Text: Mark 7:1-8
Growing up I had one favorite outfit that I wanted to wear every day, and if you look at most of my pictures from 5th grade though early junior high school you will see me in this outfit. The ensemble consisted of a light blue tank top trimmed in dark blue, a pair of nicely faded blue jeans and my white high-top converse tennis shoes. It was this outfit that I felt most comfortable in, clothes that felt like me. The tank top was not like girls’ tank tops today. Comparing to the world of adolescent fashion today, my 1970’s tank top covered more than a long sleeve t-shirt covers today. My jeans had just enough flare at the bottom to be cool but not draw too much attention like bell-bottom jeans did. And of course, since their debut, white high-top converse have never not been in style. I loved my outfit, especially the dark piping around the arms and collar of that tank top.
There was only one problem with my preferred uniform. It was the source of daily arguments with my mother. Although I would stay up late to wash my clothes so they would not smell after the fourth straight day of wearing them, my commitment to cleanliness was not enough to satisfy my mother. Taking away the clean argument, she would insist that they looked ragged. Many days she would lament, “Why do I even bother buying you good clothes?” I stayed strong and committed through the lamenting. But then she would push the button she knew to push, “You look like a boy in those clothes.” Truth is, I kind of wanted to look like a boy, but I didn’t want her saying that. It hit too close to my identity questions. And so, the arguing would go on for some years. I would later understand that this argument over my clothes was really about tradition. Yes, tradition. Tradition would have it, at least in my growing up world, that only boys dressed in cool tank tops, well-worn faded blue jeans, and high-top tennis shoes; and girls dressed in cute little dresses trimmed in lace with bows in their hair. And while my mother cared about this clothing tradition, it didn’t hold very much meaning for me.
For the past several weeks our lectionary texts have engaged us in the stories of 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. Stories about King David and Solomon and their lives of power and deceit held in tension by God’s steadfast love for them and their proclaimed love of God. Such rich narratives that reflect to us our own potential for deceit and the misuse of power; and yet never being outside of God’s love. These stories have shown us who we can be at our best and who we are often tempted to be when we give way to our egos. And now, this Sunday, the lectionary has shifted us back to Mark—the gospel we were in before our adventure into the Hebrew Scriptures. I will admit to you, I am glad to be back in the gospels. But I also must admit, what an odd place to land: right in the middle of an argument so routine it feels peculiar to read about it in the Bible—an argument about, of all things, the TRADITION of hand washing.
The Pharisees and scribes are engaged in an argument with Jesus that any parent, schoolteacher or caregiver of children has participated in. That is, about washing your hands before eating. Yes, the lectionary has plopped us down right in the middle of an argument about hand washing. Surely, some of you are thinking that can’t be what’s going on in this passage, can it? An argument about washing hands before eating? Well, yes and no. Yes, it really is about the practice of hand washing. And no, because as is often true in such arguments, there is more going on beneath the surface. Remember: it wasn’t about how clean or dirty my clothes were, or how ragged they might have looked. It wasn’t even about looking like a boy. It was about how tradition said I was supposed to look and dress as a girl. And so, the argument between the religious scholars and Jesus is not just about hand washing, it’s about the tradition and authority behind the practice. Which is the point the Pharisees press: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” They ask this somewhat aghast at the implications of Jesus and his disciples running rough shod over tradition.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)
The gospel raises the question: What role does tradition play in the church today? I can’t think of a more relevant question for the 21st century church than this question. It is a critical question for all churches everywhere. And how we, the church, choose to answer it is either going to strengthen the church or be its demise. Yes, it is that critical!
Pullen is steeped in tradition and traditions—too much and too many to try to name them all this morning. They range from weekly Sunday worship to once a year canoeing the New River; to celebrating our young people at age 13 to memorializing our elderly when they die; to a raucous Christmas breakfast where we make fools of ourselves singing the 12 Days of Christmas to sitting with and serving the poor something to eat twice a week. Our traditions hold us together as a community and help us make meaning of our lives of faith. They also shape our work in the world—to our neighbors near and far. In reality, we have traditions that are more than traditions. They are markers of what has been accepted as right and wrong and thereby serve to lend us a sense of identity and stability.
But institutions, especially churches, have a way of making traditions more important than their mission. And that is what Jesus is pointing to in verse eight when he says, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” But he doesn’t stop there. In the verses that the lectionary omits, 9-13, Jesus tosses the question of the “tradition of the elders” back at the Pharisees and scribes. Want to talk about tradition? Jesus asks. Then let’s talk about the tradition—the commandment—of honoring our parents. Seems pretty straight forward, and yet you’ve found a religious loophole by which you can declare your wealth an offering to God and thereby not have to share it with your parents. In his response, Jesus is challenging the church-going folks as to how their traditions contribute to them fulfilling their mission. And he raises, at least in my mind, the distinction between authentic traditions and inauthentic traditions. Do our traditions serve our purpose and mission or are they standing in the way, simply diverting our attention and focus on things that no longer hold meaning?
I strongly believe that the churches that are relevant today are those churches that know how to honor tradition while allowing traditions to transition from the inauthentic to being authentic. Even the occasional churchgoer can recognize that the church today is marked by tradition in transition.
Let me illustrate. When I came to this church, every first Sunday of the month we observed communion. Just like we do now. At that time there were, I think, twenty-four Deacons. On that first Sunday of each month the Deacons would line up here on the chancel, receive trays of bread and cups from the minister, and proceed from here to serve communion to the congregation as they sat in the pews. This tradition actually has theological meaning. It highlights one of our Baptist tenants of faith—that we are priests to each other. But then someone, and I don’t know who, had the idea of our congregation receiving communion by intinction, in which people come forward to take communion from those serving. For a number of years, we would alternate between these two ways of serving communion. As time passed the affirmation grew for the method of intinction. The movement felt sacred. Seeing people as they came forward gave an opportunity for worshipers to experience the community in a new and meaningful way. Over these last 20-plus years, communion has been a tradition in transition here at Pullen. And not just the method by which we receive it but also the words we use when we gather around the table. It’s a great example of how traditions transition and evolve for the sake of purpose and meaning.
The question of which of our traditions need transitioning is always before us. Pullen has a long tradition of serving the poor. Long before any of us arrived at Pullen the saints before us were serving and caring for the poor in our city. There may be no stronger tradition linked to our identity than this one. In the past we have established mission groups to serve the poor in our city—mission groups focused on homelessness, hunger, joblessness. We have raised money and given money to provide shelter for the poor. We have collected socks and coats and food and all sorts of things to hand out to the poor in the winter. We have invited the poor into our building to eat with us and to worship. Many eat with us. Few worship with us. And all of this has been good and right and authentic. But I am wondering if our tradition and traditions of serving the poor are in transition. Is it time again to ask how might our tradition/traditions of serving the poor lead to more integration of the economically battered into the fuller life of our congregation? How do we go deeper in our relationships with the poor as our Round Table ministry has started to do? How do we begin to share power with the poor? How do we become equals with one another? How do we move beyond fighting for the poor to standing with the poor? Until there is more affordable housing, how do we use our facility to shelter the homeless? Charity to the poor is necessary. Solidarity with the poor is justice-love. How might we continue to transition our traditions when it comes to caring for and welcoming the poor?
We now have a core group of six to eight homeless young adults sleeping on our property at night. And when I say young adults, I am talking about eighteen to twenty-five year olds. Last week, our Pullen young adult group had a conversation with this group. Their message was clear and it was this: thank you for letting us have a safe place to sleep at night. The shelters don’t feel safe, they told us. Downtown doesn’t feel safe, they added. But here, at Pullen, we feel safe.
I know that sleeping at Pullen is not a long-term solution to these homeless young adults. But I do wonder if we can welcome them and the challenges that go with that while we build relationship with them, learn how to struggle with them, sit with them, stand with them, and possibly live our lives in solidarity with them. As we get to know them, might we give them the one thing they have asked for: a few more sleeping bags and a safe place to put them during the day?
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is asking us to put our mission ahead of our most cherished traditions? What if the church’s future hinges on putting the social gospel—caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, giving the thirsty a drink, visiting the sick and the prisoner—ahead of our most treasured traditions? What if the only way the church can remain relevant in our world today is to allow our well-honored traditions to transition into new traditions that hold meaning for a new generation of faith seekers and church goers. Can you imagine what traditions future generations of Pullenites will list when they read Mark 7 100 years from now? I can’t but have faith that whatever they are, they will hold meaning to those who will sit where we sit today. For that is one Pullen tradition that needs no transition.
The gathering of God’s people – what we call church – that Jesus envisioned, valued mission over tradition. May we be strong enough and wise enough to follow Jesus.