Where Do We Go From Here?

September 2, 2018
Rev. Alanna Simone Tyler

Psalm 15; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In high school I entered the annual oratory contest sponsored by the congregation where I grew up. The first year I entered I wrote and delivered a speech. Another student, Todd, delivered a speech written by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and won the contest. The following year I entered the contest and selected a speech also written by Dr. King entitled, “Where Do We Go from Here?” addressed to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1968. Dr. King’s opening line of this powerful speech is: “Now, in order to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?”…we must first honestly recognize where we are now.”

At the point we enter Mark’s gospel this morning we find the Pharisees and others who were deeply committed to the tradition of the elders carefully watching and listening to Jesus. We find them struggling to recognize where Jesus’ teaching might take them. I imagine they were preoccupied with the question, ‘where do we go from here?’ As the Pharisees listened to Jesus they became increasingly anxious and uncertain.  They noticed one sign after another that Jesus and those who followed him—with their words and behaviors—were leading the people of God, it seemed, away from the tradition of the elders.

According to the tradition of the elders there were recommended behaviors and practices through which God’s people demonstrated that they lived for God alone. The Pharisees believed that God’s people stood the best chance of fulfilling what God required of them by following the tradition of the elders. The elders’ values, practices and rituals were a reliable source of wisdom for God’s people.  The practices and rituals passed from generation to generation shaped the identity of the people and through them the people demonstrated they believed that they and everything created belonged to God. Because God was not excluded from any part of their lives there were rituals and practices covering every aspect of life. The tradition of the elders was supposed to function as a constant reminder for God’s people that they were ever in the presence of and dependent on God. The traditions were the way, they thought, for an unholy people to stay in relationship with a holy God.

Jesus’ teaching and behaviors were at times centered in the tradition and at other times quite untraditional. At the beginning and throughout his ministry Jesus demonstrated he was knowledgeable of but not bound by the tradition of the elders.  In his ministry Jesus:

  • announced that in his coming God’s rule had begun;
  • called men away from their family vocations as fishermen so that they could become his students;
  • ate dinner with a tax-collector-turned-disciple and with others who were sinners according to tradition;
  • defended his disciples after they were seen collecting and eating grain in violation of Sabbath tradition; and
  • restored health and social standing to those who had faith but did not have a place in communities ruled by the tradition of the elders.

Despite how he appeared to the Pharisees, Jesus remained committed to the tradition of the elders. However, Jesus was more committed to living in a way that indicated God’s rule had begun. In his teaching and actions Jesus demonstrated that when God’s rule begins—when God’s kingdom comes—everything must change. Jesus would not honor an interpretation of the tradition of the elders that in the words of Emerson Powery, “establish[ed] categories, definitions and ‘sins’ that dehumanize[d] and ostracize[d] the other.”[i]  Jesus would have no part of interpreting the tradition of the elders in such a way that God’s people were sent down a dead-in road. Rather Jesus would have the people take the road that leads to life and more life.

There was room in God’s in-breaking kingdom for all who repented and believed in the good news whether they observed the tradition of the elders or knew nothing about it. Those who had been ignored or ostracized in accordance with tradition were now welcome in the kingdom. Jesus wanted to take the people of God where they had not been before—he wanted to take them where tradition could not take them.

First, Jesus responded to a challenge from the Pharisees. They approached Jesus and asked, ‘why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders? Why are they eating with unwashed hands?’ Ignoring their challenge, Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites and recited the words from the prophet Isaiah—from the tradition—to describe what he meant: with your lips you say you honor God but in your hearts you do not honor God; your worship is in vain because it is not centered on God’s commandment; and you have replaced the commandment of God with tradition designed by and for people. The Pharisees appeared to be faithfully following God but their hearts were not right with God.

Then Jesus turned his attention away from the Pharisees and called the people together and told them, ‘Don’t let anyone teach you that what you consume causes you to be corrupted or polluted.’  With this liberating word those in the crowd who did not know the tradition of the elders would no longer be excluded.  A lack of knowledge of the tradition about food and hygiene would no longer be a basis for excluding anyone.

Finally, in verses 21-23 we overhear Jesus as he held a master class for the disciples. The disciples did not understand Jesus’ teaching about tradition.  So he spoke to the disciples in more detail and told them, in summary, ‘It is about the heart.’ A corrupted heart will hold attitudes and behavior that do not express love for God and neighbor. Loving God and neighbor is God’s command. A corrupt heart is the opposite of what is described in Psalm 15.

Jesus’ teaching about the traditional of the elders was difficult news before it became good news. This teaching was difficult news because Jesus revealed long-trusted practices and rituals did not finally accomplish what so many believed they would. This kind of teaching threatens identities and the beliefs that hold communities together. Thank God Jesus’ teaching did not end there.  While Jesus taught the people and the disciples about the limits of tradition he did not set the traditions aside.  Jesus explained the tradition would continue but in ways that mattered differently.

 That opening line again from Dr. King: “In order to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?”…we must first honestly recognize where we are now.” Where are we Westminster? Daily in our world we see what happens when anxiety and fear rise and tradition is followed indiscriminately—tightly gripped. We witness the construction of unjust structures and systems that lead to brokenness.  We see tradition masking false morality. We see widespread hypocrisy. The late Dave Frenchak, explained that hypocrisy, “occurs when people publically subscribe to moral value that gives them credibility and power, but privately behave in ways that are in sharp contrast to the credibility and power they have attained.”[ii] Rev. Dr. Frenchak warned that wherever we see social injustice we ought to look for the social hypocrisy that makes it possible. In a similar vein, wherever we see social injustice we must examine the place of tradition. We must consider how tradition is constraining our imagination and dividing us from one another. Even in God’s church we sometimes hold on to traditions that do not serve us well because of our fears and anxiety. When it comes to following traditions what matters most are the stories we tell about our God, our neighbors and ourselves. Tradition works against us when we believe that the only way we can know God and be known by God is by keeping the tradition. Tradition works against us when we forget about our God who is behind the tradition and at work in us repairing our hearts.

People of God, we carry fears and anxieties in our bodies. Our response to those fears and anxieties cannot be to turn to tradition. Remember Jesus wants to take us to places tradition cannot take us. I hope you will join me in acknowledging the fears and anxiety you brought to church with you this morning. This is the best place to bring our fears and anxiety. Here in God’s church we: are encouraged to be mindful that we are beloved and claimed as God’s own; worship together and are reminded that God continues working on our hearts and is helping us to leave sin behind; learn of our giftedness and find our purpose; and gather around God’s table and experience the renewing power of God’s love. 

[i] Powery, Emerson B. “The Gospel of Mark.” Pages 121-157 in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary.  Edited by Brian K. Blount. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.

[ii] Frenchak, David J. “Proper 17 [22]” Pages 375-381 in Preaching God’s Transformative Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B. Edited by Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhem. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

Latest Sermons