From Tradition to Insight


Mark 7:1-8, 14-15

Marsh Chapel, Boston University

The challenge of preaching, and of our preaching this autumn, is to translate tradition into insight. To announce the gospel is to translate the tradition into insights for effective living. Our gathering, actual and virtual, come Sunday, moves us along the path from tradition to insight.

Today’s Gospel provides a feast and a tangle of traditions, variously entwined. At depth, Mark 7 rests on the prophetic insight that one does not speak of God by speaking of the human in a loud voice. Jesus’ citation is from Isaiah. One tradition from Hebrew Scripture is set above and before another set of practices, involving cleanliness and holiness. Then we also have a translation, of sorts, explaining Jewish practices, in Greek, for a largely Greek community. We have, too, an assumed distinction between the traditions of the Pharisees and others, carried by Mark for his church into another kind of insight. The relationship, in religious life, of holiness and compassion, and their balances, it could be said, is crucial to our life in the 21st century. Every global religious tradition, ours included—need this be said in the shadows of Methodism and Wesley?—wrestles mightily with their comparative strengths. Tradition, insight. Come Sunday, we try to translate the tradition into insights for effective living. We try to remember that the Sabbath was made for the human being, not the human being for the Sabbath. Likewise, liturgy. Likewise, hymnody. Likewise, homily. Likewise, community. Here, as we happily celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the very heart of our tradition, we remember, discover and celebrate moments of insight in tradition.

It is insight for effective living that is the gift of tradition rightly rendered. Today the preacher interprets Mark, and Mark Jesus, and Jesus Isaiah, and Isaiah a holiness tradition.

1. Invitation

One insight welling up from a rich tradition, remembered Come Sunday, lies in the power of an invitation. We offer ourselves to God in worship in response to an invitation. We feel the insight of the New England poet regarding seven moments of insight symbolized in the sanctuary, and opening our ordinary time worship for this autumn, beginning at the communion rail of invitation:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring

I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away

And wait to watch the water clear I may

I shan’t be gone long. You come too.

You come too.

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sin and are in love and charity with your neighbors and intend to lead a new life following the commandments of God, draw near with faith, and take this sacrament to your comfort. Abstain from evil, practice good, worship God. Enter the front of door of Christianity by faithfulness, devotion and tithing. At the rail we move from tradition to the insight of invitation.

2. Embrace

A second insight welling up from rich tradition come in a musical voice, sometimes a choral voice. For the Wesleys, hymnody was about embrace, love, evangelism, even when, for a time, one refrains from embracing. Here is Frost’s voice again:

As I came to the edge of the woods,

Thrush music — hark!

Now if it was dusk outside,

Inside it was dark.

Faith is not only a walk in the dark. Faith is a song in the dark. The chancel harmony, SATB, reminds us of the four voices in every Gospel text: the soprano of Jesus’ teaching; the alto—most important—of its formation in the early church; the tenor of the evangelist; and the bass line of historic church interpretation. Embrace, musical embrace, moves us from tradition to insight, in the chancel of love.

3. Grace

A third insight from tradition, and resting in the baptismal font, lies in the recollection of the gifts we have received, from the One who from our mothers arms has blessed us on our way. In poetic verse we could say:

A neighbor of mine in the village

Likes to tell how one spring

When she was a girl on the farm

She did a childlike thing

One day she asked her father

To give her a garden plot

To plant and tend and reap for herself,

And he said, ‘Why not’?

It is humility we gain at the font, by remembering that we are saved by what we receive, not by what we achieve. Ortega taught: Yo soy yo y mis circunstancias. The Spanish have a saying: dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres. From Marney to Forbes to Hill: to translate the tradition into insights for effective living: grace at the font.

4. Teaching

Insight in teaching arises from the reading and hearing of Scripture. To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the words of the tradition, is finally to gain insight about how to communicate, and so how to live. And communication is a delicate art:

Don’t you remember what it was you said?

First tell me what you thought you heard?

Grace moves us, prevenient grace, from being self centered to becoming centered selves (Tillich). We remember with our freshman coming today the words of Romans 12: let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast…

In the reading of Scripture an ear culture invades our e-culture. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

5. Height

There is a fifth, central way, in which we gain insight for living, out of our tradition, represented so wonderfully here at Marsh Chapel in these beautiful stained glass windows. They remind us, story by story, of those women and men who found the courage and strength to gain by losing, to offer themselves in committed service, and to keep their commitments.

In season and out, to choose something like a star:

It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

6. Commitment

Today we have gathered at the Lord’s Table to renew again our way of living. We hear and trust the grace of God carries us forward, as we make and keep our several commitments. To this table we come, as generations before and after have done. We come for pause, for the existential snow that makes things slow. We come for meaning, belonging and empowerment. We come to celebrate presence, remembrance and thanksgiving. We come to live our commitments, and to remember that sin is the neglect of doing specific acts of kindness and love. We want, as Wesley said, to do all the good we can, in all the ways we can, in all…

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse
near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

7. Vocation

From tradition to insight. Rail, chancel, font, lectern, nave, altar, pulpit. Every sermon is a call to decision.

We become who we are by the choices we make. Many of these are relatively small decisions. A turn to the left, a turn to the right. In one sense, every sermon, including this one, is a call to decision. To walk in the light…To discern one’s calling is the work of a whole lifetime, marked along the way by choices, smaller and larger and smaller still. You will make some choices this week, but the question is whether you will be alert and awake. Not to miss the moment. To meet the moment. To master the moment. To be mastered by the moment. Not to miss the Christ in life. To meet the Christ. To master Christ’s teachings. And so to be mastered by him.

The night before we made the decision to come to Boston, at a nearby restaurant, she asked to remember this poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

May this be a week, this coming week, of invitation, of embrace, of learning, of grace, of height, of commitment, and of vocation.

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