by Ellen Sims
text: Mark 7:1-8; 14-15; 21-23
Two favorite slogans of the United Church of Christ express the way the UCC values tradition while encouraging reevaluation of tradition. See if you can fill in the blank as I start these two favorite UCC catchphrases: “God is still ____ (speaking).” And another way of expressing that idea, attributed to comedian Gracie Allen, is : “Never place a period where God has placed ___ ( a comma).”
When two Christian denominations merged to become the UCC in 1957, a constitution was created along with an ever-growing list of bylaws. Constitutions and bylaws or amendments, like those governing the United Church of Christ and the United States of America, balance the need to carry forward the founders’ intentions and values with a mechanism for making corrections and changes out into the future.
My favorite line from the UCC’s Constitution states, “[This constitution] affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” The very document that aims to preserve the intentions of its founders assumes that changes must be made because the founders couldn’t have foreseen all future needs and couldn’t have already heard everything that God had to say to humanity.
The UCC’s Constitution and the US Constitution assume that institutions will need to adjust to future needs and fresh understandings. Traditions are valued, but so are growth and change and reform. The denominations rooted in the Protestant Reformation honor the need for ongoing re-formation. Again, the church in each generation will need to make this faith its own – in how we worship, and what we think, and we’ll need to make changes humbly “in purity of heart before God.” Another way to say all that: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”
But some people love periods instead of commas–commas and questions marks, I might add. Joel Osteen and other televangelists have published memes that say, “Never put a question mark where God has put a period.” Some people much prefer periods over commas and question marks. What they may mean by that is “Never put a question mark where the television preacher has put a period.” But many of us understand the spiritual life as emphasizing pauses and questions rather than periods that mark endings to exploration and connections and growth. We at Open Table have, for instance, appreciated the Living the Questions DVD series. We feel authorized to ask and live with the questions in our religious tradition.
In today’s Gospel text, Jesus’s disciples were accused of violating tradition, specifically charged with not washing their hands before they ate. This accusation was not really about keeping good hygiene but keeping religious traditions. These Jewish laws, originally intended for priests, had developed in Jesus’ day into fairly elaborate rituals that even dictated how to wash dishes and pots. So the Pharisees accusations called the disciples’ piety into question—when in fact the table manners of the Jesus followers may have simply reflected the rough manners of the poor. Jesus fired back, quoting the prophet Isaiah’s condemnation of those who honor God “with their lips, but their hearts are far from [God] (v. 6), who teach “human precepts as doctrines” (v. 7) “and hold to human tradition” (v. 8). Then as now, religious people are tempted to create external structures, rules, rituals, and hierarchies of power rather than attend to the thing that matters: the human heart, the inner spirit. The God we meet in Jesus isn’t concerned about the practice of rituals done to impress others; the God we know through Jesus cares about how we care for others and who we are on the inside.
Religious traditions are rich repositories of wisdom passed down to us so we may learn from past generations. Traditions that ground us in meaning, direct our actions, and connect us not just to God but to one another are worthy of our adherence. However, since all religions evolve, how far back do we Christians reach to claim/reclaim our tradition? Neither Jesus nor his first followers, faithful Jews, were trying to create a new religion.They were practicing a transformative, peaceful, compassionate “Way” of living.* They were not developing dogma or rituals. Gradually, of course, aspects of their spiritual practice and justice commitments took on regularized, symbolic forms.
For me, Holy Communion remains an ancient tradition that holds layers of meaning and pictures the kin*dom of God in such a way that makes me not just yearn for God’s kin*dom but work for it. We need not obsess over the exactness of the communion liturgy, debatable doctrine, or the proper elements. We enter into its spirit of thanksgiving and welcoming inclusion. We do not use this sacrament as a gatekeeper.
For instance, because more and more people today are gluten-intolerant, we, like some churches, offer a gluten-free bread that other churches consider unorthodox. But we can go back to Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel text to note this saying of Jesus: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” The kind of bread we use is not important. What is important is not what we consume but what can consume us and what comes out of us. Jesus lists ways we harm one another with deceit and envy and pride and all those inner traits that come out to “defile.” How we come to the Table and how we relate to those we meet at Christ’s Table are what matter. The sacred tradition we carry forward in observing the Lord’s Supper is a tradition of love and welcome to all–not so much a tradition of specific words or gestures or even doctrine. Those who use the Table, the church’s earliest tradition, to exclude others are the ones who are untrue to the Jesus tradition.
Every now and then Christians decide not merely to revise but to depart from some traditions that no longer make sense. You may have heard some version of this story from an earlier generation–usually told using traditional gender roles and which my version will alter. The story is about one spouse who prepared the family’s traditional Sunday dinner roast by cutting off a portion of the roast before putting the rest in the roasting pan. For a number of years he dutifully chopped off a piece from the roast before placing the remainder of the roast in the pan and the pan in the oven. Finally his husband asked why the entire roast was never cooked. “Because that’s how my mother always prepared roast beef,” came the reply. But now the cook in the family was curious, finally, so he called his mother. “Why did you always cut off a section of our Sunday roast before placing the remainder in the roasting pan? Does that make the roast more tender?” he asked. His mother, perplexed, had to think for a while to understand the question. Finally, she laughed: “My roasting pan was small so I usually had to cut off some of the meat so the roast would fit it in the pan.”
Sometimes we follow tradition unthinkingly, slavishly, foolishly. Sometimes when we do that, we leave out something, or someone.
For instance, many churches continue to use masculine pronouns for God and for humanity long after our culture became more sensitive to gender exclusive language that can marginalize women. Our denomination’s New Century hymnal was the first hymnal (1995) to use gender inclusive language for humanity and divinity throughout. We at Open Table try to use both masculine and feminine imagery when we speak of God because, as Mary Daly famously said, “If God is male, then male is God.” The way we image God affects how we treat one another. Masculine pronouns when used as the default pronoun for both men and women has had, over time, a subtle effect of marginalizing women.
Periodically, we have a responsibility to step back from tradition’s rituals or doctrines that have lost meaning for us, or worse, are detrimental to us or to others. Yesterday, for instance, for the umpteenth time, I was speaking to someone whom I know to be a deeply committed Christian—who happens to be gay—and who is being attacked by family members who consider him to be heading for hell. Such senseless condemnation, based on what many believe to be “traditional” Christian teaching, is harming the body of Christ. If we believe that “God is STILL speaking” through science and our own common sense and through the witness of so many people who tell us that same-sex attraction is innate, unlearned, unchangeable—then we have to name this tradition of condemning same-gender love as wrong. We know better now. Terrible harm has been done in the name of religious tradition to uphold ignorance and prejudice, squeeze the life out of rich metaphors, elevate some people over others, and divide God’s children into categories.
We are authorized to use our brains and personal experience and caring relationships and thus determine the difference between a loving and life-giving ethic versus a hating and death-dealing ethic. We are authorized to choose life and reject hurtful dogma that has been enslaving rather than liberating God’s children.
We were created to be creative. Jesus was an innovator. And we follow in those footsteps. First, of course, you have to KNOW the tradition before you can critique it. Then you have to critique it before you can correct it. Then you riff off it, ridicule it into revision, or refine it into renewal. Sometimes the greatest sign of respect and understanding is to love an idea or practice enough to change it.
You and I are part of a progressive congregation that is, according to the opening phrase of our vision statement, “grounded in love and moved by hope.” There’s the tension. We are grounded in the life and work of Jesus and the church he founded. That is, we are faithfully tethered to that core reality of Christianity. But even though we are grounded in tradition, we are on the move and are active in this world and we are not content to passively accept what has come before us. Because today’s problems cannot be solved by yesterday’s solutions. You and I are part of a progressive denomination that believes God is still speaking—-and we are trying to listen to that still-speaking voice.
God Who Is Still Speaking to Us, help us learn to hear what you are saying to us–and then learn to follow as you lead. Amen