(Psalm 112, Hebrews 13:1-9, 2 Cor. 4:7)
This past week we drove out to Montana for a family reunion in the mountains. At the family reunion, we were blessed to receive an unexpected inheritance from my grandmother, my father’s mother, Margaret.
I never met Margaret. She died when my dad was still a boy. The loss deeply shaped his life and the lives of my aunt and uncle and grandfather, and the rest of the family. Her absence has been with us all for all of my life and long before. So it was quite expected receive something from her. The inheritance we all received was not money or property, but something much more astonishing.
I come from a religious family – which is probably not surprising. So much so that it’s the tradition at these reunions to have a worship service together. Because I’m now the reverend in the family – I have a cousin who’s a chaplain in the Navy, but she’s stuck in Germany – it fell to me to preside over the service. I got my dad to give the sermon (which is good for him, because he’s been criticizing other people’s sermons for years – he did a beautiful job) and my aunt did the music, a cousins of theirs did the readings and a prayer, and I presided. The culmination of the service was going to be a time of remembrance for everyone from the family who had died, going back to the original settlers, my great-grandparents.
Before the service an older cousin of my dad’s came up to me and handed me an old folded piece of paper, and said “I found this. Can you use in the service?” I looked at it, and saw it was a carefully typed piece of writing, dated 1932 and signed by Margaret Swenson, my grandmother.
“What is this?” It was a prayer, in the form of a poem that my grandmother had written for the year anniversary of the death – the unexpected death – of her mother, my great-grandmother Johanna.
So in the service, during the time of remembrance of those past, we spoke the names of all the siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who are all buried in the northern prairies of this continent, and we projected their images and lit candles for each. And then to fulfill this time of memorial, I prayed the words of the grandmother I never knew, who had prayed those words in memorial of her mother, the matriarch of everyone who was gathered 80-some later.
Those words were words of blessed assurance, words of sadness and comfort and hope. They were words of faith and a steady prairie piety. And they were words that held a spiritual vision, a vision of heaven:
Where “praises ring in endless ecstasies of rapture/ and glory overshadows those about the throne. / There Love, the perfect Love of God, unbounded / Indwells and permeates the great angelic throng.”
That’s just a taste of the poem. It was beautiful. I’ll tell you, there weren’t many dry eyes. Which is a big deal for my family – we’re not very emotional people, we’re the stoic descendants of hard-bitten rural Swedes who settled and farmed in North Dakota. Something was happening in the praying of that prayer that was just overwhelming for everybody. That prayer connected us to the spirit of our forebears. And more than that, it connected us across time and space to something that was eternal.
Now, this connection, this holy moment, was real and alive for us and for me regardless of the fact that my grandmother’s poem expressed a couple of points of beliefs that I, in my hubris, have got theological quibbles with. Who cares? I shouldn’t even mention it, except that it’s building the point I’m trying to make. A couple of little differences in belief didn’t matter here, because those words resonated to the soul, the Spirit was breaking through. Something was moving, beyond our comprehension. That’s what’s important.
Religious faith is something that we inherit from those who have come before. For many of us that’s family. But many of us have been called into a religious faith that’s different from our families’ – and in that case we’re still inheriting a Word and a Way that’s been passed down through generations of communities of faith.
Faith is something we inherit, something we receive from others but only really receive when we discover for ourselves what is life-giving for us in our place and time. Faith is something that is old, but that is made new through us. New, renewed, renewing.
God is still speaking for those who have ears to hear.
This means that it’s not like we have to take it all or not take it at all. Sometimes we have to separate the wheat from the chaff in the tradition.
Faith – vital, living faith – is old fashioned, yet ever newly fangled. It draws from tradition and from old wisdom and it remembers the old stories about how God moved through our ancestors in the faith. And yet the heart of the matter is about Now, about how the Spirit breaks through Here and Now – about new waters raining down to kiss the parched land and to fill us where we are broken and to flow through us as we are moved into new life together.
Every time the Spirit moves like this it changes the tradition a bit. The tradition is the container for the living water. It’s like those beautiful slot canyons where you can see how the rock has been shaped by the rains and floods.
Old, yet open to the flow. Old-fashioned, yet ever newly fangled. It’s a balance.
When religious communities get too attached to their tradition, take it all or not at all, everything gets dry and rote and fearful and defensive … and often repressive. Insisting on religious tradition can become an excuse for denying our own sins, and the sins of our forebears. It can become an excuse for just plowing ahead with the same huge blind-spots. This is dangerous.
But it’s also a sad thing. Because this approach can block us from becoming transformed with the new life that God always offers.
This is why a lot of people throw out Christianity or any religious tradition – and worse, throw out the baby with the bathwater and get rid of God and Jesus altogether and in the process let a body of wisdom bequeathed by those who have come before just sit left behind.
This body of wisdom is very important, and it’s in the Bible, regardless of how often that Bible gets thrown at people, or gets thrown out.
Take what we hear about in our readings for today. Here are precepts, guides for living rightly, that help us to live well and live in a way that’s connected to God, the source of all life. These aren’t just random rules of fusty fogeys getting fussy about about kids these days. This is wisdom, hard won wisdom, wisdom that people didn’t want their children to learn the hard way like maybe they did. And wisdom that even came through divine revelation that people treasured and passed down.
If you live by the sword, you die by the sword. If you sew the wind, you’ll reap the whirlwind. So don’t return evil for evil, and treat people kindly and justly. Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Honor sacred commitments, such as marriage. Keep your lives free from love of money. The bible is full of this kind of wisdom … this is not just good advice, but a challenge to us to live with eye to what is eternal, and heart rooted in the Love of God.
Now – I have to admit – the bible does have some of the fussy fusty kinda stuff … as well as some truly damaging stuff. That’s why we need to be open to what God is teaching us here and now, challenging us to evolve morally, and to be transformed by the new ways that living waters flow through this inherited vessel.
I can’t judge anyone for walking away or staying away from a church that has only hurt them. If you’ve suffered the sins of the tradition, all I can do as a pastor is repent as I can on behalf of the church, and offer the blessing of peace and healing, however, wherever you find that. I must also say, for what it’s worth, that those who’ve been sincerely walking in the Way of Jesus, throughout history, are large and do contain multitudes – there are currents through this tradition that do carry a true, living, life-giving Spirit despite the flaws of the human tradition.
For those of us who are gathered here, I know that one way or another you have tasted that living Spirit or you are yearning for it and sense how it can flow through communities who gather together in this way, this old fashioned yet ever newly fangled way.
I think it’s important for us to know that this is what we offer as the community of First Congregational Church: Connection with ancient wisdom, with a faith that has helped countless generations survive and thrive and discover God at work through all life’s challenges. And we offer what is new and renewing, in a fresh connection with a living Spirit that can transform our lives.
Thanks be to God.