TRADITION: BLESSING OR CURSE?
A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on September 28, 2003
Today, in the Jewish faith, is the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It begins a ten day period of repentance and prayer which ends on Yom Kippur. This period is known among Jews as the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the birthday of the world. It is the day people are judged for their actions during the past year. This holy time is full of rituals and traditions, many going back to the time the Jews supposedly made a covenant with God, long before Jesus was born. It is the tradition for all Jewish people to attend the synagogue on this day, in order to reaffirm their faith, examine their past deeds, and pray for forgiveness. The service begins with the blowing of the shofar, or rams horn. This reminds people of their responsibilities to God and calls them to repent. It also recalls Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, when asked to do so by God, and God's acceptance of a ram as a substitute for Isaac. The synagogue service is full of tradition, music, and designated prayers. It is quite moving.
All religions have developed their own sacred traditions. Most families and cultures have as well. Traditions are simply elements of a culture or religion which are passed down over time, and which have some meaning to those who practice them. Some traditions are very old; some are quite new. Some last for generations; some fade after a few years. Some seem to be set in stone; others evolve and change with time. Traditions often include rituals, but tradition and ritual are not the same. Traditions are usually steeped in some belief, and are ways of carrying cultural or religious practices into the present time and even the future. Rituals are the ways in which we do certain things over and over, maybe the same way each time. Rituals can be as mundane as the series of things you do every morning to get yourself up and ready to face the day. Rituals do not always involve words, occasions, officials, or other people. They can be silent, solitary, and self-contained. They have more to do with the way one does something.
Traditions, on the other hand, necessarily involve other people, because their purpose is to share common beliefs or ideals with others, and to pass them on. For example, in our Unitarian Universalist churches we have a tradition of lighting the chalice. This tradition comes from the 1400s, when Jan Hus was being burned for the heresy of sharing the communion with the laypeople in the Catholic Church. He said, as they lit the fires, "Today you fry a goose, but the fat from that goose will feed the flames of freedom forever." Every time we light our chalice, we are reminded that ours is a free religion, and that we have a responsibility to treat others as equals. That is why the Unitarian Service Committee adopted the flaming chalice as its symbol during WW II when it was rescuing people from the evils of Naziism. The way in which we practice this tradition varies, however. Some churches light the chalice in silence; some say the same words every time; we use it as a time to make some affirmative statement about who we are, different each Sunday. Chalices take many forms and are made from various materials. Sometimes the minister or presiding officer lights it; other times children take turns. How it is lit takes on ritualistic form; but the meaning behind it is our tradition.
This morning we practiced another of our sacred rituals - that of welcoming children into our midst. This tradition comes from the Christian sacrament of Baptism, but it is not the same. While it is a tradition we share with many other churches, from Eastern Orthodox and Catholic all the way down to secular Humanists, ours has a different meaning. The traditional Baptism practiced in most Christian churches has two basic tenets which do not fit our beliefs. First, " kosher" baptism has to include the Trinitarian formula; that is, the child has to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Since we Unitarians rejected the trinity back in the 1500s, that does not apply. Second, Christian baptism is understood to be a sacrament which changes the spiritual position of the child to be one of the "saved." However, the Universalists, also in the 1500s, rejected the notion of original sin and the idea that a newborn child needs to be cleansed of the sin of Adam and Eve in order to have any chance of being saved. Instead, those radical Universalists thought that any God worth worshiping would love all children, and everyone would therefore be saved - universal salvation, hence the term Universalist. That belief, too, has evolved as UUs have largely rejected the notion of Heaven and Hell as places one goes after death, into believing that we experience heaven and hell - the good and the bad - here on earth.
Still, Unitarians and Universalists wanted some kind of tradition to acknowledge new life. In the early days of Unitarianism, even in the first years of this church, the term Baptism was changed to "Christening." The minister would say something like: "I christen you in the name of God, whose child you are; in the name of Jesus, who loved little children; and in the name of the Holy Spirit, which is promised to you." This both connected Unitarians with their Christian heritage and brethren (and sistern), but more accurately described how they interpreted god, Jesus and the holy spirit. Over time, however, even the idea of "christening" became problematic, largely because outsiders interpreted it as giving the child to Christ. And, since another of our basic beliefs is that not only is Jesus not the son of God, but he is also not divine; he is (or was) an extraordinary and exemplary man, but still only a human being, the word Christ or Christen caused concern. What has evolved over the years is the Child Dedication Ceremony, which celebrates the gift of each child to the world. The ceremony usually has three levels of dedication. First, the parents (and sponsors, if any) dedicate themselves to bringing the child up in a way that is healthy and ethical. Then the child is dedicated to the "spirit of truth, justice and love" - in other words, to the deepest, most profound spirit in life. Finally, the members of the congregation dedicate themselves, as a community, to the child's spiritual nurturance. This has become our tradition of welcoming children into our community. Again, however, the precise way in which a child dedication is done can vary a great deal. Many of our fellowships do not have ministers, so the dedication is done by a lay person. There is nothing which says it has to be conducted by ordained clergy. Here, because we have this beautiful font which is part of the heritage of this church, I choose to use it. Most UU churches, however, if they use water in the ceremony at all, simply have it in a small bowl. In some of our churches, where they begin the church year with a traditional service of gathering waters people bring from their summer vacations, that water is saved and used for dedications. There are many variations. And, since we have no set dogma, we also have no set way to do things - UU ministers have to create rituals, sermons, services, prayers, and even traditions themselves - so each one is different, although they share common characteristics.
For the most part, I happen to think that traditions are good. They bring continuity to the community, and they help people to know who they are. What does it mean to be a Unitarian, or a Norwegian, or an Oelberg? Look at the traditions of the church, culture, and family, and you will learn a lot about who these people are. Sometimes traditions overlap. In this church, for example, we used to celebrate Midsummer. This tradition, which lasted for 100 years, merged the UU reverence for nature and the environment with the old Norse practice of celebrating the solstice and the return of the sun. It was a wonderful tradition, with an all-day affair which included church service, lunch, a prominent outside speaker, and music. But even the best traditions sometimes have to be modified or even dropped when they no longer serve the purpose for which they were designed. When Father's Day became a Hallmark holiday and families wanted to celebrate it in different ways, perhaps with family members who were not UUs, participation waned. No longer did folks want to spend the whole day here at Nora; no longer did the women want to spend hours preparing a fancy meal; no longer were all church members Norwegians; no longer did it make sense to invite a speaker when the audience was so small. And so, with ceremony, we "buried" the Midsummer tradition on its 100th birthday.
Other traditions have also changed with the times. Take the picture behind me, for instance. For the older people who grew up seeing that picture every Sunday, it was a sacred tradition. But for some of the younger folks, and for at least one minister who came here, it gave a false message. These people wanted it gone - we don't worship Jesus! Well, we may not worship him, but we do admire him as a great man and try to follow his teachings, so what is wrong with having his picture on the wall? Controversy reigned, and the solution, after a year of what was known as the "altar altercation," was to have the drapes installed, so the picture could be exposed or not. Compromise. I gave a sermon in which I pointed out that, at the time it was installed, that picture was a powerful statement of the Unitarian faith and difference from the Lutherans. For it depicts Jesus simply as a man - a man who loves little children. It has no halo, or crown of thorns, or cross, or holes in the hands and feet. In other words, it says - Jesus is a man, not a god. He is human, not divine. Pretty courageous for the time - and still perfectly consistent with our beliefs. A tradition which has lasted, at least in some form, because it still has meaning.
So, are all traditions good? Probably when they are initiated, they are, for they are designed to accomplish some purpose which is desired. But, they can become outmoded and even appear foolish, if they do not adapt to change. We now have the tradition of Smorgasbord, as you are all very aware. I am not sure how long it has been a tradition, and how it began, or whether it morphed out of some former tradition. I think it is a wonderful tradition, but every year I hear some folks questioning how much longer it can continue, as there are fewer and fewer people to work on it. But, each year, folks band together and rise to the occasion, and the tradition continues.
We have started, I think, a new tradition of holding a tri-state UU service in the summer in Worthington. Whether this tradition will continue after I am gone, or the Swansons are no longer able to host it, we don't know. But for now, it is a good tradition, which brings lonely and isolated UUs together for a common worship and fellowship. I hope it will keep going for a long time.
Some traditions, however, can be harmful. There is a story about a new young rabbi who went to a new congregation. During the Friday service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did moved toward solving the impasse. Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue's 90 year-old founder. He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles. "So tell me," he pleaded, "was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?" "No," answered the old rabbi. "Ah, so then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?" "No," answered the old rabbi. "Well," the young man responded, "what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout, and half sit and scream." "Ah," said the old man, "that was the tradition." That reminds me that many UU churches have incessant discussions about whether it is proper to applaud during the service, or if they should sit during the postlude or head for the coffee table as soon as the closing words are said. It is amazing how little traditions like those can cause so much trouble. I am so glad we do it right - in my view - applaud only at the end, and sit and appreciate the postlude.
We attended a church in New Jersey that had an alcove in front, no altar, just three walls behind a raised stage area. In the center wall there was a very large, very ugly, slate grey hanging, which seemed to have no significance. When I became a member of the Board of that church, I suggested that hanging should go - it was unsightly. "Oh, no!" I was told, "that hanging was especially commissioned and woven in Thailand in the twenties. It is made of blue silk and sterling silver threads, and was very expensive. It was donated by prominent members. It has been there as long as anyone can remember - it is tradition! Besides, it is covering a hole in the wall which would have to be repaired." Well, the silver had tarnished and the silk was in shreds. The donors were long since dead, and their only child had not returned for about thirty years, so I did not see the problem with taking it down. But I was shushed every time I suggested it. Finally, a new board member came and he suggested the hanging should go. Same story. I told him - don't bother, it is a hopeless case. He suggested one night that we look behind it to see how big this hole in the wall was. Well, we looked behind, and there was no hole. We held it out further, and the thing came crashing down in a great cloud of dust! The only blemish on the wall was dirt lines along the edge of where it had been. What to do? We rolled it up, and "hid" it by putting it up in the unused balcony, in plain sight if one looked up. And we waited to see what would happen. Guess what happened? Nothing. For several Sundays, the blank wall with the dirt marks was there and nobody seemed to notice. Then one day the alcove had been painted a nice pale blue. It stayed that way for awhile, then someone hung a flaming chalice in the space. Later, pictures appeared on the walls. So much for tradition.
When people have become accustomed to something being done a certain way, or having some rituals or traditions in place, it is sometimes hard to change. When a minister has been at a church for a long time, people get used to how that minister did things, and may not like the way a new minister does them. Yet, every church learns that ministers have their own ideas and ways, and it is difficult to adjust. And ministers learn that churches have their traditional practices, and it is hard to change them. Traditions can be very useful when they give a church meaning, continuity, and community. They can be damaging if they are set in stone and not amenable to change. I trust that when your new minister comes, you will be open to his or her ideas and rituals, and adapt to them. You may not remember, but I was the one who brought the idea of joys and concerns - candles of caring and sharing - to Nora. Now it has become a tradition, but not one, I hope that cannot be changed.
And what did Ole Jorgenson say in his sermon on this topic years ago? Very much what I have said - tradition is good, if it serves a purpose; it is bad if it is too rigid and people forget why the tradition was started or if it no longer is useful. He suggested that it was time for this church to start having services in English, since there were now people in the community who didn't speak Norwegian. That was a change! One of the traditions of Unitarian Universalism over the years has been its capacity to change. We have had at least fifteen different statements of belief or principle since the beginning. Each statement has reflected a slight difference or subtle evolution of thought. That is as it should be, for ours is a living, breathing, life-affirming religion. We have rejected dogma and doctrines in favor of growth and maturation. We have been willing to evolve, and that is what has kept us vital and interesting. Is tradition good? Of course. Is it bad? It can be. It is up to us, the living, to determine when tradition serves to inspire us and give us grounding, and when it has lost its usefulness. But let us never give up the tradition of the free church -- or smorgasbord!