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Fiddler on the Roof

Sermon by The Rev. Carl Joecks, Mt. Laurel, NJ -  September 6, 2015

St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Edison, NJ


Dee-Dee-Dee-Dee-Dee-Dee (Fiddler on the Roof)



When the curtain rose on Broadway in 1964 introducing Jerry Boch’s new musical, no one could have guessed what an impact the new show would have on American culture.  The simple story of Tevye, a Jewish peasant, and his dear family - their devotion to the God and traditions of Israel - and that fellow with bow in hand - the uninvited guest dancing merrily about on the shingles.


Says the narrator:  There are times in the little village of Anatevka when life is shaky - as shaky as as shaky as - a Fiddler on the Roof.


The uninvited Fiddler became symbolic, of course, of the uninvited change that enters each of our lives.  For all he was worth, Tevye tried with every last ounce of strength to hold on to the old ways of doing things, the old understandings of life, the old customs, the old Family ways.  “Tradition!” shouts Tevye, “Tradition!”  But the Fiddler wouldn’t go away - and reluctant though he may be, Tevye is forced to faced the unsettling differences that a changing age seemed determined to bring - First a daughter who dares to choose her own husband, rather than rely on the village matchmaker.  Laments Tevye - “Unheard of!  Unthinkable!”  Then a second daughter who brashly announces her engagement to a man without even asking for her Father’s blessing.  “Has the world gone mad!?” asks Tevye.  Finally, a third daughter who crushes her Dad’s heart when she secretly marries a Russian Christian - the final blow to tradition that leaves Tevye barely able to cope.  This time, shouts Tevye, there is no other hand!  But all of Tevye’s attempts to resist change cannot stop it.  The Fiddler plays on as he will.


Well, if there’s any one group of people on this planet that can’t deal with change very well, that are sent into panic at the very mention they should try something new, it’s religious people.


I mean I don’t care if they say, “Sing to the Lord a New Song,” get that Fiddler off my church roof!  There’s nothing new at my church and I like it that way.  Give me that old time religion.  If the King James Version was good enough for St. Paul, it’s good enough for me!  If the charter members used the Common Service Book,  why did they have to bring in the red, then the green, then another red hymnal?  New hymns?  Who needs new hymns?  “In the Garden“, “Amazing Grace”…those are the only two hymns we need.  And as for all those new confounded ideas, I have only one thing to say - “We’ve never done it that way before!”


Question:  How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? 

Answer:  Change!?  Did somebody say change!?  But like it or not, that Fiddler keeps playing - did you notice him there this morning before you left for church - right there on the roof of your own house merrily making his melody - oblivious to whether you want him there or not.


For often the Fiddler appears to shake up our personal lives.  We, who’ve got it all worked out until an unexpected illness sets us back - until someone in the family announces they are moving miles away - until there is an unexpected pregnancy in the family - until the company no longer has room for us on their roster -until the spouse grows suddenly and strangely distant - until a loved one is taken so suddenly away - and no one even asked our permission - no one even warned us first.  We wanted the script to go without variation.  But the Fiddler insisted on playing his own tune.


And I don’t know if you checked to see whether the Fiddler was cavorting about the church roof as you entered this morning, but that music maker has been known to hang out atop steeples to be sure.  Oh the changes the Church has had to however unhappily endure.


Women serving on Church Council?  I remember the battle, the fur flying, the grinding and gnashing of teeth during my student year of ministry at Holy Trinity, Maple Shade, NJ - a church to which I later returned as pastor - when a woman named Marge became the first woman in Holy Trinity history to serve on Council.  And many exclaimed with Tevye - “A woman on Council!?  Unheard of!  Unthinkable!  Has the world gone mad?!”  Yet what was once rendered as shocking and new is now valued as integral to the Church - the prominent role of women as leaders in both society and faith.   The Fiddler plays on.


Or do you remember the introduction of girl acolytes?  We take them for granted today and are thankful for their service, but I remember a time when the very suggestion raised blood pressure.  “We’ve done without them before and we don’t need them now” - so said the acolyte Mom in the Absecon church I served those  years ago.  But we ordain women into the Ministry now,” I explained, “and the Lutheran Church is seeking to offer opportunity to all.”  “Well, you can have them if you want,” she said, “but you can find a new acolyte mother.”  And there and then it was,  she resigned for her work with the kids.  A girl acolyte?  Unthinkable!  Unheard of!  Has the world gone mad?  Yet what was once rendered as shocking and new is now valued as integral to the Church - the encouragement of all young people to serve the inclusive mission of the Church.  The Fiddler plays on.


And so has it been throughout Christian history.  In a kind of Ripley’s “Believe it or Not,” I present to you some of the things to which Christians actually objected violently in centuries now past:


The King James Version of  the Bible - believe it or not - widely criticized and rejected by the clergy at its appearance in 1611.  In the then angry words of Archbishop Richard Bancroft - “Tell his majesty that I had rather be rent to pieces with wild horses than any such translation by my consent be urged upon poor churches.”


Or how about this for surprising controversy - the singing of hymns in church services - believe it or not, Isaac Watts, the prolific hymn writer was treated first like a heretic.  “If psalms were good enough for our ancestors to sing,” church leaders insisted, “then that’s all we need to sing too.”


When the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States met in Philadelphia’s Second Presbyterian Church in May, 1789, Rev. Adam Rankin stood up to say, “I have ridden on horseback all the way from my home in Kentucky to ask this august body to refuse to allow the great error of adopting the use of Isaac Watt’s hymns in public worship.”


If the church’s resistance to hymns does not seem amazing enough, then how about its initial antagonism to the institution of Sunday School - believe it or not.  When Robert Raikes started the Sunday School movement, the Archbishop of Canterbury called together the bishops to see what could be done to stop him.  Sunday School - said many - was a clear violation of the Sabbath Law and the Sabbath Day.  A pastor in Connecticut who discovered a class being held in his church on Sunday, raged, “You imps of Satan, doing the devil’s work.  I’ll have you set in the street!”


So many things thought once so shocking, now so  integral to the life and mission of the Church.  Yet changes still beset and befuddle the unsuspecting Christian in our time.



One Roman Catholic reflecting on the dizzying pace of changes in his own denomination, laments:

            “Latin’s gone

            Solemity too

            Singin’ and shoutin’ from every pew!

            Altar’s turned round

            Priest is too

            The commentator’s yelling Page 22!

            Communion rails gone           

            “Stand up straight!”

            Kneelin” suddenly went out of date.

            The rosaries are out

            The Psalms are in

            You hardly ever hear a word against sin.

            Padre’s lookin’ puzzled, doesn’t know his part

            He used to know the whole deal in Latin by heart.

            I hope that the changes are just about done,

            That they don’t drop Bingo before I’ve won!”


Resistance to change is a funny thing.  Two construction workers had taken a lunch break and opened up their lunches.  One of them looked inside his and said, “Not baloney again!  I can’t believe it.  I hate baloney.  This is the third time this week I’ve had baloney.  I can’t stand baloney!”  The other one said, “Why don’t you ask your wife to make something different?”  He replied, “I don’t have a wife.  I made these myself.”


There are times we aren’t even sure why we keep doing the things we’re doin’ - times we’re not even sure we even like the things we’re doin’ - all we know is that’s the way we’ve done it time without end - and that’s the way we’re determined to continue to do it still!


But then there’s that Fiddler on the Roof - always agitating - up to his mischief - always stirring things up.


And that Fiddler has found a place - right up there on the rooftop of St. Stephen’s - for what change can be more upsetting to us than when a pastor announces his departure and we are left with an uncertain future before us.  Pastor Wagner is a man of many great talents and gifts.  His ministry was a true blessing to St. Stephen’s on its continued journey of faith and service.  The years and relationship you share and have shared are to be treasured in your heart.


But it is also true that one door must close before a new one can open.  Life forces us at times to let go of the old in order that we may embrace the new.


Oh, that mischievous Fiddler - ever playing his tune - never content to let things be.

And who is that Fiddler - who is that trouble maker - who is that mysterious figure who comes without our bidding - who plays his own music, at his own pace, when and where he will?


And the answer, I think, might surprise you.  The answer, I think, might set you back.  For again and again in Scripture the answer is clear.  The Fiddler on the Roof is none other than the Master of all Fiddlers, the God who will never let his servants or His Church rest.


“But I am too young to serve you,” protested Jeremiah, “I could never be your prophet.”  But even as he spoke, Jeremiah could hear in the background the strains of the Fiddler, “Do not say you are too young,” said the Lord.  “Behold, I am doing a new thing.  Jeremiah, come follow me.”


“You, a Jewish man, would speak in public to me, a woman of Samaria!?” exclaimed the woman at the well in utter disbelief.  But even before our Lord could respond, she could hear in the background the strains of the Fiddler.  “Behold,” said Jesus, “I am doing a new thing.  Not only will I speak with you,  I will give you the living water of life.”


“Surely, Jesus, you would not dare to touch the skin of this leper,” grumbled the Pharisees, “For he is of all men most accursed and unclean.”  But even before our Lord could respond, they could hear in the background the strains of the Fiddler.  Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.  “Behold I am doing a new thing,” said Jesus.  “Be made clean!”


Jesus, the Fiddler - always stirring the complacent - always playing a new unexpected tune.


The months ahead for St. Stephen’s will no doubt hold their share of uncertain and sometimes befuddling change.  It is a time when you will understandably seek to hold on to those things you hold dear.  But be ready also to listen - lest you miss Him.  The Fiddler may be hiding on the rooftop playing his tune - inviting you to venture new paths, to dream new dreams, calling you to sing a new song and play a new tune and walk in a new direction for a new and promise-filled day.

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