Trygve David Johnson: The great tension
Jesus is able to hold the tension between the tradition of Israel on the one hand and the innovation of God on the other, says the dean of the chapel at Hope College.
January 29, 2013 | Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached at Hope College in Holland, Mich., on Oct. 21, 2012.
I am sometimes asked what I like about working at a college. One of my answers is that I like working at a college because it is a place that holds together an important tension: the tension between tradition and innovation. We are here to learn from the past, but also to press that learning forward into new knowledge, insights and wisdom. Sometimes you need just the right tension to sound just the right note.
I love tradition. Tradition is a humble reminder that we don’t exist in a vacuum. Tradition can give us a sense of orientation as it seeks to pass forward the best thinking and practices of those who have gone before us.
Tradition can invite humility. Tradition reaches far back into history, so that the dead might find a voice among the living. Tradition allows us to participate in a history that is always breathing. I love tradition.
At the same time, I also love innovation. I love the new idea, the fresh insight that comes with saying, “Why couldn’t we do it this way? Why can’t it be different?”
Innovation is the seedling of great hopes. It’s why I love the entrepreneurs -- the discoverers, the researchers, the explorers. I’m one of those rare citizens who actually think we should support NASA. The human soul needs to reach for the stars!
But like anything good, innovation can turn bad, even ugly. Innovation is good when it pushes us to think creatively to solve old problems and seek to find new horizons; innovation turns bad when one thinks naively that what’s new is always better, and that the old ways have nothing, really, to say to us. And innovation can be ugly when it takes on the zeal of the iconoclast or revolutionary who attacks cherished beliefs and institutions, thinking that if we could just wipe it all away, we would be free to engineer a brave new world.
Likewise with tradition. Tradition is good when it is a servant; tradition is bad when it seeks to be a master. Tradition is ugly when it is used as a blunt weapon against others. This is especially true in religion. When religious tradition becomes legalistic or takes on a religiosity that looks for fault, when it shuts down questions or shames people into conformity, the tradition is ugly.
I dare say that many people have lost their faith in Christ, or been turned off from faith, by just this sort of ugly experience.
Tradition and innovation -- it is the great tension. The wise leader is one who is able to hold this tension together. It’s not easy.
This is one of the reasons why I love Jesus. Jesus is able to hold the tension between the tradition of Israel on the one hand and the innovation of God on the other in such a way that when he speaks he sounds just the right note, so that we might all sing a new song.
In Mark’s Gospel, we have two stories stitched together. The first story is about fasting; the second story is about the Sabbath -- what is lawful to do and not do on the Sabbath. In both stories, Pharisees are mentioned.
Now, I know the Pharisees get a bad rap. We are not supposed to like Pharisees. But I have a confession: I like them. I’m at least extremely sympathetic.
The Pharisees were the ones who, over centuries, created a scribal tradition that kept Israel’s identity and soul -- God’s covenant people -- from being swallowed up by the pagan assumptions of Hellenism. It may be argued that it was because of the Pharisees that Judaism even survived. It was the Pharisees who kept Israel’s tradition alive by a passionate integration of the law with daily life.
The Pharisees were not an organized structure. They had no primary leader. They were self-appointed keepers of the tradition. This attracts a particular kind of person. Usually it draws people who are a little self-assured and argumentative. There was good in what they did. But there was also bad. And there was also ugly.
These self-appointed keepers of the tradition created a culture of religiosity, of legalism, that in fact actually threatened the meaning and purpose of the tradition they were trying to protect. The danger of the Pharisees was that they were so focused on looking back on the tradition of the law that they lost sight of what the law was for. They were so focused on the tradition that they were blind to God’s innovation.
Three images and one day
Jesus is questioned about fasting. People notice that his disciples are not like the disciples of John or the Pharisees. The Pharisees fast. But Jesus’ disciples do not fast. Why is that?