Sunday, June 30, 2013


Evangelicals rely on Scripture alone.
Secularists rely on Reason alone.
Episcopalians pay attention to both,
         and we also have this third leg on the stool – Tradition.

Our Old Testament story is about tradition.
Elijah had had one heckuva spiritual journey.
He’d done some pretty dramatic stuff.
But now his earthly race was run, so he said to his disciple, Elisha,
“So long buddy, I’m off to Bethel.”
But Elisha hung on to his teacher and went with him to Bethel.
Elijah then said, “Adios, Elisha. It was nice knowing you.
         I’m just going over Jordan.”
But Elisha said “Not so fast. I’m going with you.”

Finally Elijah said, “Goodbye Elisha I’m off to heaven.
         Anything I can do for you before I go?”
Elisha answered, “Give me the power to keep on doing
         what you’ve been doing -- only more of it.”
Elijah said, “Only if you can follow me into heaven with your eyes.”
When the chariot swung low comin’ for to carry Elijah home,
         Elisha watched him until he was out of sight.
Then Elisha tore off his own clothes and put on Elijah’s mantle.
For those who have seen the 1982 film classic Barbarossa,
         it’s the same thing Gary Busey does to become Willie Nelson.
If you haven’t seen Barbarossa, just skip this sermon and watch it. Point made.

With that mantle came prophetic power.
Earlier in the story, on their way to Elijah’s point of departure,
         they had to cross the Jordan River.
Elijah had struck the water with his mantle
         and it parted for him as the Red Sea parted for Moses,
and as this very Jordan River had parted for Joshua       
when he took over the leadership of Israel.

With Elijah gone, Elisha headed back the way they came.
When he got to the Jordan, he did the same thing.
He struck the water with his mantle, and the waters parted
as they had done for Elijah, Joshua, and Moses before him.
Elisha was carrying on a tradition stretching back over the centuries,
from his teacher Elijah all the way to Joshua and Moses.
Elisha had followed his teacher as far as he could go.
When his teacher was gone, Elisha tore up his own clothes,
         his own identity, and put on the mantle of Elijah and continued his work.
That’s tradition.

Americans are not so fond of Tradition. Take Thomas Jefferson.
He was all about Reason but he had no use for Tradition.
He insisted the world belongs to the present generation.
No law, no constitution, no form of government should last over 20 years.
Jefferson worshiped at the Church of What’s Happening Now.
He tore up the mantle of his ancestors to put on his own clothes.

Jefferson and Elisha represent two opposite attitudes.
Native cultures are our best example we have of Elijah’s way.
Native Americans honor their traditions.
They hold their ancestors in reverence.
They respect the elders of the tribe.

Anglo-Americans treat our elders as burdens to be warehoused.
We are certain that the wisdom of today
         is to be preferred over the benighted ways of our forbears.
We don’t want to be burdened by the past.
We do not expect future generations to pay any attention to us.
The Church of What’s Happening now
         acknowledges no debt to the people who got us here
         and no duties to those who will come after us.
We want to wear our own clothes, the ones in fashion this year
      not some dusty mantle from an old guy like Elijah.

It’s popular these days, even among some Episcopal leaders,
         to junk the Tradition.
Sell the churches, meet in bowling alleys, and make up a ritual
         if we feel so inclined at the moment.
The ritual we make up will express
         what we think, what we feel – something we like –
         nothing that might make us uncomfortable.

There was a time I’d have said “sign me up” for that.
But there came a point when I was not so sure of myself anymore.

I wasn’t positive that my opinions were better than the teachings
of ancient spiritual masters,
         or that my feelings were nobler than those of the saints.
And I had children to think of.
When I began to feel a responsibility for the next generation
         I simultaneously felt a responsibility to the past generations.

That’s when I became an Episcopalian.
That’s when I began to tear up my own clothes
         and put on the mantle of Elijah.
I didn’t shut down my mind.
Reason is still one of our sources of authority.
We still think. We still feel.

But if there is a conflict between my opinions
and the teachings of the Church,
         I seriously consider the remote possibility
that I might be wrong.

 Sometimes I love the Tradition. Sometimes I hate it.
But it’s always there for me to learn from,
         sometimes by arguing with it.
For example, I have never been comfortable with the Nicene Creed.
But I keep saying it and that makes me look hard at what it means.
One year, a particular line offends me to the core.
The next year, I have found a new meaning for that line
         and I love it.
But by then, another line bothers me.
I don’t say the Creed because I’m comfortable with it.
I say it because I’m uncomfortable with it. It makes me think.

Sacred Tradition is essential to our spirituality,
         right along with Reason and the Holy Scriptures.
This chasuble we wear represents Elijah’s mantle. It is a symbol of Tradition.
Apostolic Succession, having bishops made by bishops in a chain
         of inheritance going back to the apostles
                  is a symbol of Tradition.

But it takes some caution.
We all know that Scriptures can be used for good or ill.
Our Reason can be used or misused.
It’s the same with Tradition.
It can guide us into the future or it can trap us in the past.

The key is to recognize the difference between Sacred Tradition
         and a stodgy lack of imagination.
Sacred Tradition is about our core values – the stuff that makes us who we are.
It isn’t about singing one style of music instead of another;
         or whether we use an organ or guitars.
It isn’t about whether we use the 1928 Prayer Book or the 1979 Prayer Book.
It’s about having a Book of Common Prayer,
         so that we pray in the way of the church
         instead of what each of us makes up to suit ourselves.

Sacred Tradition connects us to our power source.
Elijah passed onto Elisha a mantle of prophetic power.
Jesus passed on to the disciples the power to heal
and proclaim good news.
The Tradition is a power source.
It has sustaining power to get us through the day.
When life hits us in the face and we have no words f
or how we feel or what we want,
         the Tradition has prayers for us,
“Surely it is God who saves me.
I will trust in him and not be afraid.”

The Tradition has transforming power to open up a new future.
It gives us this prayer,
         “Let the whole world see and know that
         things which were cast down are being raised up,
         and that things which had grown old are being made new,
         and that all things are being brought to their perfection. . . .”

The Tradition isn’t stodgy or nostalgic.
It’s dynamic, unfolding, challenging us
to become more than we are.
Our Tradition is written in poems and prayers.
It is recorded as stories of the saints.
We act it out in ancient rituals.
The poems, the prayers, the stories, the rituals
         have all been sanctified by holy lives of Christians.
By that sanctity the Tradition is charged with power
                  like Elijah’s mantle.