November is this month of tradition. It’s when we most distinctly notice the darkening of the sky, the retreat of the light. And, perhaps because of that, we seek comfort. We move toward home, toward family, toward tradition. We remember our ancestors, especially if we are from a latino/hispanic family. We honor the sacrifices of the past by celebrating veterans day.
Many of us come home during the Thanksgiving holidays and most of us, I would imagine, have memories – good or bad – of Thanksgiving. We have traditions, customs – whether they be watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in your jammies, preparing your mom’s stuffing recipe, playing football with your brothers in the yard, or making paper turkeys by tracing your hand at school while learning about the pilgrims.
There is a turning and returning. A homecoming.
We seem to be feasting on this plentiful legacy we’ve been given. And sometimes the feast is delicious, filled with joy and abundance. Other times, this feast can be bitter, painful. For most of us, it’s probably somewhere in between.
Going home again is not always easy. Sometimes, because of that, we don’t go home. Or, we have found home elsewhere.
Thanksgiving, and the whole month of November, really, is this seemingly endless navigation through history, tradition, and family. And in this visitation during this darkening time of year, we prepare for the winter. We prepare for the end of the growing cycle. In a way, we prepare for death.
As church, we are certainly preparing for the end of the liturgical year. Next week is the last time we’ll wear green until after Christmas. We’re coming to the end of the long green season of Pentecost. In two weeks, we will celebrate Christ the King Sunday. And then we’ll begin our journey into a new liturgical year with the season of Advent.
And so it’s appropriate now, necessary even, to return to tradition, to return to our upbringing, to return to something familiar. It seems, somehow, important to take stock of the journey we’ve been on to prepare for what comes next. For we anticipate this thin space ahead of us in the coming of a new year.
St Paul tells us, in his letter to the Thessalonians, that we are called to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, for our glory in our sanctification through the Spirit. He tells us to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught…”
But what is it that we are holding tight to? What are these traditions we are taught? What are we being handed by our ancestors? What are we carrying forward into our life in Christ?
I always wonder about these things we call “tradition.” I wonder, because I think that not all traditions are helpful. And, if I’m honest, I get nervous by Paul’s directive here… “Hold fast to the traditions you were taught…”
After all, slavery was a tradition in this country. Keeping girls uneducated is a tradition in other countries. My stepfather getting drunk at the holidays was a “tradition” in my family. I’m not convinced tradition is always something we should hold tight to.
But then, we also have traditions like the Book of Common Prayer, Advent calendars, hot cider and donuts in the fall, and Easter egg hunts in the spring.
How do we know when we should give up a tradition in order to live into a new life? How do we know whether we are being called to “hold fast to the traditions” like Paul says or being called to lay tradition aside and be resurrected anew?
I like to think of tradition as a pot, the kind that holds a plant. A pot is a human made container whose purpose is to enable life. Tradition is just that – something inspired by God, but made by human hands, to provide nourishment for and enable and encourage life.
A family is such a container, hopefully. Religion is a container, again… hopefully. Tradition should be this life-enabling, life-encouraging container where we learn to know who we are by coming into contact with it as we grow.
Now, if you know about potted plants, there are some important things to consider about what kind of pot you choose to best encourage a plant to grow into its fullness of God’s glory. A large plant with a lot of roots, needs a large pot. But not just enough room for the roots, it needs one with enough soil in it so the roots can gather nutrients to feed the plant. Otherwise, the plant becomes root-bound. And when a plant becomes root-bound, a gardener knows it’s time to find a new pot.
However, what might be surprising is that a small plant is best kept in a small pot. If roots can’t come into contact with the container, they will devote too much energy to developing a large root system to fill the pot rather than devoting energy to growth – in height, leaves, or flowers.
The container must be appropriate to encourage life. Tradition must be appropriate to encourage growth. If tradition is not animating us, if it’s not offering proper support, if it’s not emboldening us to grow more deeply into God’s unbounded Love for us, by challenging us and inspiring us and inviting us… then, I think, we should be asking if it’s still appropriate.
This is true of all traditions – cultural, religious, familial. Is this tradition life-giving? Is this tradition one that is calling me to live into God’s future? Is this tradition one that brings me more deeply into the mystery of God?
And I think this is what Jesus was trying to tell the Sadducees. The Sadducees were a sect of Judaism did not believe in resurrection. And in today’s episode from the Gospel of Luke, a few of its members were trying to trip up Jesus. They were saying that resurrection couldn’t be true because the law says a man’s wife keeps marrying all the brothers in the family until children are born.
Now, regardless of how problematic you or I find that law to be (although it was a way to look after women who had no rights on their own) the Sadducees were merely using this as a way to argue against resurrection. Resurrection, they said, cannot be true because one woman could not be married to many different men in the afterlife. So, the Sadducees thought they had found an ironclad argument against resurrection because the idea of resurrection in the mind of the Sadducees, needed to be a duplication, a replica. The resurrected self is carbon copy of your current self.
And Jesus says, not true. Jesus says, resurrection is about what God needs you to be, not what tradition needs you to be. Your resurrected self will be nothing like your current worldly self. Resurrection is of God, not of this world.
God does not need tradition, we need tradition.
And there is nothing wrong with that. We need to feel connected to something. We need to have customs and ways. We need to know where we come from and have some kind of container that will give us what we need to grow.
But Jesus is telling us, let’s not confuse tradition with God. Let’s not confuse religion, or any of our cherished practices or beliefs with God. Jesus is warning against idols. Many cherished things can become idols.
Our traditions, our efforts, our money, our job, our role, our music, our shopping, our church, our family, our marriage, our ministry, our holiday traditions, our Bible, our BCP, our religion.
We can mistake any of these for the Reign of God. But they are not God. They can point to God and God can be present in them. They can be wonderful, rich, right-sized containers for allowing us to grow more deeply into the mystery.
But they are not God. They are not to be revered as such and they have no place in the Resurrection. And sometimes, many times, we are called to leave them behind. Traditions are important. But when they have ceased to serve God, God will shake you free of them, despite your opinion of the matter. And so we hold fast to them, yes, as Paul says. But as guides, not as gods.
So, in our journeys during this month of November, as the world grows darker and the leaves find their ways to the ground… as we return to our ancestors and families, whether in physical form or in memory, and we find ourselves living out those traditions and customs, those ways of being, I ask you to be mindful this year.
I’d like you to ask yourself if your traditions are truly life-giving.
Are they inviting you to live more deeply into your baptismal vows?
Are they bringing you and the people around you into closer relationship with God?
Or have your traditions become idols?
May your traditions this year be ones that enable you to grow and experience the unbounded mystery of God.