August 29, 2021
When I was growing up, living in North Carolina, we made it a big family tradition that the whole extended family would gather at my grandparent’s house to celebrate Labor Day with a cookout. They’d borrow the long church tables and set them up in the carport and along the driveway, and we’d set out all the food and it would be a great time. It was a potluck, so there was always a variety to choose from. But for whatever reason—and to this day I still don’t know quite why—the meat was not potluck. Everyone had to bring their own burger, or hot dog, or whatever else. I remember being very confused by that as a child, but no one ever explained to me exactly why it was that, while we shared everything else, we didn’t share the protein part. It was tradition.
Traditions are weird like that. They’re things that we do, day after day or year after year, and they’re important to us. But also, more often than not, we rarely take the time to ask why we have the traditions we have. Church hymnals are always red or green. We always plant potatoes on Good Friday. There is always a get-together at the cabin over Labor Day. Grandma always leads the prayer when we’re visiting.
And sometimes we can find the reasons behind those traditions, but there are some that are so ingrained that we’ve forgotten the origin, and no one is allowed to ask why we do it, even when they didn’t start that long ago! There was an experiment using monkeys, where a group of ten monkeys were all put in a room. In the center was a ladder, and at the top of the ladder, a basket of fruit was hanging from the ceiling. The catch was that every time a monkey would try to climb up the ladder to get the fruit down, the scientists would turn on the sprinkler system and all the monkeys would get sprayed until the one on the ladder came down. It didn’t take long before the monkeys would drag whoever was trying to climb up the ladder down.
But then the scientists started replacing monkeys, one by one. And the new monkeys would learn the rule—if you go near the ladder, everyone will beat you up. Do not go near the ladder. Until, after replacing all the monkeys, the scientists took the fruit away too. Now, even without the fruit and without the sprinklers having gone off for any of the monkeys currently in the room, they still wouldn’t allow any monkey to go near the ladder. None of them knew why you don’t go near the ladder, but they all knew the tradition. Traditions get ingrained, even when the reason for them is long gone.
When presented with this kind of “we’ve always done it that way” reasoning, my sister has never had any patience to just do it that way. It’s one of the things I’ve always admired about her that just doesn’t come naturally to me—she always asked why. And when it comes to traditions, the ways we’ve always done things, the assumptions we’ve carried without really examining them, asking why is vital. Especially when it comes to matters of faith. Asking why is the whole purpose of confirmation, which these young people here are completing today. When you ask why, it throws a light on traditions that might have been helpful before, but have served their purpose—or worse, are causing problems now.
That’s the kind of tradition that Jesus was pushing back against in today’s reading. The Pharisees and the scribes were very concerned with the way Jesus’ followers weren’t carrying on the traditions of the elders by ritually washing their hands. But they weren’t pointing it out because they were worried about the disciples eating with dirty hands—they were only pointing it out so they could judge Jesus and his followers. They wanted to use this tradition to put down Jesus and his disciples as being less faithful to God. And Jesus was upset by that, because he saw how they were more concerned with this tradition than they were with actually doing God’s will in the world.
The thing is, if faithfulness was just a matter of blindly following tradition—washing your hands, or always using a red hymnal or never going up the ladder—then it would be really easy. Can you imagine if our whole faith lives could be boiled down to how well we followed a set of rules that no one ever questioned? Do this, don’t do that, don’t ask why and never upset the status quo. If faithfulness was nothing more than checking boxes on what we do or don’t do, then faithfulness would be pretty easy. But it’s not the outward actions that Jesus is most concerned with. He’s focused on the heart.
We tend to think of the heart as where our emotions come from, and that Jesus is instructing us to lead with our feelings. But the Hebrew understanding of the heart—and the understanding that Jesus was using—is that the heart is the source of commitment and character. Your heart is the center of who you are, the core principles that guide you, the commitments you make, the things you list as the most important to your life. So when he talks about the things that come from the heart, he’s talking about your character—who you are and what you value and how you show those values to others.
Does the gospel reach our hearts? Does the love for neighbor, the overriding importance of how God calls on us to show mercy and grace to others, does that rule our hearts? Or are we more concerned with tradition, going through the motions that make us look good, but don’t challenge us to do more? James compared it to a person who is a hearer and a person who is a doer. If all we do is hear the gospel, hearing the good news and smiling nicely at how good God is, but then never taking it to heart, never letting it change who we are, never letting the gospel truth guide our decisions in the world, then we’re only hearers and not doers.
Confirmands, in a couple minutes y’all are going to be making some serious promises. You’re going to be claiming this faith as your own, and the next steps are yours. Be doers of the gospel, letting the things that you’ve learned these past four years guide your decisions and the ways that you show mercy and grace to others. Don’t shy away from the ways that the gospel challenges the world to be better, to love more deeply, to show more compassion, to forgive and build others up. Listen for what God is calling you to do so that everyone will be able to see Jesus by what you do in the world.
And if what God is calling you to looks different from the traditions of your elders, that’s okay. We usually want our children to follow in our footsteps, and do things just the same way that we did. But this is going to be your faith now, and God is going to shape your life in whatever way God chooses. If that looks like doing church differently, being faithful in ways that look different from the faithfulness of your elders, we are trusting you to hear God in it. We, your elders and your congregation, are trusting that God is at work in you, even when it doesn’t look the same as when God is at work in us. Because we trust that your hearts are set on Jesus.
So let your hearts be changed by Jesus. May we all ask why about our traditions so that they will always serve God and the mission we share. Let’s be doers of the word and not just hearers, because the world needs us to do the gospel in Jesus’ name, whether we have been confirmed long ago, or we were just confirmed today.
Thanks be to God. Amen.