The spirit of the scripture brings life or death

Last night I watched Julie Taymor's beautiful and moving film, All Across the Universe, which retells the story of America in the late 60s through the music of the Beatles. It was a brilliant, tender and visually arresting exploration of what a passionate commitment to art and social justice once meant and might mean again! In the commentary portion of the DVD, director, Julie Taymor, speaks of the importance of our words and actions - an argument we have recently heard in the context of the Obama/Clinton debates - and one I take very seriously as a preacher and musician.
It brought to mind this insight of Frederick Beuchner's concerning art and spiritualiy: Literature, painting, music - the most basic lesson that all art teaches is to stop, look and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the ime it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble aong from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idead of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things. Is it too much to say that 'Stop, Look and Listen' is also the basic lesson that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us? Listen to history is the cry of the ancient prophets of Israel. Listen to social injustice, says Amos; to head-in-the sand religiousity, says Jeremiah; to international treacheries and power-plays, says Isaiah... And when Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command is to love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look and listen for God in what is happening around us and inside us. (Beuchner, Listening to Your Life, pp. 51-52)

Taymor also observes that in an era of social amnesia, it is vitally important for artists to show contemporary young people what it might mean for them to catch a glimpse of the connections between art, spirituality and social transformation. This week's sermon found me wrestling with both the words we embrace and how the spirit of the scriptures we honor with authority have life and death implications. (Take a look at the "Let It Be" section of this movie if you have any doubts! It is BRILLIANT!)

Insights from the sermon
Many people are hungry to know how to really identify God’s will for their lives: liberals, fundamentalists, seekers, doubters, scientists, skeptics and everybody in-between have at one time or another asked, “How can I really know what God wants me to do?” Does that ring true to you? Have you ever asked: “Lord, show me the way? Help me know what to do next?” It could be about your career – or your loved ones – an ethical conflict at work – how to use your money – or even how to best enter the realm of politics: it seems to be part of the human condition to wrestle with understanding God’s will for our lives.

Certainly that was at the heart of this morning’s gospel reading where John the Baptist – who had baptized and anointed Jesus as Messiah – had second thoughts and doubts after he was locked away in prison. “Are you the one who is to come, Jesus, or must we wait for another? Tell me what is going on?” (Matthew 11: 1-6) So let’s talk about this dilemma – let’s try to be clear about the time-tested insights our tradition has come up with over the years for honestly discerning the will of the Lord for our lives – and let’s also try to be clear about what is not helpful, ok? Specifically I want to call your attention to 4 clues that can help you grow closer to hearing God’s call for your life. I have come to think of them as touch stones that are safe – and, indeed, I use the acrostic SAFE to help me remember.

I don’t know if you find it necessary, but sometimes I need a little help remembering important things: that’s why I always hang up my car keys in the same place and keep important phone numbers listed on both my cell phone and an address book. And the way I have come to summarize the 4 clues is the acrostic – SAFE – which stands for scripture, alternatives, following and elders: SAFE. So let’s talk about each of them and see where they take us. The first is scripture – which over the years I have come to modify into the spirit of the scriptures because I’ve seen people do some pretty weird and mean-spirited things with just scripture plain and simple, right?
The recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the on-going brutality between Palestine and Israel, the bigotry and cruelty in Northern Ireland as well as the horrors of September 11th are all the result of people twisting scripture into vicious and violent action. The same is often true when it comes to homophobia, sexism and race hatred in 21st century America: the naked word of scripture can easily be manipulated and deformed. This is why scholars and people of good will urge us to consult the spirit of the scriptures in addition to the specific words on a page.

Walter Wink, one of the finest biblical interpreters of our day, reminds us that there are three or perhaps four distinctive spirits that shape and inform our holy scriptures: did you know that? I think he is right because very different conclusions can be reached depending upon which spirit of the scriptures you choose to follow. And let me give you an example of how I have applied this from my own life: during the early 1980s, when the culture wars were really starting to heat up, I sensed a calling from God to try to better ground myself in the spirit of Jesus – to go deeper as a follower, not an admirer to use Kierkegaard’s words – which led me into serious Bible study. You may recall that one of the hot button issues of that time – which still has some juice today – has to do with homosexuality. Specifically, some people of faith were calling gay folk an abomination to the Lord, others were advocating an “open and affirming” perspective and lot of us in the middle were confused.

Now here’s where it gets interesting and holds some very real and serious implications for each of us: when I reread and studied the simple words of scripture in my new found zeal – without interpretation or consideration of the spirit of the scriptures – I found myself coming to the conclusion that God’s love had been withheld from those in the GLBT community. Let’s face it: there are parts of Leviticus 18 and 20 as well as St. Paul’s words in Romans 1: 26-27 that are unambiguous.

So for a few years – in the spirit of Romans 12 I tried not to be “conformed to the spirit of this world, but rather to be transformed by the renewal of my mind” – especially concerning the words of scripture – so that I might “discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” for my life. And that caused me to oppose homosexuality as an acceptable way of living for those in the church. I am not happy to confess this to you out loud – I am not proud of the pain it caused my gay sisters and brothers in the day – but it is a fact. What changed my thinking – and what led me to pastor the first Open and Affirming congregation in the state of Arizona – was also my wrestling with scripture. But now I was trying to discern the spirit of the scripture and that spirit will lead you in very different directions. When it comes to sexuality, the Bible has three very different spirits. First there is the spirit of the law – articulated most clearly in the morality codes of Leviticus but also in some of the words of St. Paul and the epistles – and this spirit strictly prohibits homosexuality. “If a man lies with a male as with a woman,” says Leviticus 20, “then both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them."

What the spirit of the morality codes also forbids, however, are certain activities which we now think of as normative while encouraging other sexual practices which have become problematic to contemporary folk. For example the spirit of the law forbids intercourse during menstruation and teaches that violators should be cast out of the community and even stoned to death. It encourages polygamy, capital punishment for adultery, the prohibition of all forms of public nudity – which would include locker rooms and the privacy of our own homes – it grounds the sanctity of marriage in a woman’s fertility, mandates endogamy – marriage only within the 12 tribes of Israel – and supports prostitution as a way of safe-guarding the property rights of a husband whose wife must be virginal prior to the wedding ceremony.

Do you see where this is going? Our society values love, fidelity and equality when it comes to an ethic of sexuality – not patriarchal property rights – which makes a simple or even an uncritical allegiance to the spirit of the law in scripture problematic if not destructive. Yes, there is a spirit of the law in the scriptures, but there is also is a spirit of nature in the scriptures – something St. Paul tends uses from time to time – which draws analogies for human behavior from the realm of animals and plant life. Now far be it from me to question nature; I love it and find great beauty in God’s creation. So without belaboring the point, let me simply say that we have learned a great deal about human and animal nature over the past 2,000 years that have rendered a simplistic 1st century reading of natural law as deadly and wrong in 2008.

And that brings me to the spirit of love and justice in the scriptures – the way of Jesus whom we trust to best show us what a love ethic looks like – and when we consider Christ on this matter not only are there no references to homosexuality – ever – but he gives us the permission to use our own minds and hearts and context. In Luke 12: 57, during an argument with the legalists of his day, Jesus said: “Why do you not learn to judge for yourselves what is right?”
My mentor in discerning the spirit of the scriptures, Walter Wink, goes on to say: If now new evidence is in on the phenomenon of homosexuality, are we not obligated – no, free – to re-evaluate the whole issue in the light of all the available data and decide what is right, under God, for ourselves? Is this not the radical freedom for obedience in which the gospel establishes us? What most saddens me in this whole raucous debate in the churches is how sub-Christian most of it has been. It is characteristic of our time that the issues most difficult to assess, and which have generated the greatest degree of animosity, are issues on which the Bible can be interpreted as supporting either side. I am referring to abortion and homosexuality. We need to take a few steps back and be honest with ourselves. I am deeply convinced of the rightness of what I have said in this essay. But I must acknowledge that it is not an air tight case. You can find weaknesses in it, just as I can in others'. The truth is, we are not given unequivocal guidance in either area, abortion or homosexuality. Rather than tearing at each other’s throats, therefore, we should humbly admit our limitations. How do I know I am correct interpreting God's word for us today? How do you? Wouldn't it be wiser for Christians to lower the decibels by 95 percent and quietly present our beliefs, knowing full well that we might be wrong? (

I know that was a pretty long-winded overview concerning the spirit of the scriptures, but it is important: one step in trying to discern the will of God’s call for our lives has to do with seeing if our lives line up with scripture – and the spirit of the scripture will make a huge difference in how we hear the voice of the Lord. Ok, if first we consult the scriptures and their spirit, second we are called to consider the alternatives involved in our choice. And by alternatives I mean at least these two things: what would happen if I didn’t act, and, is there a realistic possibility or opportunity to make something happen? Does that make sense? When trying to discern God’s calling, we have to consider both what would happen if we did nothing as well as if there is the realistic opportunity to make our ideas flesh. Sometimes doing nothing is of the Lord – can you think of a time when inactivity would be sacred? What about assessing the opportunity for action: what does that say to you?

First we consult the spirit of the scriptures – S – then we consider the alternatives – A – third we find out if others will follow our lead: F? I can’t over emphasize how important it is to test you calling among others: if you can’t get a following, then something is up. Maybe the time isn’t right or it could be that you have more work to do on the issue. Jesus always had his disciples test out their calling by finding followers: he sent them out two by two to invite folk to follow and we should not shy away from this practical tool either because it will save us a lot of wasted work and heart break. The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, liked to say: “Reality is the will of God, it can always become better, but we must start with what is real.” Step number three has to do with finding a following.

And that brings me to – E – our elders, specifically the wisdom of our elders. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time we have a major life decision, right? If we talk to 3 or 4 wise and experienced souls, they can tell us what life has taught them so that we don’t go off half-cocked. Yes, yes, I know that we all have to make our own mistakes – and each generation has to learn this for itself – but we don’t have to be foolish and arrogant about it when God has given us elders to help us discern what is truly possible, good and holy.

Do you have wise advisors to talk with? Who are they? If not, it would be good to find some – that’s one of the reasons we have a church community – so that the wisdom of real life might be shared and passed on from one generation to another. But let me be clear that not every old person is wise, right? I know some really nutty and unhealthy old coots I would NEVER consult with no matter what.

But there are some wise old souls who have aged well and embody some of the grace and wisdom we need and they can save your life. One old Jewish rabbi back in Saginaw told me at the start of my ministry to always carry two scraps of paper in my pocket. On one write the words of Psalm 8: “when I look at your heavens, O Lord, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? And yet you have made us just a little lower than the angels and have crowned us with glory and honor.”And on the other put these words from Ecclesiastes 3: “All of us go to the same place: from dust we came and to dust we shall return.”

We are the Lord’s beloved, to be sure; and not all that special at the same time. And so it is that the Lord speaks to us if we have ears to hear. It takes work to discern God’s will for our lives – sifting through the spirit of the scriptures, carefully weighing the alternatives before us, sharing our concerns with others to see if they might follow and consulting the wisdom of time-tested elders – all are essential.

And then please know this: even with all our work we might still get it wrong, right? So Paul, in a flash of inspiration, reminds us that God can take even our mistakes and failures and turn them into blessings if our hearts are filled with love. And he ought to know having made mistake upon colossal mistake throughout his ministry. He writes:

There is NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus for we know that God works ALL things for good when we love the Lord our God… that is why we say we are certain that neither death nor life, angels nor principalities, things present nor things to come, powers, height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 26-28/35-39

And that sounds like the good news for today to me – so let those who have ears to hear, hear.


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