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April 30th, 2017
I am holding in my hand the Bible. I’ve studied it a lot. Now, I wasn’t raised in one of those denominations that had me memorize large sections, nor can I say that I’ve read the whole thing from start to finish during some Lenten torture session. But I’ve read it a lot, and I’ve looked a the Greek and the Hebrew, and learned about the history and the culture and the framework – all of the stuff that you learn in seminary, a place where many Christians warn other Christians not to go for it will destroy your faith. It did the opposite for me. It made my faith possible, it made the tradition lovable, and it made the Bible go from black-and-white irrelevance to technicolor revelation!
Now, it didn’t do away with the dark parts of the Bible. It didn’t change the fact that the clobber passages are there, staring their judgmental eyes at people I love. It didn’t end my anger at a god who is sometimes portrayed in the Bible in ways I find abhorrent. What study did…what was occasionally a stubborn, bullheaded dedication to wrestle with the texts…what it did was to make the Bible real.
Every time I forgave someone and had less bitterness, the truth in the Bible was revealed. When I found in the tears of someone at a funeral the power and strength of life, the “word of God” came to life. And when I heard the silence of the church on matters that really impacted me…things I thought were incredibly, morally, critically important…it was the voice of the Bible that filled the gap, demanding justice.
Yet in my life as a pastor, I encounter so many for whom this book is problematic. Perhaps it has been used against them as a weapon, maybe their abuse has been justified in it’s pages, or perhaps it has been used to promote bigotry, hatred, shame or injustice in ways that can be so off-putting as to make someone want to never open it again. I have had those people in my office, or more likely over coffee at some trendy place because they perhaps rightly never want to set foot in a church again.
At times I feel sorry for the Bible, it didn’t ask for all of this. It was us – or more likely people who look a lot like me, in fancy robes and with letters behind their typically western names and white, male faces. We’re the ones who took Luther’s sola scriptura completely out of context, forgetting the other 4 solas, you know, little ones like sola fide (faith) and solus Christus (Christ). I mean, why bring faith and Christ into the equation? The Bible, we’re often told, has all the answers we need. And that’s part of the problem. This is not an answer book, it’s more of a question book.
Here’s what I mean – my wife and I both like to cook, only she’s a recipe follower, and I like to kind of “wing it.” She gets the measuring cups out and goes back and forth, carefully reading the prescribed directions. Meanwhile I look at the picture and start slinging things in a bowl. OK, maybe not that bad, but I don’t get very worried about the details, which is why she does all of the baking…which does require her precision. But you know what? We both produce good food. I mean, everyone has off nights, but for the most part, we serve something up that not only would we eat, but others do too.
There are many ways to read the Bible and to use it, and I won’t insist that my way is the only way. The way we measure the methods is the same way we measure the meal – is it any good? Does it fuel us for life in this challenging world? Does it satiate some need we bring to it? Does it even taste good or, if not, is it at least the healthy veggies and fruits that nourish the Body and sustain the Spirit? Does our reading of it, however we read it, get us closer to the beloved community?
Our relationship to this book, and the place of authority it has been given, particularly in mainstream Protestant Christian life, deserves some reflection. I do not anticipate, nor do I want, this book to fade as a way to learn about God, or as a place of great spiritual insight, challenge and comfort. What is increasingly troubling to me is it’s primacy as the source of authority, as opposed to things like the movement of the Spirit or the power present when we challenge the subjugation of a “single story” way of life, which are, ironically, examples of faithful living taken directly from stories in the Bible. What is concerning to me is that we seem to have two different choices – the progressive method that is so dependent on literary-historical criticism as to sometimes render the Bible completely inert, or the fundamentalist method that reduces our holy scripture to a doctrinal handbook. Neither is very helpful.
When we actually read the Bible, when we take it seriously enough to really study it, we find it resists our simple approaches. Far from cementing certain rules and regulations, the stories regularly defy them…and then show us where God lies in such defiance. It doesn’t behave like a rulebook, and more often leaves me with more questions than answers. And then just when I think that I have all it’s parts labeled and researched, the language parsed and the historical context noted, it often convicts me with these words written for some other people in some other place, as if it doesn’t care about the academic effort.
Our limitations – our unwillingness to embrace both the conviction of the Bible and the moral and spiritual complexity of the Bible has led us to this place. Unable to have a Bible that both fits in a particular time and place and also speaks to us still, we find ourselves driven by false dichotomies to construct great injustices largely from scripture. This weekend I believe what is close to the final straw was cast for my friends and colleagues in the United Methodist denomination. In a desire to be “biblical”, some Methodists from the church’s highest court ruled Friday that the denomination’s first openly gay bishop is in violation of the Book of Discipline, a collection of church law based, at least mostly, on a particular biblical interpretation. This means in my mind, and the minds of many others that the United Methodists too will soon be split, even more than they already are, on the issue of inclusion in the church. And my heart breaks with my colleagues and friends, as it has for Presbyterians and Episcopalians and Lutherans and so many others. We can’t seem to find a way forward as the Body of Christ on the issue of inclusion of LGBTQ members and clergy. Even here in the supposedly progressive UCC, we had our own split…lost over 35 churches in the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, and hundreds nationwide…even an entire conference, Puerto Rico, left altogether.
As we walk through some of the post-resurrection encounters with Jesus, I want us to pay careful attention to the ways the writers portray these encounters. First off, we need to note that if a claim is made for bodily resurrection in a literal sense from these stories, that the evidence is a little shaky. After all, Jesus does appear, and appears to be in a body that Thomas can touch, and which can eat fish and speak and all that. But it appears. And disappears. And, in the case of this encounter on the road to the town of Emmaus from Luke, is a body that appears disguised in some way. How do they not know, these followers of Jesus, the sight of their rabbi? I know that sometimes I see you all out in the world, at the supermarket or something like that and, out of context and in “street clothes”, you don’t immediately recognize me. But as soon as I say something, or with a second glance, that always changes.
Our text this morning says that, “…their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” as if that’s supposed to help us. Kept how? Kept why? Like what possible function does it serve to keep hidden Jesus resurrected, the very thing that he predicted and that would be such a dramatic faith lesson for his disciples? Why make that mysterious? Why hide it?
And then, as the story continues, we get a possible answer. They walk along with this mysterious stranger that they just met along this lonely stretch of road…sounds totally reasonable…and he asks them what is happening. They are stunned – have you been living under a rock? Well, actually….
They tell him the whole story of the last few days and he, in the most loving and kind way possible, of course, replies – you dummies! Don’t you get anything? Why do I have to explain the punch line of every joke, and the meaning of every parable and the point of all of the stories? Geez. He goes on to completely tie all of this to scripture, explaining to them the intricacies of prophetic faith in the way that Jesus totally used to do…and still nothing. Blockheads. None of the stories, even when they are explained by a pretty darn good Rabbi, give them understanding.
The walk continues with, I’d imagine, not much more from Jesus, who just mutters to himself in frustrated semi-silence. And the sun starts to set, and the village comes into view and as Jesus prepares to move on they say, “No, stay and share a meal.” And there, in the breaking of the bread, in the most basic of human functions – eating – something we all must do, they see. It is not when they recognize him as savior, or messiah, not in the reading of the scriptures or the interpretation, but in the shared human experience, the reality of need and support, hunger and relief, lack and sharing…that is when he is known. It’s almost as if the Bible story tells us that we don’t find truth by being told, but rather by searching, by experiencing, by living…
When I read the Bible I do so with this scene in mind, for it breaks apart the ideas we typically come to the Bible with…a desire to make a point, a search for evidence of the conclusion we’ve already reached, a way to justify an assertion to which we cling. We want to be able, especially in Christian circles, to say – Well, the Bible says! The Bible says a lot of things. And it says nothing. For what the road to Emmaus teaches us is that without our humanity, without practicing care and compassion, grace and hospitality – all the scripture in the world, all the interpretation from the very best of sources…it doesn’t help us understand at all.
And isn’t that what God wants from us? Doesn’t God want our piety, rather than our ugliness to one another masked in our piety? The prophet Isaiah speaks to us from across the centuries:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me,
(your endless Bible debates and parsing of language, your supposed “obedience”
that just boils down to interpretive minutiae)
I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Isaiah 1:11-15 NRSV
There is something else for us, church. This is not the will of God anymore than this is the word of God. We are meant to be the body of Christ – diverse and inclusive, across tribal lines and gender divides – a whole church, each bearing our gifts to the table that welcomes all people by the grace of a God who loves us all without exception. And by what authority do I say that we have to move beyond the Bible and doctrine and find a new path with the Holy Spirit? How do I know this?
The Bible tells me so.