"Tradition or Traditionalism?"
2003 (August 31) Adapted from Selected Sermons for that day by the Very Reverend Charles Hoffacker at link below
The conversation we heard about in the Gospel that was just read
with its references to religious hand washing and dish washing may seem, well, a little remote from our concerns here on this
Labor Day weekend in the year 2003. But let's hear the story in a different way: how it might happen in our time. The Very
Revd Charles Hoffacker tells this story in Selected Sermons for today:
One day, in a small Southern city, a group
of God-fearing, Bible-believing people came up to Jesus to ask him something. "We've noticed, they said, "that when your disciples
go to high school football games, they don't take part when a lot of us spontaneously say the Lord's Prayer. They don't even
mumble it. What gives?"
Jesus replied, "It's attitudes like that that make me think I should have copyrighted that
prayer. You just don't get it! First of all, if you plan to do something than it's not spontaneous. That's an abuse of language.
But that's not the only abuse that's going on. I know you can pray anywhere: in church, at home, in your car, even at a football
game. Believe me, I know. You should hear some of those prayers from the coaches and players!"
"But I suspect that
some of you like to boom forth the prayer I gave you, not so much because you want to talk to the Father, but because you
want to look good in your own eyes. That's what I was getting at when I gave some of the Pharisees a hard time for praying
on street corners. It wasn't the location. Street corner, football field, cathedral -- it's all the same. The problem is with
"Also, I didn't give you the Lord's Prayer for you to shout it at some public event and maybe just
think you're better than the people of other religions or those of no religion who feel shut out of a public school football
game because you want to show that there are a lot of Christians in attendance."
"Careful! You're skating on thin
ice! It may just be that some of those people of other religions and of no religion will end up leading the parade into the
kingdom of God, together with the prostitutes and tax collectors I talked about two thousand years ago, with folks like you
bringing up the rear, if you make it at all. Grace works in mighty strange ways. And anyway the problem is not no prayer in
the schools; the problem is no prayer at home."
Maybe that's what Jesus would say if today's Gospel took place now
rather than back then. Certainly the question underlying the story is as alive as ever. Like the Jews in the time of Jesus,
Christians today are a people with a rich traditions of spiritual practice. When it comes to this tradition, how can we keep
from "majoring in the minors?" How can we keep the main thing the main thing?
How can we keep our eyes on Jesus and
our minds on mission? How can we live the good news of Jesus so that it remains good news for us and for people around us,
whether or not they are Christians? How can devotion remain beautiful theology rather than turning into ugly and exclusivist
ideology? How indeed?
Jesus criticized a portion of his own community for paying God lip service, exalting human precepts,
abandoning divine commandments. Like a beam of laser light, he cut through to the real issue: their hearts are far from God.
Rather than practicing a spirituality that changed them through grace, this segment tried to impose an ideology that
made other people conform to their hard-and-fast principles. Their concern was not heaven's purposes, but their own power
and control. Such misuse of religion remains forever a possibility. And so we must consider the true purpose of Christian
devotion. Hoffacker notes one possibility of a faithful answer to this question.
The entire apparatus of Christian
devotion -- the Lord's Prayer and the Great Litany, rosaries and revivals, Prayer Book and Hymnal, icons and incense, Bible
study and Sunday school, silent retreats and Cursillo reunions, Gospel music and Gregorian chant, public liturgy and private
prayer, sacraments and sermons, holy water and holy rolling, giving thanks at a birth and praying at a death -- the entire
apparatus of Christian devotion, in its diversity and complexity, serves one great, overarching purpose that scripture and
tradition explain in their frequent references to the heart, the core of the human person.
Christian devotion is meant
to help gain and maintain a new heart, a heart of warmth and not a heart of ice, a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone,
a heart fill with joy and not anger, a heart that is alive not dead, a heart that is compassionate not selfish, a heart that
is large, not small, a heart that is hospitable not judgmental. Christian devotion in its myriad forms is all about softening
the heart, preventing it from becoming hard, keeping it tender. It's about, in a spiritual sense, having a healthy heart.
Its about drawing from the wellsprings of our love of God to go out and love our neighbor with our work and words.
is of such a heart that St. Isaac the Syrian speaks in a passage that has become popular in our time, thirteen centuries after
he wrote it:
When someone with such a heart as this thinks of the creatures and looks at them, his eyes are filled
with tears because of the overwhelming compassion that presses on his heart. The heart of such a one grows tender, and he
cannot endure to hear of or to look upon any injury, even the smallest suffering, inflicted upon anything in creation. Therefore
this person never ceases to pray with tears even for the dumb animals, even for the enemies of truth and for all who do harm
to it, asking that they may be guarded and receive God's mercy. And for the reptiles also he prays with a great compassion,
which rises up endlessly in his heart after the example of God.
The heart of which St. Isaac speaks is compassionate,
hospitable, vast, able to welcome even cold-blooded animals, even enemies of truth. The purpose of Christian devotion is to
invite God to create and maintain such a heart in each one of us. Therefore, when we assess, as we must, the use of some element
of Christian tradition in a particular circumstance, the question to ask is: Does this practice, in this circumstance, contribute
to a living, healthy, compassionate heart, or does it not?
This central question takes precedence over other questions
we may prefer to answer, such as: Is this practice ancient? Is it contemporary? Do I like it? Will it increase church attendance?
Does it make me feel in control? No, the real question has to do with whether or not hearts are made and kept compassionate.
Here is an insight from the great Lutheran scholar Jaroslav Pelikan that may prove helpful. Pelikan distinguishes
between tradition and traditionalism in this way: Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living
faith of the dead.
Weve all heard the old chestnut about How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?
My favorite answer is four: One to hold the ladder, one to change the bulb, and two to go on about how much they were going
to miss the old bulb.
When I first became an Episcopalian, my Presbyterian and former Baptist mother said to me, "Well,
you know, the only way Episcopalians think they can go to Hell is if they use the wrong fork at dinner."
experience here about tradition and traditionalism: About nine years ago, for a baptism, I moved the baptismal font from the
under the lectern into the middle of the aisle where it is now. It looked good there and seemed to reflect the emphasis on
baptism that the church was regaining. Nothing was said about the change but by the healing service on Wednesday morning,
it was back under the lectern. I changed it back for Sunday. For about a year this was the most mobile heavy marble baptismal
font in all of Christendom. But after a year I walked in for the healing service one Wednesday morning and it was still in
the middle of the aisle where it has generally remained except for funerals when we move it to bring in the coffin.
some of the contemporaries of Jesus, we are mired in traditionalism when our spiritual inheritance is not used to open our
hearts to becoming more compassionate. This is the dead faith of the living. But when we use that wonderful spiritual inheritance
left to us by preceding generations for its true purpose, then tradition lives and flows and opens us to greater life. Our
hearts become larger; more compassionate. This is the living faith of the dead, or, rather, the living faith of those who
have died and now live forever because their hearts have come to resemble the heart of God.
Jesus taught us that without
love whatever we do is worth nothing. And he sent the Holy Spirit to pour into our hearts his greatest gift, love, the heart
of the Summary of the Law and prophets, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted
dead before him.
Isaac the Syrian quoted in Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological
Seminary, 1979), p.157.]