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Edward F. Markquart

Series B
Tradition, Fiddler On The Roof

Pentecost 13B     Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

One of the most enjoyable movies that I have ever seen was the movie,
”Fiddler on the Roof.”  Many of you perhaps have seen “Fiddler” and if you did, you haven’t forgotten it.  It was two hours of sheer theatrical pleasure.  “Fiddler on the Roof” is a classic story about a Jewish-Russian family, just before the great revolution in Russia, just about the time of the turn of the century.

And when you see the movie, it does several things for you.  But one thing the movie does is to give you a feeling for the Jewish love of tradition.  The Jews, especially the Orthodox Jews, have a sense of history.  They love their Passover, their festivals, their rituals.  The Jews, of all the people on earth, are some of the most tradition loving people that I know.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is a story about Tevye, the old, bumbling Jewish patriarch, who was a poor farmer, his wife, Golda, the resilient Jewish mother; and their three lovely daughters, all of whom needed to be married.  The plot of “Fiddler on the Roof” is the matchmaking of these three daughters.  The story is that the matchmaker is to meet with the mother and father and match their three daughters to prospective husbands.  But the girls want to choose their own husbands and not use the matchmaker.  Traditions are changing.  Those old traditions are beginning to crumble.  “Can you imagine children, actually choosing their own mates?  That’s unheard of.”  Do you remember the song?     

“Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match;
 Find me a find;
Catch me a catch…
Find me a perfect match.”

Well, it happened one day that the parents, Tevye and Golda, had made arrangements for their oldest daughter, Tzietel, to marry a very rich man, the richest man in town.  And he happened to be in his mid-fifties.  He was rather portly and had a pot belly, but he was rich, and if you are a poor farmer, it is important that Tzietel, marry rich. The parents thought that this was a perfect match for their daughter.  But meanwhile their eldest daughter didn’t think so, and she fell in love with a poor Jewish tailor.  In fact, he was so poor he didn’t have enough money to buy a sewing machine.  And finally one day, this young couple, very much in love, built up their courage and came to Tevye to ask if they could marry each other.  “What?  You can’t do that!  That violates our tradition.  The father has a right to choose your husband.  Who are you to fall in love?  That’s my responsibility!  I know what’s good for you!  From the beginning of time, mothers and fathers have always chosen mates for their children!”  The theme song, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match…..”  But then, like so many fathers, he gave in.  He granted permission for his daughter to marry that poor Jewish tailor.  He blessed his daughter, grumbling, “Traditions, traditions, they are starting to change.”

And then came the second daughter, and it was the same story all over again.  She didn’t use the matchmaker.  She went off to marry a soldier who was in Siberia.

Then came the third daughter, and it was the same story all over again.  Not only did she not use the matchmaker; but worse yet, in fact the worse thing that ever could happen to a Jewish family, was that she fell in love with a non-Jew, with a Gentile.  With a Bolshevik soldier.  And to marry a non-Jew, a Gentile, that was the unforgivable sin.  Now, when this young couple came to Tevye and announced their intentions, Tevye could bend no further.  He refused to give his daughter in marriage; he refused to bless her; he kicked her out of the house; he declared her as dead; her name was never to be mentioned again in his home; and so his deeply loved daughter was lost.  His daughter was now dead to Tevye.

Much later, at the very end of the story, the revolution was starting in Russia, and the Jews, including Tevye and Golda, were fleeing to America.  This historic Jewish family was being fractured, never to see each other again.  And then comes the last scene, the most touching scene of the whole movie.  The whole family said good-bye to each other, and suddenly the youngest daughter and her Bolshevik husband walk forward, coming from nowhere, and standing outside the family gate, to say the last goodbye to her father.  And perhaps, just perhaps, to be blessed by him.  Perhaps, just perhaps, to be at peace with the man she so deeply loved.

Tevye was caught.  What should he do?  He had vowed that his daughter was  dead, that he would never speak with her again, now he was caught.  And he needed to say goodbye to that daughter.  And finally, in despair, Tevye turned his back on his daughter.  He turned away from her, and he bent over the fence in brokenness and in grief.  No blessing,  No peace.  And the story ends tragically.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is a story about a good man, Tevye, whose traditions are more important to him that the commandment to love and forgive as God loves and forgives.  It was a story of a good man whose traditional interpretation of what he thought the Bible said, “Jews are not to marry Gentiles” was ultimately more important to him than the commandment of God for love, mercy and forgiveness.  And that was the tragedy of Tevye:  to love his traditions more than the commandment of love and mercy for his daughter who did not believe in his traditions the same way that he did.

The theme song from “Fiddler”:  “Tradition!  la-la-la-la-la-la Tradition!”  Tradition, that’s what the story of Tevye was all about, and that’s what today’s gospel story is all about;’ how the Pharisees make a priority of tradition over love. That tradition is more important than the commandment of love.  The Pharisees in the gospel today were more committed to their religious traditions than carrying out the fundamental commandment of God for love, mercy and justice in a miserable world.  The Pharisees were more concerned about ritual than being part of the real world.  And that’s what the gospel story for today is all about.  Tradition and the prior love of God’s people for their traditions and not for the commandments of God.  So let us look at the gospel for today which is an illustration of that.  Religious people often have a priority of tradition over the commandments of God for love.

Here in the gospel story for today, we find a story about some Jewish leaders, scribes and Pharisees, who were very good people.  These were not evil men in the story for today.  Sometimes in our superficial reading of the New Testament, we think the scribes and Pharisees are bad people.  These were good, upstanding people.  They were dedicated Jews, just like Tevye was a dedicated Jew.  And these good scribes and Pharisees, like Tevye, had their religious traditions.  The Pharisees always said grace before and after every meal.  The Pharisees always went to church every Friday night.  The Pharisees always gave ten per cent of their income to the Lord.  The Pharisees always turned eastward in prayer three times a day. The Pharisees always washed their hands before meals as a sign of religious piety.  These were good, religious traditions which were found in the Old Testament.

One day this group of tradition-loving Pharisees came to Jesus, and said, “Jesus, do you see what is happening over there?  Your disciples are starting to eat and they didn’t wash their hands.  Don’t you know that all good Jews like us wash our hands before dinner as a sign of piety to God?  And your disciples aren’t doing that!  Jesus, what are you going to do about that?”  And Jesus said to them, “The people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They leave the commandments of God, but hold fast to the traditions of men.”  And Jesus said further, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandments of God in order to keep your traditions.  In fact, you Pharisees are so loyal to your traditions in order to avoid doing the commandments of God for love and mercy.  Your religion becomes a replacement for doing the work of God’s mercy in the world.”  “Well, Jesus,” they replied, “we washed our hands before meals; we say grace before and after every meal; we go to church every Friday night.  “Tradition!  We have our traditions.”  We hear echoes from the theme song from “Fiddler.”  “Tradition!  la-la-la-la-la-la.  Tradition!”  That’s what the gospel lesson for today is all about.

In the gospel, Jesus teaches us two lessons:  First, a matter of priorities – that many Jewish people had a priority for their traditions over the commandment of God to love.  Secondly, and more subtly, that often their religious traditions became replacements for carrying out God’s work of mercy and justice to the human misery of the world.  And these are the two points in the sermon for today.

First:  The tendency of good, religious people to give more importance to their traditions than to the commandments of love and mercy.  As you well realize, history is filled with examples of Christians and Jews fighting and killing each other because of conflicts over religion.  More battles may have been fought over religion than any other cause.  And some of the most bloody chapters of history come when the commandment to love is repealed, and people start fighting with each other.  Remember the persecutions, the Crusades, the religious wars?  Protestants and Catholics are now fighting in Ireland.  Jews and Arabs are now fighting in the Middle East.  People always want to fight about religion.  And some of the most bloody chapters in history come when people put traditions as being more important than the commandment to love.  And then the Christian faith, rather than being a source of harmony, love, and oneness, becomes a source of conflict.

In the history of the church, Christians have always fought about religious interpretations.  People have fought and died over the following issues:  whether or not Christ is really present in the Sacrament; whether or not the earth was round or square; whether or not the earth was created in the year 4000 B.C.;  whether or not the earth is the center of the universe; whether or not man evolved from an ape; whether or not evolution and Genesis are in conflict.  Christians always want to fight about religious interpretations, and as they fight, they repeal the primary commandment to love one another unconditionally.

And the same problem continues today.  The priority of religious traditions becomes much more important to people than the commandment to love.  For example, today, in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, the people are fighting about whether or not Genesis 1-11 is symbolic history or literal history, whether Adam was a real man or a symbolic man.  In the Episcopalian Church, they are fighting about the ordination of women.  In the Roman Catholic Church, they are fighting about abortion, whether or not it is the work of God or the devil.  And in another denomination, they are fighting about who is head of the house, a man or a woman?  And in another church, they are fighting about whether one can speak in tongues or not.  Church after church, denomination after denomination, becomes dramatically polarized over religious interpretations and traditions.  And almost inevitably, they revoke the commandment of unconditional love for each other.

I love that story, a classic example of people fighting over trivia and traditions and it is found in Gulliver’s Travels.  Do you remember the story about Lilliput?  Gulliver was on his way to Lilliput, and when he came to Lilliput, he found that there was a party in Lilliput that believed that eggs should be cracked at the big end.  There was another party in Lilliput that believed that eggs should be cracked at the little end.  And so the “big enders” and the “little enders” began having a battle.  The “big enders” and the “little enders” fought to the death, to the complete ruin of the whole country.  The issue was strategic:  are eggs to be cracked at the big end, or are eggs to be cracked at the little end?

Well, so often in the church we have had similar kinds of battles rage over trivia, over things that do not matter.  Ultimately, over issues that history finally forgets.  And worse yet, in the midst of such conflicts, God’s invitation for love, mercy and justice are soon forgotten and abrogated.

Hopefully, this will not happen here within our parish.  Hopefully, when we disagree with each other over “big” issues such as we have been talking about, the commandment for love and mercy and kindness will always take precedence.

Religious traditions change.  Many people seem to fight, hate, and withdraw love.  We find this also in families where children no longer share in the same values as the parents.  More young Christians in the church today do not share the same values about sex and marriage as their parents.  And this can be a definite point of conflict within a Christian family, especially when those young people identify themselves as Christians and come to the communion rail.

Unfortunately, that happened to one family I knew back in 1968 and 1969.  A niece and a nephew of this family back in Wisconsin, assumed an alternate life-style, very much to the disappointment of their relatives.  And unfortunately, for this niece and nephew, love was withdrawn.  Love was withdrawn from members of this family whose new life style did not conform to the family’s religious values.  But Christian love is never withdrawn, and God never withdraws his love for us when we do not live up to his expectations.  Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God: neither height, nor depth, nor principalities, nor powers, nothing!  Our traditions, our theology, nothing!  Nothing is to become so serious a matter that one withholds the love and mercy of God. Nothing!  For that commandment to love and be merciful takes priority over everything which may seem important at the time.

The second point that Jesus is teaching today is equally true.  Sometimes religious people, ordinary religious people like you and me, sometimes use our religion as a replacement for doing the commandments of love, mercy and justice.  Religion then becomes a replacement for love.

|As is obvious, the church activities should in no way be a substitute for involving oneself in life.  The purpose of Christ is to permeate all of life.  The Christian faith is not to be the occasion whereby love is withdrawn from the suffering of the world.  But unfortunately that always happens.  There is always a large number of people in this world who are like me, who mistakenly and naively make their absorption in the church and middle class life as an excuse for withdrawing from the struggles of human misery.  People, for example, give money to the church as they can avoid the poor and the elderly.

But let me give you a tangible example:  Let’s take Jim Brandt, for example, who is a member of our congregation.  As you know, Jim was the choir director here at Grace Lutheran Church a number of years ago.  He was the choir director at Mt. Rainier High School, and his heart and his soul was in music.  He was a gifted man, a composer, a director.  And then about seven years ago, Jim suffered a massive stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed and ultimately incapacitated.  The bright, illustrious career of this young man was cut tragically short.  And now, the years have slowly passed by.  His parents still visit him at the convalescent home.  Norene, his wife, still goes to see him faithfully.  Ann Burdick goes to see him occasionally.  But all you people in this congregation who knew and love Him, I mean almost no one, almost no one, goes to see Jim anymore.  And that’s sad.  Such a vital congregation as ours.  With program after program, class after class, worship after worship, retreat after retreat, tradition after  tradition, feast after feast:  Easter, Christmas Pentecost, Palm Sunday.  Oh, we love our traditions.  But we don’t have time for the Jim Brandts of life.  And how sad that is.

“Tradition!  la-la-la-la-la-la  Tradition!”

People have always seemed to have time for their traditions, and their religiosity, and their rituals, for the people of God love such things.

And such was the problem of the scribes and Pharisees on the road to Jericho.  They were so busy living:  work, children, the church.  They were so busy on the road to Jericho that they didn’t have time for the Jim Brandts of life.  They didn’t have time for him after he was at a convalescent home.  And after a while they ultimately forgot.  (Of course, we all know, the problem is not a matter of having enough time, the problem is always a matter of the heart.)

In the Epistle from James today, he says:  “A religion that is pure and undefiled in this, to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and keep oneself unstained.”

What I am trying to say today is true for all of us.  It’s true for you, and it is true for me.  And Jesus Christ still loves us in all our sinfulness, and in all our selfishness, and in all our busyness.  Jesus will never withdraw his love from us because of our selfishness.  And the purpose of the sermon is not merely to make us feel guilty, to have anyone go home and have a feeling that they were scolded by the pastor.  That is not the purpose of the sermon today.  But I do think that Jesus of Nazareth was profoundly right when he suggested that the people of God do love their religious traditions more than doing the commandments of God, more than the commandments of love, mercy, and justice here in a world filled with misery.

Did you ever see the play, “Fiddler on the Roof?”  It was a great show.  It was about a man by the name of Tevye who dearly loved his traditions…..too much.  Amen

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