Tradition is a funny and a complex thing. We do something over and over again, sometimes because we’re absolutely in love with the thing that we’re doing. Sometimes it’s because of superstition, the belief that because something worked once it’s going to work every time. Sometimes it’s just plain habit. We get so used to doing something we just can’t imagine life without it.
When I was a kid I loved hockey and one of my absolute heroes was the great goaltender Patrick Roy. I’m sure many of you remember he had this reputation for his superstitions, his traditions, especially his tradition of talking to his goalposts. He would treat them like they were friends. It’s hard to rationalize a reason for that but it did something to his game. At the very least it changed who he was when he stood in between those two posts.
When I was a bit older, around CEGEP, I had this one moment in every year that I just waited for throughout the rest of the year. This was back in the days before online shopping and so near the end of December, the week before Christmas, the mall would stay open late and there would be these throngs of people doing their last minute Christmas shopping, and I would go, up on the second floor mezzanine, and I would buy myself an ice cream, and I’d just stand there watching the flood of people below. Again, it wasn’t productive, or purposeful, it’s not like I was trying to do something while I was there, it simply became this tradition that brought joy.
Gathered here this morning we are Anglicans and if there’s one thing Anglicans are known for it’s our traditions. I remember this slightly embellished story that one of my colleagues would tell about a priest who used to leave the key to the aumbry on one of the candles and so every time he’d go over to open the aumbry he’d have to pick up the key, except that nobody could really see that that was what he was doing, and so this one day a new priest came in and decided to just hold on to the key. After the service a parishioner came up to the new priest with this horrified look on their face and said ‘are you sure that service was valid? You forgot to touch the candle stick before you opened the aumbry!’ Again, we’re known for our traditions.
FLEXIBLE LIKE A REED
Traditions can be good and they can be meaningful. Sometimes they can also be trite or even silly. In and of themselves they’re pretty neutral. But I think one thing Jesus knew well was that any tradition, even the most well-intentioned, well-informed, meaningful tradition, can become an idol when we become too rigid, too inflexible. When talking about the liturgy Pope Paul VI once said “Liturgy is like a strong tree whose beauty is derived from the continuous renewal of its leaves, but whose strength comes from the old trunk, with solid roots in the ground.“
I think we can probably take a lesson from that for all our lives. Traditions keep us grounded, they keep us rooted in a community of accountability, throughout time and throughout space. They keep us from simply blowing wherever the strongest winds are going. And yet, it’s not enough to simply be rooted in the ground. Our traditions are alive; they’re not stones that just sit there, their surface, their expression, is constantly being renewed like the leaves on a tree. Traditions can be good, and stabilizing forces in our lives, but they take work. We can’t simply sit back and accept them just as they are because when we do, they become idols that take the place of a living God.
Our story from Mark’s gospel account today is exactly that, it’s a story about the danger of making an idol out something that should be good. These two stories, the one about the disciples picking heads of grain on the Sabbath and the one about the healing of a man on the Sabbath, they’re not the stories that we might expect about idolatry. They’re not stories about taking some gruesome, monstrous artifact and turning into an idol, they’re stories about taking something that’s good and meaningful and God-given, the Sabbath itself, and turning that into an idol. Because that’s the greatest risk of idolatry, isn’t it? It’s not the things we fear that end up standing in front of God, it’s the things we value and cherish maybe even just a little bit more than they’re worth.
I’m willing to believe that the Pharisees who criticized Jesus and his disciples came at that criticism from a well-intentioned place. The Sabbath was, after all, both a gift and a commandment that God had given them. Jesus’ frustration with them though, wasn’t that they wanted to protect the Sabbath, I mean, even he wanted to protect the Sabbath, he says: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” Jesus’ frustration with the Pharisees was their stubbornness, it was their desire, their need to hold on to what was traditional, even if they knew that the value of human life, of being fed, or of being healed, superseded the virtue of the Sabbath. They allowed the tradition to become the most important thing, rather than the value that lay behind it.
CHALLENGE TO STRUCTURES
And in the end it was the fact that Jesus was willing to chase the spirit of the law beyond the letter of the law that caused the Pharisees to plot to destroy him. It became a power struggle, of those who wanted to preserve the traditions for the sake of the traditions themselves, and the one who wanted to renew the traditions for the sake of the virtues that went into them in the very first place.
We live in this same struggle today. We live in a time and in a world where changes are coming. Big changes, to the ways that we organize ourselves as a society. The Western world, the Global world, even, is being renewed and transformed. Our traditions around things like race, and sex, and gender, and authority, and wealth, are being challenged and even overturned, and it’s not enough for us to simply hold on to those traditions for the sake of the traditions themselves.
The task of the church going forward in the 21st century is to figure out how we claim that the principle that underlies this renewal of our traditions, isn’t simply power, dressed up in the sheep’s clothing of ‘justice’, but the principle that underlies this renewal of our traditions, quite simply, is love. Love is the heart of the gospel and the closer we move to a world that’s organized on the principles of love, the closer we are to unveiling the Kingdom of Heaven.
It’s undeniable that we live in a time of great change. That’s true both in the small scale and the big scale and of course they’re not unrelated. The very formation of the Laurentian Regional Ministry is a product of that shift in culture, and large scale we can see it every time we open our news feed. Love is the guiding principle that will bring us through these changes. Love for ourselves, like the disciples who simply needed something to eat, love for our neighbours, like Jesus who wanted to heal the man in the synagogue, and most importantly of all, love for God, like all those throughout time and space who have ever gone searching for the kingdom of heaven on earth.