Innovative Tradition 

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Pharisees said to Jesus “Why do you not live according to the traditions of the elders?” And Jesus said to the Pharisees “Why do you not recognize the presence of the living commandment of God?”

Those two questions express a classic tension in the religious life – the Christian life certainly, but I think also a tension in any serious attempt to live in a spiritual way. On the one hand you have the power of tradition, the accumulated knowledge and wisdom and ways and means of generations of spiritual seekers and finders, the shared remembering of doing things in the way that works.

That’s what the Pharisees were all about: taking the accumulated insights of generations of interpreters of scripture, and applying those insights in fine detail to working through all the tasks and duties of everyday life. For a Pharisee, washing up for lunch could be a devotional exercise, if you did it according to tradition. You know, so often in Christian literature and teaching the Pharisees are presented as the bad guys, the ones who were always out to get Jesus – but in this story I think they really do have a point. Tradition is important, remembering what has always worked in the past is valuable. It gives you a place to start from, it keeps you from reinventing the wheel every time you want to do something. The Pharisees in this story are holding on to a genuine truth: it is worthwhile to respect the religious traditions of the elders.

But Jesus is also speaking a genuine truth in this story. The commandment of God made clear and present and immediate, not just in the past but in the now, the will of God made manifest in the ways God moves our hearts and our spirits and our actions in the moment, the living word of God doing something new right in front of our eyes – that’s pretty important, too. The God Jesus teaches about is a God of surprises, a Creator God who never stops creating new possibilities even out of our old wreckage, a God who turns our human expectations and familiarities upside-down in order to break down our barriers and open us up to unexpected grace. The God Jesus embodies for us is a God who calls us to purify our hearts, to put away all the evil intentions that distract and dilute our spirits, so that we can be mindful of the living Divine Presence in our midst right here and now.

So in the story Jesus and the Pharisees square off against each other. And in our spiritual lives we find ourselves in that same tension, too: between the old and the new, between the power of tradition and the energy of innovation, between what’s always worked before and the new possibilities, the new works, God is giving us to work out now.

In fact, I think right in the middle of that tension is precisely where God calls the church to live.

Nine years ago Lee and I visited Salzburg, Austria; and on our visit we toured a lot of old churches. There was one in particular that stood out to me: the Franziskanerkirche, the Franciscan Church, right in the middle of Salzburg’s Old City. There are records of a church on that site going back to the 700s. The present nave was built in the 1100s, and the chancel and sanctuary in the 1400s. The chancel is in the Gothic style, with huge soaring pointed arches and tall windows, so that the light floods through them and transforms the entire space into a room of light. I love Gothic church architecture, and I just wanted to stand there and absorb the spirit of that space.

But the church is not only Gothic. Some time after the building was finished, church fashions changed, and Baroque and Rococo styles began to move people’s hearts. So within this Gothic structure they built tremendous Rococo altars and side chapels, with wooden reredos screens, painted and gilt and covered with florid little carvings; three-times-life-size statues of bishops and saints looking down on the congregation sternly or looking up into heaven in ecstasy; cherubs and putti floating around the figures, carrying banners with their tiny little wings and their chubby fat hands. These frilly Rococo pieces climbed partway up the walls of the chancel, but after that the bare Gothic stonework soared on alone to the ceiling’s peak.

And just in front of the overwhelming Rococo main altar, there were two modern pieces: a simple, straight-lined, white altar table, with a green cloth for the season after Pentecost, and a simple, straight-up white lectern holding a large lectionary Bible. After the busyness of the Rococo, the simplicity of the modern pieces was elegant, even restful, and it was clear that was where today’s congregation gathered for prayer and communion every Sunday, even while we tourists came to see all the other styles.

All of those styles were there in that one building: when Gothic was new and innovative, they added that to their traditional church; when Rococo was new and innovative, they added that to their tradition; when the simplicity of Vatican II was new and innovative, they added that to their tradition, too. The whole building spoke of a spiritual community that was willing to live in the tension, and by God’s grace to make it a creative tension, holding together the old and the new, the power of tradition and the energy of innovation, what had always worked before and the new work God was calling them to work out now.

And I think that Franciscan Church is a great metaphor for the way the whole church is supposed to be. We also can take the power of tradition and the energy of innovation and put them in a creative tension in the way we join in God’s mission in the world.

We already do a lot of that at Trinity. During the Staunton Music Festival a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised and delighted at how many people came up to me during concerts – including some of the musicians! – and thanked me for opening the church to secular music performances like this. A lot of churches, they said, would not allow this sort of thing to happen in their traditional sacred space. Frankly, that kind of surprised me, since I believe that it is part of a church’s mission to use its space for the good of the whole community; and Trinity Church in particular understands that the beauty of this place is part of what we have to offer for the glory of God and the healing of the world. Our traditional church space and our innovative ways of inviting people to use it make a creative tension in which good mission happens.

And what might it be like for us if we went in the other direction, too? – not just inviting new people into our traditional space, but taking our traditions of loving the way Jesus loves, our values of compassion and service and justice and peace, and going out to live those traditions in innovative ways out there in the neighborhood. What would that look like? Liturgy on the lawn? Catechism in the coffee shop? Bible study in the biergarten? Sacraments on the street? Peacemaking at the police station? Teaching prayer and meditation as methods of anger management, counter to a culture where anger often seems the first response of choice? Joining with others in our community to find some alternative to the violence and the weapons that seem to be everywhere?

What innovative ways of witnessing to Jesus might we discover, if we just went out onto the street and expected – expected – that we would find Jesus already there, already doing ministry, already doing mission, just waiting for us to come out and join him? After all, it was on the street, in the middle of a crowd, that Jesus explained what kosher really meant, in our Gospel today; what do you think we would find, what do you think you would find, if you went out to the street to look for Jesus this very day? What innovative insight into the tradition of good news would Jesus show to you?

The Pharisees said to Jesus “Why do you not live according to the traditions of the elders?” And Jesus said to the Pharisees “Why do you not recognize the presence of the living commandment of God?” May we, by the grace of God, learn to follow both. Amen.


  1. Shirley Ruedy says:

    Provocative sermon!