There’s a new BBQ joint near where we live. Mission BBQ. It’s a really great place. We were in there for lunch the other day enjoying a pulled pork sandwich slathered with their Texas Twang sauce when suddenly a voice came over a loud speaker. Really? A loud speaker in a restaurant? The voice said, “Ladies and gentleman. It is our tradition here at Mission BBQ that at noon each day for all of our patrons rise to sing our National Anthem.” Suddenly all the large screen TV’s switched from sports to footage of the American flag waving. As our National Anthem started, all the patrons rose and put their hands over their hearts. Baseball caps were removed respectfully. And, I saw more people actually singing the words than I do at the ballpark. When it was done we all sat and continued with our meals just as if this is some normal thing we all do when we go out to lunch someplace.
I’m still not sure how I feel about that. I like the National Anthem and all and of course I stood to sing it. But then I wondered… is this a new tradition? Then I wondered, is the term “new tradition” an oxymoron? How can something be new and traditional at the same time? The National Anthem at the ballpark is traditional. “God Bless America” at the ballpark is becoming traditional, although I wonder if it isn’t sort of redundant patriotism. And when I am at Nationals Park I always rise to sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game in the seventh inning and I cannot be out buying beer when the presidents are racing. I like those traditions.
So, I had all these questions about traditions and new traditions in my head when I read today’s gospel where Jesus is dealing with the same issue… a tradition about a meal. No, not the National Anthem, but – in this case – hand washing of all things. It seems as if the disciples had failed to do that ,,, wash hands … before they ate. Big deal, right? Your kids and grandkids do that all the time, right? Well it was a big deal with the Inquisition of the time --- the Pharisaic religious authorities. They called Jesus out for it. So what? You would call out your own kids for it, right? Why? Because it’s not sanitary. A person could get germs by not washing hands or by eating off dirty plates or food that had been cooked in dirty pans.
But that’s not why Jesus was being called out for it. Their offense was that they had defied the tradition of the elders. What had once started as common sense personal hygiene had become religious law. To have unwashed hands or unwashed cookware was to defame God himself. It wasn’t just that their hands were dirty, they were religiously “defiled.” Jesus quoted back at them a verse from Isaiah in which God complains that people purport to honor God by what they say but not by what they do and make human tradition into divine law.
Then he told them, in essence, “You’ve got it backward, anyway. It’s not what goes into the mouth and down the throat which defiles a person. It is it what emerges from the throat and goes out through mouth which defiles.” Maybe God doesn’t worry so much about dirt going into our mouths as much as dirt coming out. The “f” word and the “n” word are prime examples, of course. But I’m talking more about they way we speak about our brothers and sisters in Christ who were born on the other side of some artificial border which was created by an act of war or whose language isn’t our language or whose color isn’t our color.
I mentioned a few weeks ago in a sermon that there has been a surge of Mr. Rogers nostalgia recently because our country is so hungry for kindness. And, as we have mourned John McCain this past week, we were once again reminded of a tradition which has been all but lost … that of civility … and how he modeled that. Maybe you saw, too, the replay of that town hall in his presidential campaign in which a woman said, “I don’t trust Obama. He’s an Arab (a Muslim).” Very humbly, McCain, said, “No, ma’am. He’s a family man. He’s a decent person which whom I just happen to disagree.”
Are there any more heroes like that? Maybe not in the halls of congress or up Pennsylvania Avenue at the “casa blanca,” but I bet you know many in your personal, work, or church life who carry on good traditions like kindness and civility … people who shine forth because of the kind deeds and civil words which come out of their mouths.
“New traditions.” An oxymoron. Oh, there was a time when the ritual washing of hands and pots was a new tradition in Jewish worship. It had originated from community sanitation. Let’s keep people well by keeping things clean. But it devolved into a way of separating people into the “good” from the “bad” … the “clean” from the “unclean.” It was a way of excluding people and giving priests the authority to admit or deny people admission to the inner circle.
Sometimes even Lutheran ministers don’t get the idea. I’m on a clergy discussion group on Facebook and there were two perfectly ridiculous discussions this past week. One pastor was making a linen to cover the top of her altar and wondered what the liturgically correct number of embroidered crosses should be. Answer, God couldn’t care less. The other was not so much a discussion but an argument about where the pastor or lay assistant should stand during the Prayers of the Church. That one devolved with pastors actually yelling at each other with ALL CAPS. I created a firestorm in my first parish because I rang the bell ten times to call people to worship and was told that the tradition was seven times, that seven was a holy number, and that we didn’t want to go against tradition.
Can’t you imagine Jesus saying, “Just what part of Isaiah don’t you get? Maybe the part which says, ‘in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
Don’t get me wrong. I like liturgical tradition very much. I go to a liturgical conference every year where we worship with all the smells and bells and we do all the correct things. I like the hymns we sing from the 17th and 18th centuries as well as those from the 20th and now 21st centuries which are becoming “old favorites.” But all that is personal preference … not divine law. Gordon Lathrop, who fills in for me in this pulpit often, taught liturgics at Philadelphia and is a world-renowned scholar on the subject. He knows the smells and bells, the rules and the traditions, believe me. But Dr. Lathrop is best known for saying this: There are only four things necessary for Lutheran worship. 1) We gather in person. 2) We hear the word of God. 3) We share the meal. And 4) we leave to serve. All else … the hymns, the standing and sitting, the vestments … all else is, as we say, adiaphora. It is neither commanded nor prohibited by scripture. All else is tradition.
New traditions. Oxymoron? Jesus started new traditions. Eating with sinners and tax collectors was a new tradition. Turning the other cheek was a new tradition. Taking what society deemed lowest and making it the highest was a new tradition. Taking the last and making them first was a new tradition. We don’t judge traditions by whether they are new or old, we judge them on how helpful they are in doing God’s will and fulfilling God’s kingdom.
I’m not sure standing and singing the national anthem in a public restaurant is a good or bad new tradition. I suspect it is motivated as much by profit as patriotism. But I will dutifully stand and sing if and when I am ever there again at lunch. That kind of thing I’m not sure about. But I am sure that we should continue the new traditions Jesus started – welcoming the stranger, forgiving those who don’t deserve it, doing to others as you would have them do to you, and making feeding and healing a priority. Those I will gladly stand for!
Text: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23