A sermon about different traditions, preached in several RCA churches during 2012 and 2016 while on home assignment from mission service in Taiwan. Fill in the blanks with the names of your church or your town as applicable.
TEXT: Mark 7:1-8
The traditions which we maintain can restrain us from the mission that challenges.
Thank you so much, ______________________, for arranging for us to be here today. For more than ___ years ______Church has supported our work in Taiwan. Sometimes in these past decades we’ve been in the US for periods of a full year, others for only 6 months. We have more than 30 congregations to visit, so, on a “short” home assignment, like our current one, we count each Sunday as a precious opportunity for a visit. Thank you for giving up one of your precious Sundays, and , thank you also, Pastor ______ for giving up your precious congregation and pulpit to us.
There are many kinds of mission, some local, done right here in ______ and even in this building, and others across in different locations or even in other countries. When we leave our comfort spaces, we often get involved in what is known as “cross cultural” mission. When we do that, we often find ourselves in different places, where there are different traditions, and where, in order to live faithfully, we may need to dig deep in order to find common ground.
I: Different places
In the story we just read from Mark’s gospel, Jesus was dealing with people from a different place. squared off with some outsiders regarding Verse 1 points out quite clearly that “ the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him”. The story is set in Galilee, which was Jesus’ home region. Other stories in the gospels imply that folks from Jerusalem thought of themselves as more cultured and holy than Galilleeans. That kind of difference is sometimes faced in mission wherever folks like us may find ourselves.
Tainan Theological College, where I work, has enjoyed a close alliance with Chang Jung Christian University, where Char teaches, since the early 90s. Late in 2010 it also entered into partnership with Chin-li University, another Christian school, located hundreds of miles away. Chin-li also has a “sattelite campus” about 20 miles from us. That alliance has moved me to a different place.
Last year, one February noon, I got a call inviting me to an interview at Chin-li regarding an opening for a Friday evening class teacher they suddenly had. I threw together some materials and met with a some teachers that afternoon. I was hired to start the next week. It was agreed that I could use Taiwanese to teach the course. Turns out to have been a good decision.
The 15 adult students were mostly in the university to get college diplomas that would enable them to advance in their careers. They included a guy who had been on Taiwan’s Olympic team in 2008, a truck driver, an army officer, a bank teller, and a guy who ran a tea stand. From the first night I told them both that I am a teacher of the theological college AND that I’m a pastor. I asked them to keep me accountable for acting like a pastor. The class was basic college English, and nobody expected much. I taught them for three semesters, finishing last June.
The first term, after learning that they wanted nothing beyond passing grades, I kept my expectations low, just requiring that they demonstrate an ability to read. In the fall I had them again, so decided I’d expect them to write. Some of them said that they’d never written a sentence in English before, so I made it easy, and they developed confidence. Before the end of that semester I told them that if they would take my course in the spring, they’d be expected to start talking. In the end, they did. Their final exams were done on tape recorders.
Being from a different place meant that I didn’t teach or test like their previous teachers. There was little memorizing, no reciting, and I was gentle with the red pen on their homework and test papers. Some passed, some failed, but that depended on how much they were willing to put into their own future.
When we moved to Tainan in 2008, Char spent a year teaching at the theological college before a position at Chang Jung Christian University reopened for her. One day in class she saw quite clearly how teaching at the two places differed. The topic of the reading in the textbook was “Space.” One warm up question was “Do you believe there may be life on other planets?” She divided students into groups and assigned them to talk to each other. An animated discussion began in one group. Though most of the students were open to the possibility of life elsewhere, one student firmly held the position that “If it’s not specifically written in Genesis in the Bible, then life elsewhere is impossible.” Char’s response was to raise the question, “Does the Bible tell us everything, or only so much as we need to know?” Both the students’ comments and her response were different from experiences in the university. Different places bring different content to the missionary task.
There are “missionary advantages” to being “not from here”. As outsiders, we’re free to do things differently, and sometimes to do them not so well as local people, yet still get our message across. In contrast, people “from the same place”, whether that is geography, culture or social class, can have problems ministering to those who are “different,” and that can be true of Mission in right here in _________. What all of us need to do, as ALL of us are in mission (whether in Taiwan or in _________) is to be aware of our “different traditions” as we live the gospel in our societies. That may include how we meet newcomers, how we open our homes to new friends, and our church practices to new and different ways to go about arranging things.
Being from someplace else means you learned different things growing up. One of the most readily apparent differences is what we consider to be normal, even when that comes to what, when and how we may eat different things.
II: “Different Traditions”
Jesus had learned differently from the Jerusalem Pharisees who came to talk to him. They asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Though they all used the same language, it’s likely that the folks from the south spoke with a different accent from those northern Galileeans. They might just as well have asked, “why don’t your disciples say things the way we do?”
Traditions can be interesting reference points for us, things like “when there’s a wedding in our church, the bride gets ready in this room and the groom in that one”, but in some cases, like those of the Pharisees and Scribes who talked to Jesus, the traditions become the controlling force behind actions.
Every semester Char interviews each of the students in some of her classes at Chang Jung Christian University both at mid-term and final examination time. Among other things, they talk about a topic related to a lesson they have studied. One student, commenting on “scary things” brought out some ghost stories. One would think that with all of Taiwan’s technological modernity there would be great skepticism. Alas, many young people believe in and powerfully fear ghosts.
One woman told Char that she was very afraid all of the time. During Ghost Month (the 7th month of the lunar year) she carefully does the right things, burning ghost money, putting out food sacrifices and such, so that the ghosts won’t harm her. She asked Char, “do you believe in ghosts?” Respecting Sandra’s culture, Char said that she could not say whether there were ghosts or not, but as a Christian she believed both that God is stronger than whatever might be out there AND that those who have died are in God’s care, so that we need not fear them or provide for them. Sandra’s only response was, “it is our culture, we must believe it.”
One day late in March a music student at the theological college asked me what hymn I wanted her to play for morning prayers on April 9th when I was scheduled to lead. I had to admit that I had forgotten that I was on the list. I checked the assigned scripture and put a note in her mailbox. Then I forgot again. The next week, the ministerial student asked me for my plans because he was assigned as the worship leader that day. Again, I admitted that it has slipped my mind, but promised, “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything weird.” (I have a reputation. I’ve been known to preach by painting pictures or leading people in impromptu songs.)
A LOT of preaching happens in the college chapel. I usually figure that another sermon is not what people most need, specially on a Monday when they’ve all been to church the day before. Taiwan is very noisy and filled with words. One week I worked with the concept of the silence between the notes.
In the college’s hymnbook there are several “prayer response songs”, things like “Hear Our Prayer O Lord,” all grouped together. I set up a service led by a student reader and the pianist. My only job was to explain the structure of the service, which I did immediately following the prelude. After the, call to worship, a hymn and a prayer, the congregation opened their hymnbooks to #329-333. Then the leader read the scripture, one verse at a time. After each verse the pianist played a prayer response song, in the order that they were arranged in the hymnbook, the congregation was free to sing, to hum along or just listen. Then there were 60 seconds of silence. This cycle was repeated five times.
The entire service, verses, songs and silences, took a bit longer than 15 minutes. I hoped it did two things: 1) give the community a contemplative beginning to a busy week and 2) Show a different way, a different “tradition” for going about daily devotional life.
Having different traditions in mission (the way we go about being Christians in service to God on earth) can be both advantageous and disadvantageous. That’s true in both Taiwan and in __________. In the gospel story we read, the observation of different traditions led to discussion. Whether it’s with the student in the classroom, the people we meet at work, at the campground or in the doctor’s waiting room, our different ways of going about things are conversation starters, and, when we do that between congregations, with the church down the street or the church downtown, we build relationships for mission in our communities as we learn each other’s traditions.
But why bother? Well, Because: Because we have a mission to live our faith in front of the world. Because we have something to say, and because we have a story to tell to the nations.
Differences don’t necessarily produce harmony, though. If we are seeking something beyond, “We’re right and you’re wrong” we may need to go way back to something we have in common, then build from there.
III: Dialogue that comes when traditions differ
When Jesus was talking with those “out of town Pharisees and Scribes, he went back far enough in their common traditions to pick up a prophet whom both sides held honorable He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you” OK, what he said after that was NOT very complimentary, He called them hypocrites and said their religion was vanity, but it DID start from common ground.
A LOT of what is done in our mission work in Taiwan involves searching for common ground
Once when I was working as a pastor in Taiwan, trying to meet the people in my neighborhood, I sat with people at a tea stand beside a road. Someone arrived and the resulting conversation indicated that this person had just returned from having gone to a neighborhood temple to purn incense and pray in front of an idol. Some people talked about which god this one had offered sought, then mentioned the idols in their own house and which gods they sought out at different times. My contribution was to listen, pick up on the fact that we all believed in something divine, and took time to pray. Starting there, I ventured an opinion that Taiwanese folk religion was unnessarily complex, having all of those gods, and that Christianity was much simpler, there being only One.
Char’s four hours of teaching one Tuesday were supplemented by a “free talk” session with five first-year students. At its beginning, the extra hour seemed that it would take forever. Some freshmen have little experience at conversation and this group seemed to want Char to carry things along. She would ask questions and get single-word replies. Then one guy ventured a question of his own, “What is the meaning of happiness?” But things almost shut down when the one woman in the group gave her one word response, “Buddha.” Then John, the guy who had asked the question gave his answer, He said that for him happiness was connected with his life in the fellowship of his church, learning about the Bible and faith. .
Building on that statement, Char said that happiness could come from many places. She noted that, like John, Christian faith gives her happiness, specifically loving God and living in faith with other people. She noted that the one woman among these students had happiness in Buddha, and asked the others where they found it. The answers were short. At the end of the hour, John distributed copies of a small Christian monthly magazine. Finding Christians like John who are willing to witness to their classmates is one joy of being at Chang Jung Christian University, an environment that supports and encourages discussion of faith and life.
On another day, in another “free talk” session, a guy who calls himself Dan asked what it meant that Char is in Taiwan as a missionary. He wondered if she is the pastor of a church or something like that. She told him that we are, indeed, involved in church life, but that her missionary service is her work and presence with students at his school.
Remembering that earlier in the year Dan had commented that listening to Christmas music made him feel peaceful, Char gently asked if he was perhaps part of a church. The answer was ‘no.’ Char then asked about his family’s religion and learned that they are nominal followers of Taiwanese folk religion. While Dan doesn’t believe any of it, he participates in ancestral worship rites when required. His telling comment was that he didn’t see his family’s religion having any effect on the way they lived but thought their religious practice was more just a matter of habit and culture. Dan said that he has been touched by the lives and testimonies of Christians who have been his teachers and that he admires Christian ethics and philosophy. God leads people to faith in Christ along many paths. Dan may be on one of them
When we find common ground, we can work toward building common love, whether it’s in Taiwan or _________. A challenge before us here, today, is to seek what can be done with others as we engage in mission with our neighbors wherever we are.
We’re going to be different. We will have differing traditions. We need to try to celebrate each other’s traditions as we learn from each other. For example, 3 years ago the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan published a new hymnal, the first since 1964. It’s about 50% familiar (Translations of hymns from America and Europe that many of us here would know) but also contains 150 translations of songs and hymns from Africa, the Pacific and elsewhere in Asia and another 150 that were written in Taiwan by Taiwanese people and are sung to local (Taiwanese or Aboriginal) tunes. In this way, the Taiwanese church celebrates and learns from the cultural forms of other Christians in Taiwan and around the world.
As we face challenges of mission here in ____________, we likely face different people, who from different places and with different traditions. We need to learn how to support each other in common mission.
Let’s do that, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN