special role and their unique standing.  He couldn’t stand for that, and so he took the matter to Jesus, probably expecting Jesus to shut the man down for unlicensed use of his brand.
 
“But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” [Mark 9:39-40]
 
Chop!  Sorry, John, but there went your need to control anybody else’s ministry.  Oops!  It looks like a section of your self-importance was still attached. 
 
            Maybe another way to express it is to say that some of the losses we experience are losses that we need to undergo if we are to be whole, which is what Jesus was telling us.  It’s better to lose whatever keeps us from entering the kingdom of God in its fullness and wonder.  The most difficult part of that is depending on our own abilities and our own achievements, rather than trusting entirely on God’s grace, and the more you have going for you the harder it is.  Sometimes God goes to great lengths to get through to us on that.
 
            I like the story of Elijah that is found in I Kings, where Elijah faces down King Ahab’s idolatry and stands up to the way that the people have turned away from God.
 
“Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty.” [I Kings 19:22]
 
He faces them down successfully and then when Queen Jezebel threatens him (and this is a measure of how scary she must have been) he runs away to hide.  Out in the desert, God speaks to him.
 
“‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’  He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.’” [I Kings 19:9-10]
 
Then Elijah is told to stand on the mountain and there is a mighty wind, but God does not appear to him through the wind, nor through the earthquake that followed the wind, nor through the fire that followed the earthquake.  Then came what the Bible calls “a sound of sheer silence,” and in that
 
“there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’  He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.’” [I Kings 19:13-14]
 
The Lord doesn’t respond to that, except to give Elijah his next assignment, his marching orders, telling him whom to set up as the next set of kings and to appoint Elisha as his own successor.  And then, at the end of the list, he lets him know, Mr. I-Alone-Am-Left, that there have been seven thousand other faithful people in Israel that he either didn’t know about, or wasn’t paying attention to. 
 
            The Lord was letting Elijah know, as Jesus would later let John know, that the usual suspects may not be the only game in town, and it would be a good idea to cut out the self-importance in order to get a real sense of what is going on as the kingdom of God is growing right there under his own nose.
 
            We all need to be kept humble.  Wise people may even know how to do it gently, but effectively.  Years ago, I was a summer intern at a country church in North Carolina that had a very active men’s group who met over breakfast one Sunday each month.  One of the leaders was a wonderful guy, whose name was Buck.  He did, however, have very clear notions on how to divide up any job and was quick to assign roles.  This one Sunday, I don’t know why, but he overslept.  The men were all at church in the kitchen, but Buck wasn’t there to make the biscuits.  Rather than have breakfast without biscuits, somebody mixed up the dough.  Buck wasn’t there yet.  Somebody else rolled the dough out.  Still no Buck.  Then somebody cut the biscuits out and put them on the cookie sheets.  No Buck.  It was getting late, so finally someone went and called his house, because they had done as much as they could without him and Buck and only Buck could put the biscuits into the oven.  Ten minutes later, Buck was there, with the sleeves of his pajamas sticking out of his shirt cuffs, and he stuck the biscuits in the oven, gave permission for someone else to take them out when they were ready, and went home again to get ready for church.
 
           I’m emphasizing pride in these stories, because that seems to be one of the issues that Mark alludes to when he talks about John’s complaints.  There are a multitude of other amputatable (is that a word?) attitudes, like envy or bitterness or apathy or fear, that we do far better without, and those, too, the Lord can take care of for us.  Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”  I wonder sometimes if God doesn’t see us blockheads that way: as wonderful works of his own art just needing to be chipped away a little here and smoothed out a little there, with a major chunk on this side that will have to go, but just the right grain over there to reflect the light.
 
           If so, maybe we should be patient with the way that he works on us and, for that matter, learn to admire the rest of the masterpieces-to-be that are all around us.

 

"The Great Ones"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 9/23/2018

 

Mark 9:30-37
“The Great Ones”
September 16, 2018

            In this country, the church has no legal standing to provide asylum to people accused of crimes, but there is a longstanding tradition of respect that makes authorities reluctant to enter a place of worship to arrest anyone.  On very rare occasions, churches have provided sanctuary (as they did in the days of the Underground Railroad).  It’s always controversial.  First United Methodist Church of Germantown has taken in some undocumented immigrants, as Arch Street did last year, knowing full well that they are in violation of the law.  This sermon is not about that practice.  I mention it to put the story I want to tell you into context, because we often think that tales from over a thousand years ago must be alien to our setting, when they often could take place today. 

           In fact, at the end of the 300’s the same question about the Church telling the State to stay away – physically stay away – from church property was a major issue in Constantinople.  The Archbishop of Constantinople, John, who is generally known by his nickname of Chrysostom (the Golden-Mouthed) faced off against a high imperial official named Eutropius.  Eutropius had been empowered to rule in the emperor’s name, and one of the things he did was to make it illegal for the church to harbor fugitives.  Chrysostom argued back that it was not up to the state to tell the church what it could and couldn’t do, especially in this area.  It got truly ugly.  But the day came when Eutropius fell from favor with the emperor.  He was already hated by the people, and the army wanted him dead.  He needed to take refuge somewhere, and quickly.

            Here’s what happened next, in the words of one of those overblown Victorian writers.

“In the humblest guise of a suppliant, tears streaming down his puckered cheeks, his scant grey hairs smeared with dust, he crept into the Cathedral, drew aside the curtain in front of the altar and clung to one of the columns which supported it. Here he was found by Chrysostom in a state of pitiable and abject terror, for soldiers in search of him had entered the Church, and the clattering of their arms could be heard on the other side of the thin partition which concealed the fugitive. With quivering lips he craved the asylum of the church, and he was not repulsed as the destroyer of the refuge which he now sought.”[1]

Patience.  I’m going somewhere with this.

            Actually, I should say that Chrysostom went somewhere with it.  I’ll read on.

“He concealed Eutropius in the sacristy, confronted his pursuers, and refused to surrender him. ‘None shall violate the sanctuary save over my body: the church is the bride of Christ who has entrusted her honor to me and I will never betray it.’ He desired to be conducted to the Emperor and taken like a prisoner between two rows of spearmen from the Cathedral to the palace where he boldly vindicated the church’s right of asylum in the presence of the Emperor. ... The next day was Sunday, and the Cathedral was thronged with a vast multitude eager to hear what the golden mouth of the Archbishop would utter who had dared in defense of the Church’s right to defy the law, and confront the tide of popular feeling. But few probably were prepared to witness such a dramatic scene as was actually presented. The Archbishop had just taken his seat … and a sea of faces was upturned to him waiting for the stream of golden eloquence when the curtain of the sanctuary was drawn aside and disclosed the cowering form of the miserable Eutropius clinging to one of the columns of the Holy Table. Many a time had the Archbishop preached to unheeding ears on the vain and fleeting character of worldly honor, prosperity, luxury, and wealth: now he would force attention, and drive home his lesson to the hearts of his vast congregation by pointing to a visible example of fallen grandeur in the poor wretch who lay grovelling behind him.”

Talk about visual aids!  It was humiliating to Eutropius, of course. 

            This is just one short section of Chrysostom’s sermon:

“Where now are your feigned friends? Where are your drinking parties, and your suppers? Where is the swarm of parasites, and the wine which used to be poured forth all day long, and the manifold dainties invented by your cooks? Where are they who courted your power and did and said everything to win your favor? They were all mere visions of the night, and dreams which have vanished with the dawn of day: they were spring flowers, and when the spring was over they all withered: they were a shadow which has passed away — they were a smoke which has dispersed, bubbles which have burst, cobwebs which have been rent in pieces.”

If you ask me, there’s not much Christian love in that.  Not long afterward, Eutropius made a run for it when nobody was around but was captured in Cyprus and returned under guard to the capital and this time he was executed, although I would note that Chrysostom did not stop pleading for his pardon.

            Jesus’ followers have never been particularly good with handling power.  Oh, we may be very good at pointing out how others abuse it, and when we see its misuse we know how to call it out – and we should.  But we are no less liable than others to let it go to our heads or to take the occasional cheap shot when we get a chance.  The difference, maybe, is that we have a sense of shame when we are caught.

           Jesus and his disciples had been traveling through Galilee.

“Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.”  [Mark 9:33-34]

Of course they were silent.  When they were asked, they realized how silly they would have sounded to say, “He said he’s greater than I am, and I said, ‘No!  I’m greater!’ then he said, ‘I’m greater than either of you,’ and we said, ‘You are not!’ and he said, ‘Am, too!’”  They all knew – even though they had gotten drawn into it – how childish it was. 

            The antidote, the corrective, was right there.

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” [Mark 9:36-37]

He picked the child up.  He held the child.  He acted as a grownup acts.  He was caring and nurturing and unconcerned with the snipping and sniping.  Greatness, if it matters at all, comes as a byproduct of the service that is offered to others.  Greatness doesn’t come by proclaiming how great you are.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” [Mark 9:35] 

It’s the same lesson he tried to teach them the night before he died, when he got up from the dinner table and wrapped a towel around his waist and began to wash their feet, the way the lowest servant would do.  And he told them,

“I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know there things, you are blessed if you do them.” [John 13:15-17]

 

 

 

[1] Introduction to the “Two Homilies on Eutropius” in Post-Nicene Fathers.  See http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/ecf/109/1090068.htm .

"Crosses"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 9/16/2018
Mark 8:27-38
“Crosses”
September 16, 2018

 

            The passage we have heard from Mark’s gospel this morning is one of the most profound descriptions of what Christian discipleship may hold and indeed has held for Jesus’ followers across the centuries.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” [Mark 8:34-35]

Taking up your cross has been more than an expression of duty.  In the earliest days, that was exactly what the disciples had to do.  Tradition says that Peter was crucified, but asked – asked! – that it be upside down, since he felt he did not deserve to die the same way as Jesus, since he had denied him before his own execution.

            As a preacher, I also feel some trepidation speaking about suffering and trial from the relative comfort and safety of this time and place.  Who am I to speak, when Chinese Christians go about under governmental suspicion every day, or when Coptic churches in Egypt are bombed, or when Pakistani Christians have been condemned to death on charges of blaspheming Muhammed or disrespect for the Q’uran? 

            Even so, as one writer put it,

“Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him [or her], a cross destined and appointed by God.  Each must endure the allotted share of suffering and rejection.  But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear.  But it is the one and the same cross in every case.”[1]

The writer here knew what he was saying.  This was written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who spent the 1930’s building and strengthening the “Confessing Church” in Germany that refused to implement Hitler’s policies and Nazi laws.  In June of 1939 he escaped to New York City and was given a professorship at Union Seminary in New York City, but when he learned of the imminent invasion of Poland, he resigned to return to Germany just so that he could do his part to keep the Church faithful to Christ in its hour of need.  He knew what his cross was.  It found him.  He had the right to speak about martyrdom.  He was imprisoned by the Gestapo and hanged in 1945 as the liberating armies approached.

            Bonhoeffer had about a decade to train (if that’s the word) for the ordeal to which he was subjected, and when the time arrived he came through it honorably.  I say, “Came through it,” because when we follow Christ to Calvary, he carries us the rest of the way beyond.  That’s how we can sing

 

“I will cling to the old, rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.”

Not everyone gets the kind of warning he had, though, or sees trouble coming from far away.  Tuesday was the anniversary of 9/11, which was a horrible, horrible day.  Nevertheless, it brought with it stories of heroism, where people risked (and sometimes lost) their lives helping others, and I have no doubt whatsoever that there were many more stories of faith and courage that we will not know before we get to heaven because the faithful, courageous witnesses died that day.  Yet one thing we might still learn from that tragedy is to set our minds and resolve our hearts so that whenever we face a tragedy (at the same time praying that day may never come) that we do so in the full Spirit of Christ, who said,

“those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” [Mark 8:35]

I haven’t been able to find the source, but I’ve often heard that John Wesley insisted his preachers be ready “to pray, preach, or die at a moment’s notice”.  I’m thankful that I have so far had adequate warning.

            Not all crosses are dramatic, either, though all of them are holy.  When people get married, they promise to express the love of Christ through their relationship to their spouse.  They promise to stick by each other

 
“for better or worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish
till death do us part”.

In other words, they promise to give up living for themselves alone, to lose a big portion of their own life for someone else.  It is all wonderful and good, but for the most part they only find out what they promised to do down the line, when their spouse loses a job and money gets tight, or becomes depressed and needs to be loved through it for an indefinite period, or is confined to a wheelchair by an accident, or any of thousands of situations that call for conscious and deliberate sacrifice on the part of the other person.  Yet it happens every day. 

           Yes, there are times when it doesn’t turn out that way, and human frailty or normal limitations intervene.  What about those?

           The absolute worst persecution of Christians by the Romans took place beginning in the year 303 at the order of the emperor Diocletian.  Many believers were killed.  There were even more, though, who were tortured or imprisoned and survived, who came to be called “confessors”, because they confessed their faith at great risk.  (Think, if you will, of hundreds or thousands of people like John McCain.)  When Diocletian lost his power and the Great Persecution ended, the question arose of what to do about those who had weakened under threat or under torture, and some Christians wanted to ban them entirely from the community.  After all, hadn’t Jesus said,

“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels”?  [Mark 8:38]

At the same time, there were people who pointed out that the disciples themselves had fled when Jesus was arrested, and only John stood at the cross with the women as witnesses to Jesus’ death.  Jesus himself reconciled with Peter after the resurrection, and must have done the same with the others.  So the Church said that only the survivors, the confessors who understood firsthand what it is like to face those terrible choices, had any standing to judge the others.  For the most part, the confessors, in turn, said they wouldn’t condemn anybody and only Jesus could truly see anyone else’s heart.  They might ask for signs of repentance, but they wouldn’t cut anyone off from mercy.

            For some people, there is the cross that comes with being forgiven, with the struggle to live with the deep sense of human weakness, but also (once the full awareness of Jesus’ love breaks through the guilt) the job of being living witnesses that the cross shows the infinite richness of divine love and compassion, love that led Jesus to speak forgiveness even to his executioners.  And, by the way, that sin and that forgiveness takes in each and every person born.  One way or another, the cross is the beginning of life, not its end.  So

 

“‘Take up thy cross,’ the Master said,
‘Nor think till death to lay it down,
For only those who bear the cross
Can hope to wear the glorious crown.’”
 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Discipleship and the Cross” in The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1963) 98-99.

"The Woman Who Argued with Jesus and Won"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 9/9/2018
Mark 7:24-37
“The Woman Who Argued with Jesus and Won”
September 9, 2018

 

            More and more, in recent months, whenever I listen to the news or read the material coming over my news feed, I have a strong urge to curl up on the couch, pull an afghan over my head, and shout, “Make it go away!  Just make it go away!”  I have tried to turn it all off.  I have tried not to look at the newspaper for twenty-four hours or read any article that does not include a recipe.  I still feel on-edge because I’m half-afraid of something awful happening and not knowing about it until it’s too late.  What if a war starts?  What if the dollar crashes?  What if lead is discovered in our local water system, or if a hurricane forming in the Atlantic is headed this way?  What if football is outlawed or ebola is discovered in New Jersey?  I know I’m not the only one, either.  Consider this cartoon by Lila Ash that was in The New Yorker last week:

“You can have the pillow fort back
When you bring Mommy some good news.”

 

            Here’s some good news: even Jesus felt overwhelmed at times.  More than one place in the gospels describes him doing what he had to do to manage the demands that the world put on him.  Today’s gospel lesson tells of a time he went all the way up into Lebanon, near present-day Beirut.  He

“went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”  [Mark 7:24]

He tried to arrange some down-time.  Why should you or I feel bad about trying to do the same thing?

           Now back to the harsh realities.  Jesus’ attempt to hide away for a few days didn’t work.  Even outside Jewish territory, somehow he was recognized.   He

“could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.” [Mark 7:24-25]

One summer when I was in college, I worked in Acadia National Park in Maine and I was manning the cash register at a gift shop one evening when somebody handed me a credit card with the name “Paul Nitze”.  (This is geeky, I admit.)  I recognized the name as belonging to the man who six years earlier had led some groundbreaking talks with the Soviets on reducing nuclear arms.  I didn’t saying anything to him, but got some really weird looks afterward when I said to the other workers, “Do you realize who that was?”  Another time, at the same store, I sold some bedroom slippers to Carter Heyward, one of the first women to be ordained an Episcopal priest.  (I had seen her give a lecture about two months earlier.)  In that case, I did thank her by name as I handed her the bag, and watched her try to figure out if I was someone she knew.  And every Wednesday morning we sold a package of cocktail napkins to a certain Miss Wanamaker for her afternoon bridge club.  If those people could not fly under the radar, then how unlikely is it that Jesus could go unrecognized for long?

            If it was bound to happen, though, the woman who found him found him a little bit too soon.  He had not had enough time to rest and (I trust he’ll forgive me for saying this) he comes across in Mark’s retelling as a little bit cranky, which goes along with being seriously tired. 

“Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” [Mark 7:26-27]

 Again, he’s trying to set boundaries.  He is telling her, “Look, lady!  My job is to reach out to the people in Judaea.  Sorry, but you just don’t qualify as part of my assigned demographic.  I work with Mac, you’ve got an Apple.” 

           And here’s where the absolute genius of this woman comes into play, and she becomes the only person in all the gospels who argues with Jesus and wins.  For one thing, she has compassion on him.  We can only guess where it comes from.  Not many people would take a rebuff like he offered lightly.  But she, too, probably knew what it was to be tired to the depths of her soul.  Here was a mother who was troubled for her young daughter, scared of what was going on.  You can hear the sleepless nights in her voice and imagine what terrible scenes she had had to witness helplessly.  There must have been a mixture of exasperation and hope or desperation to drive her to approach a foreign man, one she had never met, and to keep pressing him for help after a pretty clear, “No.”  My guess is that she heard something in his voice that was regret at his own answer, or that she sensed that her weariness and his weariness were alike on some level.  She saw a connection that was deeper than the surfaces of their lives would suggest. 

           On that basis she persisted, overlooking his analysis of his own ability to help.  Jesus said that

“‘it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’” [Mark 7:27-28] 

He was not uncaring.  It took this woman whose need and weakness mirrored his own to open his eyes to a depth of calling beyond what he had yet fully grasped.  You know, the Bible says that when he was a child,

“Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in divine and human favor.” [Luke 2:52]

His wisdom never stopped increasing.  She did not deny his understanding of his calling, but she offered him a chance to broaden it, and he had the wisdom to learn from her.

“Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.” [Mark 7:29-30]

He came, he had realized, to save his people.  He came, he now realized, to save the world.

            I suspect that this interchange stayed with him whenever he might have been tempted to see his human limits as a limit on the power of his Father.  Jesus would later tell a parable about having compassion on those in need that started this way:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”  [Luke 16:19-21]

All that talk about dogs and tablescraps, and sharing what is on the table!  Where had he heard that before?

           Notice, though, that when he talked about the poor man in need, he gave him a name, which he didn’t do for anyone else in any of his other parables.  We use the translated name “Lazarus”, but it comes from the Hebrew name “Eleazer”, which means, “God is my help.”  I suspect – and here I am speaking for myself and not from the text – I suspect that Jesus also learned in his interchange with the Syrophoenician woman how to recognize the depths of God’s Spirit at work within him as a help not only for the people, Jew and Gentile alike, who had been coming to him and who would continue to come to him with all sorts of problems and demands, but also as the help that he himself needed to respond to them without the shortness he showed to that woman outside Tyre. 

           Jesus would continue to go off by himself to pray, often early in the morning before other people (including the disciples traveling with him) were even awake.  And we would see him pray about his own weakness in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Still, those were moments when he opened his heart to the Father’s renewal through the Spirit, and he always came away from them prepared for whatever awaited, knowing where his help lay.

           Odd, isn’t it?  -- how it may be better sometimes to lose an argument than to win?

"Human Traditions"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 9/2/2018

 

 

Mark 7:1-8
“Human Tradition”
September 2, 2018

 

            Jesus criticized his own generation for getting so caught up in the externals of religious practice that they forgot the aspects that touch the spirit.  It’s a little convoluted as Mark describes it, because there were practices that were part of the Law, written in scripture, that the Pharisees refer to as “the tradition of the elders”.  Jesus doesn’t stand against them, and he doesn’t exactly defend his disciples when the Pharisees criticize the disciples for non-observance of those rules.  Frankly, I’d be a lot like them about some of this.  I want my vegetables washed before I eat them.  I want people to wash their hands before they sit down at the table.  Maybe a farm hand or a fisherman cannot do that, but if it’s possible, washing your hands and doing the dishes would be on my list of best practices.

           Jesus does, however, seem to say that it isn’t really respect for God or even concern for health that motivates the Pharisees as much as it is a sense that there is a proper way to do things, and if you don’t do it that way there must be something wrong with you.

“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.’”

            Long ago I was looking over the traditional Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols.  (Mind you, “traditional” here means that the practice is about a hundred years old, which isn’t really very long in terms of church history.)  It occurred to me that the logical placement for “Silent Night” is right in the middle, after reading about Jesus’ birth.  (You can hear what’s coming, can’t you?)  We did the whole “Silent Night” and candle moment, but not at the end.  I got a note the next week from someone telling me I had “spoiled” her whole Christmas.  I was doing a more thorough job than the Grinch when he took everything away from Cindy Lou Hoo, who was only just two.  Really?  Is that what Christmas is about?  The familiarity of one, ritualized, non-essential element? 

            Tradition and usage must be at the service of God, or it can become idolatrous, and can do harm.  A friend of mine, a pastor in the United Church of Christ who lives and serves in the Lehigh Valley, is thinking about buying about a half-a-dozen new dress shirts.  Like a lot of U.C.C. clergy in that part of the state, for years he has worn a clergy collar every day.  After last week’s release of the report on child abuse by Roman Catholic priests across Pennsylvania, and the identification of a large number of predators in the Lehigh Valley specifically, the sense of trust that a collar carried in that area is gone and, in fact, it has become a source of suspicion.  So for the sake of the Church’s witness, he may have to change his wardrobe.  If you knew him, you’d know that’s a big step in his eyes.

            Do our practices in worship and our practices in daily life draw us and others closer to the heart of God?  That is really the question and the measure of success. 

           American culture has a tradition of breaking with tradition.  The nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell wrote:

“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires!  We ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.”

Maybe the tradition of breaking with tradition is a tradition that needs to be broken, when it becomes an end in itself, or when something is being broken down without something else being put into its place.

            Last Sunday afternoon I was talking with Doug Hagler, the pastor at First Presbyterian.  He had been talking with Paul Davis, who’s the pastor of the Grace Valley Fellowship that meets at the Middle School on Sunday mornings and has its office down on Bridge St.  Grace Valley are not the hipsters; that would be the Iron Bridge Church that meets at Franklin Commons.  They are the with-it, “contemporary” (although that word is going out of use) bunch that emphasizes their cultural relevance and pride themselves on how relaxed they are, with a sort of latte-and-praise-band vibe going on.  Anyway, Paul was telling Doug how he has recently heard several of his members independently lamenting that they don’t ever hear organ music and aren’t set up for that.  Meanwhile, Doug has been trying to find a drummer.  So it is possible that on World Communion Sunday in October, the Grace Valley folks will pay a visit en-masse so that they can hear a traditional prelude, offertory, and postlude.

            What’s going on?  This is a very strange and unsettled time for the Church in North America.  Every time it seems that everyone is safely ensconced in his or her proper niche, the Holy Spirit seems to poke somebody and make them squirm just enough to throw the rest off-balance, too.  But that is a good thing.

            Tradition itself has to live and grow like a plant, where one branch gives way to another and then comes back another season.  T.S. Eliot, who pondered a lot about what tradition means to literature, said,

 “…if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. ... Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”[1]

The same is true of what we experience as people of faith.  There are practices that come into being and do great good, but when they either grow stale or take on a greater importance than the purpose they serve, of pointing to God’s love in Christ, then they need to be set aside.  Perhaps they will be taken up again at a later time, perhaps not. 

            Perhaps when they reappear they will be changed and reinvigorated.  In the Middle Ages, there were people who spent years in some cases going on pilgrimage from place to place, from France to Jerusalem or from Scotland to Spain, and in their travels they reminded others that life itself is a journey toward God.  But when it became a sort of holy tourism, then it was time to stop the practice.  Among Protestants, the practice went away for five centuries.  Yet in our own day there are people who travel to other places as short-term missionaries and carry with them the message that no part of the Body of Christ is forgotten by the rest, and that has become a gift of grace.  The danger of it sliding into tourism, though, remains and needs to be monitored, which we know exactly because we’ve been through it before.  Human tradition can be good, but put God’s ways first.

            Since I started this sermon talking about organ music, I’ll finish on the same note.  Johann Sebastian Bach, when he wrote whatever he had in mind for that Sunday’s masterpiece, would begin by writing three letters at the top of the page: “SDG”.  That stood for “Soli Deo Gloria”, “Glory to God Alone”.  Maybe it was his intention, the prayer of his soul, going into his work that has given it the staying power that it has. 

            As Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.  Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” [I Corinthians 3:10-11]

 

[1] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” at https://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html .

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