“Look to the rock from which you were hewn …” Isaiah 51:1ff
I know. I know. “Tradition” is not exactly the first word that comes to mind as a reason NOT to be afraid. For some people – perhaps younger generations of meaning-seekers – traditions may very well be the SOURCE of anxiety and fear: Christmas family gatherings, going to church, formal social meetings and events. Traditions can carry a heaviness with it. I get it.
But I’m standing here today to tell you that Tradition is meant to free us from fear. Okay, let’s be clear: As with everything, there is good (Tradition) and bad (traditions). I’m not talking about the small “t” traditions that Jesus often criticized the religious leaders of this time. He called them out for “abandoning the commandments of God for the sake of human traditions” (Mark 7:8).
I AM talking about the kind of big “T” Tradition that Saint Paul writes about in one of the earliest written texts in the New Testament — only a couple short decades after Jesus — in his second letter to the Thessalonians: he exhorts the people there “to hold fast” to the Tradition you received from the leaders of the church (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
We’re not talking about those habits of being and doing that give us false comfort and security, even in the church; these traditions — do I need to list some? — that really have little to do with the big “T” Tradition of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel big “T” Tradition speaks to the heart — salvation and healing that begins in the inner life of faith, and then is reflected in attitudes, behaviours and lifestyles consistent with the mission of God in the world.
How do we tell the difference? And how can we appreciate the Tradition so that we are not dominated and driven by fear?
The 3 “Re- ‘s”: Re-member, Re-turn, Re-lease. Now, before I talk about each one, I will stress that all three are important together. If you don’t balance all three, you will likely fall back into a “bad” tradition, which will only fuel a fear-driven life. All three are important.
1. First, we need to Re-member the Tradition. Someone once said that faith is a rear-view mirror. And this “looking back” operates on at least two levels. First, we need to remember where we’ve come from, individually. Recall your past, your journey of life and faith. Review it in your mind’s eye: the major events of your life, good and bad, experiences that have shaped you and formed you. Remember the people who have been instrumental in your life, who have impacted your life, for better or for worse. Bring to your mind the values that, consequently, you have always held close to your heart — values and beliefs you know to be true in your life experience. Remember.
But also Remember that you are part of a long, historical Tradition of the church universal. The church today does not float untethered in its existence. The church — the community of the faithful exisits as part of a long, legacy and history and journey. The church is grounded in a history of proclamation, service and worship. It’s not just “our little church” thinking. The good Tradition is not isolationist and private in nature. Not just what we in this time and this place can do or have done.
Rather, Remembering the Traidtion of the church is about a public memory throughout the ages which we have inherited, and to which we belong. We are a part of the Tradition spanning time and space. Think of all the Christians baptized at this and every font over the past 2,000 years; think of the unity we are in Christ, “one body” (Romans 12), connected not only today with one another when we celebrate the Holy Communion, but with all the saints in heaven and on earth of every time and place.
We Remember our own lives and the life of the community in this great Tradition to which we belong. And this awareness can be a source of great comfort and confidence, enough to diminish the power of fear in our lives.
But growth and transformation in anyone does not occur by thinking about things alone, but by doing something about it.
2. Which brings us to the second “Re-“. Not only must we Remember, we must also Re-turn. We must return to some kind of spiritual discipline, whether it is coming regularly to worship, beginning some daily prayer regime, start reading that devotional book you’ve always put off, or talk to that someone whom you admire for their Christian lifestyle but never initiated any kind of conversation with them.
Because when it boils down to it, each and everyone of us in this room is returning, beginning over again, each time we pray, each time we show up here, each time we help our neighbour — no one is an expert, in a sense. We all need to return and begin again before our Lord, on our knees in confession and in praise.
Returning to some part of the Christian tradition, regularly, has helped countless of people throughout the ages quell their greatest fears. For this practice to have an enduring benefit in our lives, returning cannot be a one-time event.
Sometimes we try something new — go to a prayer group meeting, go to a worship service, start reading the bible — and something in that experience of doing it the first time distracts us, throws us off, or turns us off — and we give up, go home and pass immediate judgement on it, saying, “That’s not for me.”
Would you evaluate your judgement in the context of our culture of instant gratification? How much we are influenced by our high-octane, entertainment-driven culture with every kind of communication being reduced to ten-second sound bytes? How much does this cultural influence affect our approach to worship, and prayer, and simply being the church together? When we are not immediately gratified by the experience, we assume there is something wrong with it, instead of something wrong with ourselves.
I haven’t met yet a strong Christian who hasn’t come to their maturity without having had to struggle with it at times, but through it all still kept at praying, continued to attend worship. In short, not giving up too easily.
Return to the Lord your God — is the call during the Lenten season. Indeed, a worthy reminder to keep returning throughout the whole year.
Remembering the Tradition leads to Returning to the Tradition. But we can’t stop there, for the danger of becoming compulsive control freaks. We can become so zoned in to the discipline that it becomes counterproductive to our faith.
It’s like the man who was so scared to fly, but went anyway on a trip he’d always wanted to take. During the flight he couldn’t relax, but gripped his armrests without letting go. Even though the flight was remarkably turbulence free, he remained tense. The stewardess observed his behaviour and tried to settle him down. She approached him, and said, “My, what a calm flight; it’s going so smoothly you can hardly tell we’re in the air!”
To which, the man replied, “Darn right, and I want to keep it that way; that’s why I’m still holding up the plane!”
We can be so fixated on our action and discipline that we delude ourselves into falsely believing it is by the sheer might of our own determination, will-power and strength that we are accomplishing it. We may fall into the trap of works-righteousness, to which Martin Luther objected in his theology of “justification by grace alone.” It is not us who accomplish great things for the Lord. We have a part to play. Our intention and returning is important for our own good. But in the end, there’s something more at play.
3. That’s why, not only do we need to Remember, and Return — we need also to Release the Tradition into the world. I speak of a quality of our lives that is able to let go, a surrendering, of all that is important in our lives. “Getting out of the way of God”, as someone recently described to me.
The Good News is meant to be given away! Shared with others. NOT guarded, protected, contained, and kept private — but exactly the opposite. What is important to us must also be entrusted to others.
The Tradition is not just for you and me. It is not just about you and me. It is about the mission of God to others in the world around us. It is not ours to own, it is ours to give away, to Release.
The Tradition is experienced like recreational fishing is: We catch it, but then we release it. “Catch and Release.”
The Tradition can also be described as “Back to the Future”. It operates like a sling shot: We first reach back (Remembering and Returning) in order to move forward (Release).
When we Remember, Return, and Release our Tradition, we remain grounded in God, and therefore need not be afraid.
How can we do this? The only way we can, I believe, is because God first loved and chose us (John 15:16). In other words, we can Remember, Return, and Release our Tradition because God first and always Remembered us, Returns to us, and Releases us.
God remembered us. In Isaiah there is this beautiful verse that describes how God will never forget us and will always hold us in the palm of his hand and remember us. For example, (49:15) “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget you, yet I will not forget you.” Even if we forget him at some point in our lives, God will never forget us.
God returned to us in Jesus Christ, once and for all in his sacrifice and resurrection. And through the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to return to us in Word, Sacrament and in the gathering of the faithful. These opportunities present themselves over and over again even if we’re not ready at a particular point in time.
God released us from the shackles of sin, freeing us from the condemnation of death. Therefore God is faithful to us, believes in us, to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world for the sake of God’s mission. Even when we lose faith in ourselves, when we hold on so tightly to our own lives that we cannot lose them, release them, for Christ’s sake, God continues to stand by us and will never give up on us and on his purpose to free us.
At the end of the Isaiah text for today is a promise that sums up God’s promise, that God’s “salvation will be forever; his redemption will never end.” No matter what. Therefore, we need not be afraid.