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Tradition - August 29, 2021

by Rev. Joan Kessler

Mark 7:1-8, 14-16

Our reading from Mark you heard Melanie just read has me reflecting on ritual and traditions and the role they play in daily living. When I consider “traditions” I have held in my life, I immediately go to Christmas… those things my family did as part of our family’s celebrations. Growing up, my siblings and I got to pick out what we called “sweet cereal” for the Christmas holidays… it was the only time of the year that we got to have Honey Combs, Froot Loops, and Count Chocula and the like. We went to Church Christmas Eve, had supper with my grandparents then went home to hang out stockings. These annual rituals marked the special day Christmas was and even though those gatherings don’t happen anymore, and I buy Froot Loops any time I like, I still come back to those memories to tell me who I am and where I came from.

I am happy to acknowledge that I am a rather routinized person… I rise in the morning at a regular time, I do my yoga practice and centering prayer. Then I eat breakfast and savor my coffee before heading into my day. I am not so rigid that I can’t mix things up. Over the summer I took a break from some things about my morning practice, but I know the benefit of the routine I have established for myself and while I might drift away from time to time, I find my way back. It grounds and settles me and helps me to maneuver the uncertainties of our interesting times.

Jesus and his disciples have found themselves in some hot water in our reading from Mark for today. The Pharisees, whose name translated means separated or set apart, were the religious authorities of Jesus’ day. They upheld Jewish law and ritual practice and they are paying close attention to this Jesus and his followers. On this particular day, some of Jesus’ disciples are observed to be eating without washing their hands and are chastised by the Pharisees for their lack of adherence to the religious practice that we are told EVERYBODY knows and ALL faithful folks do. The requirement of hand washing dated back to the Old Testament ancestors… before entering the Tent of Meeting, Aaron and his family washed their hands and feet. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, everything changed. There were no longer ritual practices to be followed in one place. But the practices were still important to the faith and found their place in homes and at dining room tables. The hope was to bring the Holy into everyday life. But with the passage of time, some adherences became empty rituals that lost their meaning.

Thinking back, I can recall practices that were found in the Church that have lost their usefulness and slipped away into history. I remember as a little girl that women wore hats to church and everyone sat in their own pew…the hats have disappeared but we still have our favorite spot to sit on a Sunday… I even notice this on Zoom. In the United Church, there was also a time when children weren’t allowed to partake in Communion but changes were made that made the open and welcoming table accessible to everyone regardless of age or stage or belief; all that is required is a willingness to participate and an open heart. There are parts of our history that saw certain groups excluded from leadership roles, either as lay leaders or ministry personnel. But time changes things. Our thinking, our experiences progress such traditions and we made adjustments to some and threw out others all together because we long to be an inclusive and welcoming place. And there is still much work to be done to this end. LGBTQ 2+ people are wanting to know they are welcomed and accepted in safe places, but this can be a scary undertaking because of the damage churches have inflicted. Our worldviews, our willingness to know our neighbors challenges our belief systems and stretches and changes rituals so that all find a place of belonging.

Jesus says it’s about our words and our actions, those things that come from within us and are shared outside ourselves… these are things that matter. I was drawn to the writings of Richard Wagamese this week and his reflection on the importance of ceremony to his upbringing as an Indigenous person. I share with you a portion from his book, One Drum:

Ceremony has become fraught with judgment: the idea that whoever our God might be, requires absolute adherence to the way, to the means, of approach. But those reactions are based on fear, and they’re inaccurate.

The elders say that Creator is perfect, loving energy. Within the realm of perfect love there is not judgment. If there is no judgment then there be can be no failure. In turn, if failure does not exist, there is no unworthiness. We are all our energy. We are worthy and we always were. We never have to qualify. And ceremony was born to allow us to remember that.

Washing our hands has been a life-giving practice with the arrival of COVID. We are encouraged to wash our hands with soap and running water for as long as it takes to sing happy birthday twice. My daughter also informed me this summer that the Apple watch has a setting that senses when you are washing your hands and sets a timer for 20 secs… it notifies you when you are done. We live in the midst of diverse opinions over what safety measure to take, where to gather, with whom and how many. Our patience with COVID is becoming strained dare I say. Dr. Henry encouraged us at the beginning of the pandemic to Be Calm. BE Kind. Be Safe. This mantra is heart-centered. We know there are diverse opinions about COVID and there are vaccine debates happening in lots of families and communities of faith are not immune to this discussion. Jesus says its about what comes out of you that is important, your words and your actions. Perhaps in the midst of differing opinions, the question to ask ourselves is what is the loving thing to do and live into our answers.

I feel for the Pharisees. They took their role seriously and felt they were doing what their tradition asked of them. In their fixation on following the law and its enforcement, they missed the One to whom their laws point. They wanted their idea of God to be neat and tidy and put in a box with no surprises. But they were missing out on all the surprising way God shows up in unexpected ways… through generosity and compassion, to listen to another and understand. Jesus too knew the law and all its implications to daily living. He respected tradition. But he was done with the system that oppressed and judged and made people feel lesser than because they maybe just forgot to wash their hands.

Tradition and ritual have their place; they connect us to Creation, to one another, to the Source of our being. We live in difficult times but we are doing our best to persevere by abiding by guidelines, making careful decisions, queuing up at the grocery store a safe space apart, booking vaccine appointments, wearing a mask and washing our hands …all these things have become acts of loving kindness. Health orders organize our daily living at the moment to keep us safe and healthy, but may we act from our hearts, in love towards one another as we strive to flatten another curve and keep one another safe. Blessings on the way… and Amen.

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