I was in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the incredibly grand seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, located in upper Manhattan. Just as the priest was holding up the bread to be set apart for the special use of communion, a loud organ pipe suddenly blasted its single note, then faded in pitch and volume until its sound was over. “Wow!,” I thought. “That is supposed to represent a shofar” (a ram’s horn made into a “trumpet” that was and is still used in Jewish worship). “What a great way to announce the setting-apart of the bread and wine!”
It was nothing of the sort. It was a malfunction in the organ called a cypher, and that pipe was not intended to be played at all. The fading sound at the end was the result of the organist turning off the instrument to deal with the problem. In my attitude of worship I had filled a malfunction with all kinds of spiritual significance, as though it was done on purpose! There is nothing wrong with that. God uses “holy accidents” like that all the time! But does that mean that ever after the church should blast an organ pipe or play a shofar when setting apart the elements of communion, and if they don’t something “holy” is missing? Are such things meant to become forever sacred – a tradition that just shouldn’t be violated? You see, we can easily attach great holiness to very insignificant things.
The same thing can happen with “how things get done around here.” A group of people develop a way of doing something together and it becomes the “right” way. A newcomer comes with some different assumptions and watch as the sparks fly or the newcomer gets left out. My wife is far more creative than I am in how she loads a dishwasher, but that doesn’t make her way “wrong,” and if it bothers me I’m the one with the problem, not her. So churches that have been around for a while develop their own traditions about how things get done, and people become bodies to fill a position – pieces to plug into a slot. The tradition has taken over the life of the congregation.
Traditions are not bad or evil – only when they take over peoples’ spirituality and limit the way God can work with us. Then they turn our faith into a set of “human doings” that keep a machine running instead of reaching into lives (ours and others) with the good news and healing grace of Jesus Christ. And we can hang onto them in the name of God. That is why religious leaders in Jesus’ day thought they were doing good in God ‘s name when they had Jesus crucified. They thought their traditions were God’s traditions.
So God’s “tough love” in all of this may be to let some of our traditions die out. They have become regularities we hang onto instead of our relationship with God. Trusting in an unseen God can seem quite insecure to us, when in fact it is the most secure source of trust we can find. In his “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) Jesus was fond of the phrase, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you.” He was busy rearranging traditions in what he said and how he acted. The Holy Spirit who inspired and directed Jesus still works to continue that disruption of helping us be faithful to our relationship with God and able to jettison what is not really of God. Even when we read the Bible as the Word of God it may be presenting us with more questions than answers sometimes. Does it really mean what I think it does? Even the scholars I rely on are part of a tradition that can have its own blinders.
More questions again! Maybe that creates space for the person of Christ to be at work in us through the Holy Spirit. Blessings all!
- Rev. Charlie