Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The year is 1905 and as the play begins, Tevye, the milkman, tells about the customs in his little village in czarist Russia, where life is as precarious – as a Fiddler on the Roof. “A fiddler on the roof,” says Tevye. “Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof. . . . And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word! Tradition!” (Go ahead, you know you want to sing it! I know I do. So let’s get it out of our system!) Tevye also makes this wise observation: “Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
It’s true, isn’t it? Our Christian traditions help us to know who we are and what God expects of us. Here are a couple of examples. It’s our tradition to gather for worship on a Sunday morning. Worship reminds us of who we are – people of God – and gathering in this way reminds us of what God expects of us – our devotion. It’s also our tradition to sing hymns in worship. And a very fine tradition that is because when we sing together it reminds us that we are not a bunch of individuals, solo singers, seeking attention for ourselves, but rather we are a community of voices blending together as one in our prayer and praise. These are some of our traditions, handed down to us through our faith history. Traditions are good.
So why does Jesus sound so negative about tradition? Ritual hand washing was a tradition passed down for generations that, like all traditions, reminded the people of who they were and what God expected of them. Let’s be clear: this hand-washing – it wasn’t a matter of hygiene. There’s nothing unusual about washing the food we get from the market, washing our hands, or washing our utensils. We all do it for hygiene. But the goal of ritual washing was not cleanliness. It was about following a tradition, a tradition that let everyone who saw it know that the one washing belonged to God and respected God’s laws. Now, it’s not our tradition, but what harm did it do? Why was Jesus so upset? Belonging to God and respecting God’s laws is a good thing, wouldn’t you think? But according to Jesus, the problem with the Pharisees and scribes was that they had become so focused on the externals of being faithful that they had lost sight of the goal of faithfulness, which was unity with God (whom they believed had given the law to wash the hands) and unity with one another (a community bound together by tradition). Instead of bringing unity, however, their observance of the tradition was driving a wedge between themselves and others. Remember their critique of the disciples? That’s why Jesus called them hypocrites – not because they were following a particular custom, but because they were paying more attention to the symbol (the washing) than to what the symbol represented (obedience to God and unity with one another.) “You abandon the commandment of God,” says Jesus, “and hold to human tradition.” That’s the issue. Not the hand-washing itself, but that their concern about who was and who wasn’t washing hands was distracting them from their true goal: loving God and one another.
You, the people of CTKE, have done a great job at not losing sight of your goals by being distracted by your traditions. If you had been too worried about your traditions, whether Episcopal or Lutheran, you would not have been able to join together as you have for the common goals of devotion to God and love of neighbor. We have more work to do, of course, because there is always more work to do in the life of faith. And some of the work that we as a congregation may need to do is to take stock of the physical things that we have assembled here. Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but . . . we’ve got a lot of stuff in this small building! Because we are two parishes become one we have two (or more) of many things. Some of our accumulation of stuff may be due to “some-day-itis.” That’s an affliction that plagues a lot of people in the part of the country I’ve just come from, but I can’t imagine that New Englanders are totally immune to it. You know some-day-itis: the belief that some day I may be able to use this thing . . . therefore I dare not get rid of it. That could partly explain how much stuff we have. But I’d have to guess we’re also holding onto some things for tradition’s sake – that this item or that was an important part of our ministry before the federation. We may need to have some difficult discussions about what to keep and what to move along. And maybe some things we’ll end up hanging onto for tradition’s sake – and that’s okay – as long as having those things doesn’t distract us from serving God and one another.
In the end, nothing ought to distract us from our mission. However, you know as well as I that we are a people easily distracted – and not just by our history and tradition but by lots of other factors, as well. Fear and anxiety and stress can cause us to lose sight of our identity and purpose. But here’s the thing that we need to remember: No matter how out- of-focus our goals may get, God’s focus on us is laser-sharp. God never loses sight of us, nor the goal of reconciling us to God and one another. It’s just like we heard from the Old Testament this morning: “What other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?” Because that’s the truth. God is near, whenever we call. That’s who Jesus was and is: God come near. Jesus is our highest and deepest and longest tradition. He is the one who reminds us of who we are and what God expects of us. When we call to him, we won’t become distracted. Because his presence, his nearness, will surround and fill us so that we cannot help but love him and each other.