Sermon; 15 Pentecost/Proper 17B; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Welcome back to the gospel. After seven weeks of going through Ephesians, we are returning to Mark.
I began almost every sermon in Ephesians reminding you of who wrote it and its funnel-like structure. I'll do the same with Mark, reminding you of a few important points of the overall gospel.
Mark, if you remember, is a Passion narrative with an extended prologue. It is the only gospel to proclaim itself as a gospel. It focuses on where Jesus is going and it challenges us to follow him there. Where Jesus is going is the cross. Almost everything in Mark points us to the Passion and the cross.
When we began this journey with Jesus to the cross some thirteen weeks ago, the first story we heard was that the religious leaders wanted to destroy Jesus because he dared to challenge their idea and idolatry of the Sabbath. In various passages after that first encounter, Jesus is up against the status quo and up against those in power while he tries to make changes for the better. Sabbath controversies, unauthorized healings, and people wanting to keep him in his place were all part of Jesus upsetting the apple cart which eventually led to his crucifixion.
Today we have another controversy swirling around Jesus: that of ritual purity. Jesus is in hot water (no pun intended) because his disciples hadn't washed their hands. This isn't a, “Scrub up for dinner” order from your mom. Mark explains that this is a ritual cleansing performed by Jews as a way to purify themselves, their utensils, and their food so as to avoid outside Gentile contamination. It's simply a purification rite, maybe similar to what I do at the altar immediately before celebrating Communion.
But as so often happens, things that were begun for good and holy reasons (or even just good reasons) end up becoming something worshiped and idolized.
There's the story of a new priest who, when he was administering Communion, didn't follow the tradition of his elders because he failed to touch the aumbry located at the end of the Communion rail. This upset some parishioners who thought he wasn't being serious or reverent enough while admini-stering Holy Communion. After some research, it turned out that the reason former priests did this was to discharge static electricity so they wouldn't shock the parishioner at the beginning of the rail.
Or candles. We use candles on the altar to symbolize a variety of things. But I have been in churches where people wouldn't leave until the candles were extinguished because . . . tradition.
What happens in these situations is what happened to Jesus – traditionalists will point to a person's refusal to follow tradition and use that act of refusal to attack and discredit those with whom they disagree. You can see this in all kinds of places – traditionalists attacking anything and anyone whom they perceive as turning their backs on the traditions of our fathers/elders, or the church, or . . . you name it.
We've seen this with women's ordination and same-sex marriages. We've seen it in sports and politics. I even ran across a Facebook group whose sole purpose, it seemed to me, was to extol the virtues and necessity of clergy wearing cassocks while denigrating those who don't. Tradition, unfortunately, is too often used to maintain the status quo in everything from social status to economic position to political power.
Tradition isn't about upholding the status quo. Tradition isn't about fighting for the way we've always done things. These things, good or bad, may be traditional, but that's not the point of tradition.
In our understanding of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, or in a theological context, Tradition is rightfully defined as the revelation made by God and delivered to the faithful through the mouths of the prophets. The substance of tradition is consistent with the central facts and beliefs of the faith. In other words, we need to understand the core beliefs of our faith in our determination of what qualifies as tradition.
And sometimes that which is traditional can change over time while remaining part of the Tradition.
The men who formed our very first BCP in 1789 also knew this, and in their preface to that book (which has appeared in every BCP since) wrote this:
It is a most invaluable part of that blessed “liberty wherewith Christ hath made us
free,” that in his worship different forms and usages may without offence be allowed,
provided the substance of the Faith be kept entire; and that, in every Church, what
cannot be clearly determined to belong to Doctrine must be referred to Discipline;
and therefore, by common consent and authority, may be altered, abridged,
enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the
edification of the people, “according to the various exigency of times and occasions.”
In other words, what has been traditional shall not trump Tradition itself.
What is core to marriage? I would say that it is a union of two people in heart, body, and mind; intended for mutual joy, for help and comfort in prosperity and adversity, and, when it is God's will, for the procreation of children.
What is core to the priesthood? That a person proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to love and serve the people with whom a priest works, to care for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. To preach, declare forgiveness, to bless, and to administer Holy Communion.
What is core to our faith? The Holy Trinity; Jesus fully human/fully divine; that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again; and our baptismal covenant.
If we get to a point where we confuse doctrine with discipline, we misunderstand Tradition. If we get to a point where we are more concerned with outward appearances than with inner integrity, we misunderstand Tradition. If we get to a point where we are outwardly ritually pure, but spew forth evil thoughts, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, etc, we not only misunderstand Tradition, but we defile ourselves.
When talking about Tradition, know the difference between the tradition of God and what people have made traditional. It was challenging this difference that brought Jesus one step closer to the cross. And when we challenge what has been traditional, we probably won't get crucified, but it will most likely get us in hot water.