This sermon was preached on Sunday, August 17, 2014 at Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, NC on Matthew 15:10-20.

Marc Chagall, "The Fiddler"
Marc Chagall, “The Fiddler”

In the fall of 1964, the musical Fiddler on the Roof came to Broadway, and five years later it became a movie. Set in early 20th-century Russia, it tells the story of Tevye, the father of five daughters. Tevye strives to defend his family and their Jewish religious traditions from threats from within—the willfulness of his own daughters—and threats from without—the persecution of Jews in imperial Russia.

In the opening number of the musical, Tevye acknowledges that he and his way of life face many challenges. But, he says, there is one thing that holds it all together: Tradition! Tradition is what helps him keep his balance. “Without tradition,” says Tevye, “our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

Tradition in belief and practice binds us to one another across time and space and gives us a shared center of balance. Tradition is one of the four elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral consists of four fundamental ways of doing theology in the way that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, did.

In the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Scripture is primary, and then there is reason, experience, and tradition. This image doesn’t quite work since Scripture bears more weight, but imagine for a moment the quadrilateral as a four-legged stool. Without tradition, our way of understanding God is shaky and off-balance—like a fiddler on the roof.

The word tradition comes from Latin roots meaning “give” and “across”—tradition is that which is given to us across the centuries, that which is handed down by those who went before. Christian scholar Jaroslov Pelikan calls it “the living faith of the dead.”

But Pelikan contrasts tradition with something that often passes for tradition, and that is traditionalism. Traditionalism is tradition for tradition’s own sake. If tradition is “the living faith of the dead,” then “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

In Matthew 15, the Pharisees are practicing the dead faith of the living. In their obsessive attention to tradition for tradition’s sake, they have fallen into traditionalism.

Most of chapter 15 shows Jesus debating with the Pharisees about the value and application of their religious rules. In the verses before the passage we just read, the Pharisees accuse the disciples of breaking the elders’ rules because they do not wash their hands before they eat. Jesus reprimands them for prioritizing their own religious customs above God’s commands, asking this question: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”

Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus pushes back when adherence to religious custom is given more importance than the needs of real people. Seven times in the Gospels, he breaks the Sabbath by healing the sick, the lame, and the blind. He allows his disciples to break religious rules because they are hungry. And he chastises the religious leaders whose purity codes would keep them from interacting with those who are sick or those who are simply not like them.

Jesus turns traditionalism on its head to remind us why tradition is there in the first place—not to make us feel good or important but to keep us in balance, to keep us connected to God and to our neighbor.

Many of us Christians feel the need to protect ourselves from bad influences. We make Christian friends, listen to Christian radio, shop at Christian businesses, and eat Christian chicken sandwiches (just not on Sundays).

None of these things are bad. Having community with those who share our beliefs is indispensible to spiritual growth—it’s part of participating in tradition. But it’s not the whole picture.

The insularity so typical of Christianity is lightyears away from Jesus’ example. Jesus was constantly hanging out with the wrong people: Gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, even women! He spent most of his time not with the religious elite but with sinners. Jesus’ closest companions were all the people that no one wanted.

And Jesus never seems worried that they will be a bad influence on him. Of course, this is Jesus we’re talking about, and he does have the unfair advantage of being sinless in the first place.

But over and over, Jesus does things that by the religious standards of the day should make him unclean. He touches a woman with hemorrhages. He visits men with leprosy. And in the part of Matthew 15 right after what we read today, he speaks with a Canaanite woman, a foreigner of the wrong gender. And never does Jesus seem concerned that any of this might contaminate him. Jesus is not concerned with what goes in, and so what comes out is compassion and healing.

Jesus is showing us that God’s command to honor life is more important than our fear of becoming unclean. That fear has not completely gone away with improvements in medical technology, the invention of hand sanitizer, and the development of a cure for leprosy.

Recently, two American doctors were infected with the Ebola virus while fighting the epidemic in western Africa. The devision was made to bring them to the United States for treatment at Emory. The public reaction was mostly negative, even cruel. It showed not only widespread ignorance about Ebola itself but also, more disturbingly, our tendency to let fear decide.

In response, Susan Grant, the chief nurse for Emory Healthcare, wrote a letter explaining why they decided to bring the Ebola patients to the U.S. Most of her letter includes reassurances about the health precautions being taken and underscores the importance of what we could learn from these patients, but the part that stuck with me was her final sentence: “We can fear, or we can care.”

These are the same options that Jesus implicitly names for us: “We can fear, or we can care.” If we allow our fear of what comes in to drive our words and actions, then what comes out will be anger and hate. In the immortal words of Yoda the Star Wars Jedi master, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” “We can fear, or we can care.”

Hospitality has recently become more and more of buzzword here at Centenary, as at many churches. Hospitality covers many, many things, from greeters to ushers to bulletins to fellowship folders to coffee to signage to donut holes. I’m very proud of how far Centenary has come in being a more welcoming and hospitable church, and since we’re doing such a great job, I want to challenge us to take it one step further.

Yesterday, I heard pastor and evangelism professor Elaine Heath speak at a conference. She reminded us that welcoming people here at the church is only part of the story of hospitality. The other part is about going out there, immersing ourselves in the messy world beyond the walls of the church.

Many churches, including ours, are getting better at saying, “Come.” But Jesus has something else to say to us. A few weeks ago, our guest preacher, Brian Combs, reminded us that the word Jesus uses most often in the Gospels is, “Go.” In the coming months, you are going to start seeing the word “Go” everywhere here at Centenary as we encourage ourselves to become the hospitable, Christlike church that we are both within these walls and without.

But, of course, the going and the messiness can be difficult and uncomfortable. When we get outside of our bubbles, what we encounter might challenge us. It might even trouble us. We will be tempted to crawl back into the safe zone of our Christian friends and Christian chicken sandwiches and stay there, keeping everything else out. How do we engage in the messiness of the world without simply becoming messes ourselves?

The answer may come in the form of a game. Comedian Tina Fey describes the rules of improvisation, starting with the first rule: say, “Yes.”

So, for example, if your improv partner points her finger toward you and says, “Freeze, I have a gun,” don’t say, “That’s not a gun, that’s just your finger.” If you do that, you’ve ruined the game. But if, instead, you say, “Oh no, not the gun I gave you for Christmas!”, then you’ve created a scene and started telling a story. Say, “Yes.”

The second rule of improvisation is this: say “Yes, and.” If your partner says, “It’s so hot in here,” don’t just say, “It sure it.” That’s saying yes, but it doesn’t get us anywhere. Instead, say, “What do you expect? We’re in hell,” or, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Say, “Yes, and.”

Tina Fey applies these rules to real life, but there is also an actual theological term for what she’s talking about. Sam Wells uses the same rules of improv to reframe an approach to Christian ethics. He says that whenever an actor is given an offer, she has two options: accept or block; say, “Yes” or “No.”

Too often, religious adherence becomes about blocking, saying no to any offer that seems like a threat to the established order. These are the fruits of traditionalism. The tradition that was supposed to keep us in balance has given way to the rules of tradition for tradition’s own sake. Blocking, or saying, “No” leads us to turn down what in many cases may be gifts from God in disguise.

But accepting, saying, “Yes” all the time is no better. Some offers are legitimately evil. Some of the messiness of this world can and will hurt us. The decision to bring the Ebola patients to the U.S. was not done without deliberate, intentional planning and preparation. Simply saying, “Yes” may not be enough in every case.

But Wells suggests a third way between accepting and blocking, between saying, “Yes” and saying, “No.” He calls it overacceptance. It is saying, “Yes, and.”

Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus overaccepts. Again and again, he says, “Yes, and” to the law, saying, “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you.” He does not negate the spirit of the law but takes it one step further. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer.’”

The ultimate overacceptance is the resurrection. Jesus is offered death, and he does not block, he does not say, “No.” But neither does he merely accept. Jesus dies, really dies, accepting the death that is offered to him, but he doesn’t stop there. He rises again from the dead, overaccepting the horror of the crucifixion and turning it into the salvation of the world.

Overacceptance is possible only because it is done against the backdrop of a bigger story. Tradition is how we learn that story in the first place, but the Pharisees have traded this collective memory for their traditionalism. They have forgotten that the tradition intended to balance and guide us is first and foremost a story about a God who created and loves everything that is. This God does not make rules—this God makes dirty things clean, calls the people no one wanted children of God, and turns death into life.

The children’s book The Tin Forest tells the story of an old man who lives in a place that is full of other people’s garbage. It is “filled with all the things that no one wanted.” Every day, the man looks in despair at this forgotten wasteland, wishing it were instead a lush forest filled with plants and animals and color and light.

The man has some choices. He could say, “No” to this place. He could move away, or he could have all that garbage cleaned up and put someplace else. Or he could say, “Yes” and simply accept his unhappy circumstances.

But instead, he begins to see that this pile of “things that no one wanted” might just be a gift. A little bit at a time, he begins to take the scraps of trash and metal and put them together. One tin flower, one aluminum bird, one steel tree at a time, he creates the forest he always wished for. It is beautiful, even if it is made of tin.

When we go, when we head out into the messiness of this world, we may see at first simply a wasteland, a pile of things and people that no one wants. But we are called to receive all of that as a gift, to open our eyes to the unlikely beauty of this world, and to get a little creative—to overaccept; to say, “Yes, and.”

For the good news is that God has already overaccepted us. We come before God with our sin, and God does not turn us away. God accepts us, but that’s not all. God meets us where we are, but God does not leave us there—God sees us, all of us, all the good, all the bad, and God says, “Yes…and?”

We cannot earn God’s overacceptance by being good or by following the rules. Poet Mary Oliver dares to claim, “You do not have to be good.” Theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that Christian ethics isn’t at all about figuring out what is good. Rather, it is about God’s reality becoming real among God’s creatures. We are not called to be good; we are created good and called to live into that reality.

And God’s reality is not catalogued in a rulebook. It is built and beautified in a kingdom. As you start to hear and see Jesus’ command to “Go” in the coming months, you will hear with it this verse from Matthew 10: “The kingdom of God is right at your doorstep.” We are called to go, to immerse ourselves in the messiness of the world, because Jesus brought the kingdom not into holy temples but out among the fields, in the streets, in the homes of the most unlikely people. We are called to be less concerned with what goes in and more attentive to what comes out.

For this is what it means to be holy: not to be ritually pure in what we eat or how we wash our hands, but to let God’s reality become real in our hearts and in our minds. Eugene Peterson says, “[Holiness] is not moral fussiness. It is not being nice. To understand and participate in holiness we go to the source: God is holy. Holiness, therefore, must refer to what is alive, whole, vibrant, personal, and relational. Maybe even a little reckless. All of which God is.”

Our rules would keep us safe, but God calls us to be a little reckless. God calls us to go out into the world, to say again and again, “Yes…and?” God calls us to build the kingdom out of the things no one wants, alongside the people no one wants. With the story of God’s creative love to give us balance, we can release ourselves from the fear of what goes in and glorify God with what comes out—even if what comes out is the trembling melody of a fiddler on the roof.


Published by Sarah Howell-Miller

"I believe in kindness, also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when it is not necessarily prescribed." {Mary Oliver}

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