Hebrews 12:1-2, 1 Peter 2:1-5, 9
This morning as we celebrate the circle of life in the church, we’re going to take a quick break from our Old Testament journey. We’ve already spent some time remembering those loved ones who have died in the last year or so, and this morning we will also welcome in some new members and celebrate Communion together. Before we do that, I want to offer you some thoughts on what it means to be part of a living tradition. And in order to do that, let’s begin by drawing on some images from a couple of passages in the New Testament. “So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
1 Peter 2:1-5, 9
Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
This is the word of God for all people.
I’ve been thinking about this morning for months because I love how we are combining looking back and looking forward. And as I’ve dreamed about what we could experience together this morning, the two images that stuck with me are the ones we’ve just heard. First, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And second, we are living stones.
This great cloud of witnesses in the book of Hebrews are the saints who have gone before us, the ones we named this morning and all the others who taught us how to live before they died. The text imagines them standing all along the route of the race we are still running, encouraging us and cheering us on, reminding us that we can do it because we know they did it.
And we are living stones, alongside Jesus who is the living cornerstone. Together we are built into a spiritual house. That word means the dwelling for a family and is sometimes even used for the family itself. We are building blocks, not for a building that will age and crumble, but for one that will shelter and nurture future generations.
As we hold on to both of these images, as we look backwards and forwards, as we remember the past and imagine the future, we experience a little tension. The question for us becomes how do we stay faithful to what we’ve inherited from the past and yet embrace the future? What we are trying to do is sustain a living tradition, a way of life that is both rooted in the past and open to what’s coming next. So that’s the question: how do we sustain a living tradition?
The first way to sustain a living tradition is to participate in community. The tradition of Christianity is too big for one person to represent it all on their own. It can only be held and celebrated and handed down by a community, a community that includes all the Protestants, all the Roman Catholics, and all the Easter Orthodox. One person could never explain or embody all the Christian beliefs and practices. So the biggest lesson here is that you can’t be Christian alone. You can be spiritual alone; you can read the Bible alone; you can pray alone. But to live as a Christian is to be part of a community, to participate on a regular basis in something larger than yourself. If we recognize God as three-in-one, as a Trinity, then we are affirming that relationship is at the core of God’s identity. And if we really are created in God’s image, then relationship is at the core of our identity too. To sustain a living tradition, we have to participate in a community.
The next way to have a living tradition is to be shaped by a common memory. The reason why we study the Bible together every week, why we keep telling these stories, is because our common memory starts here. But it doesn’t end here. We have 1700 years of Christian history that came after the book was done, and all of that history shapes us. And you know what, the more I learn about Christian history, the more I discover that the most Christian things we can do are wrestle with our faith, question what’s been handed down to us, and argue with each other. That’s what we’ve always done!
Which is exactly what we should expect because we are always working to understand the Gospel in new contexts with new people. This is also why it is so important for us to keep the title of Christian. Our faith is about more than the Crusades and the kind of religion espoused by political candidates on both sides of the aisle because it’s convenient for them. With our Jewish cousins, we serve the original revolutionary God.
Throughout history, the message of Jesus as presented in the Scriptures has fanned the flames of justice, provided words for speaking truth to power, inspired self-sacrifice, offered hope in the midst of tragedy, and revealed ideas whose time had finally come. We may be the spiritual descendants of Inquisitors, but we are also the spiritual descendants of desert mothers and fathers, mystics, clergy whose attention to the sick caused their own deaths, women who scorned what society expected in favor of a life of devotion to God, missionaries who upheld the worth and dignity of indigenous people, pastors who refused to let the Church be coopted by the State, countless brothers and sisters throughout time and space whose love for the world led them straight into fiery furnaces and lions’ dens where sometimes they were rescued and sometimes not. But what else would you expect from the little brothers and sisters of the man whose love for the world led him to the cross? We are sinners and saints, and in fact our faith would be meaningless if we were only one or the other. We are Christian, in all of its failings and all of its glory. This is our common memory, and it shapes us.
The third way to sustain a living tradition is to actively engage present realities. We must continue to rise to meet the challenges of the world we are in now. We will not survive if we bury our heads in the sand or hide out together in our stained glass tower and pretend the world is fine. There are so many issues in the world and our faith gives us the tools we need to engage them in meaningful ways. All of us have something we care about: racial justice, climate change, mass incarceration, immigration, attainable housing, hunger, violence, LGBTQ equality, the list goes on and on. If we don’t talk about these issues and figuring out how to work on them, then our living tradition will become irrelevant and die because it won’t matter to the world we live in now.
The fourth way to maintain a living tradition is to deliberately create the future. We have to keep looking forward and thinking about what’s next. We have survived as a movement up to this point because we have changed with the world. Did you know that many years ago Zion had all of its worship services in German? But as the community changed, they made the hard decision to begin using English. And you know they did it before everyone agreed on it. We haven’t always been Open and Affirming. But we are now, because we believe that is what God has called us to be in this time.
We are not tied to doing things the way we’ve always done them. God invites us to dream and plan and wonder about what is possible, to experiment, and to fail. What’s so brilliant is that this work of deliberately creating the future is not the pastor’s job alone. Don’t wait for me to tell you what we need to do next. We can’t put all that weight on one person. I can inspire you and equip you and empower you, and of course I have ideas, but creating the future is what we all do together.
Which means that the final way to maintain a living tradition is to allow the tradition to be shaped by everyone. In the UCC we like to say that God is still speaking. One of our founding documents says that it is the responsibility of each generation to make the faith their own. As an Open and Affirming congregation, we have decided that we do not discriminate in membership or leadership. To keep the tradition alive, we make room for new people.
The question this morning is do we love this tradition enough to help it live, or only enough to make it what we’re comfortable with? If we only love it enough to make it what we’re comfortable with, we’re going to have a great time and then it’s going to die with us. But I know that’s not what we want. We want to honor what’s been handed down to us and find new ways to express it in the world, to welcome new people into the tradition and invite them to shape it with us. Which is exactly what we are doing this morning as we welcome in new members.
Becoming a member of a church is not like becoming a member of a club; it’s like becoming a member of a family. When a family gets a new member, like a new baby or someone who marries in, that new member doesn’t just assimilate to the family’s way of doing things. The family actually changes because of this new member. So while our new members today will learn some of our family’s traditions, we will also be changed by our new members. We welcome their different perspectives, we will listen to their wisdom, and we will grow and change because of their gifts.
Church membership is not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about who wants to be in a relationship. In church, we are invited to share life with people who are different from us: theologically, politically, racially, economically, sexually. And when we choose to be together, even when we disagree, we all grow in grace and love and humility. This is the beautiful invitation of church membership.