Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sermon: Must I Read the Bible Literally to take the Bible Seriously?

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Sunday, September 20, 2015

How Do You Read the Bible?
Matthew 5:17-20, 43-48
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
One: This is the Word of God, for us, the People of God.
Many: Thanks be to God.

            This weekend, I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota called, “Why Christian?” The premise of this conference was that each of the 15 speakers who addressed us would be answering the same question: Why am I a Christian? The speakers were all women, many of them pastors, some were professors, and all of them were prophetic, honest and intelligent. My current pastoral hero, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans dreamed the idea of this conference up over a year ago, and after a few phone calls to some of the people they had come to know and respect, this remarkable event came together.
            I listened (and tweeted) with rapt attention as these women, these unusual, beautiful, odd, courageous, gifted, diverse and called women, told us the story of why they claimed the identity of “Christian.” The panel included speakers who were white, black, brown, Asian, Indian, Hispanic, gay, straight, genderqueer, trans*, short, tall, pregnant, mothers, single, divorced, musically gifted and overachieving. Many of them acknowledged that they confessed to be Christians, despite the hurt that the church had caused. Most of them acknowledged that they did so because they came to claim the Scriptures as the story of their very own lives.
            My friend and seminary colleague, Mihee Kim-Kort, was one of the speakers. She is a Korean-American Presbyterian minister, married to a super-Caucasian Presbyterian minister, author, blogger, speaker, activist, young adult pastor and mother of three (including a set of twins). In her spare time, she managed to answer the phone to say “yes” to the invitation to come and speak. She approached the question, “Why am I a Christian?” by re-framing it to ask, “Who do you say that I am?”
            This, of course, is the question that Jesus asks Peter. If you recall, Peter’s quick response is, “You are the Messiah!” Jesus proceeds to teach the Disciples about everything that is to come: that he must suffer and die. This is the story of our Incarnate God, friends. God chose this messy, fragile, earthen vessel into which to pour God’s very self, knowing that damage was likely and scars were a guarantee. This is the question we are posing for ourselves over the next several weeks: Who do you say that I am? How do our lives reflect the image of God in which we have been created? Would it surprise people if we told them we were Christians?
            Today, our primary question is about the Bible. Being a Christian has precious few requirements. There’s no surgical procedure at the hands of a rabbi on the 8th day, no dietary restrictions, no mandates about which direction to face when we pray. Being a Christian is a practice that requires only two things: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. We claim the name of Christian because we are able to do these things since it was Jesus, God in the flesh, who showed us how.
            In order to see how God did that, though, we have to return to the stories of our tradition. The problem is that the Bible is viewed as being as dangerous as the church, to many. The Bible is filled with stories of temptation, deception, lies, duplicity, arrogance,  murder, seduction, patriarchy, greed… and that’s just in Genesis!
            If I’m being cynical about it, I could confess that it seems as though the Bible is a collection of stories which tells us all about how much people reject God.
            But, if you catch me on a good day, I’ll tell you that truly, deep down, I know that the Bible is a collection of stories which tells us all about how much God loves us.
            The problem is: both things are true.
            The Bible says many things: it tells us about how God created the world and called it Good, and then… just 10 chapters later, it tells us about how God destroyed the world because there was nothing good left in it. God tells Abram and Sarai they are going to have a child in their sunset years, and then orders Abram – now Abraham – to take that precious, long-awaited child to Mt. Moriah and sacrifice him. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” as Job reminds us. So, how are we to read the stories about a God who seems less loving and more punitive, and hold them in tension with the stories about a God who loves the world so much that he sent his only begotten Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it.
            This is not a book with a very good editor.
            There are inconsistencies.
            There are stories that have clearly not been fact-checked.
            There are omissions, of names and people.
            There are exaggerations and probably a lot of plagiarism.
            So, how on earth are we to read this book, filled with mysteries and wonder and laws and rules. It is boring, it is fascinating, it is wonderful, it is horrible. It is like reading pages of tax code in conjunction with paragraphs of a Danielle Steele novel.
            Except, that this book isn’t a book. It’s words. And, these words have been spoken through the ages, from generation to generation. I have a lot of respect for stories that have hung around this long, because it means that these words were worth saying.
            But, let’s remember what we hear in the prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That means these words have been around longer than the creatures who knew how to speak them. The Word existed before creation, before time. The Word was with God. The Word was God. If we are willing to consider the poetry of this, maybe it will begin to tell us how we are to read the Bible. Not as stories, not as myth, not as allegory, not as factual, but as words that are TRUE.
            If these Words were not true, if they didn’t resonate with the human experience, then we would have stopped speaking them a long time ago.  Let’s take our Gospel lesson for today, in which the Scribes and Pharisees are giving Jesus a very hard time, since it was their duty to defend the dot and tittle of interpretation of the Scriptures. Keep in mind, the Scribes were the ones who spent their days ensuring that the scriptures were recorded so that they could be kept and passed on. The words on the page meant a lot to them. It was their work, their vocation, their life. Their calligraphy was the blueprint of faith for the next generation. They were striving to answer the question, “What must we do to please God?” And they believed fully that the answer was contained in the words written in their careful and precise penmanship. These words on the page were sacred, and these words were theirs to defend.
            So, when Jesus shows up and starts noodling with the interpretation of seemingly straightforward things like, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” they get a little bent out of shape. It seems as though Jesus hasn’t just moved their proverbial cheese, but he has unapologetically eaten it, too. He heals people on the Sabbath, and tells the diligent Scribes that they have no right to condemn him. They are perplexed by this man, because not only does he know their words, but he manages to use these words against them.
            This causes a fair bit of tension between them. They become the object of his teachings more often than not. Woe to those who are like the Scribes and the Pharisees! For they provoke the irritated exhale of the Son of God.  Something marvelous happens in this passage, though. Jesus finally stares into the eyes of the scribes and acknowledges that their work is critical. He takes the steam out of their locomotive by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” In telling the Scribes that their work is not unimportant, that it is necessary and essential for the law to be upheld, he honors their diligence in overseeing this archival project. But, he offers an important insight into his work on earth: he is here to fulfill the law.
            We all know that the work it takes to become a gifted attorney means to know the law so well that you can read it in new ways. All of our words require interpretation. It is one of the reasons we find ourselves arguing with our Christian sisters and brothers about the Bible in the first place: each of us can read the same passage and each of us will have a different understanding of its meaning. This is one of the blessed freedoms we are given, that all of us might be able to read these words and hear how they sound to us.
            In this passage, Jesus liberates us to read the scriptures in a new way. He’s pushing the Scribes to see that the solution to the great problem of interpretation is not shredding the scrolls and muting the Prophets. This would lead to a world without ground rules or history; there would be no parameters, no promise.
            Jesus says that he comes, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. To me, this means that Jesus demonstrates the fullness of the words on the page, not in the self-limiting way we interpret or translate them, but in the Spirit of what God is intending for us. Let’s go back to the example of Abraham and his long-awaited Isaac. Let’s consider that though this is a horrific story of the implication of obedience to God, at all devastating costs, it is also the story of the ram caught in the thicket. It is the story of God’s faithfulness and Abraham’s promise. What if this word is meant to tell us about the ways in which God offers provision for us, rather than the way God takes away what is precious to us.  The fulfillment of the law and Prophets in Christ means that we may reach a day when we no longer need them.
Jesus speaks these words to the Scribes and Pharisees:  Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This seems pretty pointed, given that the Scribes and Pharisees are sitting right there, but I’m willing to believe that the Word-Made-Flesh-And-Dwelling-Among-Us is probably choosing his words carefully. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Whoever breaks one of these commandments will go directly to the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Rather, he says, “whoever breaks one of these commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” This tells me that the kingdom of heaven might just be for all of us, even the ones who forget how to keep the rules.  And, I’d wager that being least in the kingdom of heaven is far better than being greatest in the kingdom of earth.
            Jesus goes on to use one of my favorite phrases in the Bible: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I love this use of language that only Jesus employs: You have heard it said… but I say... Only the Word Made Flesh could convince me that this new way of hearing might be acceptable. After all, it is much more in my nature to love my neighbor and hate my enemy. I’m good at that. I excel at it. I would be the proud victor of the Love My Neighbor Series. Make me a medal, commission the trophy, organize the parade. This is what I am made to do!
            However, theologians like to call this passage, “The great reversal.” If you read the Gospel of Matthew, especially the Sermon on the Mount, you’ll see that it’s filled with crazy things like the last being first and the first being last. The great reversal is a terrible inconvenience to those of us who have raced to the front of the line, only to find that the concession stand is closed. The kingdom of heaven boasts a pretty fantastic banquet table, but we all need to remember that the ones who will be served first are those who are the hungriest. In this passage, Jesus is “starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question and, at the very same time, redeeming this world that he loves and that will, in due time, put him to death.”[1]
            What, then, does this text tell us about how we are to read the Bible? After all, it doesn’t answer the question of whether or not we should take it literally or figuratively, with a grain of salt or with utter obedience. It hasn’t settled if this is the inerrant word of God or the inspired Word of God. What Jesus tells us in this passage is simply that we need to hear these words (after all, he didn’t come to abolish them). But, when we hear these words, we should do so with an understanding that they are our guide, the syllabic pathways of God’s persistent outreach to us in all possible ways. Through creation, promise, rainbows, steadfastness, prophets, providence, deliverance, forgiveness, and finally… incarnation, God employs all possible resources to continue to communicate the only Word that matters: love.
            So, Jesus, who do I say that you are? You have heard it said that you are John the Baptist, possibly Elijah. But, I say that you are the Word – the Word made flesh, and dwelling among us – and you are True.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] David Lose,