Monday, October 19, 2015

We'll break with Tradition -

This sermon is about tradition.

We'll not begin with the Bible reading as we usually do, but with a hypothetical situation.

Suppose you can't play the piano. You're willing to learn. You know that it won't be easy.

You can proceed in one of two ways. You can say: I'm going to do this by myself. So you sit down at the piano and look at the keyboard. You begin to see that some of the keys are white and some are black.

Then you strike a note, then another. You hear the difference in the sound
between the white notes and the black ones.

You see that as you move up the keyboard, the sound gets higher and higher. As you go down, the sound gets lower and lower.

You may see that the way you strike a note makes a difference in the way it sounds. If you strike it like a piece of wood, it will sound harsh. If you press it, and let the weight come from your shoulder, it will make a better sound.

And you can also hear that two or three notes played together make a pleasing sound, while two or three other notes make an unbearable sound. Then, you may read a book about music for the piano.

You'll find an explanation of the two staves - one for the right hand and one for the left; something about a clef, something about the key.

You'll learn that there are flats, sharps and naturals, and that the notes have names. They're simply ABCDEFG, the first seven letters of the alphabet.

That's one way to learn how to play the piano.

The other way is quite different.

You would say to yourself, I want to learn to play the piano, and I'm going to find the best teacher there is. She will sit down at the keyboard with you; she will put your finger on a key and say, That's middle C.

She will stretch your hand to the note, eight notes above it, and say, that's an octave. 

Then she will show you a sheet of music and tell you that the 2 staves are for the 2 hands.

She will tell you about the five lines and the spaces in between, about the bars, those perpendicular lines that you see; about the notes, why some are solid black, some are open circles, some have stems and some don't, and some of the stems have one wing, some two, and some three!

She will tell you what someone had once told her. In other words, she will pass on to you the tradition of music.

Later on, you might outgrow many of the things that she taught you. You might change your entire style of playing, and the kind of music she liked you might not like.

You might look back at your teacher with gentle amusement, but with great appreciation. You might go miles beyond her, but you would say, I’m glad that I began with a teacher, and she passed on to me the tradition that someone had passed on to her.

At some point in the learning - you would say, I see! I hear! I feel! This would be the point at which the tradition came alive, and if it never happened, the tradition would have failed.

Now we move to another situation, but more closely related to our principle concern.

You would like to be a Christian. You've never been one, but you know a person, whose life has somehow been changed for the better, and when you asked how this happened, the person said that it was due to his or her Christian faith.

You then said if Christian faith can do that for a person, I want it.

You too, may want to do this on your own. You don't want to get mixed up with the churches and all their institutional machinery.

But you have to use the church much the way you would use a library, because that's where the source materials are.

The Bible is the book, so you take it out and read it. You don't know what to make of it. There are lines of exquisite beauty, but the book as a whole leaves you mystified.

The first book is the Book of Genesis, in which you are told how the world began, and the last is the Book of Revelation, which tells you how the world will end. Both seem utterly fantastic.
One of them says, that God made the world in six days; and the other pictures the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, with the end of the world following in their heels.
You don't get very far with the Bible, so you look at the creed - and as you read it, you're puzzled.
In the longer version, the Nicene Creed, you read that God once came down to earth.

In the shorter Jesus went down to hell, then up to heaven, and will sometime come back to earth.
When?  Why?  How?
No answer not the slightest indication.

Then you look around at the people. A few radiate something and you can see it at once; but most of them look pretty much like everybody else, and that's about as far as most people can expect to get when they rely solely on their own resources.

The other way is to get to another Christian, and say to him or her, I want to be a Christian. Now, if I were the person to whom you came - I would say to you what I said before.

You begin with what is given, and there are three things given.

First a community, we call it the church. I would tell you, don't expect all of us to be perfect. If we were, we wouldn't be here.  

Every Sunday we confess that we've failed in one way or another. But I would go on and say, you can't be a Christian by yourself, you can do it only as a member of the Community.

You can be good and decent by yourself, but that's not necessarily being a Christian.

The second is a Book, the Bible. It's the richest book in the world, and I must say at the same time, the most dangerous.

If a person without any help tries to read the Book of Genesis, heaven only knows where one might be led!

And if one tries to read the Book of Revelation by oneself, one can be led into a labyrinth of nonsense.

It needs interpretation, the interpretation of the community.

The third thing that is given is a Person. The Person is Jesus of Nazareth. He's like no other person; he’s not easy to know, first because the material we have about him was written almost entirely by people who adored him.

And he's not easy to follow, and less easy to believe. He was put to death, but his spirit is still alive. He's a man through and through but in him you'll find what God is like.

These are the three things given. 

Take them I would say, do what I tell you - the way any good piano teacher would say, Watch me while I play this difficult passage.

Then I would say, when the time comes you'll go your own way, but now you begin with the tradition.

Those two situations make three things plain about tradition which I  you see even without my mentioning them. But to be sure I'll state them briefly.

The first, tradition is the accumulated experience of those who have gone before us.

When Paul wrote his second letter to the church in Thessalonica he said in the fifteenth verse of the second chapter: "Stand firm and hold on to those truths which we taught you."
Paul didn't put together the Christian religion, he neither discovered or invented it; he was given the tradition.

The second is that tradition is a living thing.

It’s something like a garden, and sometimes it gets overgrown. It needs constantly to be thinned out and must often be weeded. The Christian community is always thinning out the garden of tradition.
The four gospels are exactly that.
There were other gospels, but the early Church thinned them out, and they said, These four represent the truth as we received it.

We continue to do it with the liturgy and hymnody. We let go some of the traditions that we've long since outgrown, they may once have been good and valuable, but they are no longer. Others we clarify as we hold on to them.

And the last thing is that you begin with the tradition, but you don't stop with it.

The genius is the one who dares to break the tradition. The one I know best is William Shakespeare.

Where did he get blank verse? He didn't invent it. He got it from Christopher Marlowe, and then went miles beyond him and made it greater!

The great mistake some people make is that they drop the tradition before they know what it is.

Listen to these words of Gilbert Murray, the English critic: "Every person who possesses real vitality can be seen as the resultant of two forces. That person is first the child of a particular age, society, convention, of what we may call in one word tradition.

The person is secondly, in one degree or another, a rebel against that tradition.

And the best traditions make the best rebels."

Let us pray:
O God, keep our minds and hearts open.
Without distrusting our own talents,
let us listen carefully to those who have gone before us.
Then as we move forward help us to appreciate in ourselves the things that others have known and seen; and to go far beyond anything they ever dreamed of. 

Dr. John Sullivan
Former SA officer, Canada


Anonymous said...

I just knew it had to be a John Sullivan article! Thanks John. It was great and to the point---once again.

Daryl Lach
USA Central

Anonymous said...

Thank you John, as always thoughtful and worthy of our reflection and forwarding in the form of an upcoming reworded sermon! GBYRG

Active UKT

Anonymous said...

I'm so pleased you brought Dr. John back - trust he'll stay a while.l

Anonymous said...

"People are made strong when preaching rivets their mind’s attention and their heart’s affection on the words of God in scripture in such a way that they can see for themselves: this is what God said and this is what God meant." John Piper

I believe Piper is referencing preachers such as yourself John.

A fellow former and active preacher. UK

Anonymous said...

Is it an authentic 'John Sullivan' article? I have a feeling I've read it recently elsewhere on the internet.



If the article was posted elsewhere it simply means that others, like ourselves, believe John's words are worth sharing with a wide audience! We trust full credit was given or they got some 'splaining to do !

John was a regular, valuable and much appreciated contributor to the FSAOF for several years, but slowed down a bit when he retired from his weekly pulpit demands.

Kjell Edlund said...

What a brilliant sermon! Just want to say Thank You for those well grounded and well founded thoughts!
Kjell-Erik Edlund
Former officer