Sermon: July 17, 2016 – “A New Tradition”

“A New Tradition”

Text: Mark 7: 1-8, 13

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”


A few years ago Heidi and I had the opportunity to tour parts of Italy and one of the cities we visited while we were over there was Florence. This city in Northern Italy is historic on so many levels that is can be hard to know what to go see or what to take in while you are visiting. One of the places we did include was what is commonly referred to as the Duomo, or sometimes it is called the Florence Cathedral, or it is also referred to by its true Italian name, but I can’t pronounce that, so we will stick with Duomo for purposes of this discussion.

This cathedral was constructed mostly between the 14th & 15th centuries; it took over 100 years before it was completed. The beautiful marble façade that is now on the cathedral was added much later, sometime around 1875 if I remember correctly. On the inside, the huge dome was one the last projects to be constructed and then it was almost another 100 years before Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to paint a fresco on the inside of the dome. Vasari designed the basic concept of the fresco and painted a large portion of it, but died before it was completed by another artist in 1579. The subject for this fresco was the last judgment and in my opinion, it is one of the best examples of what people believed to be true about our world for centuries.

Historians and theologians and Bible scholars all agree that a tiered universe was the commonly held belief system of most of the world since the beginning of humankind. It was commonly held to be true that heaven was somewhere above us, probably a few miles, and hell was beneath us. Of course with the eruption of volcanoes and the presence of other geothermal phenomenon the idea of hell being filled with heat and fire and anguish also made perfect sense.

In the Duomo, we have this tiered universe laid out for us in very precise ways. At the top of the dome are what historians believe to be the elders of the apocalypse, followed by the disciples and choirs of angels, followed by a few saints and some priests, with perhaps a few normal people near the bottom of the preferred tier. Then things begin to deteriorate in terms of pleasantness, because as the eye wanders lower on the dome, we begin to see pain and suffering, flames and awful looking demons, three-headed monsters and perhaps Satan himself devouring flesh and sinners in gruesome detail.

It’s kind of hard for me to believe that I have some pictures of the inside of a church that I can’t really show in church. They are too horrible; but from what I have shown you, I think you get the idea. Trust me when I say there are others that go downhill from here.

Another thing which I find remarkable is the level of fear that is on display in this fresco. This is literally what the artists and the church goers for centuries thought was the reality of the situation. The image of God, what the believed to be true, and there concept of the universe was very different from what we know to be true today. I think most of us have moved away from an understanding of God, an understanding of heaven and hell and an understanding of our universe as it is displayed on the fresco on the ceiling of the dome in the Duomo in Florence, Italy. We have moved away from that personally, perhaps; but has the church moved and what do we currently tell people? Do we actively offer church goers a new version or a new idea of salvation? Do we even talk about it as a church?

In my experience, not so much.

Let me offer a few examples of what I’m talking about and why I think it should be a concern to us. We continue to sing hymns and read scripture and talk about heaven and hell like they are real places and we speak of salvation as the one thing which stands between us and spending eternity in hell. Even though we have every reason to reject this archaic thinking and general nonsense, we have not replaced it with anything else. If the church wants to begin to understand why people no longer want to attend or believe, perhaps the church might want to look at our doctrine of heaven and hell and salvation. It simply no longer makes sense on a practical level. We need a new tradition.

I know, I know, you’re not supposed to be practical in matters of faith. But I actually don’t believe that to be true either; I think we are called to think and wonder and ask questions. If that process leads us to a point where it challenges our concepts of God, then I think we need to challenge our belief system, rather than pretending the science and thought we have available must be incorrect. That would be a good start on a new tradition, but it’s not happening, at least not in most churches.

There are a couple of places in the New Testament where the ascension of Jesus into heaven is described. In the Gospel of Mark, the text simply says he ascended into heaven; in the Gospel of Luke, there are a few more details, but the gist of the story is the same. There is also a reference to this ascension in the first chapter of Acts, and in this story, Jesus is riding on a cloud. In all the stories, the assumption is that people watched him do this. I make that point, because if Jesus were traveling at the speed of light while ascending into heaven, no one would be able to see or witness that. But for the sake of argument, let’s just say that Jesus accelerated to the speed of light as soon as he was out of sight.

In very round numbers, if Jesus has been traveling for the last 2,000 years at the speed of light, he has traveled less than one-millionth of one percent of the distance required to reach the end of the universe we have explored so far. If anyone wants to check my math, the farthest galaxy that has been discovered by the Hubble telescope is a whopping 13.5 billion light years from earth. Not only that, in all that space, the Hubble has yet to discover anything that resembles heaven. It seems rather obvious that heaven is not where we thought it was for centuries and I think it is also very possible that heaven is not what we thought it was for centuries. But does the church talk about this? Do we offer some alternative opinions? Are we open for discussion?

The silence is deafening. We need a new tradition.

We can of course build the same line of rationale concerning the existence of hell, at least in the location where it was believed to have been for centuries. Science now has a firm grasp on the earth’s core and a solid understanding of geology, thermal and geothermal activity and volcanoes as well and at least so far, nothing resembling hell has surfaced on the science of the earth radar.

Once again, the silence is deafening. We need a new tradition.

This level of hypocrisy or at the very least a complete disregard for science is part of the reason the church has trouble attracting new faces. We all act like we believe this stuff, we talk about it, sing about it and read scripture about it, without ever really clarifying that for the most part, it is metaphor. We need to find new ways to talk about heaven as a state of being and new ways to talk about God as energy and new ways to talk about hell as the absence of love. Until we find a new language around some of these traditions, we will continue to struggle, at least in my opinion.

Consider again what Jesus was up against in his attempt to reform ancient Judaism. In the scripture I read at the beginning, Jesus was challenged by the leaders about why his disciples were not following the rules. His answer speaks volumes to us today; Jesus said that you cling to the tradition of the elders and in so doing, you make void the word of God.

It’s just a hunch, but I’m thinking it is difficult to attract a lot of new people into the church or to get them excited about Christianity if we continually hold to our traditional ideas while making the Word of God void. That’s what we do. We make the message void of any rational thought, we make the message void of science or our understanding of the universe, we make our message void of contemporary cultural shifts. We hold to tradition and we make the Word of God void; I’m not saying this, Jesus said it, and I happen to agree with him.

I don’t know if you noticed or not but the “Ark Experience” opened in Kentucky a few weeks ago. This so called Christian Theme park presents the story of Noah and the Ark, not as a story, but as fact. You really don’t want to get me started.

Where is the rational voice of reason? We need to be reminding the unaffiliated that even though that story is in the Bible, and even though the Ark Encounter is called a Christian theme park they don’t speak for all of us.

Once again, the silence is deafening. We need a new tradition.

It’s time for us to find new ways to be heard. It’s time for us to find new ways to offer alternatives to the traditional messages. It’s time for us to stop making void the Word of God.

Food for thought.


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