• Eric Cooter

SERMON 8/14/11 Pentecost 9A


Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Over the past several weeks, you may have noticed the reoccurring theme of “community life” that has pervaded the gospel lessons. This week, that same theme continues and the subject Jesus unpacks for us as he addresses the Pharisees and also his disciples, is the paradoxical nature of tradition. Some folks see tradition as a “dirty word” and reject it outright. Other folks see tradition as the “be all” and “end all” and they cling to it without flex or innovation. Tradition is important and it has its place in every part of our lives because through rituals and practices, it conveys our story to each other from generation to generation.

We have such customs in our culture today. We all know well the yearly practice when on a particular Thursday late in autumn, we sleep in, we watch holiday parades on the television, we sweat and work over a hot oven for hours preparing more food than one can possibly eat in a single setting. Then, with unexpected crescendo, we gorge ourselves for the next hour on high starch side dishes and succulent portions from a huge flightless bird.

After this ritual, most of us stagger to the sofa, loosen our belt, watch college football games for hours, or with insatiable delight, fall sleep for the next decade or at least until Christmas Day. This little tradition for some folks may defy logic, but we do it because it binds us together as a nation, as a common people who are engage in something that our ancestors did. We are not the only culture with these types of customs. The people of early Palestine followed codes of purity/holiness (traditions) that for our culture today, might seem strange and without reason. In today’s Gospel Jesus challenges and calls into question the nuances of one of these purity codes held by that early Palestinian community.

Jesus questioned the very nature of a tradition in which, certain types of food (cloven-hooved animals, scale-less seafood, etc) were considered unclean, and to eat them, meant that one defiled self-purity. The practice of abstaining from this type of food, became a way for people to distinguish themselves from members of other communities. The risk associated with such distinguishing practices is that they can become exclusionary practices. One of the earliest church struggles dealt with whether Gentiles who practiced no such purity codes, could share common table fellowship with Jewish Christians. Imagine if this tradition had not changed and today, Gentiles still were excluded from the grace of the Christian community. If that custom did not transition, if the Holy Spirit had not breathed a new vision into that community, many of us would be sitting at breakfast at Denny’s this morning, awaiting our late morning tee time, and not sitting here in church praising God.

Rituals and customs convey a deeper nuance of meaning and if we lose that significance in our practice, the traditions can become empty. “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Jesus is not undermining the tradition in his statement; he is clarifying the purpose of the tradition as an outward sign of an inward heart change. In other words, the traditions a community embraces, the nuances of daily living that are taken on, witness to others around them, the essence of the heart of the community, and if the meanings are embraced and remembered, they may be invitational and not exclusionary. Traditions become a way by which we can mediate and interpret the narrative of our lives, similar to a culture of religious pilgrims and native peoples who came together to share a bountiful harvest as a sign of abundance, grace, and mutual support. The deeper truth of the Thanksgiving ritual is not merely turkeys, cranberry sauce, the Macy’s Day Parade, and the Detroit Lions football game. The point is giving thanks for the abundant gifts that come from God and the inclusive nature of a meal shared between cultures. Rituals and customs are important to our lives, require discernment of their meaning, because tradition can become the means by which others are kept out.

Tradition by itself should not be exclusionary practices. A few verses before today’s gospel lesson, the Pharisees were challenging Our Lord about his disciples’ failure to adhere to the tradition of washing their hands before eating. This is a good example of losing the practical purpose of ritual and tradition. Tradition is not the “end all and be all,” the “never-changing,” “same for all time” way of being and way of doing, and the practical, theological, or meaningful reasons for our customs and rituals can become empty.

As I walked into the local Winn-Dixie the other day, I noticed the same gadget that I have seen at the local Wal-Mart. Did you know that now you can use sanitizing wipes and sanitizing lotion to purify the handles of grocery carts? Imagine what a few years ago folks would have thought about the notion of wiping down the grocery cart before touching it. I cannot tell you the number of grocery carts over the years that I have wheeled around that were most likely unclean and defiled and now we clean and wipe down without even thinking about it.

Now imagine in some distant future, what it will be like when everyone has hand sanitizers on their belts, every door and every handrail will be equipped with a Purell dispenser mounted near it, and no one will ever again consider shaking hands without first reaching for the “pump and wash.” It could be in time that the simple, practical ritual of sanitizing one’s hands to avoid spreading germs, may lose its real purpose and devolve into an empty ritual, which we may do without even thinking of why we do it.

We need to be aware that merely accepting a “we’ve always done it that way mentality” without question, could lead to a culture in which, we will lose our ability to convey the message that our customs truly reveal. In the Church, we need frequently to challenge our closely held traditions, the “we’ve always done it that way” customs in order to test whether we are currently communicating the Good News of God in Christ through them. Our customs, our community practices must communicate clearly Christ’s mission of reconciliation in the world. Our routines should enhance our mission, not become a barrier to that mission.

We need to honestly and frequently ask ourselves, “Does this particular way of being in this community, exclude others from entry?” Please do not get me wrong, tradition is essential because it defines who we are, it binds us into a common group, it allows the narrative of God’s grace to live in and through us. However, we must remember that some things, which we hold as tradition can keep others from experiencing that same grace we share as a community of faith. Tradition is essential. The early church heard God’s word through tradition and rightfully so, we retain many of those traditions today in our liturgy, theology, and music.

A key point that Jesus makes about tradition, is that every generation must hear the Word of God through evolving nature of traditions, because God’s word transcends the tradition that conveys it. Through the customs of the past, the evolving rituals of the present, and the not yet discovered “ways of being” of the future that has, does, and will support us as we follow the way of God’s grace, mercy, and love. We will live as a people set us apart, a community of grace and invitation, not a community of exclusion.

The Church is set apart so that she might witness God’s love in the world. We are not set apart as an aloof clan of folks, but as a transformative element in the world. We are a holy people not because we are untouchable, or because entrance into the community requires the right clothes, the right look, the right anything. Entrance into the community of God is grounded in merely entering; merely accepting the invitation to the table.

One of our greatest challenges will be to constantly look around and ask ourselves the question, “Are there barriers that may keep others from entering?” We have to look at even the simplest things. When we gather as a community, we must insure that the times of our gatherings allow and encourage all to participate: retirees, children, and working parents. When we gather as a community, our welcome must convey a sincere desire to see others join in the dance of God’s transformative love. When we gather as a community, we must actively insure that all who come have a place in the community. We can embrace a radical culture of acceptance, when we acknowledge that all who come bring gifts to share, and all who come bring new ideas and traditions to share as well.

Our traditions of liturgy, music, and theology are precious gems that must be preserved, because they are the means by which, we understand who we are as a community, and how the narrative of God’s grace has been conveyed to us. There are other traditions that may not be as essential, which we cling to as if they were as equally precious. If left unchallenged, left unquestioned, left unexamined, we may find that these practices could hinder us from communicating the wonderful story of God’s love to a world who is seeking answers to the struggles of life. If that happens, we may no longer able to fulfill our God-given mission, given us in the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”

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