2 Kings 2:1-14
Luke 9: 51-56
One day as I sat in my lectionary group in Cleveland, we noticed one of the members of our group frowning and staring hard at the clock hanging on the wall. “What are you looking at?” Pastor Leroy asked her.
“Well, I’ve just noticed that that clock on the wall is running backwards!”
“Yes, I know” Leroy told us. “Apparently it would only take reversing a tiny little piece inside the clock to fix it, but when I mentioned this to our church trustees I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not to fix that clock! ‘You see,’ the head of trustees told me, ‘That clock was a memorial gift!’”
Today I want to talk about Tradition and Change. Both of these are important parts of our faith, but we hold them in great tension in the church. How do we hold on to our traditions but still be a church that is relevant in current society? How do we enter the world without giving up things that are important and sacred to our church and indeed to our very faith? How do we support those who find their deepest meaning in the old ways, while still inviting and welcoming those who do not value the old ways and instead, thrive on the new?
There is a tension here, a deep tension here. We know that change is hard, that change is uncomfortable. We also know that there is real value in rituals and tradition. At the same time, in order to stay alive and relevant, the church must find ways of being in the world that are meaningful to the younger generations and especially to the unchurched. The goal, then, and the challenge, is to find ways to walk in the tension of these values while keeping integrity with our faith.
How many of you have seen the movie Groundhog Day? The premise of the movie is that the main character, played by Bill Murray, is stuck in repeating the same day, groundhog day, again and again. He wakes up on the same day each morning, in the same hotel room, in the same town. He can change his actions each day, but the structure, the people around him, the town, are all the same, every single day. At one point he is sitting in a bar with a couple other guys and complaining about this. He says to them, “What would you do? If you were stuck in one place. And every day was exactly the same. And nothing that you did mattered?” To which the two men in the bar respond, “well that about sums it up for me.” We may not repeat the same day over and over, and yet we can get stuck too.
When we get “stuck” in a rut, we can yearn for some kind of change. And even though we know that, to use an anonymous quote, "To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did". Even though we know this, it can be hard to move out of our ruts.
Other times, we choose to stay the same. Change IS hard.
Sometimes we resist change not because we are stuck, but because we are comfortable. Still, all stasis is an illusion. We know that all things in life are temporary. And that if things are going well, we need to enjoy them because that will not last. And if things are going wrong, we can look forward because that won’t last either.
Sometimes, in the midst of the fast-paced changes of society, the rituals and traditions bring a comfort, a stability that would not otherwise be found. Mitch Albom in his book, Have a Little Faith (Hyperion, New York, 2009) shared the story of Rabbi Lewis who lost his young daughter through a very severe asthma attack. Albom wrote, “The very rituals of mourning that he cursed having to do – the prayers, the torn clothing, not shaving, covering the mirror – had helped him keep a grip on who he was, when he might have otherwise washed away. He told how the words of the Kaddish made him think, ‘I am part of something here; one day my children will say this very prayer for me just as I am saying it for my daughter.’ His faith soothed him, and while it could not save (his daughter) from death, it could make her death more bearable, by reminding him that we are all frail parts of something powerful.” (p. 182)
Albom continued, “..ritual was a major part of the (Rabbi)’s life. Morning prayers. Evening prayers. Eating certain foods. Denying himself others. On Sabbath, he walked to synagogue, rain or shine, not operating a car, as per Jewish law. On holidays and festivals, he took part in traditional practices, hosting a Seder meal on Passover, or casting bread into a stream on Rosh Hashanah, symbolic of casting away your sins.
"Like Catholicism, with its vespers, sacraments, and communions – or Islam, with its five-times-daily salah, clean clothes, and prayer mats – Judaism had enough rituals to keep you busy all day, all week, and all year.
"I remember as a kid, the (Rabbi) admonishing the congregation – gently, and sometimes not so gently – for letting rituals lapse or disappear, for eschewing traditional acts like lighting candles or saying blessings, even neglecting the Kaddish prayer for loved ones who had died.
"But even as he pleaded for a tighter grip, year after year, his members opened their fingers and let a little more go. They skipped a prayer here. They skipped a holiday there. They intermarried (-as I did).
"I wondered, now that his days were dwindling, how important ritual still was.
"‘Vital’, he said.
"But why? Deep inside, you know your convictions.
"‘Mitch,’ he said, ‘faith is about doing. You are how you act, not just how you believe.’ (p.44)…'My grandparents did these things. My parents, too. If I take the pattern and throw it out, what does that say about their lives? Or mine? From generation to generation, these rituals are how we remain…connected.'”
Still, despite the wisdom of these words, and the comforts we find in rituals and traditions, I question the belief that somehow updating things means that we no longer honor the past. And I think it can be seriously problematic to believe that in order to be loyal to what was, you have to reject what is. The Amish community for a long time has been a separatist community of faith because they did not want change of any kind. And while that has served them for a time, the Amish are now finally having to make some adjustments. In Ohio where I lived there was a very large Amish population whose farms were becoming unsustainable because of the cost to run them without electric equipment. They have finally conceded that they have to change. As hard as that is, they, too have had to change to survive in this world.
But it isn’t easy. When I was a young adult, the associate pastor and young adult leader at the church I actively attended moved to Africa to do mission work. She was replaced by an interim associate. I found that I could not be kind to this new associate. I could not be nice or accepting of her because it felt somehow disloyal to the previous associate. I felt that if I loved this new minister, I would be betraying the one who had left. In the process I caused hurt to the new associate. Just as those who are attached to long term rituals can feel hurt when those rituals are changed, seeing them as judgments on the way things were done in the past; the reality is that folk new to a community can feel just as hurt by an insistence on sticking with traditional ways of doing things, seeing this as a rejection of their world and hence of them.
Still, the reality is that often God does not give us a choice about whether to remain the same or to change.
Elisha could not let go of Elijah. He knew that his master was going to leave him soon. Everyone around him kept telling him as well. But he basically kept saying to them “shut up!! I don’t want to hear it!!” again and again. He did not want to accept the change that was coming. But in the end, he was given no choice and Elijah left. Still, in rending his clothes after Elijah’s departure, Elisha, too, fell back on one of the rituals or traditions of grief to help him through. There was inevitable change, but it was accepted with ritual and tradition.
So, too, with the story in Luke. Jesus wanted to go to a village in Samaria that would not take him in because he was heading for Jerusalem. The disciples had this plan in their head. They did not want to stray from it. They would rather bring down fire from heaven to consume the village than alter your course. Jesus told them that was ridiculous. He “rebuked them sternly”, and they changed their plans. But it still reflects the same challenge. No, we can’t stay here. There is still work to be done – there is still community to be established, there is still a message to be passed on, there is still a salvific journey for all of humanity that begins with Jesus and therefore must continue forward. This message was the same for the early church – they could not just stay where they were, they were called to go out and act, to spread the good news, to show the love of God for all people, to teach about God in a new way. And the same is true for the church now. The call to spread the news, to form and heal community, to be God’s people in the world cannot be delayed. We cannot stay in the comfort of our rituals when we are called to change the world. We are called, to quote Psalm 96, to “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.” And yet still, there are elements that remain the same. While the song is new, it is the same God we are singing to. And while Jesus died and was resurrected, it was the same Jesus we met both before and after.
In the end, we must seek, as in all things, to find a balance. And when old things do change, we must find ways to grieve and to honor what was, what went before. To take a quote from my big fat Greek Wedding, “Don't let your past dictate who you are, but let it be part of who you will become.”
All of this recalls me to the musical Fiddler on the Roof. As Reb Tevye said, “Our traditions have kept us balanced for many, many years….Without our traditions we would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” And throughout the musical he continues to hold on to many of his rituals and traditions, even as he must let go of others. He is faced with the challenge of choosing between his traditions and his relationships with his daughters. For two of them he chooses his daughters, letting go, though it is ever so painful for him, of his traditions. But for the third one he cannot do the same. The challenge to his traditions pushes him too far. And in the face of his choice between tradition and even his daughter, he chooses his tradition. For us, too, we may come to a point where we feel pushed too far. But we are called to choose love again and again. And that love means looking for balance, determining what is most important to us, being willing at times to let go, and at other times to rejoice and find comfort in what we know. We are called to choose love. We are called to allow God to bring change within us, both as the church and as individuals. We are called to sing a new song to the same God. And sometimes that will mean keeping things the same. And other times that will mean letting go and allowing change. Both will be challenges. But as we say every week…it is all that easy, and it is all that hard. Amen.