A parish got a new priest. During his first service, when a certain prayer was said, half the congregation stood up and half remained sitting. The half that was seated started yelling at those standing to sit down, and the ones standing yelled at the ones sitting to stand up. The new priest did not know what to do. His congregation suggested to consult a 98-year-old man, who was the oldest inhabitant of the village. The priest hoped the elderly man would be able to tell him what the actual tradition was, so he went to the old man’s home with a representative of each fraction of the congregation. The one whose followers stood during the prayer said to the old man, “Is the tradition to stand during this prayer?” The old man answered, “No, that is not the tradition.” The one whose followers sat said gladly, “Then the tradition is to sit during this prayer!” The old man answered, “No, that is not the tradition.” Then the priest said to the old man, “But the congregation fights all the time, yelling at each other about whether they should sit or stand…” The old man interrupted, exclaiming, “That is the tradition!”
“Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!”
Whether we realize it or not, we all adhere to certain traditions. Within religious groups, theologian James Dunn refers to these traditions as “boundary markers.” “Boundary markers are highly visible, relatively superficial practices that serve to distinguish people inside a group from those outside.” (Note: Why Jesus’ Disciples Wouldn’t Wash Their Hands – fascinating article) He says that if you pull up next to a classic VW van with flower power stickers and “Make love, not war” bumper stickers driven by a throwback to Woodstock, then through these boundary markers, you know who you’re dealing with; and the same applies to the – and I quote – “hair-moussing, Rolex-wearing, Brie-tasting, chardonnay-sipping 30-year-old, you know his group as well.”
Thankfully, we have no such traditions, boundary markers in the Episcopal Church! They may take away my Nashotah House degree if anyone there reads that line. We as Episcopalians are steeped in our traditions, from the order we light the candles, to the red doors on our church, to the way we hurdle pews during the Peace. When Dunn says that these boundary markers / traditions are “superficial”, he is not necessarily saying that they are shallow, but are instead on the surface. Easily visible. They are what distinguish us from other groups. That in itself is not a bad thing. Those traditions aid in contributing to identity, but also enhance our worship experience. However, they become bad when we view them as signs of our superiority. When we say that our traditions make us better than others. “When receiving communion they use Welch’s grape juice. That’s not communion, that’s a children’s birthday party! They are so wrong!” They are, but that’s beside the point. The point is that our traditions are to be enhancements to our worship, not weapons to use against those who don’t observer them. Why? Because at the heart of all we do is Jesus. Not our boundary markers or traditions. At the heart of our worship is God. Is Jesus.
Now, within Judaism, there is the Mosaic Law, the Law of Moses, and then there is interpretation of that Law, allowing it to be put into practice. Naturally, the putting into practice led to several habits, which eventually led to traditions within their faith. Not bad. However, as the tradition became more ingrained in the community, adhering to the tradition was seen as adhering to the Law. Breaking with tradition was therefore equivalent to breaking the Law. Worse, those who kept and enforced the boundary markers used them as signs of superiority over others and chains to keep the people enslaved to the Law. Hence, Jesus’ criticism in Matthew’s Gospel, “They – the religious leaders – tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
Today in our Gospel, the Pharisees confronted Jesus over one of these traditions, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” The Mosaic Law called for the people to sanctify themselves. This was later interpreted as being clean, washing yourself, and a tradition built up around how this was to be done. According to this “tradition of the elders”, the hands were extended and water was poured over them one time to remove any “defilement”, then water was poured over them a second time to remove the water that had absorbed the defilement.
To us, it may seem that the Pharisees were onto something and that Jesus and his disciples were in the wrong. However, the Pharisees criticism is not about hygiene. The Pharisees criticism is about why Jesus and disciples weren’t following tradition. The Pharisees were using the tradition as a weapon. Jesus response:
“’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.”
Jesus is saying, Our Father desires for the people to be holy and sanctified – spiritually clean – but you are so wrapped up in whether or not they… accidentally snuffed out the Gospel candle before extinguishing the Epistle side candle, that you have forgotten the heart of the matter. You have forgotten the soul and you have forgotten God. The old saying is true, “God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts.”
Perhaps for you and I, the biggest problem is not thinking ourselves superior to others or using our traditions as a weapon. The more immediate problem for us would be getting so caught up in “doing church”, that we forget why we are here. God is not going to smite us dead if we happen to say “Alleluia” during Lent. Yet, we can get so caught up in putting on a good show, that we miss the opportunity to truly worship our God and fellowship with one another.
Take a child going on a long road trip vacation with his family. In order to pass the time, his mother suggests that he make a list of all fifty states and along the way, see if he can spot the license plate from each one. It’s a fun game for him and he really enjoys the search. At the end of the trip he is joyful because he got them all. However, if you ask him if he saw Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park he’ll reply, “No, but there was someone from Delaware there.” Or when asked, “Did you see the Statue of Liberty,” the response will be, “No, but can you believe someone was there from Oregon.” It may have been fun, but look at all the wonders and glories he missed along the way. He became consumed with the superficial aspect of the journey and missed the blessings he was presented with.
Erma Bombeck wrote a column titled, “If I had My Life to Live Over Again”. Hear some of her points: If I had my life to live over again I would have waxed less and listened more. I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed. I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded. I would have cried and laughed less while watching television … and more while watching real life. I would have eaten less cottage cheese and more ice cream. When my child kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, “Later. Now, go get washed up for dinner.” There would have been more I love yous … more I’m sorrys … more I’m listenings … but mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute of it.”
That speaks of living life, but for me, it also speaks of how we are to be the Church. Fear not, I love the traditions of our Church. I’ll add even more if I don’t think the vestry will throw me out on my ear. But in the process of doing church, let’s not forget why we’re here. And why is that? Jesus said to the woman at the well, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” We are here to worship our God in spirit and in truth.
Let us pray: O Lord, our God, You called Your people to be Your Church. As we gather together in Your Name, may we love, honor, and follow Your Son to eternal life in the Kingdom He promised. Increase in us the gifts You have given Your Church that Your faithful people may continue to grow in holiness and in imitation of Your Beloved Son, Jesus, in whose Name we pray. Amen.