Scripture: II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
The apostle Paul talks today about carrying on the traditions of the faith, and passing them on to those who will come after. So I think a little congregational participation is in order: I invite you to mention briefly a tradition that means something to you, maybe in your family or neighborhood. Now tell about a church tradition that fills you.
As do most of you, my family and I have traditions that come back again and again. Each summer, when Mary and I visit family in Maine, we walk on the beach at Pine Point, near Portland. We go to Beal’s Ice Cream, where Mary gets a cup of almond joy and I get a cookies and cream milk shake. We take my mother to Bar Harbor, and drive up Cadillac Mountain, and go to Jordan Pond House for fantastic popovers. As you can readily see, many of our traditions revolve around food!
Here at home, on Thanksgiving we all participate in the Chagrin Falls Turkey Trot. On Christmas morning, in Mary’s family, her father would distribute all the presents, handing them around to each person, who, in something of a frenzy, would all open them relatively quickly, one right after the other. In my family, on the other hand, we took turns opening gifts, each one waiting while the others opened and savored the gift that had just been offered. When in-laws have come into my family, they invariably think our Christmas routine is the slowest thing they have ever seen in their life!
Not surprisingly, church, too, has been, for me, the source of rich and lasting traditions. Every Christmas Eve, I thrill to the opening strains of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and am moved at my core by the reverential singing at the end of the service of “Silent Night.” On Easter, I get goose bumps when we sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” and maybe conclude with Messiah’s “Hallelujah” chorus. And I am moved each All Saints Sunday by the reading of the names of those in this community of faith who have died during the past year. These traditions fill me with the indescribable mystery of God. Their very repetition has a way of evoking holy beauty.
At the same time, I am acutely aware that not one of the things I have mentioned may move you in the slightest. Certainly my family habits of walking the Pine Point beach and eating Beals ice cream and popovers don’t have an iota of resonance for you. And it may also be true that none of the church traditions I have mentioned do anything for you other than make you yawn. The power of traditions is often so personal.
So when the apostle Paul, in writing a letter to Christians in Thessalonica, urges them to “hold fast to the traditions that [they] were taught” (II Thessalonians 2:15), it’s not entirely clear what he means, or what specific traditions he’s talking about. Am I supposed to practice and like a tradition from your family that doesn’t mean anything to me? Am I supposed to go along with church traditions that leave me cold? When Paul talks about these traditions, is he saying that we’re supposed to do things the way they’ve always been done? The word “tradition,” itself is, in fact, such a loaded term. For some of us, tradition is an anchor, a bedrock. For others of us, though, any attempt to stick to habits and practices is perceived as dull and boring.
In some circles, the idea of tradition has only negative connotations. Church, as a bastion, in many ways, of tradition, is seen in some quarters as dull beyond words. You may know the story of the little boy who’s looking at a plaque of names on a church wall, and he asks the minister, “Who are these people listed on the plaque?” The minister responds, “The members of the church who died in the service.” The boy gets wide-eyed, and asks “Which one—the 10:00 service or the 11:30?” The boy finds it easy to believe that deadly dull worship can wipe you out.
Tradition often gets a bad rap. The truth of the matter, though, is that we all practice some measure of tradition. We label one of our Federated worship services a traditional service, and in a number of ways, it is that. At our 10:00 service, we sing what we call traditional hymns, we pray in what we call a traditional style, we follow a rubric that has been long-practiced. So it’s easy to call it a traditional service.
From another angle, though, our RISE to Shine service is no less traditional. It has a distinctive format that is carried out week to week. And while its music is more contemporary, it still has a style that recurs each week. We begin with three songs of praise and hear scripture and sermon. Both services are traditional, just in different ways.
The plain fact of the matter is that any worship service has to have some of the same elements. Shortly after you arrive you are welcomed and greeted, which is the church’s way of saying, “Hi. I’m glad you’re here.” Then, you hear scripture and explore its deeper meaning, which is not unlike being at a dinner party, where you discuss what you hope are matters vital to the people who are gathered there. And as you conclude the service, you wrap up with a benediction, which is the equivalent of bidding your guest good night as they leave your dinner party. All worship has some form of these traditional habits.
The great thing about traditions can be that their very repetition is what gives them power. I love our Christmas and Easter hymns precisely because I’ve sung them so many times. They evoke holy days past, they conjure up memories of family and church friends alive and dead. Likewise, in a wedding, couples usually repeat vows that have been uttered for centuries, and it’s partly the expansiveness of the promises that are made, but it’s also that very repetition, that makes them so compelling. “I Hamilton take you Mary to be my wife. I promise to love and sustain you in the covenant of marriage from this day forward, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, as long as we both shall live.” There’s grace and power in those oh-so-familiar lines.
But traditions can lose their power, as well. They can die on the vine, their captivating quality vanishing, which is why the church is always changing as well as staying the same. A great church historian named Jaroslav Pelikan once pithily said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Tradition is the faith that animated our forebears, the faith that sustained them in tough times and inspired them to serve and gave them a deep peace. When we hold onto things simply because we’ve repeatedly done them that way, though, then we fall victim to that old saw about the so-called seven dirty words of the church: “We have always done it that way.” Rote repetition can devolve into spirit-killing pablum.
People will sometimes say, in church settings, that they want to do things the way the church has always done them, forgetting that there’s precious little that’s always been done in precisely the same way. Even baptism and communion have changed their format over the centuries. I’ll hear complaints sometimes when the words of a hymn have been changed from the way the hearer once heard them. Freshening up the language bothers some self-described purists. And then maybe they discover that the original words of the Christmas carol “Hark, the herald angels sing” were “Hark how all the welkin rings,” and no one wants to sing about welkin ringing any more, even though that’s what Charles Wesley wrote, because no one has any idea what that word “welkin” means. Or they’ll wonder why the words of the Advent hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” have been changed to “Of the Parent’s Heart Begotten.” Is this just political correctness run amok? And then they learn that the original Latin text from the fourth century was “Corde natus ex parentis”—meaning “of the parent’s heart begotten.” If traditions don’t modify, if they don’t adapt to changing times, they calcify—they become the dead faith of the living.
The thing about traditions is that not every habit we practice at Federated, in either of our services, will speak to everyone. So that’s why we both hang onto some traditions and let others go. We’re always seeking to discern what still speaks to us and what has lost its power. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, once said this in trying to get at what the heart of tradition is: “[All] religions start from mysticism. There is no other way to start a religion. . .. I compare this to a volcano that gushes forth . . . and then . . . the magma flows down the sides of the mountain and cools off. And when it reaches the bottom, it’s just rocks. You’d never guess that there was [once] fire in it. So after a couple of hundred years, or two thousand years or more, what was once alive is [now] dead rock. Doctrine becomes doctrinaire. Morals become moralistic. Ritual becomes ritualistic. What do we do with it? We have to push through this crust and go to the fire that’s within it.”
Push through the crust and get to the magma-like fire that’s always cooling into rocks. Find the light and the heat and the life that can so easily petrify and solidify. When Paul talks about “holding fast to the traditions,” he means there’s something fiery that’s being transmitted, something life-giving that’s being passed down from one generation to the next. The word Paul uses for “traditions” means something like “what’s been entrusted to us”—as though it’s a precious treasure or jewel. What’s been entrusted to us isn’t just words and hymns and rituals, though it is also that. What’s been given into our safe-keeping is a piece of news that is life-altering and world-transforming. At its core, it is quite literally saving. It makes all the difference between a life well-lived and a life that may be lost and off-center. What’s being passed on is the good news of Jesus Christ, and for us who believe, it is the very heart of life. In another letter of his, Paul says, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received” (I Corinthians 15:3), and he goes on to set out the good news of God—that Christ lived and died and was raised from the dead. And then he says, “[B]y the grace of God I am what I am, and [the] grace [of the risen Christ] toward me has not been in vain” (I Corinthians 15:10).
The soul of the tradition that has been passed on to us is just that: that the grace of God toward us has not been in vain. It has shaped us. It has filled us with light. It has given us hope. It has sent us forth to do the work of love. The good news of God is utterly life-saving. It sets us free and empowers us to serve Christ’s world.
Frank Ostaseski is something of a pioneer in the hospice movement, a leader in the field of end-of-life care. “At the end of life,” he says, “it gets really simple: am I loved; did I love well?” You want a pithy summation of the gift and challenge of the gospel of Jesus Christ? That’s it: “At the end of life, it gets really simple: am I loved; did I love well?”
In a world where performance is everything, where untruths thrive, where selfishness so often reigns, this is radical stuff. In a world where love is contingent and affection is conditional, this is the news we all most need to hear. When parents, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly, make it clear that the giving of their affection is dependent on good grades and athletic success and proper manners; when employers convey in all sorts of ways that approval rests on closing the deal or making the sale or succeeding in the project; when spouses are sometimes far more eager to set up marital rules and expectations than they are to convey their undying love—in such a world, the gospel is water to a parched wanderer in the desert. The good news is that, even in the midst of a dry lifelessness, or a deadened hope, or an egregious failure, you are loved just as you are. Life doesn’t depend on your successes and accomplishments. Your family, the church, your workplace—you contribute in extraordinarily valuable ways. But ultimately it is God who makes it all go. And our work is simply for all of us, each in our own way, to get on board the holy train that is sublimely transforming the world. Our work is to walk in the ways of justice and love, God always holding our hands and guiding us.
What a gift this magnificent tradition is! Its substance is drastically counter-cultural. And precisely for that reason, it is the great and glorious good news. For those who join Federated today, and indeed for all of us, it is, in truth, the best news possible. God loves us. God welcomes us all into the fold. And God empowers us to serve, to care, to make a difference. This is the astoundingly grace-filled tradition we have received. And for all of us, new and longtime members alike, it is the thrilling tradition we gratefully and joyfully pass on. May it always be so.