A Homily for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who interrupts our world to show us the Kingdom. Amen.
To quote Fiddler on the Roof, “How do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!” (Tradition! Tradition!) “Traditions for everything: How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes.”
The musical gets it right. How far may I travel on the Sabbath? There’s a Tradition for that. How shall I pray? There’s a tradition for that. What does this text mean? There’s a tradition for that.
It’s difficult to overstate the centrality of tradition in Judaism. After a fifty-year exile and centuries under successive occupying empires, tradition played the same role it does today: preserving identity.
What does it mean to keep the Torah in Persia? Let tradition be your guide. How do I live as a child of Abraham in Egypt? Tradition will provide an answer. I live among a bunch of Greek pagans; how do I maintain the covenant? Tradition will show the way. I live in the Land of Promise but under the rule of the Roman emperor and his governor; how do I remain faithful to the Lord? Look to tradition.
But of course tradition doesn’t stand on its own: it requires interpretation. Schools of thought sprang up to interpret the Law and explain how the Tradition fits in different circumstances. Great sages like Hillel would argue the fine points of the Torah, passing down their teachings to guide the next generations. How do I faithfully keep the Sabbath? Hillel has a tradition for that.
And to be certain, Sabbath observance was among the most important and hotly-debated traditions. What does it mean to keep the day of rest as a holy day? Does cooking count as work? How far may I walk before it’s no longer considered restful? If I’m sick and need to be cared for, am I requiring my caregiver to violate the Sabbath? This weekly celebration of worship, prayer, and rest is, to paraphrase the scholar of Hebrew Scripture Richard Friedman, the most important feast day in the Jewish calendar. Observing the Sabbath and keeping this tradition was and very much still is central to Jewish religious identity, and so of course a lot of thought and debate has been centered around how to keep it faithfully.
So when Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and began healing – that is, doing work – we shouldn’t be surprised that some folks were offended. Well-meaning and pious Jews could very easily misunderstand our Lord’s action as a challenge to Jewish identity. Note the synagogue leader’s response; this teacher is not offended at the healing itself but only that it violated his interpretation of the Law. He tells the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
Today’s Gospel text is followed immediately by two parables: the mustard seed and the yeast. There’s no transition or change of setting, suggesting that Saint Luke intends for them to be read together, as if Jesus quiets down the rejoicing crowd to keep teaching:
He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’
And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
Many of us were raised to think of these as stories of little things becoming big things. We think of a small seed which sprouts and grows into a large bush, giving birds a place to nest. Or a tiny bit of yeast which multiplies and expands and pushes the bread dough to double or even triple in size, all the while, giving off a pleasant aroma.
But neither mustard nor leaven were very positive images in Scripture. Mustard is quick to sprout and to take over a plot, and once it’s taken root, it’s difficult to remove. Mark Hoffman, a biblical scholar at United Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, writes that mustard is “closer to being a weed” than something productive like wheat. It’s more like mint – yeah, a little of it may be a good thing, but if you’re not careful, it takes over your entire yard.
And yeast isn’t that grainy stuff that comes in a jar for making fresh bread. Rather, in Christ’s context, it’s more like mold, and most of Jesus’ references to it are negative: just a chapter and a half earlier, he warned, “Beware the yeast of the Pharisees.”
The Kingdom of God, then, is these little things disrupting our sense of propriety and tradition, getting in the way of our attempts at piety. It’s the mustard seed that overgrows the garden, the mold that leavens the entire lump of dough. It’s the daughter of Abraham who is healed even though it’s the Sabbath. We have our pious traditions, and they are of great worth, but we need God to interrupt us, for the Kingdom to break through and reveal the Lord’s will for the world. We need Christ to unsettle our attempts at defining what is sacred and what is profane.
It won’t shock any of you to learn that I’m quite traditional. I appreciate, even adore, the rituals and vestments and ancient words handed down by the Church over the centuries. When I interviewed for this call two years ago, I asked about the parish, and if memory serves, it was Beau who said, “We’re pretty traditional.” My first thought was, “I’ll see your tradition and raise you arcane rituals.”
For Pete’s sake, I wear this vestment called a maniple, a remnant of Roman imperial garb that eventually became part of ecclesiastical dress before the Roman Catholic Church decided fifty years ago at Vatican II it was no longer required for celebrating the Eucharist. I’m one of the few Lutherans I know of who has ever worn one, and yet I don’t think I’ve gone a Sunday since my ordination without it!
I firmly believe these traditions and rituals and goofy clothes keep us rooted and maintain our identity in an age of consumer-driven religion and the resurgence of racist nationalism. They point us back to the deeper truths of God’s love and the Kingdom of Heaven. So yeah, I relate to the synagogue leader – I’m fine with healing, but is this really the time or place for it?
But beloved, if we cling so dearly to our traditions that we let them get in the way of what God is doing, we miss out the same way the synagogue leader did! And let me be the first to confess that I have often been in exactly that position, focusing on when the pastor broke the bread at Communion (because, after all, the liturgical manuals tell us precisely where and how to do it, and shouldn’t we listen to these ancient voices) rather than seeing the Body of Christ present for us. In this, I miss seeing the beauty of what God is doing in this world! Because these traditions are not the Gospel; rather they point us to the Gospel. The vestments and hand gestures are not the Body of Christ; they only highlight its beauty. Our rituals are not our identity; they merely remind us of who God has called us to be in Baptism.
We’ve seen this struggle playing out in our own day over these past decades as our LGBT kindred have fought for inclusion in the Church and have been met all too often with scorn, disdain, and abuse.
When I entered seminary nearly a decade ago, I held the “traditional” view that I had been taught by my youth pastors: that “those people” disregarded Scripture and Church teaching, that they were chasing after the desires of their flesh in wanton disregard of God’s command. But before classes even started, I met openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians who, much to my surprise, had wrestled with our sacred texts and, far from ignoring the Church’s traditions, were living far more charitable and Christ-like lives than I could imagine. In focusing on one particular interpretation of one tradition, I missed seeing the Body of Christ. These, my siblings and colleagues, continue today in ministries deeply formed by Christ’s words, by the Creeds, and by the liturgy. And some of “those people” quickly became close friends. Some of my beloved fellow pastors labor in church bodies that reject their ministry, hoping that one day by the grace of God they may be fully reconciled. Our beloved kindred, with the faith of a mustard seed and through their steadfast love for Christ and the Church, have moved mountains.
The Kingdom of God is invading this world, whether we want it to or not. It’s disrupting our routines and rules, surprising us at every turn, calling us to see and to serve Christ in the most unexpected places. The Kingdom is interrupting even some of our most cherished traditions, reminding us that these traditions are not gods but instead point us to God. If we find ourselves in the synagogue leader’s position, if our traditions become inviolable laws or museum pieces that can never be touched or disturbed, if they keep us from discerning the Body of Christ, if they prevent us from seeing the Kingdom of God erupting into this world, if they become idols, then it is time for them to be interrupted. It’s time for a mustard plant to burst forth in our well-maintained garden, for a woman to hide yeast in our batch of dough, for Christ to interrupt our pious traditions and to bring healing and wholeness into our midst.