Traditions. They are beautiful and they’re rhythmic. They help us to keep time in this life. I love traditions. My family has them for Thanksgiving and Christmas and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But at the same time, traditions are curious and complicated things. Because not all traditions are created equal. Not all of them behave the same.
Some traditions last only as long as the person who created them. Take for example Gladys Thurnau. For years and years, Gladys made homemade bread for Communion here. I don’t know how it started. Perhaps it was something passed on to her, or perhaps one Sunday she just showed up with it, and suddenly a tradition was born. But now that Gladys isn’t able to make Communion bread any more, the tradition has faded away behind boxes of little white wafers. And that’s okay. That just how it goes for some traditions.
Other traditions last for years and years and years, long after the person or group who came up with it. It is traditions like these that really become sacred. These traditions become the oil to a well-crafted machine. Without it, the thing just won’t move.
There is old story, out there in the world somewhere, about a monk and his cat. As the story goes, a head monk was teaching other monks how to pray and meditate when, one day, in walks a cat. The cat begins to disturb their time of prayer and meditation and the head monk found it really annoying. So he asks the others to catch the cat and tie it up to the banyan tree outside until the session was over. So they did. In anticipation that this would continue to be a problem, the monk asked that every day before prayer and meditation, the cat be caught and tied to the tree outside. And so it was. Day after day, this continued. For a long time, it continued. In fact, it became tradition. To chase the cat among the halls of the monastery just minutes before prayer and mediation was to start. Well, one day, the head monk died. Despite the fact that the cat really only annoyed the head monk, the new head monk asked that the cat be tied to the banyan tree before mediation began. Well, then the cat dies. And what do they do? They go out and buy a new cat, so that they can catch it and tie it up to banyan tree before meditation. So it is with traditions.
A friend of mine was once filling in as pastor at a church on a communion Sunday. When it came time for the words of institution, he stood behind the altar, spoke the words, raised up a big white wafer for the bread and a big silver chalice for the wine, and then he invited everyone to the table. But then, no one moved. Nothing. Nada. They all just sat there. Finally, an usher came forward and whispered in his ear. Immediately, he went back to the altar, lifted high the white wafer, only this time…he broke it in two pieces, symbolizing Jesus’ broken body. The congregation gave an audible sigh of relief and Communion went on smoothly. They couldn’t commune until the bread was broken. This is God’s meal… God offers a promise that it is ‘given for you’ but this congregation couldn’t hear it… couldn’t taste it… was paralyzed until then saw someone break a wafer in two.
You can see how traditions can be the lifeblood of a monastery or congregation. But there is trouble here, because often times, people forget you don’t need a cat tied to a tree to meditate nor a broken wafer to receive God’s grace and mercy. They lose sight of the original intent and overtime, the tradition becomes more sacred than what it surrounds.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples have entered into a foreign land, they’ve gone to the other side, and we know what that means. They are in a place where they don’t belong; a place their mothers would not want them to be. You see, their breaking the rules. But it is in this very place, this foreign land, that Jesus is healing the sick and the broken.
But then the police show up. It is the Pharisees and the scribes, making sure everyone is following the laws of the land, or as they call it “the tradition of elders.” Now, as you may recall, the Pharisees and scribes don’t like Jesus very much. And they’re not fond of his groupies either. As I said, they were troublemakers, rule-breakers; they were a threat to the way things went and were supposed to go. They loved the unlovely and that just didn’t fit in the Pharisees’ world. And so they come rushing in and what do you know – immediately, conveniently, they catch the disciples breaking a long held tradition of the Jewish community – they were eating without first washing their hands. Ha! They think. Something for their smear campaign against Jesus and his friends.
Now this tradition is very important and it still is to this day. Washing hands before eating prevents people from getting sick. If you became sick, you were considered unclean, and thus could not enter the temple of God. Therefore to wash one’s hands helped people keep their friends, by not getting them sick, and it helped people keep their God, by being able to enter the temple. It was a rule and a tradition for the sake of human health and well-being. It was a very important.
But, you see, the Pharisees and scribes had forgotten all of this. The original intent of this tradition. Or, they just didn’t care. Truth be told, they weren’t concerned about the health and well-being of the disciples. If they were, they would have rushed over to the disciples like a concerned grandfather, saying, “Now, hold on Peter, let’s wash your hands first before you eat that. Don’t want you gettin’ sick.” But that’s not what happened. They weren’t looking out for the disciples, they were looking to catch the disciples. To catch these hoodlums breaking the rules so they could use it against them.
As we’ve seen, sometimes, you can follow the rules and traditions so well that you can completely forget why they are there in the first place. Or in the case of the Pharisees, as a friend of mine says, “You can follow the rules so well, that you’ve completely forgotten about God.” They were so concerned about making sure Jesus and his disciples were following the rules that they had forgotten about God and the work of God that was happening right in front of them in the healing of the sick.
A couple of years ago, I worked at a church in Minneapolis, and there was a member of the church named Michelle. Michelle was a person born with physical and mental disabilities, but she was one of the most faithful members of the church. Every Sunday, she would come up to me ask, “Pastor, will you pray with me today. Will you pray for my legs, so that they don’t hurt so much and that I might walk better tomorrow?” And every Sunday, we prayed together. Now, in this particular church, it had become tradition that the area between the altar and the Communion rail was viewed as a sacred space. I couldn’t tell you when or why – it was just sacred. Well, one Sunday, we had a brass quintet visiting and performing in worship, and the way every thing was situated the musician blocked on of the entrances to the sanctuary. This just so happened to be the entrance Michelle had chosen to walk through 5 minutes late into worship. You could see the panic in her face as soon as she realized that she was stuck with the quintet between her and her pew, between her and her place of worship. The quickest way through was a path that went right through that sacred space in front of the altar. She looked around in a panic, wondering what to do, until finally, she just went for it. And the very moment she labored her heavy foot into that space, a woman from the choir stood up in her holy and maroon robe, snapped her finders and shouted, “No! You go around.” Right the middle of worshipping a God who claims all of us God’s own holy, and precious, and sacred children. Sometimes, you can follow the rules, you can keep tradition so well, that you’ve completely forgotten about God.
On the outside it seemed the Pharisees and scribes simply wanted tradition upheld, but on the inside, their disdain and hatred for these disciples spreading the love of God around the land poked through. So Jesus calls them out. And he does it by quoting their Scripture to them, “You worship God with your lips but not with your hearts. You follow all of the rules but you do it for yourself and not for the glory of God or the sanctity of creation. You have abandoned the commandment of God and instead hold tight to human tradition.”
The commandment of God. That great and greatest of all – love God and love your neighbor. And then, Jesus turns the tables on them and says, “It is not what goes into your body that can make you sick. It is what comes out of your body, it is the evil that comes out of your heart, that makes you sick.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is calling us out. He is pulling back the curtain, revealing what we already know to be true. Those good works, those traditions, those well-mannered children can’t over shadow the darkness that hides in our heart. The enemy we’ve been fighting has been discovered and it is us. Jesus is talking about that nasty three-letter word: sin. We don’t like the word, but the truth is we all carry it. None of us is exempt; none of us immune. Within it is the ability to take the laws and traditions meant to bring life to this world, and we choke the life right out of them, making them the enemy of God. Sin resides in us all. Which means, those who seem evil to us must just have thinner skin – the sin is easier to point out. And those who seem free of the burden of evil simply have better camouflage.
That’s the bad news. That none of us is exempt. But it’s also the good news. Because it means none of us is exempt. None of us stand alone. Together, we crowd into the court room and stand before the judge who exposes our deepest and dark sin: we’ve forgotten God. But being that God is God and we are not, the story doesn’t end there. At the very heart of the story of God is one who does not hide from darkness but actually seeks it out. Crosses over into it, reaches out and touches it, feeds its, exposes it, bears it, and finally, heals it. Just as Jesus calls out the dark hearts of the Pharisees and scribes, so God does for us. And to call out darkness is to bring it into the light, to expose it. And it is this exposing light that does not destroy darkness, but overcomes it. What else do our darkest places need except a little light shined on them.
We can follow traditions and rules so well that we forget about God. But traditions and rules really aren’t the problem. They are just the vehicles through which darkness can leak out of our hearts. May God expose us to our own darkness and sin and in so doing, shine into it…light. AMEN