September 5, 2021 by the Rev. Barbara Mraz
It was last Wednesday that I cracked and could not keep my regular 5:30 date with Lester Holt and NBC News. The planet is shrieking with fire, drought, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. The women of Afghanistan are again buying burkas to cover themselves head to toe, thirteen American service people and many more Afghans, killed by a suicide bomber. At home ,valiant nurses and caregivers soldier on day after day after day, fighting Covid and massive ignorance.
The ghost of George Floyd still haunts with the horror of seeing someone murdered right before our eyes. These things, along with the usual ups and downs of life and our own intense private battles can be a lot to carry. Maybe that’s where some of you are, too, sitting in these pews today or in front of the computer at home.
Last week the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote, “I just do not think our psyches were developed to hold, feel and respond to everything coming at them right now; every tragedy, injustice, sorrow and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet, in real time every minute of every day. The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow or natural disaster that was happening IN OUR VILLAGE. So my emotional circuit breaker keeps overloading because the hardware (in our heads) was built for an older time.”
So today we will do what the followers of Jesus have done for over 2000 years and the Jewish people eons before that; in times of war and peace, famine and abundance, joy and pain, we will turn to our Scriptures, as will thousands of others today on this traumatized planet.
And what do we find as the focus in today’s Gospel? A debate about handwashing. There’s no escape!
Jesus says that handwashing before eating is part of an old Jewish purity code that is no longer relevant. Supposedly the duty of washing before eating was so rigidly observed by one Rabbi Akiba that when he was imprisoned, and ” given hardly enough water to sustain life, he preferred dying of thirst to eating without washing his hands.”
Jesus tells the Pharisees (a powerful Jewish sect) that nothing that goes into the body such as what’s on dirty hands is going to defile a person; it is the actions and behaviors that comes out of a person that defile.
Well, sometimes… This was before the discovery of germs, for one thing, and there are things that go into the body that are harmful: alcohol for the alcoholic, drugs for the addict, food when used as medicine.
What the Pharisees are really saying to Jesus is, “Who do you think you are that you can contradict the teaching of the elders — and dispense with centuries-old tradition?” Who do you think you are? You’re breading the rules! Of the church! Of the family! Of our relationship! Of the culture!
And Jesus says yes, I’m breaking the rule… but it’s a stupid rule! And he proceeds to reframe the entire issue. This is really about the issue of authority and who is in charge.
Who’s in charge of things you care about? The government? Your family? Your partner? The church? Let’s face it: sometimes the pets are in charge! (My vet says, “The cat always wins.”) Those in charge are often the keepers of “tradition.”
Tradition is the passing down of ideas, practices or beliefs from one generation to another. Traditions may be a kind of container that can offer stability, comfort, and structure.
In most families, there are lots of traditions around Christmas: when do we open presents, do we go to church or not? What kind of food do we always have? My kids would often roll their eyes about these things; and yet if I skipped something one time, they would complain, “Where are those little white cookies? We always have those little white cookies! You didn’t make the little white cookies? I miss the little white cookies!”
The Book of Common Prayer is a container for much of our faith, and provides us an order, an organization for worship services. Sometimes we forget what a magnificent resource it is.
A while ago I was asked to preach in a small Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. When I arrived early to get familiar with the space and the pulpit, the organist asked me what hymns I wanted, what prayers I would be offering, what Biblical readings I would use, pretty much everything except if I’d remembered the food for coffee hour.
“But I’m the preacher,” I protested.
“Yeah, I know, but you’ll be doing all of this stuff so you have to make some decisions.”
“Isn’t anything printed? Isn’t there a program or a book or something?”
“No, we don’t use that stuff in the summer.”
So I told him to pick the hymns, and I pulled out the BCP and I was very grateful indeed. The Presbyterians and I celebrated Morning Prayer together that day.
Tradition can also limit and restrict. We do this, not that. We have certain types of music on holidays, like “Hail Thee Festival Day” which I don’t like. Yet I cannot hear “Beautiful Savior ” without thinking of my Lutheran days and my mom. And we love some traditions because they remind us of precious times in our lives or they speak to our soul so deeply we can’t even explain it.
St. John’s has years and years of traditions around the building: who sits where, how the pulpit is set up (note the curtain), where the altar is — which normally is very far away and hard to see unless you’re on the aisle, and the placement of the Baptismal font.
The font is in kind of a strange place because you can’t really see what’s going on over there. Most churches have the font at the front or at the entry to reflect the initiatory aspects of Baptism. I asked our historian Jim Frazier about the angel and he told me that “it was given to the parish in memory of Amherst H. Wilder by his wife Fanny, and their daughter Cornelia Day Wilder. The two women provided the design for a life-sized angel holding a shell to be executed in Florence, Italy, by the Romanelli Brothers, renowned Florentine artists and sculptors. By the time the font had arrived, around the beginning of 1904, the two women had died, adding ‘a sacred melancholy’ to the font.”
The angel is in its own little house which makes me wonder if it was mainly for private Baptisms which we rarely do anymore at least officially because we see it now an initiation into a community, but the font and the angel endure — it’s our tradition. Actually, angels have an historic role in Baptism by “stirring the waters,” according to John.
The pastor of the largest Lutheran Church in the world, Mount Olivet in Minneapolis, David Lose, writes this: “You’ve probably heard the old joke ‘How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?’ ‘Change? Change? My grandmother donated that lightbulb!’ We love our traditions (he goes on). They have helped to mediate the faith in countless ways. But what if they’re not doing that for the emerging generation? What if we’ve come close to worshipping the traditions instead of the God they were supposed to.? What if Jesus is calling us to put our mission ahead of even our most cherished traditions?”
How do we decide the place of tradition in our country, our lives or in the church? Jesus gives us the answer: It’s not external rules that matter but the state of the heart. And for this church, the state of our heart is articulated in the Collect for St. John’s which we will read later. Note its emphasis on proclamation, welcome, service. What would have to be changed or realigned to better support this mission — while having the utmost respect for those who may be asked to abandon traditions that no longer reflect who we want to be? What would you be willing to give up? To change?
Some practices are born out of necessity, and they go on to become traditions. Zoon church is one. While streaming services due to Covid, we found how inclusive this can be, for those who are unable to come to church due to illness, age, or weather. The British priest and writer Sam Wells says, “We will need the Holy Spirit more than ever to make us mindful of the diverse members of Christ’s Body, rather than having many of them sitting all around us, to help us be reconciled with those from whom we were estranged, when we can’t just go and shake their hand…. I humbly suggest we consciously change our mode of talking about online community from lament about the valuable things it can’t give us to gratitude for the remarkable things it can.”
Wo what are the new traditions, the new practices, we might create for ourselves?
For many of us, much of the lightheartedness of summer has been stolen by unrelenting heat and the accompanying reality of climate change; by he images from the Kabul airport and from the bulging ICU wards across the country, by the suffering in Haiti and by our own personal challenges. It’s overwhelming and so we snap at people we shouldn’t and can’t contain our criticism– of stupid traditions, of our own limitations, of those who reject science, and of the guy cutting us off on the freeway — “Really? Really? Are you bloody kidding me?”
Bolz-Weber says, "Callous as it sounds, we have to choose what is ours to care about today and what is not." What tragedy, what relationship in crisis, what emotional and physical needs of my own can I attend to in this single day? We can focus without letting anyone down. That's her first suggestion: chooses your focus.
The second is this: “And when I can stop during the day and place my hand on my heart and hold all these heavy realities up to you, may it count as prayer.”
We can choose our focus; and we can pause, put our hands on our hearts, and offer the suffering around us up to God, the One spoken about in today’s Epistle: “The Father of lights…. In whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” And we can rest in that constancy, that stability, that reliability that remains unchanged by any earthy tradition.
James Frazier, For All the Saints, A History of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Afton Press, 2014.
David Lose, “In the Meantime,” online blog, August 12, 2012.
Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher, August 22, 2021
Nadia Bolz-Weber, “If You Can’t Take It Anymore, There’s a Reason,” in The Corners, August, 17, 2021.
Elizabeth Webb, “Commentary on Mark,” Working Preacher, Aug. 22, 2021.