It’s an old story, this one, and one with roots not in malice, but rather, youth and ignorance. It is when I first began to discern what mattered and what didn’t in ministry.
I was a young pastor serving a small, rural church. The people there were kind and they were kind to their pastor.
When I began my ministry there I quickly learned it was their practice to simply come forward for communion in a line, to stand before the pastor who gave them the bread and the council member who held the chalice of wine, to receive the sacrament, dipping the wafer into the wine and then move on, making room for the next one in line. This is fairly common practice today. In the late 1980’s, in my experience, not so much.
It never occurred to me then to even ask why they did this. Looking back now I find my lack of curiosity striking, but that also may just have been a result of my youthful inexperience. And so it was that when our first Lent together rolled around I thought to suggest another way…that for the season leading up to Holy Week and Easter perhaps we could celebrate the sacrament instead by kneeling at the altar and receiving it by ‘table.’ Lent, after all, is a season of penitence, and kneeling would seem especially appropriate then. To be sure, this was fresh in my mind from a recent seminary class and being a ‘newly minted’ pastor I was eager to serve faithfully in the ways I had been taught.
And so on the first Sunday in Lent we knelt for communion. Again, remember these were kind people and they had a deep respect for the office of pastor and so almost without exception they would accept the pastor’s suggestions even if they were dumb. I’ll never forget that morning as the good people of St. Paul Lutheran Church did as their pastor asked. Winifred, the matriarch of the congregation, sat on the right hand side near the back. She was a round faced woman whose wrinkles had been etched from years of smiling. Indeed, she was not young and her knees were not what they used to be. After most of the rest of the congregation had come forward, Winifred made her way to the front as well and knelt with all the rest. I remember wincing to watch as she struggled to get up again. And it hit me that this was why the people of St. Paul Lutheran Church did not kneel to receive the sacrament. They did not do so out of kindness. If Winifred could not kneel, then no one would. The next week we quietly returned to standing as the bread and wine were shared.
The questions, of course, are indirectly posed by this week’s Gospel. “Why do we do what we do?” “Is it rooted in God’s intent for us or is it simply our ‘human traditions’ which guide and inform us?” “What matters and what doesn’t?”
Now to be sure a lot of our ‘human traditions’ may well be rooted in a great deal of good. Although they are far outside my own experience, and I would be hard pressed to explain them, I am certain this was also true of the practices observed by the Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson. Only Jesus would remind us, along with the prophets of old, that what we speak or the rituals we keep mean nothing at all if our lives are less than charitable. In the same way, while what we do on the outside can enhance our faith, such practices also may have no bearing at all. It is, finally, what comes out of us that is a truer reflection of who we are, not what goes into us.
It’s not the same thing, of course. Kneeling to receive the sacrament is not the same as the hand-washing rituals practiced by the Pharisees. And yet, perhaps the point is the same in the end. For I expect Jesus was happier with the people of my first congregation for their kindness than he would have been had they continued to kneel simply because it had always been done that way. One, of course could argue that they went overboard, that just because one couldn’t kneel doesn’t mean the others shouldn’t. Still, I have always thought of their collective ritual action as simply kind. And I’ve never forgotten the lesson learned that season about paying attention and going deeper and raising questions about what matters and what doesn’t.
- What do you make of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees this week? How do we receive these ancient words and find meaning for them in our lives today?
- Can you think of examples of when what we’ve always done no longer works today? How do you think about what matters and what doesn’t? In the life of your congregation? In your own faith journey?
- What are the ‘human traditions’ which have marked and shaped your life of faith? What might you be called to reconsider?