Using the Bible in a new world...

NOTE: Here are my Sunday sermon notes for April 26th 2009. My sweetheart, Dianne, left for Western New York this morning to be with her mother. There was a sweet grace-filled revival from the strokes last week but now she is slowly fading away. My thoughts and prayers are elsewhere today so.... not my best effort to be sure. Still, I think it gets close to the new way some of us wrestle with the tradition. Blessings to all who sent me notes of encouragement and prayers during this past week. And if you are in town at 10:30 am on Sunday, please stop by.

In some places, Christians – along with Muslims and Jews – are known as “the people of the book.” And for us the book in question is the Bible – New Testament and Old – which actually includes 66 separate books; 1,189 distinct chapters; 31,101 unique verses and a total of 78,137 words. As pastor Martin Copenhaver likes to say: the Bible is our sacred library – “a collection of various literary genres – including history, prophecy, song lyrics, laws, love poems, sermons, legends, letters and a host of books that combine some or all of the above.” At the same time, however, “the Bible only really tells us one story: the epic story of God’s interaction with God’s people – Israel and the early Church – and why that matters.”

+ Some of us love the Bible.

+ Some of us have been beaten up with the Bible.

+ Some of us are totally in the dark about what the Bible really says – and for some of us the “Bible has become a stumbling block” for our faith.

So this morning I want to try to share two key ideas with you about the Bible so that: First we can reclaim it as an instrument of God’s grace for our generation; and second we might rescue it from all who would use God’s word as a weapon of hatred, fear or bigotry.

One wise and talented soul summarized the essence of the Bible – the heart of our tradition – like this in something she called: the Bible in 50 words.

God made – Adam bit – Noah arked – Abe and Sarah split
Joseph ruled – Jacob fooled – Bush talked – Moses balked
Pharaoh plagued – people walked – sea divided – tablets guided
Promise landed – Saul freaked – David peeked – Prophets warned –
Jesus born – God walked – Love talked – Anger crucified – hope died
Love rose – spirit flamed – word spread – God remained

It isn’t perfect – it leaves out most of the women of the Bible and breezes past hundreds of the essential stories – and yet this little ditty does give us a clue about how to reclaim the Bible as an instrument of God’s grace. Because, you see, it interprets the stories, yes? It puts them into a perspective that both evaluates their importance for our contemporary lives, and, leaves out the parts that get in the way of what God’s love might look like for us the 21st century.

+ In other words, because so many contemporary people are rightfully unable and unwilling to consider the words of scripture to be literally true in every case…

+ Because, as Marcus Borg observes, “contemporary biblical literalism – with its emphasis on infallibility, historical factuality and moral and doctrinal absolutes – is an obstacle to faith for millions of people”…

It is important for some of us to offer the world creative and faithful alternatives that still maintain the wisdom of God’s grace in the Bible without getting trapped in the trappings. We are called to interpret the texts – something our Jewish sisters and brothers have always done with creativity and imagination – and something that could help all of us at this moment in history. John Dominic Crossan, a total theological scamp with a quick Irish wit, likes to say, for example, that when the scriptures tell us that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, it does not mean that… Mary had a little lamb.

+ There is poetic language, right? Nuance and metaphor – just like some of our best sports writers.

+ Anybody here like baseball? I know there is a fascinating battle between Red Sox and Yankee fans right here in this sanctuary – and while I don’t propose to know ANY way to resolve this rift – I do think we might all agree that when a sports writer tells us that the Red Sox slaughtered the Yankees… she wasn’t speaking literally, yes?

So if we know how to think metaphorically with sports, why do so many Christians have such a hard time doing the same thing with the Bible? Do you have any ideas…? Let me go on: if you accept the value of interpreting the Biblical texts for differing contexts – and can see the importance of thinking metaphorically in some cases rather than literally – can you take the next step with me and trust that there are different and sometimes competing ethical standards for human behavior in the scriptures, too?
Biblical scholar and ethicist, Walter Wink, speaks of three often competing but sometimes compatible ethical codes in the Bible: the holiness codes, the prophetic demands of a people searching for justice and the love ethic of Jesus. These are not always mutually exclusive – and each tradition is regularly refining and deepening their theological insights – and yet it is also true that each of these different perspectives comes to very different conclusions about human behavior – all of which are Biblical – but not all of which are always compassionate or consistently meaningful.

+ In his essay concerning homosexuality and the Bible, Wink notes that the holiness tradition of both the Old and New Testament clearly condemns homosexuality as an abomination; three Biblical passages that are without ambiguity – Leviticus 18, Leviticus 20 and Romans 1 – clearly understand same sex love as outside of God’s intention in nature.

+ Now, if we brought the story to a close here, the ethical debate would be over but… the sexual mores of ancient Israel raise a LOT of important questions for 21st century people. For example, polygamy was normative then – for men – but is now considered both immoral and illegal. Same is true for the “social regulations regarding adultery, incest, rape and prostitution…” which at one time were centered around a man’s property rights but today are grounded in respect and compassion – a very different context.

Wink writes: Today we are moving, with great social turbulence and at a high but necessary cost, toward a more equitable, non-patriarchal set of social arrangements in which women are no longer regarded as the chattel of men. We are also trying to move beyond the double standard. Love, fidelity and mutual respect replace property rights. We have, as yet, made very little progress in changing the double standard in regard to prostitution. As we leave behind patriarchal gender relations, what will we do with the patriarchalism in the Bible?

And then, for fun, let’s throw in the love and compassion ethic of Jesus – love one another as I have loved you he told us – and where does that leave us when it comes to claiming a sexual or love ethic based on Scripture?

I love his conclusion when it comes to sorting this entire thing out: The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no Biblical sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. In reality the Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period… and which demands our careful interpretation.

Are you with me here? Do you grasp the significance of his point? There are often competing human perspectives in the Bible – that stands to reason given the deep span of history involved – but really only one sacred story – the story of God’s love made flesh in a variety of settings. And to grasp this love for our realm takes work… And isn’t that part of what the gospel story for today tells us? The Emmaus Road tale is all about Jesus interpreting the truth of his story for even the earliest disciples. He has to teach them again about the law and Moses. He has to awaken them to the heart of the prophets.

+ And even then they aren’t very clear headed… for the story tells us that it is only when he broke bread with them were their eyes opened.

+ The text says that when Jesus became the embodied love of God in the flesh – when he became a host embracing his guests – they saw the holy in his humanity and said… “Didn’t our hearts and minds burn as he explained to us the scriptures?”

There is teaching – there is interpretation and wrestling with our context – and then there is embodiment – ministry and mission in the real world. All are important if we are to reclaim the grace of God in the Bible for our generation. And all are essential if we are going to be a part of the movement of rescuing the Bible from the fear, hate and bigotry mongers.

The Emmaus Road story is one we need to go back to over and over again: it tells us that Jesus is always with us – often in the form of a guest we don’t even recognize. Moreover it tells us that in order to grasp God’s will for our lives in the Bible we have to think and learn – reflect and question – and then put it into action.

The word must become flesh within and among us – the bread must be broken and shared – the wine poured and consumed. John’s letter reminds us that we are called children of God – God’s little love creations – called to share that love in the world around us.

So it matters not only how we understand the Bible – but what we do with it, too – and from God’s perspective it’s all about love. So let me leave you with this great tale about the importance of preaching the right biblical message that comes from our Jewish cousins in the Ukraine.

One day, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak entered the House of Study in Berdichev. At the pulpit was a guest preacher, one of the wandering maggidim who made their living speaking in one town after another. Levi Yitzhak listened to the preacher enumerate the failings of the people, giving a vivid account of their sins and unworthiness according to God’s holy word.

And when the sermon was over, the gentle rabbi lifted his eyes in prayer and said, "O Master of the Universe, please give this man some money!" Now the people in the synagogue looked at the rabbi in shock. Their rabbi was praising this man who preached such a harsh and judgmental word? Their Levi Yitzhak – famous for his compassionate defense of the Jewish people – how could this be? But the prayer continued: "Obviously, Almighty One, this preacher needs the few coins he is given for these bitter sermons. So I beg you, please give him some other source of income so he will no longer speak such ugly words to your loving children!"

Lord, may it be so among us, too.


Anonymous said…
James, Thank you for such beautiful teaching. It has been a long time since I have heard someone speak Gods word with such clarity, truth and love. What you are teaching resonates with what I have always believed. It's all about His love.

Thank You for all you do and sharing your thoughts with us. You & Your family are in my prayers.

Popular Posts