Saturday, April 30, 2016

Living Tradition for a Living People: Reflections on John 14.22-29 (RCL Easter 6C, 1 May 2016)

Living Tradition for a Living People
Reflections on John 14.22-29

RCL Easter 6C
1 May 2016

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Click here to listen to the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 Eucharist on Sunday the 1st.

Many you will be familiar with the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof which takes place in a small Russian village of Anatevka.  The story is set in the early years of the twentieth century as clouds of anti-Jewish persecution appear on the horizon.

The lead character, Tevye the milkman, is a poor Jewish man made even poorer in the eyes of the community by the fact that he has only daughters and no sons.  On top of all this he is living in a time when Judaism itself is experiencing the first stresses of the modern world and the emergence of Zionism.  Tevye is shaped by tradition, but he is soon to be tested.

His oldest daughter refuses to enter into an arranged marriage with an older but wealthy butcher.  She insists on marrying her beloved, a poor young tailor.  Tevye yields to the young couple's deviation from tradition.

The next oldest daughter falls in love with a young urban Jewish teacher who offers his services as a teacher in exchange for room and board.  It turns out he is secular, a socialist and a Zionist, not at all Tevye's cup of tea.  The young man is arrested and sent to Siberia.  The daughter chooses to follow her beloved into exile and leaves Anatevka on a train east, unmarried, alone and unfamiliar with the outside world.  Tevye yields to yet more deviation from tradition and sends her off with the wish that they might find a rabbi who can conduct the wedding.

But the next test proves too much.  The third daughter falls in love with a young Russian Christian, secretly converts and marries him.  Tevye shuns her despite the pleas of his wife and oldest daughter.  But, as the family is forced to leave Anatevka, the young woman and her husband choose to leave with the Jewish community, refusing to live in an anti-Semitic community.  Tevye's wife appeals to him once more and he yields to one more departure from tradition.  He permits his wife to tell the young couple where they can find Tevye and the rest of the family in America.

Some people may see Tevye's story as one that chronicles the disintegration of tradition.  It might seem that Tevye loses his tradition, his home, his livelihood, his daughters, his identity shaped over many generations.

But this is not how I see it.  Tradition is not found in the rote repetition of what has been done in the past.  This is, what some people call, 'the dead faith of the living'.  Tradition is 'the living faith' that forms the core of a community's identity.  This core helps any community negotiate the rapids that arise when the river of our shared history encounters the new and changing terrain of the present.

At the beginning of today's gospel Judas asks Jesus, in some many words, 'How are we going to carry on?  What is to be our tradition?'  Jesus replies simply, 'I am your tradition and you will become the living agents of this tradition.'  To borrow a more recent phrase, popular among some young people, tradition is what Jesus would do today in this place and in these circumstances.

Jesus alludes to this in today's gospel:  'But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.'  (John 14.26)  God's Spirit speaks to us

  • through the Scriptures;
  • through contemporary prophets, both Christian and non-Christian;
  • through the experience of communities of faith as they respond to the challenges of contemporary life;
  • through our individual consciences as we consider our ethical choices.

What remains constant is this:  we are to do justice, to love God and our neighbour steadfastly and to walk humbly with God as stewards of the abundance of God's goodness to us and to all creation.

This is the tradition that we as Christians have shared throughout the centuries.  It is the tradition embodied in the life and teaching of Jesus.  It is the tradition breathed upon us through the Spirit of God.

Like Tevye we find ourselves like a fiddler on the roof.  We play the music of the gospel in full view of the world.  But, as we play on the roof, we are perched precariously, buffeted by the winds, distracted by what is going on below us and subjected to the assaults of rain, snow, sleet and hail.  The tune we play is an ancient one, but the keys and variations we use are those of our own times and circumstances.

So here we are.  Two thousand years ago a traditional tune was composed and handed over to generations of believers to play.  Over the millennia those believers have been faithful to a song of justice, of compassion and of humility.  We do not play that tune exactly as our predecessors, but they would recognize the tune.  It is a melody we play for our neighbours.

This, my friends, is tradition, the living faith of a living community serving this fragile earth, our island home.

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