Good Traditions, Bad Traditions

The text for this sermon is Mark 7:1-23.

In his blog post last week, David Lose tells this joke. How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb in the church basement? Change? What? My grandfather donated that lightbulb? Don’t we need a congregational vote for this? I am a Lutheran. I like the way things are always done. When I pick hymns, my choices resonate with the hymns I sang when I was a child growing up in the pews of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Temperance, Michigan. Some might be surprised to hear that I would just as soon nothing changes in church ever, because I have advocated for so much change in our worship service, our worship space and our life together. However, I have my lines too that are hard for me to cross. I am an old Lutheran. I like our traditions.

So it is no surprise that I find myself sympathetic with the Pharisees in this story from Mark rather than the character I am supposed to have a heart for, Jesus. The Pharisees weren’t such a bad lot. They gained influence because the very existence of the Jewish faith was under attack by first one conquerer of Israel, then another. To keep Judaism from being swallowed up like so many other small religions of their day, they emphasized that Jewish people should do things differently than everyone else. There was a way to be Jewish. To keep their heart for God, they do very specific things with their hands. Unique traditions would not only mark them as Jewish, but help them daily remember the God who created and saved them.

Jesus agreed with their intention, to remember God daily. He wanted the Jewish people, and all people it turned out, to have a heart for God. It was what the hands should be doing that he questioned. He didn’t have a problem with Jews washing their hands before meals, or cleaning pots a certain way. These traditions helped people remember God in the most mundane of activities. He did have a problem with refusing to eat with people who didn’t wash hands or pots a certain way, because they weren’t Jewish, or water was scarce for a peasant in a dusty village or who were deemed permanently unclean and no amount of hand washing or pot scrubbing could change that, like the lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes. Traditions, our actions in religion are meant to bring hearts to God. When they become a barrier for people, then they are no longer good traditions.

This is not an anti Jewish teaching. Jesus is not saying in the Christian church, we won’t have all of these silly Jewish laws about hand washing and kosher food. Jesus is teaching that the goal of religion is to lead us to have a heart for God. This goal should match up with the actions of our churches, what our hands do. If they don’t, then something has gone horribly wrong. We have stopped seeing the forest for the trees. Jesus revealed his heart on the first day of his ministry. He said the spirit was upon him to preach good news to the poor, release captives and bring sight to the blind. Then his hands went about doing this. Jesus had a good heart and hand religion. His hands did what his heart longed for. The goal of all Christian rituals and traditions and Christian service is to have our hands lead us to God’s heart.

When we are in the midst of tradition, it always seems like this is the way it has always been and we should defend it staying that way. Of course, with the eyes of history, we find it is not the way it has always been. Worship is but one example where traditions are hard to change. When Martin Luther was around in the sixteenth century we had communion every time we worshipped. It changed in American Lutheran churches in the 19th century to occasionally we would have communion in worship. In the 1970’s, the Lutheran church decided that we should have communion every Sunday again. It took Messiah forty years to institute that decision. Why? Because people didn’t want to change. They liked it the way it was. Imagine if fifty years from now we decided to change back to once a quarter or so?  The heads of our teenagers today, who would be 60 and 70 year olds then, would explode. The generation of people who grew up with weekly communion would revolt. They couldn’t bear to lose that tradition. They shout it has always been like this in church. But of course, it hasn’t. Holy Communion has been central to our faith from the earliest recorded gathering of Christians, how often and how it has been shared has changed frequently throughout our history.

All traditions change over time, but they seem unchanging in the moment. We can never let our love for a tradition keep us from the mission for God’s church. We can never let what our hands are doing be separate from the hope that they are leading us to God’s heart. To reach the world, Jesus knew this tradition would have to change. To reach the world that is constantly changing, we must as the church always ask what traditions need to change for us.

This is a very real issue for our church, Messiah to wrestle with. Old timers in worship today remember a much different Reynoldsburg in the fifties and sixties when Messiah was established. Yet, our mission as church has not changed, to lead hearts nearer to God’s heart. All churches likely say they want to welcome new neighbors, but are they willing to change their traditions to do so? Seminary professor Mark Powell is passionate about Lutherans reaching out to hispanic communities. He joked in a class once that churches tell him they would love to welcome their Spanish speaking neighbors, just as long as they learn English and to enjoy singing old German hymns. As Reynoldsburg changes in the next fifty years what traditions Messiah keeps and what traditions we leave behind should be dictated by God’s heart, not our hands, who we are called to love, not by what we already love. The danger for all churches is worshipping the tradition rather than the God they were meant to draw us closer to.

Another joke from a Jesuit priest  that when he was a student in Catholic school, the nuns insisted at their high school dance that any sort of kiss they might share with another girl should be no longer than the length of time it took for someone to say grapefruit. The priest writes that regularly, they would practice saying graaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaapefrooooooooooooooot. Good traditions become bad traditions when they lose their purpose. The purpose of all religious traditions are to move hearts closer to God. When they stop doing that, change is needed.  

2 thoughts on “Good Traditions, Bad Traditions”

  1. Karl
    Change is not always for the better, even though we try our best to make it so.

    Excellent sermon,

    I thought that it would be good for you to know that your sermons are read and thought about.

    1. Thanks Fred for the comment and your careful reading. And, I agree entirely that all change in the church should be thoughtful, intentional and with a clear purpose that furthers the mission of the church. Peace, Pastor Karl

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