Tradition! (Sermon for February 16, 2020)

When Mariah and I bought our house, the basement was done in a… certain style. Let’s call it dive bar chic.

The foundation walls were cinder block. Different partition walls were different kinds of wooden slats over different styles of frames. One door was close to a normal door; another one was a swinging door; another one was a saloon door. The tile in one area was asbestos; the tile in another area was vinyl; the tile in another area was a different kind of vinyl. Some lights were fully installed; others were powered by an extension cord draped over some ductwork.

And it got that way in the way that basements get that way: a little bit at a time.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve been taking that basement apart. Asbestos abated. Drain tile installed. Walls torn down. Doors ripped off their hinges. All so that, eventually, we can make something better.

And the thing about taking something like that apart… is that it lets you see how something like that came together.

Here’s where the gas and water come in. And that’s ugly, so let’s build a wall here. Now that wall blocks the light from that window, so let’s put a light here. And now we’ll put in a bathroom, but that light is right there, so we’ll put the wall over here. And so on.

And there’s a limited budget. And you can reclaim some wood and lay an area rug over the chipped tile. And it’s just a basement. And, eventually, you get dive bar chic.

Until someone comes along and says, “Let’s tear it all out and do it right. Let’s make a not-totally-awesome-but-not-totally-terrible basement on purpose.”

In this morning’s reading, some Pharisees and some scribes have come from Jerusalem to Gennesaret. And they see Jesus and his disciples. And they start watching Jesus and his disciples.

And they notice that Jesus and his disciples… do not wash their hands before they eat.

Now, let me start by saying that you should wash your hands before you eat. And you should wash your dishes and cups and pots and kettles. That’s just good hygiene.

But the Pharisees and the scribes aren’t concerned because they think that Jesus and his disciples might get sick if they don’t wash their hands. They are concerned because here is this little band of Jews… following a teacher… who goes around healing diseases and exorcising demons and preaching good news to the poor… and they are not following tradition.

And tradition matters. Tradition tells you who you are. Tradition tells other people who you are.

And the Pharisees and the scribes know. They know that they are a dispossessed people in an occupied land. They know that their history is a history of being surrounded by other nations. They know that their history is a history of exile and return. They know that part of being Jewish is holding fast to Judaism. They know that part of being Jewish is always being set apart. At least a little bit.

And so there is the law, and the covenant, and tradition. It’s how they’ve kept their balance for so long. It’s how they show their constant devotion to God. It’s how they know who they are.

And here are Jesus and his disciples… flouting tradition.

So they ask, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”

And that’s just another way of asking, “Who do you think you are?”

Tradition matters. Tradition tells us who we are. Tradition tells other people who we are. Tradition is one of those things that makes us… well, an us. And we get tradition a little bit at a time.

And that’s risky.

The Pharisees and the scribes had a commandment: honor your father and your mother; do not speak ill of them; care for them in their old age. And the Pharisees and the scribes had another commandment: make offerings to God.

So, maybe, you could kind of reserve some things as an offering to God. And if that money was tagged to be an offering to God… well… you couldn’t very well give it to mom and dad, right? I mean, you wouldn’t use the money that you put aside for your church offering for something else.

You see, if this wall goes here… and that blocks the light from the window over there… then this light has to be here… and that means that this wall has to be over here. And you end up with something that’s a little… dive bar chic.

And there’s nothing wrong with dive bar chic. Dive bar chic can be cool and innovative and maybe even a little bit holy. But it’s a lot easier for it to be cool and innovative and a little bit holy when it’s on purpose. 

Tradition matters. Tradition tells us who we are. Tradition tells other people who we are. But we get tradition a little bit at a time. And that means that sometimes, we need to take a look around and ask whether our traditions are helping us be who we are called to be, or making us be something else entirely.

When Jesus calls out the Pharisees and the scribes for following their traditions, I don’t think he’s telling them to give up their tradition.

After all, he knows. He knows that they are a dispossessed people in an occupied land. He knows that their history is a history of being surrounded by other nations. He knows that their history is a history of exile and return. He knows that part of being Jewish is holding fast to Judaism. He knows that part of being Jewish is always being set apart. At least a little bit.

He knows that there is the law, and the covenant, and tradition. It’s how they’ve kept their balance for so long. It’s how they show their constant devotion to God. It’s how they know who they are.

But he also knows how easy it is to think that tradition is the thing that is important. He knows how easy it is to watch this little band of people… following a teacher… who goes around healing diseases and exorcising demons and preaching good news to the poor… and ask, “Why aren’t you living according to the traditions of the elders? Who do you think you are?”

Or, to put that another way, he knows how easy it is to miss the point.

We are Christians. We follow Christ. It’s right there in the name. 

We are also a church, and a community, and a town, and a state, and a nation. We have our traditions. Some are older and some are younger. Some of them matter. Some of them tell us who we are. Some of them tell other people who we are. And we got all of them a little bit at a time.

Some of them were built first; and some of them came along later; and some of them are built on the foundations of other.

Some of them funnel the light of Christ towards us. Some of them block the light of Christ from us. Some of them cast shadows and create distortions.

Some of them have always been good; some of them have always been bad; some of them made sense at the time. Most of them are probably not-totally-awesome-but-not-totally-terrible.

The nice thing about tradition is that it helps us keep our balance. It helps us show our constant devotion to God. It helps us know who we are.

And the dangerous thing about tradition is that we can get used to it… we can settle for a way of life that has been pieced together a little bit at a time… we can be devoted to it. 

And we can miss the teacher and savior who is in front of us, healing our disease and exorcising our demons and giving us good news. We can miss the point.

But the beautiful things about tradition… the really deeply beautiful thing about tradition… is that we can look at it and admire it and question it and hold it lightly.

We can go from washing our hands and dishes and cups and pots and kettles because that is the tradition of the elders, to washing all of those things and more because it is good for us to do so.

We can tear down one wall and leave another one up. We can change paint colors or leave them the same. We can choose to be mid-century modern or dive bar chic or Hollywood regency. And we can do it on purpose.

We can live intentionally. We can follow Christ. We can honor God with our hearts.

Thanks be to God!

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