How Many of Us Does It Take to Screw in a Light Bulb?
I love it that as a church we can be comfortable enough in our own skin to laugh at our stereotypes and traditions. Someone once asked the profound question, “How many [Presbyterians] does it take to change a light bulb?” *
The correct answer is, of course, “Change the light bulb? Why, my grandfather donated that light bulb!” (1)
Well, [Presbyterians] are not the only ones who have trouble with change. Consider our Lutheran brothers and sister when it is said; “How many Lutherans does it take to church a light bulb? Answer, “Change what’s that?” I am sure we can say the same thing about us Methodists and ways we change a light bulb.
Anytime change takes place in any institution, particularly the church, there is resistance. Most of us are familiar with the old church adage; “Well, we never did it that way before”.
There are times that we need to change our light bulbs. Let me explain. The purpose of the church is to be a light to the world. Jesus says in Matthew 5:14-16
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. 15 Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Sadly, over time our light begins to diminish and in many cases, it eventually goes out. What is it in our nature that allows us not to notice when our light is extinguished?
I believe our scripture lesson from Mark’s gospel gives us the answer.
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus one day and saw some of his disciples eating food without washing their hands. This wasn’t a question of hygiene, but of tradition.
The Jews had a ritual for washing hands as well as for the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles. I say it wasn’t a matter of hygiene, but it would be interesting to know how many of these religiously prescribed traditions protected the Jews from an array of illnesses. Anyway, the disciples of Jesus neglected these ancient ceremonies.
So, the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
Jesus is somewhat harsh in his reply. He says, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
Jesus was a practicing Jew, yet he did not want his disciples to be slaves to Jewish tradition. We may wonder, why not?
Tradition is a powerful force in our lives. That is not only true in religion, but in all of society.
- We have our family traditions. What are some of your family traditions?
- We have traditions in our Community. What are your community traditions?
- We have traditions in our Churches. What are the abiding traditions in our church?
In many ways traditions are a good thing. They were for the Jews. Considering the persecution the Jewish community has experienced throughout its history, it is doubtful that it would have survived without help from its traditions. However, traditions can get out of hand. In the eyes of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, to eat with unclean hands was worse than how one treated one’s neighbor. The traditions had taken over the religion. And this is the greatest danger of traditions.
Traditions may serve as a substitute for God. Traditions may tell us what was appropriate for our ancestors, but they may not be reliable indicators for how we should live today. Jesus was continually saying to his disciples, “You have heard it said . . . , but I say unto you . . .” Tradition is one guide for our behavior, but only one. Times change. Situations change. Far more important is the living Spirit of God moving in our midst now, guiding us in our present situation. Let me use an example.
Suppose we had a tradition in our church that only people who dressed in a certain way would be acceptable in our church. For example, men should only wear suits. On the surface, we might be able to justify that. We believe that the worship of God deserves our best, so why should we not dress in our very best to worship God? That sounds like a reasonable tradition, but is it where God would lead us?
Cornelia Lehn tells a story of a man, a smelly beggar dressed in rags, who visited a church. The congregation did its best to ignore him. When the usher finally showed him a seat, it was near the door where the breeze could dissipate some of the smell.
However, when the next Sunday came around, the same man came to the church. This time he was dressed in an expensive suit. The usher did not recognize him. Rather, he determined from the man’s appearance that he was someone very important. He bowed to him, took him to the front of the church, and got him settled in a good pew. Indeed, there was a stir in the entire church as the congregation became aware of their distinguished visitor, and after the service the minister and his wife invited this man in the expensive suit to come to their home for dinner.
When they got to the house they made certain that they treated this finely dressed man like royalty. They wanted him to have nothing but the best. Then something quite peculiar happened. They sat down to dinner, but when the meat was passed around, their guest took a portion of meat and put it into his pocket! The hosts quickly looked away, but couldn’t help notice the stain it made on the man’s expensive suit. Then, when the potatoes were passed, the visitor calmly put them in his other vest pocket. And when the gravy came around, he poured it into another pocket!
Finally the host asked, “Why are you doing this?”
“Well,” said the man, “you obviously did not invite me to dinner you invited my suit. So I am feeding my suit!”
Ridiculous story? Yes, but so is our tendency to elevate our traditions over Christ’s love for all people. Suppose it were our tradition to have only people of a certain race in our church? Or a certain theology? Or a certain way of worshipping God? Can you see that there might come a time when God would say to us that it is time for us to move out of our comfort zone to accept people we have previously shut out? This might be necessary for the sake of Jesus Christ.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were deeply religious people, but they had begun substituting their traditions for God. Their traditions told them who was acceptable and who was not. Even if God Himself came to them and tried to change their traditions, they would not listen. Indeed, God did come to them in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
They would not listen. Instead, they nailed him to a tree. Do you see that the same thing could happen to us? It has certainly happened to us in the past. Indeed, we might say one of our traditions is resistance to change. But God is a God of change. Let us open our hearts to the movement of the living God today.