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Defying Tradition

Thomas J Parlette

“Defying Tradition”

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


Once upon a time, there was a father who opened the door to greet his daughter’s date. There stood a young man, baseball hat on backwards, jeans sagging almost to the knee, a diamond stud set in his lower lip, wearing earphones connected to his i-pod. The young man grunted something resembling “hello” – and sulked into the living room.

The father was more than a little taken aback. He went upstairs to where his daughter was putting the finishing touches on her outfit for the evening.

“I don’t think you should go out with that boy,” said Dad. “He doesn’t look like such a nice person.”

But his daughter wasn’t worried. “Oh Daddy come on. If he wasn’t a nice person, why would he be doing 500 hours of community service?”

Sometime you can judge by appearances. Sometimes not.

In our lesson from Mark this morning, the Pharisees and some scribes have come from Jerusalem. They have come to see Jesus, and hear what he has to say. They have made the journey through crowds of Gentiles, people they considered to be “unclean” and unworthy to be in God’s presence, to see for themselves who this Jesus person was.

And as soon as they arrive, they are shocked to see that some of Jesus’ disciples were eating with dirty hands, ignoring the tradition of ritual washing altogether. They make their judgement and they confront Jesus with a measure of indignation in their voices – “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of our elders? Why do they defy tradition like this? Why do they eat with defiled hands?”

Now this is not simply a debate about proper table manners. It’s not about etiquette – or even good hygiene. The real question here, the hot coal at the heart of this little encounter is – who is fit to come before God? How can we tell the holy from the sinful? Who is fit to stand among God’s faithful people? Who is IN, and who is OUT.

First, a few words about this ritual washing tradition. It all started when Moses gave special instructions to Aaron and his sons about washing the hands and feet before entering the meeting tent which contained the Ark of the Covenant – instructions we find in Exodus, chapters 30 and 40. But by the 2nd century BC. Some Jews had voluntarily assumed the practice of washing their hands before morning prayer and before eating. Some well-meaning people then wanted to impose these and other observations on all Jew – as a sign of the faithful, as a visible mark of who was in and who was out. Well meaning Jews showed their piety by following these and other rituals and dietary limitations. Their traditions were the yardsticks by which their faith was measured. These tradition-bound Pharisees acted as a kind of “holy-bouncer”, standing at the velvet ropes and deciding who was acceptable and who was unacceptable to be in the Lord’s presence. After all, you couldn’t just let anyone in, could you?

Cocooned in their traditions, the Pharisee’s actually lost sight of the intent of the ritual.

For instance, in 1969, Switzerland dominated the world’s watch-making industry – enjoying 80% of the profits. But just 10 years later, the Swiss were making only 10% of the world’s watches and 65,000 Swiss workers had been laid off.

What happened?

Well, it seems that the Swiss loved their traditional watch-making so much that they forgot what a watch was really for, telling time.

Many of us here today are probably wearing the innovation that caught the Swiss off guard. It’s called quartz movement – an elegantly simple, inexpensive, battery-operated and much more accurate alternative to traditional all-mechanical movement. The irony is that the quartz movement was invented in Switzerland. In 1967, a research team for the watch-making industry presented their new invention to a gathering of Swiss industrialists, and they rejected it. It had not gears. It had no bearings. It wasn’t what they were used to in a watch. The Swiss didn’t even bother to patent the quartz movement. Soon after, the new invention was displayed at an industry trade show and a representative from Texas Instruments walked by and saw it – and the rest is history.

Cocooned in their tradition, the great Swiss watch makers forgot that a watch was primarily for telling time – not a collection of gears and bearing and springs.

Or consider another version of the same story. In Holland, there stands a very old Dutch Reformed Church that began life as a Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation. The congregation had a very interesting tradition. As they left church every Sunday, all the worshippers would bow to a bare white wall at the back of the sanctuary. No one knew why. But the tradition had been passed down from one generation to the next – that’s just what you did.

Well, one day the church was having some work done on the sanctuary and the contractors discovered something interesting underneath the blank white wall. They discovered a painting of the Virgin Mary. Centuries before, the Dutch Reformers, in their zeal to separate from the Roman Catholic Church, had painted over the picture of the Virgin Mary because it was thought that the sanctuary should have no artwork or pictures or paintings – no graven images. But even though the painting was hidden and no one knew it was there – the tradition was to bow, so everybody bowed. Cocooned in their tradition, the people forgot what the ritual meant.

As the church, the body of Christ, we are an institution that has a long history and venerable traditions. We live constantly in that tension between tradition and innovation. Both sides have their good points. It’s good to hold fast to tradition – it defines us and gives us identity. But it’s also good to try new things that may become traditions. The church’s job is not to blindly uphold traditions and rituals for their own sake, making holy how things have always been – but instead, to constantly re-interpret the reasons behind the rituals, to point out that our rituals and traditions are designed to draw us closer to God, to remind us that love for our neighbor is at the heart of our Christian religion.

Jesus addresses this issue by referring to the many dietary restrictions that pious Jews were required to follow. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” In other words, the traditions and rituals and dietary habits aren’t what make you holy. It’s what you do. It’s how you live. Do you speak kindly? Do you love well? Is your life filled with grace? How do you treat others? Are you prepared to stand by those in need? Are you led by outward religious practices, whether traditional or cutting edge, as the measure of your faith? Do you honor God with your lips, as Jesus says – or do you honor God with your heart, being led by a love of God and your neighbor? That’s what matters most. The customs we follow, the traditions and rituals we observe, the lines we draw to determine who is in and who is out – they don’t matter to God. What matters most is people.

Years ago, following a Sunday morning worship service, a woman lingered at the back of the church. It was clear that something was on her mind. The pastor approached and talked with her and the woman confessed that her 18 year old daughter had just had a baby – but she wasn’t married. Then she added, “But the baby should be baptized, right?”

The pastor said he would discuss it with the Session. After a lengthy debate, the board voted to approve the baptism, and the date was set for the fourth Sunday of Advent. The church was full, so close to the holidays.

Now this church had the custom of asking this question as part of the baptismal service – “Who will stand with this child.” At that point, friends, sponsors, mom and dad, grandparents – they would all stand for the rest of the baptism.

The pastor and the elders were worried that no one would stand with the child except for her mother and grandmother. When the question was asked, no one moved. It looked as if their worst fears were being realized. Then one of the elders stood up. Then some more joined in. A young couple with a new baby of their own, stood to, followed by an elderly lady whose children were all grown and out on their own – they all stood by the young girls side. Tears of joy fell from the single mothers face as the scripture was read, “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God…”

That baptism didn’t exactly follow tradition. Many would have considered that young unwed mother outside the lines of who is acceptable in God’s presence. But the people of that little church understood that the Gospel is not about drawing lines – it’s about helping people find God. Legalism plagues us in many forms, as it did the Pharisees. We can get so wrapped up in traditions and rituals and rules that we can become intolerant of those we are called to love.

But our faith is not about drawing lines to keep people out – it’s about crossing boundaries, defying traditions if need be, in order to invite people into God’s presence.

May God be praised. Amen.