Text: Mark 7: 5-8, 13, Isaiah 29:13
So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live[a] according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 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;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 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.”
The Lord said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote;
I am fascinated with this particular confrontation of Jesus with the scribes and the Pharisees as it is recorded in our text from the Gospel of Mark. I find it so interesting because Jesus seemed to have the text from Isaiah that he quoted right at the tip of his tongue. If the conversation went as it is recorded in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus didn’t have to think about a response, he didn’t have to check his concordance of the Hebrew Bible, he didn’t get on-line and do a quick search for scriptures to rebut scribes and Pharisees with, he just knew right away what he wanted to say and was able to reference it as well. This is a remarkable talent. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, we are, after all, talking about Jesus.
I also find this text intriguing because it seems to have a timeless nature to it. Timeless in the sense that it was appropriate for the time when it was written and recorded in Isaiah, but also appropriate in the situation Jesus found himself in many years later. I think it is still timeless, because now, 2,000 years after Jesus quoted the ancient text it is still applicable to our situation today. Have we become a collection of “vain worshipers” who abandon the commandment of God in order to hold to human tradition? Jesus said this kind of worship makes void the true word of God. Isaiah said that this style of worship is what you have learned by rote.
This is pretty harsh. To be clear, Jesus was observing some of these symptoms within the practices of ancient Judaism. I believe that Martin Luther may have observed some of these symptoms during the Protestant Reformation. There is a growing number of contemporary theologians who now have observed these same symptoms in Christian worship today.
I am currently reading a book that is a compilation of thoughts by 9 of those contemporary theologians who have observed this behavior with the Christian church. This book, “The Once and Future Jesus” is quite fascinating and may be a subject of a book study later on, so stay tuned for information on that.
I mentioned that there are 9 contributing authors to this book, each theologian has taken a topic and expanded on that topic with their own thoughts and ideas. So by reading this book you are exposed to a lot of different perspectives, writing styles and innovative ideas when it comes to contemporary Christian theology. One of these topics was examined and expanded by a favorite author of mine, the late Marcus Borg. The title of his chapter in this book is what I borrowed for the title of this sermon, “Re-visioning Christianity”.
In his chapter Borg presents some rather important concepts and ideas about the transformation of Christianity that he thinks will be necessary for us to have take place over the next few decades if Christianity is going to survive as one of the major world faith traditions.
Of course, it is necessary for me to say that I believe these changes are important, Marcus Borg believed these changes to be important, but that doesn’t mean you have to as well. You may think that Christianity is doing just fine, just the way we are and nothing needs to change. You have every right to believe whatever you want to about this topic, but I will say that just because you have the right to believe something, doesn’t make it the right thing to do. That statement is also borrowed, but it packs a punch and you might want to think about that for a while. I’ll leave it on the screen long enough for you to make a mental note or jot it down, if you want to.
So what does Borg have to say about re-visioning Christianity? I wish I could condense his chapter in this book to a few sentences that would tell the entire story. Unfortunately, I think that Marcus Borg already condensed his sentences at the time of this writing so rather than condensing the sentences, what we really need to do is unpack each sentence. I hope you don’t have lunch plans.
In all seriousness, I will try to give you a flavor of what I have found to be compelling from Borg in this chapter from this book.
For starters, Borg describes the orthodox or traditional concepts of Christianity to be an “old way of seeing Christianity”. The new way of seeing Christianity has not yet arrived nor has it been fully developed; as a result, the old way of seeing Christianity has “come undone” as he puts it, for many Christians over the last 30-40 years. This has been evidenced by a mass exodus of many out of the mainline Christian denominations. This exodus has not taken place because people no longer believed in God, or no longer felt a need for a spiritual connection, but rather because the Christian faith tradition has “ceased to be persuasive” to millions and millions of people. Borg goes on to state that he believes the re-visioning of Christianity into something that is persuasive is in fact “the most important theological task of our time.”
At this point I want to interject some personal thoughts and perhaps a rhetorical question or two. If re-visioning Christianity is the most important task of our time, as Borg thinks it is, and I would have to agree, why then, is it likely that on this particular Sunday morning that this is the only pulpit in the entire LC Valley that you are likely to hear anything about this? When I was with Habitat I counted about 90 churches here in the Valley. If we are the only one talking about this that gets us pretty close to one percent and I don’t think that is enough. I think we need some help; but that help may still be a few years ahead of us. I’m really not sure.
A second thought I have about this is that I know it is frightening to a lot of people. The “old way” of seeing Christianity as Borg describes it, is in many cases the Christianity that we grew up with. If we were taught as young children and then again as young adults that our faith tradition was the only way for us to enter into the kingdom of God and escape from eternal suffering, then you bet it is scary to start messing with what we have been taught.
And that’s the rub. Rather than face that fear, we remain in status quo. While the rest of the world no longer believes what we might believe, and while the rest of the world is searching for a faith tradition that connects with them and empowers their spiritual lives, we remain in status quo because we are afraid. The result of that situation is where we find ourselves today. Massive declines in traditional mainline denominations, declining numbers even among evangelicals and non-denominational churches and a population of people under the age of 50 that are starving for a spirituality that makes sense to them. I think we can fix this. But it isn’t going to be easy. And for many of us it might be a little scary. But it simply must be done.
I have maybe unpacked the first two pages of the chapter in this book by Marcus Borg; obviously there is much more to come, so let’s call this part one and see where it takes us. Hopefully, what we have unpacked so far has provided enough information to get your curiosity awakened and you will find some food for thought.