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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond

"Rejecting the Commandment of God In Order to Keep Your Tradition"

"Rejecting the Commandment of God
In Order to Keep Your Tradition"

By the Rev. Al Shands

AUGUST 31, 2003

Mark 7:9 "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition."

Remember that hymn, "Give me that old time religion?" "It was good enough for my father. It was good enough for my mother. And it's good enough for me." We all tend to associate that gospel hymn with the more fundamentalistic versions of Christianity. Tent meetings, altar calls and the sawdust trail. But actually the words of that hymn are much closer to us than we may think. There is inevitably a pull in ALL religion towards that old time religion - not necessarily the handclapping or emotionalism we see in some, but rather something far more deep seated, a pull that binds us to the past and to tradition, whatever that tradition may be - Christian, Judaism or Islam. It's in all religion as we encounter the uncertainties of today. We want to go back to the past, wherever that may be. And as we age that desire gets stronger. It gets mixed in with the need that we all have to sum up our lives, to look back to all those experiences we have had over the years that define who and what we are. And that's important. It helps us to place our lives in context and to come to grips with that haunting question, "What was the meaning of it all?", and especially today with so much change we need that. But there is always a catch in tradition. It can be the means of relating us to things that are deeply important to us in our past and giving us the strength and vision to move on OR it can seduce us to try to stop the clock and not move on into the future, avoiding the challenge of what life brings us today. We can make it into a shield to keep the realities of life at bay. Tradition can become the means of not doing the one thing we all have to do in life - move on. It depends on how we use it. -

That situation that we all encounter in life is very well expressed in the gospel for today we have just heard. The Pharisees were the leading exponents of tradition in Jesus' day. Tradition was for them the source that held all life together, period. They clung to it as though it were a lifesaver on the high seas. And there was a reason. They were living in very disturbing and upsetting times. They were surrounded by a military power capable of undoing them at any moment. So what did they do? They championed tradition. They had and were supposed to keep 300 religious laws and regulations that made up their tradition. They quoted the Bible. Now I suppose you could say that all that was commendable. Shouldn't the world be more religious? But there was something in the Pharisees and their use of tradition that they missed. It closed them down. They became bible-quoting fanatics and not human beings. They believed that religious and ritual purity were going to save them. A safe harbor in a very wild and disturbing world. A haven where the storm cannot reach you is an illusion. But most of all they missed the call of the Messiah when He came. They couldn't hear the gospel.

Now in today's story this whole dynamic is set in motion. The Pharisees begin to notice that Jesus' disciples are not observing sacred practices and traditions of the Jewish religion. Here the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Sacred traditions and values are flying out the door. Everything is changing. The whole religious enterprise is in danger of disappearing. And they see that Jesus' disciples are not keepers of the traditions in which they were raised. And they think, "What's going on here? What could those disciples be thinking? How can these followers of Jesus consider themselves religious when they flaunt tradition the way they do?" And Jesus, knowing what the Pharisees are thinking, makes a statement so revolutionary that it still blows us, the church steeped in tradition, out of the water today. Jesus says, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition."

Now I know that I am stepping out into some deep water, but I want to suggest to you that there is a certain parallel between Jesus' words in today's gospel and the very painful and disturbing situation which the Episcopal Church faces today with the consecration of an openly gay bishop. I have talked to many people in this congregation who have received letters from the parishes from which they come expressing disbelief that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church ratified this election. Some parishes are so angry that they have advised their members that they will no longer give money to the diocese from which they come, which seems to be the ultimate weapon of discontent. My own bishop in Kentucky was publicly berated by the rector of the largest and most influential church in the diocese at an open meeting because he had voted for the consecration. Obviously, this is the most passionate moment of controversy that the church has faced since the ordination of women priests two decades ago. I daresay that there are those in this congregation this morning who feel passionately on either side of the issue. But that passion and disagreement are important because they tell us that we are at the crux of a very defining moment for the Episcopal Church and, indeed, the church at large. The dismay is not bad. It is going to lead us somewhere new, whatever that may be.

Now I am emboldened to suggest to you that I believe this situation which has arisen is, in fact, less of a moral issue, that homosexuality is evil, and has no place either in or out of the church and something that is abhorrent to godliness, than it is an issue of tradition. To me the passions that this has aroused only tell us how important tradition is to our belief. Historic tradition and precedent are particularly important to Episcopalians. We love our prayer book, our ritual, and our music. But as we recover a bit from the initial shock, I think it is also important for us all to loosen up a bit and recall that this is not the first challenge to tradition which we have faced. I recently saw a cartoon in the newspaper of folks coming down the steps of an Episcopal Church after Sunday services. You see the rector at the top of the steps enthusiastically shaking hands with the congregants. There is an elderly couple coming down the steps, the gentleman looking a little like Colonel Blimp. He is saying to his wife, "I don't get all this fuss about a gay bishop. He looks happy to me. Reminds me of all that fuss about a woman priest a few years ago. They said she was Lebanese."

There is one thing we have to always remember....that inevitably there is a tension between tradition and the gospel as spoken from the lips of Jesus Christ. They are not one and the same thing. Jesus was no maker of laws or traditions. That came much later when the lawyers got hold of ....... and explained to us what is in and what is out. The tension between tradition and the gospel of Christ is the tension between what is known and experienced and safe and trustworthy and what is utterly unknown, surprising, sometimes shocking and inexperienced. The good news in Jesus is that what is locked up has been released and set free...that you and I are out of jail, no longer imprisoned in our past, whatever that may be. That the lines between what is in and what is out have been redrawn by the mercy of God. The good news is that we are all acceptable to ourselves and to God. In the mercy of God we are all in.

As I have thought about this situation of the gay bishop I have found three things in the situation which just may be God's way of reminding us from whence we came and how we can go forward. And the first is the importance of diversity in the gospels of Christ. It is for everybody, no matter how many differences there are between people. It is not just for us and our kind. It is for people whom we don't even like particularly and with whom we feel we have nothing in common. It's for crazy rock stars and people in jail. It's for black Africa threatened by homosexuality. It's for profligate big spenders in Las Vegas and welfare mothers, as well as for our sainted grandmother and the Archbishop of Canterbury. None of these people are made alike, but they are all creatures of God, and Jesus invites them in one and all to Him, whatever we think of them. We have to recall that in the gospel, the people who responded to Jesus were not necessarily upstanding human beings. St. Matthew worked for the oppressive Roman government as a tax collector. Some were zealots whom today might easily applaud terrorism. And Jesus put them in positions of leadership. He made the people who were the outcast the frontrunners in His kingdom The very people whom you and I, as proper Episcopalians, would most want to avoid running the show. And there was only one requirement for admittance to this of Jesus'. You did not have to be able to read or write. You didn't have to be clever. You didn't have to come from a good family or have a track record of good works. All you had to do was acknowledge that you were a sinner who had been found out and found by God's mercy and goodness. All you had to do was to acknowledge that you had a new life in God. That's all, folks. Jesus did not set any rules about heterosexuals or homosexuals. All He said was that it was hard to do if you were rich. It was impossible if you were mean and miserly. And the reason the church grew so fast was that it was a club which let everybody in who wanted in. It was the most unexclusive club in the world. All you needed was to discover the mercy of God in your own life. You recall the famous line by Groucho Marx that he wouldn't want to join a club which took in people like him. Well, Groucho would have felt right at home in Jesus' kingdom. The danger which has always existed in the church and which raises its head in this controversy today is being holier than thou. This controversy urges us to hear once more the gospel of Jesus.

The second thing we may just be missing today in the good news of the gospel is that it is about reconciliation. It's about people who are at odds with one another finding unity with those from whom they alienated. Opposites reaching out. I hardly have to remind us that gay people have been alienated from the main stream of American society. We are doing much better than we have. But what we are missing is the whole reason we are in existence as the church, not to agree but to forgive as we all have been forgiven by God. It's to engage in that process of coming together. We are here to become a living symbol of the reconciliation with God which we have all experienced in our own lives by becoming reconciled with those with whom we differ. How do we know if the outcast person with whom we disagree may be far closer to the kingdom of God than we ourselves? It behooves us to seek that reconciliation while we still have time because we just maybe missing the most important and wonderful moment of our lives...the power and dynamics of the gospel.

The third thing we may be missing in this whole controversy is the mystery which exists in the gospel of Christ, that sense in which with Christ we stand at the edge of something we do not yet know...something that is happening to us but which we have not quite grasped. The sense in which we stand in the dark. Theology can assure us of too much. We are all like wise men traveling to Bethlehem in the dark, guided only by a star which leads us forward. The terrain is totally unfamiliar. We don't know exactly were we may be at any given moment. All we know is that there is a star which leads us forward... and we are moving somewhere. I am reminded in this regard of an old Ann Landers column in which she told the story of a man who one day sent arrangements of flowers to two friends. One was a friend expanding his business and moving to a new location, and the other was to the funeral of someone who had died. But the florists got the cards mixed up. The man who had expanded his business got a card which read, "Deepest sympathy" and the flowers at the funeral had a card which read, "Congratulations in your new location." We have to constantly remind ourselves that in the gospel of Jesus Christ we all have a new location. It's not one that is very familiar to us. It's a location where we realize that God is not finished either with us or with the church.. .that he is constantly showing us something which will knock the socks off us...where the last thing we ever thought would happen to us does, and we are on totally unfamiliar ground. That is, I believe, the ground on which this issue of the gay bishop is being played out.

Buried inside of us all is the hope that our lives are being shaped by something more perfect, more wonderful, more life-giving than anything we have possibly known yet. That is the hope that spurs us on. My daughter Margaret once wrote a play about that hope. And near the end of the play one of the characters tells this story. "There was this kid in my neighborhood who had terrible asthma, walked around with a breathalyzer, that kind of thing. One day, a bunch of us ware out swimming in the pool. We were trying to see who could swim from one side of the pool to the other underwater, when this kid with asthma has the empty-headed idea that he would like to try it too. So he jumps in the water and starts swimming like mad to the other side. Everybody stops what they are doing to watch him. It was like every single one of us was jammed inside that kid's lungs and we could feel them ripping apart and about to burst. He's kicking and thrashing when finally he makes it, pulls himself up, turns around, and sees all our beaming faces. When the kid is finally able to suck enough air back into his lungs, he burst into tears. His papa runs over to him and asks why he is crying and he points to all of us and says, "It's hope, papa, it's all this hope that is killing us."

Life is about hope. Hope for ourselves. Hope for the future of the church. Real living is not for the faint of heart. It is for those like Jesus who realized that we are not here to hold the line or control our destiny, relying solely on tradition, or even be religious. It is about those who have been willing to accept the challenge of the will of God in what seems to us now strange and unfamiliar and new, and let it transform our lives. God is not finished with any of us yet, and He has in mind something that we can today hardly begin to grasp. And this is where our journey with Jesus, our friend, always leads.


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