Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Tradition's Place

There are certain sermons a pastor preaches from time to time that could potentially get him in trouble. This is one of those sermons. It has to deal with tradition, and when dealing with traditions whether they are in families or in congregations or in companies, one is usually walking on shaky ground. If you don’t think so, try to change a particular, cherished tradition in your family, in your church, or in your business one of these days. See what the consequences are. I’m not saying you will come to bodily harm, but if I were you, I’d make sure and protect myself.

Onward into the sermon. Perhaps you might have noticed a little detail which has been absent from our midst for the past couple of weeks. It’s something which is usually front and center in our church; yet because of its ever presence, it is easy to overlook from time to time. I am speaking right now about the eternal flame candle which hangs on the wall next to the altar. For those of you who have not noticed it, it is not flickering back there. It is not lit. There is a reason for this, a reason I will articulate shortly.

Now, this isn’t the first time this candle has gone out or has not been lit. There have been numerous times one candle has expired during the week, and our faithful altar guild ladies replaced it as soon as possible. During those times, I sometimes have a streak of irreverence that runs through me. Before I even realize what is happening, I will usually quip with a smile on my face, "I guess God’s not here right now." So far, no one’s hit me for that one. That might change after this service is done. But for the past couple of weeks, it has burned very rarely. For the past couple of weeks most of the time it has stood without light and without flame. For you see, a few weeks ago, when replacing the candle within, the glass holder broke. The bottom is cracked beyond repair and rather than risk an accident by trying to replace the candle within, or having the glass break and the candle fall out and light the carpet on fire–I mean, I know some pastors who talk about lighting a fire under their congregations, but that would be ridiculous–the decision was made to keep the candle unlit.

Yes, there have been a few folks who have noticed. We have heard their questions as to why the eternal flame was not lit. We’ve explained the reasons, and folks are generally o.k. with it. And, for those who are interested, the council just approved use of some of our memorial funds to buy a new eternal flame so that our congregation’s tradition of having one lives on.

But what do you think would have happened if someone decided, "We don’t need that eternal flame. We can spend that money on something better like giving it to the food pantry to feed people."? How do you think such a comment would have gone over? Do you think it would have been accepted? I mean, what if the person would have been insistent and said, "God is still here even if that flame goes out. We don’t need a candle to remind us God is here. We can keep that in our hearts alone. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that we need a candle like that in our church buildings. It does say a lot about what we should be doing with our money though. Why keep spending money on something we have to keep up when we could use those funds to spread the good news of Jesus." Such arguments are indeed true. Do you think folks would actually listen?

Probably not. Now, no one here this morning would argue that because the eternal flame isn’t lit, God is somehow absent. No one here this morning would argue that it isn’t important to feed the hungry or spread the good news of Jesus Christ. We absolutely know these are paramount in the life of the church. But we also know that traditions are important in the life of the church as well. We know that traditions help give us unique identities and set us apart from other congregations and families and businesses. In the church, they bring about good order and help us to teach the faith to one another.

In fact, this is exactly what the reformers understood in the Lutheran Church’s foundational documents, particularly the Apology to the Augsburg Confession. Listen to what is written under article 15:

Although the holy Fathers themselves had rites and traditions, they did not regard them as useful or necessary for justification. They did not obscure the glory or work of Christ but taught that we are justified by faith for Christ’s sake, not for the sake of these human rites. They observed these human rites because they were profitable for good order, because they gave people a set time to assemble, because they provided an example of how all things could be done decently and in order in the churches, and finally because they helped instruct the common folk. (Book of Concord p. 218)

Part of this is exactly why we have the eternal flame here in this congregation. Again, it’s not because anyone truly believes that without it, God is somehow absent, but because it helps remind us of God’s presence–and we also have the opportunity to tell others what it represents. For if someone asks, "Why do you have that candle up there burning all the time?" We can respond, "It helps remind us that God is always with us always shining a light into the darkness. It also helps remind us that Christ told us, ‘Let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’" This is a good tradition to have and uphold.

But what if the tradition became too important? What if the tradition overshadowed our calling to spread the good news of Jesus Christ? What if it became more important to have an eternal flame than to buy Sunday School materials for our kids or to give to the food pantry or to provide meals for our senior service? What if people became more angry about the eternal flame not being lit instead of being angry there are those who have not yet been reached with the good news of Jesus? What would that mean?

Our Gospel lesson this morning speaks to that loudly and clearly. Jesus lambasts the Pharisees for putting human traditions above God’s Word. The Pharisees believed they were honoring God by setting aside money to give to Him–that’s the meaning of Corban in this text. They believed they were doing something good and holy and just by saving all this money to give to God. However, when they did this, they neglected one small item. God’s Word commanded them to honor their father and mother–that’s commandment number four, by the way. Instead of using their wealth to care for their parents as God’s Word commanded, they followed a human tradition.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with giving money to God. Lord knows, this church wouldn’t be afloat if you weren’t generous in your giving to the Lord. Yet, motivations matter, and if we all decided we didn’t like our parents or our kids or anyone else who wanted or needed our money, and we decided to give it to the church instead of them, then we are giving in spite. Giving in spite isn’t exactly what God expects out of us. God expects us to follow His Word–not only in giving but in our actions as people and as a congregation. Let us remember this when it comes to our traditions. As important as those traditions are, may they never make null the Word of God. Amen.


Kathy said...

How very, very sad. I had just decided that I would not comment on your posts anymore, and then I read this. (You certainly do not have to "publish" my comment.) Obviously, in the 500 years since Luther nailed it to the wall, many, many bad things have happened. One is the loss of Tradition. In the Christian (catholic) Tradition for probably -- oh -- a thousand years -- churches had a Sanctuary Light -- a light to symbolize that the Host was present in reserve on the altar in the Tabernacle.

Tragically, this has obviously been lost. You just proved it. The "eternal flame" is a blasted secular light on the tomb of, for example, John F. Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery. It has little or nothing to do with the Faith. Sad. Please forgive me for pointing this out, but your entire post is very symbolic... and I'll leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

Kathy -- want to know why candles were in churches initially? So people could see when it was dark. After the practical reason came the symbolic one. So it is with tradition. Traditions are necessary for continuity, but don't be an ass to someone else about it.