Sermon for 14th Pentecost -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” is often on the list of all-time favorites in American musical theatre. Opening in 1964, it played on Broadway for a record number of performances and, since then, has been performed around the world and around the USA by casts young and old. “Fiddler” was been made into a 1971 film and reappears regularly on Broadway.
“Fiddler on the Roof” opens with a grand production number, “Tradition.” During this number, all of the villagers, the cast members, are introduced to the audience. While the chorus sings, the main character, Tevye, explains the roles of each social class (fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters) in the village of Anatevka, and how the traditional roles of people like the matchmaker, the beggar, and the rabbi contribute to the village. The song also mentions the Constable, the Priest, and the other non-Jews with whom they rarely interact. Later in the song, an issue involving an argument between two men about the issue of selling the other person a horse and delivering a mule creates a ruckus in the village. Overall, the song sets up the major theme of the villagers trying to continue their traditions and keep their society running as the world around them changes.
“Tradition!” What has always interested me is the great irony in this song. While Tevye sings of how his religion’s and village’s traditions hold his community together, we gradually see many of these valued traditions melt away, especially in terms of Tevye’s own family, especially his three daughters and the men they choose – not men chosen for them in any traditional way – the men his daughters choose for their husbands.
I hope it is not a surprise that today’s Gospel lesson from St. Mark got me thinking about tradition.
Today’s text lands us right in the middle of an argument so routine it feels peculiar to read about it in the Bible. I am pretty sure I have not only overheard this argument before, but actually participated in it. About washing your hands before dinner, that is.
Now I know that hand-washing is very important for sanitary reasons. Both my wife, Kris, and I served on the board of the Good Shepherd Home and Rehabilitation Hospital while we lived near Allentown, Pennsylvania and, while on the board, we made a big push to increase hand-washing among our staff. And, we were successful and that success helped reduce our hospital’s infection rate. So, I know hand-washing is important in our day just as it was in Jesus’ day.
But, that can’t surely be all that is going on in this passage, can it, an argument about washing hands before eating that has probably been repeated in each and every one of our homes? Well, yes and no. Yes, it really is about the practice of washing hands. No, as is often true in such arguments, there is often more going on beneath the surface than initially meets the eye.
Those of you who are parents know that children just sometimes forget to wash their hands. Or maybe they decide that even though Mom and Dad think this hand washing-thing is important, they do not, and, while they’re at it, maybe they’re tired of all the rules Mom and Dad are making. So maybe not washing their hands, in this case, is less about forgetfulness and more about testing their parents’ authority.
The same thing is happening in today’s Gospel text. It’s not just about washing hands, it’s about the tradition and authority behind that practice. Which is the point the Pharisees press: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” they ask, somewhat aghast at the implications of Jesus and his disciples running rough shod over tradition. What is at stake, then, is not just a specific practice but the larger question of authority. In short, the Pharisees want to know, just who does Jesus think he is to flout the tradition of the elders?
Scholar David Lose, whose work helped me with this sermon again this week, suggests that it is important to look at verses the lectionary omits. Lose suggests it is not simply about authority, but authority linked to behavior - our everyday, ordinary, decisions about how we treat each other. And that is why Jesus throws the “tradition of the elders” thing back in the Pharisees’ faces.
In the verses not included around today’s Gospel, Mark 7: 9 – 13, Jesus challenges the Pharisee’s “traditions” directly and says, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” Jesus accuses the Pharisees of finding a religious loop-hole to keep from supporting their parents, despite the commandment to honor one’s parents.
In other words, Jesus is challenging them as to how their traditions contribute to them fulfilling their mission in this world.
Well, what does this mean for us, those of us worshipping together this weekend at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church?
Jesus’ question is one we also need to ask ourselves, in our congregation’s life and in our family lives – how do our traditions contribute to fulfilling God’s mission for us in this world.
Remember that old joke about how many Lutherans it takes to change a lightbulb? None because Lutherans don’t change is one of several answers I have heard for this one!
Since arriving as your pastor last year, I have found the people of Mt. Olive generally NOT held back by tradition and NOT adverse to change. I have heard about the grand old days when this sanctuary was full, but, most often, these stories are told not as “the good old days” but just as important parts of our congregation’s history and path to these hopefully good new days. And, there has been a genuine sense of excitement and gratitude for our growth this past year with our membership increasing more than 33%.
One place where the “rubber hits to the road,” to use that old cliché, is this congregation’s 2013 “Final Master Plan.” For those of you who are new to Mt. Olive, the congregation did a major piece of work from 2011 to 2013 on a master plan for the future of this congregation and focused on our facilities – the Preschool, the Parish Hall and this sanctuary – a plan that proposed tearing down the existing parsonage, Preschool and Parish hall and building new facilities for these purposes as well as renovations to this sanctuary to make it more welcoming to everyone.
Now in 2015, with our congregation’s 75th and Preschool’s 45th anniversaries approaching in 2017, it is time to take another look at this plan and determine what is possible and desirable. As was noted at our Council meeting last week, the 2013 “Final Master Plan” was a plan for that time and with another pastor. The question for our congregation is what shall we do now in 2015 and 2016?
Your Council feels that a logical next step is to appoint a “Strategic Development Team” and ask them to take a fresh look at the 2013 “Final Master Plan” and make recommendations about our facilities to the council and congregation. If you would be interested in serving on this team, please speak with me.
What I know is that our facilities are old and aging rapidly – for example, carpets, electrical, plumbing and roofs are all nearly at the end of their useful lives. Thus, we need to refresh and renew and perhaps rebuild some of them to make certain that we can serve this community in ways old and new, especially making sure overall that our facilities old and new are welcoming and safe for everyone.
In this and all of our congregation’s life, our task, I believe, is to determine how much we are willing to change in order to reach a new generation with the Gospel. And, perhaps just as importantly, what are we unwilling to change. What tradition, that is, is so important that no matter whether it helps us achieve our mission or not it preserves our sense of the orderliness of the world and shores up our identity and therefore can’t be touched?
It all goes back to our history and traditions. This community, Mt. Olive Lutheran Church and Preschool, has many fine traditions, many worth preserving and some, most likely, that need a review. Jesus tells us to view our history and tradition in terms of mission and ministry. How do our history, tradition and facilities serve our mission in this community, the people we serve in this community, in 2015?
I look forward to working with you on plans for the future of the facilities for our growing congregation. Let’s look at this together.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Sermon for 14th Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
August 29 / 30, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California