Year A, Proper 15
August 17, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Have mercy on me, Lord!”
Today I am going to offer what is to be shaping up to be the second in a three part apology for the most basic of Anglican doctrines on the sources of religious authority; the three legged stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. A scorcher for a hot summer day! Last week, we looked into the use of scripture and how that even with its complications and inconsistencies it is very important. Next week, we will look at Reason through the lens of Jesus’ question to His friends, “But who do you say that I am?” And today, today our scripture is all about the good, the bad and the ugly of tradition.
But first, let’s review the doctrine of the three legged stool. It teaches is that we discern God’s will, we find religious authority through three primary sources: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. To discern the will of God, we need to apply all of them in some kind of balance. Just because the Bible tells you so isn’t sufficient. Just because that is how it has always been done or has never been done isn’t sufficient. Just because it seems to make sense, that it is so according you your experience is not sufficient. We need multiple perspectives, various authoritative sources to discern what is right and wrong, to figure out what we are to do and be, or in short, to discern the very will of God. The three legged stool; it is good theology.
Here is an example: having an open table, inviting everyone to communion. Tradition says: No. From the earliest church, baptism has been a requirement to take Eucharist right up to now, it is there in our national canons, though not uncontroversially and not in the BCP. Scripture says: well, nothing specific, but passages like our reading from Isaiah today, and the story of the Syro-Phonecian woman point to the conversion of the heart as the key factor to acceptance, not simply adherence to old exclusionary practices. And Reasons says: Well, I don’t feel right denying communion to anyone or having an official “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, so if someone wants to join us at the table rejoice and be glad in it and that is the consensus I have discerned here in our local context. The Roman Catholic church doesn’t consider most of our baptisms to be valid because they were not done by Roman rite and that is not the message I think any church should send. So, we consider the three sources and come up with an answer, in this case our answer is: “This is God’s table, all are welcome here.” The three legged stool; it is good theology.
So today, we are talking about tradition. When I say tradition, in a churchy sense, what do I mean? What constitutes tradition? ____ It covers everything having to do with the culture and practice of our faith. From the notion of ordination to our feasts and fasts and the seasons of the year; from how we make decisions to everything having to do with worship, from the colors on the altar to the words we use in prayer. The communion of saints, the church fathers and mothers, the doctors and divines… tradition. Everything we do communally now is informed by what we have done communally in the past… tradition. With tradition, the dead get a vote, not a veto, but a vote, which is a very potent check, an important balance to the vicissitudes of personality and the present situation. And tradition as a source of religious authority is a very traditional notion.
Our selection from Isaiah is all about tradition and how to apply it in changing situations, but I am going to focus on the Gospel today. The 15th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel is all about tradition and questioning tradition. The first nine verses, right before today’s reading, set up Jesus’ teaching about what defiles: that which goes in to us or that which comes out. Some Pharisees challenged Jesus because His disciples did not wash before eating. Jesus says, Pooh-pooh just like Madeline at the zoo, pointing out their hypocrisy, and quoting to them Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” No minced words from Our Lord, there, it’s a clear letter of the law vs. spirit of the law moment. And he goes on to challenge the tradition of what is pure and what is not, saying the world is good, nothing is impure until it has been fouled by us, by humanity with our ill intent.
This is followed by the great story of the Syrophonecian woman. Jesus and the disciples encounter a woman whose daughter has a demon and she is seeking help, “Have mercy on me Lord…”. This woman was, as a great theologian noted, “a triple outsider,” alienated by nature of her gender (women did not have power), her ethnicity (she was Cannanite, not of the tribes of Jacob) and her cultural-religious affiliation (she was not Jewish, she was not under the law). She was not the target audience of Jesus and his friends, but she wanted, she needed help. “Have mercy on me Lord.” She wanted God’s mercy, she needed it for her daughter’s sake, and she asked for it through Jesus, though, like the woman at the well, she must have known full well that a Jewish man would probably have nothing to do with her. That’s some faith.
And Jesus responds conventionally, traditionally, that He was sent only to the “lost sheep” of Israel. His was not a mission to the Gentiles. But she persisted, to the point of annoying the disciples with her pleading, and Jesus again says no, “It is not fair to take children’s food (the Word and work he carried to Israel) and feed it to dogs (non-Jews, Syrophonecians, Samaritans and the like).” Ouch. Undeterred, she persists, on her knees, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” His heart moved, Our Lord relented, saying, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed.
There are a season’s worth of sermons in that story, but we’ll stick with the tradition thread… Traditionally, according to custom (and the scriptural Law), Jews were to have nothing to do with non-Jews. Non-Jews, (or non-observant Jews) were ritually unclean; they had no access to the Temple and the rites and were therefore cut off from God. Jesus had a complicated relationship with tradition. He been hanging out with a lot of women; a suspicious thing for men of his day to do. He also associated with sinners, collaborators, people of ill repute as well as the sick, the pockmarked, the bleeding, all Jews, but ritually outcast, unclean. In this story, Jesus transcends several boundaries, gender, ethnic and religious boundaries guarded by centuries of tradition. It would seem that He considered the scripture, the Law in the lead up to this story, and He read the situation on the ground (He discerned that her faith was genuine), so He acted, moved by his heart which had been moved by the faith of a suffering mother.
So tradition, in this case, was a barrier to inclusion. From Isaiah, the tradition was that if you were not of the Hebrews, you were not welcome before YHWH – tradition; but the prophet says, no, “…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” Tradition bucked. The Syrophonecian’s gentile identity precluded her from receiving God’s mercy via Jesus, that was the tradition, but Jesus relented in the face of her faith and she received the mercy she desired. Great resolutions to episodes from the darkside of tradition, the ossified, exclusionary side of tradition (male-only ordination, just war theory, all sorts of issues around human sexuality to name a few), but that is not the whole story (says the priest wearing 13th century religious garb).
Tradition is important. Tradition, religiously, is imperative. Primarily, tradition provides a framework of consistency and continuity. To be a people, we need both, and we need it not only over time, in history, but also in the here and now, like the fact that every Episcopal Church uses the Book of Common Prayer as the normative model of worship. That is something that makes us an us. The use of the traditional Creeds have kept us all focused on certain principles over seventeen centuries, no small feat. It provides an identity of a people; defines who we are and who we are not. It relieves some responsibilities; we don’t need to figure it all out for our selves, like “How shall we pray together?” or “What should I wear to Mass today?” or “When should Easter be?” Tradition offers us a lot of answers and structures regarding things that are important, but not pressing. And importantly, tradition helps to ensure that it is not all about us, our whims and our fancies and our troubles right now. Those who came before and the traditions that evolved from their practices are a keel of sorts that stabilize us in the choppy seas of daily life lived over the course of centuries and millennia.
Tradition, at its root, is about practice. It is about discipline. It is about adherence to ways things have been as a way to stay honest, to not run amok, to encourage us away from our myopic, narcissistic tendencies. Traditions are tools, hand rails of sorts that help us focus on what is important, helping us to not forget what was important a long time ago because things do not change nearly as rapidly as we generally assume or would like.
Tradition, adherence to tradition is a practice, and like all practices, it is useful only in that it increases awareness of and helps us to focus upon that which ultimately concerns us: God in Christ with the Holy Spirit and the will of God abroad in the world. When our traditions cease to help us focus on God, when they take on a life of their own, when they become idols and not icons or symbols of our life in Christ, they need to change, we need to change just Isaiah prophesied, just like Jesus did with the Syrophonecian woman. AMEN