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Psalm 1:1-3 & Romans 15:4-7 and 9b-13
July 15th, 2018
We have had quite the buildup over the past week or so towards the naming of a candidate to replace Justice Kennedy on the Supreme Court. Now I raise this not for the political hay that could be gathered with such a topic, but instead to help us think about how we use the Bible. What’s that you say, pastor? How can the naming of a Supreme Court Justice help us talk about the Bible? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Speaking Christian, by the late Dr. Marcus Borg, has helped inform this series of sermons during our July worship on the foundational components of Christianity. In his chapter on the Bible, Dr. Borg offers an admittedly shallow analogy. The Bible is authoritative for us as Christians as the Constitution is authoritative for us as Americans. In other words, the Bible was formed not as a single collection handed down from the clouds in King James English, but rather through a process, and a convoluted process at that, including translations through multiple languages using incomplete and perhaps even inaccurate manuscripts and the heavy influence of politics, power and control. It is authoritative because it was declared to be so and is accepted as such by the Christian community, just as the Constitution is accepted as authoritative by the citizens of the United States of America.
The reason that I think this is a decent analogy is that none of us think of either the Constitution or the Bible as ultimatelyauthoritative. As citizens of the United States, we sometimes lean hard on the Constitution, as a protection of free speech or the right to own guns. Likewise, as citizens of the United States, we sometimes refute the authority of the Constitution, on things like free speech or the right to own guns. Our Constitution is full of amendments, 27 of them to be exact, meaning that there is some recognition that the Constitution’s authority is at leastevolving.
Maybe the same is true for our Bible, a collection of stories about God written in different generations, sometimes with powerful, moral, some might even say “eternal” truths, and sometimes only a reflection of the bias and prejudice of the time. And maybe, as we say in the UCC, God is still speaking, unconfined by the canon which we have declared final and definitive, but which doesn’t containGod. The Bible is a human product, not a divine one. And the evidence for this is quite overwhelming. This does not mean that there is no wisdom or authority in the Bible, rather that is is a collection of writings about how our Jewish and Christian spiritual ancestors saw God, not the way God see things (if we can even know how God sees things).
The point of the Bible is not to have all of the rules written down in one place, just as the point of the law is not to enforce the law…at least this is what many prophets from Isaiah to Jesus have taught again and again. The point of the Bible is to give us some foundational help, some record of the journeys that people who have come before us have taken, so we don’t have to re-invent the map each and every time someone seeks God. We have the psalms to help us sing our way towards a God who seems sometimes right beside us and often distant and removed. We have the wisdom stories to remind us that there is a time for everything under the sun and that we are not in control, as much as we’d like to be…sometimes we can’t understand suffering. We have the amazing tales from Genesis and Ruth, Esther and Exodus to illuminate how much God works outside our boundaries and against the grain of what we consider normative. We have the prophets to speak a word to us about God’s judgment, the sense that we reap what we sow, that instant karma’s gonna get you. We have the gospels to teach us basic tenets as Christians, the beatitudes and the parables to provide us fuel for changing our hearts, the letters of Paul and the Epistles to give us a glimpse of how hard the Gospel work can be and the book of Revelation for…well, sort of a horror/action movie break in the flow?
If you were to suggest that we just take the Book of Revelation out of the Bible, you wouldn’t be the first. It had a pretty hard time making it in the Bible in the first place – it was a compromise, like the decision in the Constitution to have the President elected by the electoral college instead of the popular vote. Sometimes ideas seem really good at one time in history and not so good later.
One of the primary reasons that I chose to have our third sermon on the foundational parts of our faith be the Bible, just after God and Jesus, is this – we are living in another reformation, about 500 years after the one that created this church, distinct in many ways from the Catholic Church, which was the onlychurch in the western European tradition before the Reformation. When Martin Luther demanded that the Catholic Church show him wherein the Bibleit said to do some of the things that the Church did, they answered him by saying – just because it isn’t in the Bible doesn’t mean we can’t do it. And Luther responded – I disagree. Or words rather more harsh than that. Sola Scripturabecame one of his major points – in lieu of the Church’s authority, followers of Christianity had to have another source, so it became the Bible. And now, about 500 years later, we are perhaps thinking that was not the best decision. Because what has happened is that people are able to justify all kinds of things by finding a single line in the Bible that supports it, and since the Bible is a vast collection of different opinions about God without a single, authoritative character of the Divine…well, you can make almost anything Biblical.
One of the major characteristics sought by the President in a candidate for the Supreme Court was that he or she would be a so-called “strict interpreter” of the Constitution. In other words, this person would interpret the law based on the “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution. This is what I can fundamentalist constitutionality. It assumes many things. First, that we can decipher correctly the “original intent” of people who lived over 200 years ago. We find it nearly impossible to determine intent in a court of law today, when the witnesses are right there and the incident took place three months ago rather than in 1776. Intent is so hard because people don’t communicate intent typically, especially in political situations, and often are unclear about their intent in the first place. Maybe they have dual intent or even conflicting intent. It is an assertion of fundamentalism, which depends on the belief that we canknow original intent. The same is true of fundamentalism with the Bible, which must maintain that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, infallible and completely authoritative. Any threat to that assertion is a threat to the whole structure.
Throughout the history of our faith, the Bible has been called the “Word of God,” but not the “words of God,” and the distinction matters a great deal. In the Hebrew Bible, the “word” is the law, theactions, not the words,of people bound by the covenant between human beings and God. And in the New Testament, the “Word” takes on a whole new meaning. When you read John’s Gospel, for instance, the metaphor of “the Word” is Jesus, not the Bible. The claim is that the Word has been made flesh, not paper. This is one reason that many of us who do not read the Bible from a fundamentalist perspective continue to read it, only we read it through the lens of Jesus.
We cannot know the original intent of the authors, we can only say that if our ideals come from the teachings and examples of Jesus then we have to interpret some parts of the Bible differently than others. The parts that speak of God commanding “God’s people” to kill people who aren’t “God’s people” are tempered by a Jesus who reminds us that everyone is part of the “God’s people” camp. The “eye for an eye” passages become “turn the other cheek” passages, the “don’t kill” passages become “watch even your anger” passages and the “love your neighbor” passages become “love even your enemies” passages. Reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus doesn’t make it softer or easier, it makes us read the Bible looking for images of a God of love – and love is always a more challenging road than hate.
We have, in the progressive church, kind of thrown the baby out with the bathwater in regards to the Bible. Having it wielded as a weapon against us so often, we have failed to take it seriously and to see in it a basis for us as people of faith, even with it’s flaws and blemishes. We can best understand the Bible when we read it in it’s social-historical context and try to decipher not only what we can glean of “original intent”, but also when we understand more fully the metaphorical meanings present in the words. We need the Bible, if nothing else than to keep us from entirely inventing things of our own accord, fashioning a Jesus who is entirely friendly to us and our needs. The Bible, in this sense, becomes not so much a rulebook as a guidebook – advice from people throughout the centuries on their journey down this same path towards God.
This is the record of our tradition, too, and in learning how to read it we can discover why we read it. We can build our skills in determining which parts are more about a person or persons’ political agenda, and which parts we feel compelled to believe are the vision of God. AND we can also come to terms with this whole “Word of God” phrase that hangs over Christianity’s last 200 years like nothing else. For us as Christians we can embrace this simple idea – the Word is Jesus. And that word outranks the Bible, for the Bible reveals Jesus to us, it isn’t Jesus. The Bible illuminates God, it isn’t God. As Dr. Borg wrote, echoing Martin Luther, the Bible is the manger in which we find Christ where we first hear his story, so we may hear it again and again.
May it be so.