NB: The sermon was preceded by this video clip of the opening song “Tradition” from the film “Fiddler on the Roof”.
Last week we observed All Saints Day – a day to remember and honor all those who came before us, particularly those whom we have loved, and who loved us, during their journey here on earth. I know that Sharon also mentioned it was Reformation Sunday: the anniversary of that day 499 years ago, when Martin Luther nailed his list of 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
And this morning, we heard the theme song from the Fiddler on the Roof, a musical that portrays the challenges of maintaining one’s faith, traditions and identity in the face of change and loss.
So you ask – how do all these tie-in with our scripture reading(s) this morning?
To begin with, our traditions are central to how we express who we are. They are an essential part of our identities as individuals and as a people. As Tevye said in the film clip: Tradition helps us know who we are and what God wants for us.
But, what he learns over the course of his story is that Tradition and Faith are not synonymous. Tradition expresses the truths of our Faith, but those expressions must change as the world changes, and as our understanding of God’s teachings and plans for us deepen and grow.
Tradition. A symbolic act that defines what it means to be us, or express what is an essential part of who we are, or what is important to us. Like: singing the Star Spangled Banner at a ballgame; or helping run the annual church fair; making cookies at Christmas, or celebrating the Holidays each year with our extended family. The rituals of Communion, Baptism, and Weddings are filled with all sorts of traditions – something borrowed, something blue, something old, something new.
Changing our traditions means changing our perceptions of who we really are, and what is important to us. This is a problem we constantly face as we change and grow. We are constantly having to ask ourselves how to remain true to who we are and what is important to us as the world around us changes.
Will our church be able to run the fair again next year? Now that Mom is in a nursing home, should we have a reunion again? Is flying the Confederate Flag appropriate, now that we now it is hurtful for the many who have suffered because of what it symbolizes? Is it right to insist that “traditional marriage” is only between a man and a woman, now that we see how much pain and injustice it causes to deny non-traditional couples this type of relationship?
We’ve also seen this discussion on the national stage in terms of Racism, Environmental Issues, Employment, and Immigration – among other things. And, the question of whether our Traditions are sufficient for present realities is part of what led to the formation of this congregation, and perhaps many or most other churches in this country as well.
This unspoken question is present in every worship meeting here, and in every meeting or Bible Study or task that we set ourselves-to in the name of ARK Community Church. In all of these cases, we are asking ourselves (in many different ways) whether the old ways of doing things – our traditions – are adequate to the challenge at hand. And, we also ask ourselves how, in meeting these needs, we are to express our traditions in ways relevant to the basic truths of our faith, and to the deepest truths of who we are as people of faith.
Traditions often are expressed as “well, that’s how we’ve always done things.” Well, not true. No tradition lasts if it is no longer relevant, and no tradition is created until there is a need for it. In fact, in Seminary, we learned that people often begin saying “well, we’ve always done it that way” after only a year or two of actually doing it that way.
Perception and reality never quite match. And so, Traditions constantly evolve, change, mutate, influence each other, and die. It is in their nature to change, not to be static. What does not change is the underlying faith upon which our traditions are built.
In our reading from Luke, the Sadducees question how to live out a particular marital tradition by showing that it makes no sense if there is a resurrection. And, they’re right.
Jesus responds by reversing the question on them: the problem is not in the tradition, but in our understanding of the Faith upon which that tradition is based. Jesus’ point is that if a tradition contradicts our faith, then it is the tradition, or our perception and expression of it, that are in error.
When our marriage traditions are challenged, as we see with Gay marriage, and our reading from Luke, and in The Fiddler on the Roof, we feel threatened. We see such changes as undermining who we are and threatening our place in the world. Change often means loss. Changing a tradition means not only loss of who we are, as expressed by the tradition, but loss of the hopes and dreams of who we are to become. Being threatened by change and loss is behind so much of the hysteria and extremism we see and hear in the world all around us right now.
The point is that the Principles of our Faith, which we believe to have come directly from God, are not ours to change; but our understanding of those principles, and how we express them through our traditions, can change. In fact, they should always be changing.
This is the crisis that Tevye and his people are facing: things are changing. And, a lot is on the line. So, what is God calling them to do? How do they keep their balance amidst all these changes? How do they remain faithful to God, and how must their traditions adapt to remain faithful to their understanding of their faith?
So, we know that when experience fierce resistance to changing tradition, it is because those resisting feel that who they are, and their place in the world, is being threatened. They are afraid of losing something, losing who they are. But, is this really a bad thing?
Their reaction is based on an assumption that the current tradition is “The Truth” (with a capital “T”). Therefore, as they see it, any challenge to it must be evil. That their tradition must change or evolve is too scary to contemplate because they understand it as meaning that they are being judged as somehow flawed, or wrong – that they’ve been living a lie. And, that their future – perhaps their salvation – is at risk. The question of whether their tradition fits well with their Faith (the Truth) upon which they thought everything was built is not asked.
Change is never easy, particularly when it challenges our perception of who we are, and who we feel God wants us to be. When our traditions change, then it seems like the God we thought we knew so well, isn’t. And so, changing ourselves – our Traditions – to accommodate our expanded understanding is a huge challenge, and really scary: like stepping off a cliff blindfolded.
At each step in his story, Tevye and his family are forced to move farther and farther away from the ancient and comfortable traditions they love. But, at each step, they learn what is most important is their love for each other, not their love of tradition. Like us, their faith is built upon God’s love for all Creation, for each and every one of us. They learn being faithful means letting go of the things that no longer work; and to trust the God who loves us.
Tevye’s story shows us that to truly love means loving first. And that’s what Jesus teaches, too: loving the other even before encountering them, and loving the change such love brings. For if we truly love, how can there be preconditions to our Love? We are called to love one another before we know anything about The Other, and to not stop. We are called to be lovers of the unknown and the unseen, and even lovers of those whom we cannot stand. That is the only way we can love one another as God first loved us.
Martin Luther nailed those Theses to that door because he saw that his faith was being twisted to serve greed and power instead of love. So, the Protestant Reformation began as an act of love – tough love, admittedly, but love nonetheless.
All Saints Day is also about love – about loving those who are gone. It affirms we will always remember them, and makes the very explicit point that God will never forget them. Our human existence is finite, but God is not, and God will remember us, and love us, for all eternity. No matter who we are, and no matter how we see ourselves, God sees us through her unconditional love for us.
So, remaining true to our faith, and to who we really are, requires only one thing: Love. To love as God loves us, no matter what. God loves us all the time, even when we fail, even when our traditions no longer make sense. And, we must never forget that ultimately, our future is in God, not in our traditions.
And so, in this election week, when all that hysteria and strife and fear are at their greatest, remember that even if your cousin, or sibling, or lover, or friend is being a complete idiot about that other candidate; God still loves them. God loves you.
And I am confident that no matter how this election turns out, God’s plan will not die. The world was created by God as an act of Love. That love is still here, in everything, in us, in our neighbor. All we are called to do is to let God’s Love work as it should, though us. Because, that is what is at the core of who we really are, deeper than any Tradition.
Regardless of who wins on Tuesday, the world will not end. Things will be OK. But, there will be broken and hurting people that need to hear God’s message of love and compassion and understanding and hope. Because, without that love and hope, it won’t matter who is elected.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, November 6, 2016.
Luke 20:27-38 (NRSV, The Sadducees Question Jesus about the Resurrection)
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)