Mark Sandlin’s blog says about this cliché: “The King James Bible tells me there are unicorns – 9 times.
I’m sorry, I got distracted. What was it you were telling me about using the Bible to prove a fact?”
The Bible mentions unicorns nine times? I have to admit, I grabbed my concordance and looked up the word unicorn. It wasn’t in there. I was terribly disappointed! So, I did some on-line research. It is only the King James Version that mentions unicorns. Later translations rejected that word. Where the King James said unicorn, newer translations said things like wild ox. It turns out that Hebrew word is unclear. No one knows exactly what it meant. So, it’s been translated in a variety of ways. My on-line research led me to a site that has a Sunday School lesson (I think for adults) titled “Translational Monsters: Fantastic Biblical Beasts and Where to Find Them.” So, unicorns aren’t the only unexpected creatures that appear in the Bible. We hear of dragons and great sea monsters as well. (No dinosaurs!) What surprised me in this on-line journey was that many are determined to accept the idea of unicorns existing — explaining the words away by suggesting that Biblical unicorns aren’t what we think unicorns are today.
Some approaches to Biblical interpretation require a lot of work to separate oneself from logic and the world we know today. I worked with a man who held the view that scripture was totally inerrant — without flaw, believable in every story and fact presented. He decided, one day, that he would prove to me its inerrancy. We sat down. He took a page of paper and wrote a Biblical statement about God’s word being true at the top. Then, from that declaration he began to write and present to me a series of arguments that flowed from that first statement. Finally, it led him to the inevitable conclusion, “Therefore, the Bible is completely true.” My logic trained physics brain looked at this well-crafted argument and said, “It’s flawed. It’s circular. You started with an assumption, stayed within that assumption, so you proved what you had already assumed. If you are going to prove to me that the Bible is inerrant, you need to start outside the Bible.”
I can’t say that we agreed to disagree. We never agreed about anything. I did think it was interesting, however, when I referred to a Biblical passage that challenged an attitude he had, he stated that, as far as he was concerned, the passage wasn’t really Biblical. It had been inserted by people with a particular agenda. So, he could ignore it. When I suggested that the history of the Bible indicated that the text had oftentimes been corrupted by errors in copying or by mistranslations he told me that such an issue was irrelevant. It was the original texts, given by God, that were without flaw. I said that even if that were true, the modern Biblical texts we have are not without flaws —therefore the proposition that the Bible was inerrant had no relevance for faith. Again, we couldn’t even agree to disagree. His perception was that I had abandoned the Bible and the faith if I didn’t accept every word as God-dictated, literally true. His assertion is a common accusation that says if we don’t treat the Bible as the absolutely trustworthy, unchanging, God-dictated Word of God, then we have diminished its value. You either accept it verbatim or you must have rejected it fully.
I read a critique, recently, of this all or nothing approach to the Bible. “Even the non-fundamentalists read the Bible like fundamentalists!” was the observation. It seems we can look at it as either factual or non-factual, either something to believe in or something to reject.
The thing is, even the most avid proponents of the Bible’s inerrancy reject portions of it. My former boss is one example. When it didn’t fit his theology or world view, he found a reason he could reject it by removing it from the Biblical witness. But, there are other assumptions in the written word that nobody believes any longer. We don’t believe that the world is flat with heaven above and hell below. We don’t believe the sun revolves around the earth. Yet, there are those who insist that we must accept the Biblical description of the creation and reject science. Of course, they don’t tend to acknowledge the fact that the Bible contains multiple, contradictory stories about creation.
I came across an interview with a man, Mel White, who was closely connected with the religious right, working to promote its agenda — until he finally admitted to himself, and the world, that he is gay. He said, “When the Bible is seen as inerrant, it’s held up as an idol and anything that threatens the Bible, or their understanding of the Bible, threatens their faith. So the truth, discussion about the history of the word and of the 66 books and how they were inspired, none of that works anymore. They just say, the Bible, if it was good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for me.”
It becomes an idol. That’s a great observation. It becomes an idol that we expect will provide quick and easy answers in a difficult world. It’s like a book of magic. We begin to think that if we go to it — and find just the right passage, we’ll have all the answers we need. It’s the Ouija board of faith! Which means, more often than not, we approach it to let it reinforce what we already believe and think. It gets used as a weapon. Texts are sought out that support biases and wishes. At times, the Bible becomes our Golden Calf. We can see it. It’s finite. It’s, in some ways, manageable. It becomes a substitute for the Living Word who dwells in our midst. It’s easier to follow a rule book, an answer book, instead of the Living God who defies human constructs and who promises that we and the creation are constantly being re-created, made new.
So, if it’s merely a book, what do we do? Well, who says it’s merely a book? That seems to be the assumption that it’s an either/or proposition. It’s either a book that is fully inerrant or it is just another book, one shown to be out of step with the advances in technology, science, medical knowledge, and cultural changes that surround us.
It’s not an either/or choice. It is possible to have a very high view of scripture and value the knowledge that informs so much of our modern world.
Bishop John Shelby Spong said that we need to find a new way of encountering this gift of God that allows us to live in the today. He wrote, “Unless theological truth can be separated from pre-scientific understandings and rethought in ways consistent with our understanding of reality, the Christian faith will be reduced to one more ancient mythology…Those who insist on Biblical literalism thus become unwitting accomplices in bringing about the death of the Christianity they so deeply love.” He went on to describe the scriptures as a “historic narrative of the journey our religious forebears made in the eternal quest to understand life, the world, themselves, and God. We walk in their company as fellow pilgrims. We affirm some of the values they affirmed.”
It is a historic “narrative.” It’s not history. It’s a witness, a testimony given to us by generations of those who sought to hear God and, then, to follow God. The narratives reflect the times and the culture of those who, first, told them and, later, by those who recorded them in the texts we have. I love Spong’s observation that we “walk in their company as fellow pilgrims.” We learn from their successes and from their failures. We seek to see God’s presence in both — and find ways of seeking God’s presence in our world and our lives today.
Mel White said, “The Bible to me is an amazing book of stories. And those stories inform our lives. When I read the Jewish testament, there are a lot more biographies and autobiographies in the Jewish than in the Christian testaments. The stories of Esther, for example, how could you not be informed by that? When she has to face and speak to power and risk her life doing it. All of these stories, they come down to immediate application. The Christian stories too – whether it’s Saul, who is realizing he’s doing the wrong thing and has to turn around. For me it’s the greatest story book ever written and if you just listen to the stories, listen to the spirit of God, as she speaks through those stories then you can have a great time in the Bible.”
Sacred story: that’s how Spong describes the scriptures. I think White would agree. Now, not all of it is “story” as we might think of story — with plot lines and action. In this sacred story we have teaching, reflection, poetry, prayer in addition to stories that tell of human struggle, triumph and faith. The totality is the “story” of people striving to live in the sphere of God’s grace and justice, of God’s love and call.
It is not an easy book. It is not a children’s book. We can never claim that we learned all we needed to know in the stories that are watered down and put in our children’s Bibles. When I think about encountering and being encountered by this Sacred Story, I think of the story of Jacob wrestling with God. That wrestling match did not end with God’s condemnation, but with God’s blessing. Attitudes and experiences and assumptions throughout the book are often in conflict with the world we know. Some of that conflict is because the Biblical world is so different and so far removed from the world we inhabit. Some of the conflict is because we, like those who went before us, still turn away from God. So we have to wrestle with the Book, and, wrestling with the Book, we wrestle with God to know God’s presence in our world.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was that the entire Biblical witness should be read through the lens of the over-arching message of the Bible. It helps put difficult passages in a larger context. So, we know the Sacred Story points to God’s love for creation, for human beings, and tells of God’s interaction with this world, first in creation and then in the work of redemption and re-creation. We see God’s invitation to human beings to accept God’s love and live in ways that reflect that love. In it we have an example of Spong says we are to do: “Interpret our world in the light of our knowledge and suppositions…[and] make sense out of life in terms of our understanding of meaning and values.”
I Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-44, 50, 53-58
(Job 19:23-27, Revelation 21:1-4, 22-25; 22:3-5)
We gather this Sunday with another story of death ringing in our ears and demanding our attention. I wonder how many of those who lost loved ones have been told, “God needed another angel!”? The phrase is intended to comfort. The lost loved one is now with God.
There is a lot to unpack in this common approach to offering comfort. We, God’s people, need to examine what it is we believe and say to see if it truly reflects the good news of the gospel. Mark Sandlin’s blog says, “God loves you. God loves your loved ones. God is coming for your loved ones. You think it hurt when God smote your toe? Just wait ’til God rips out your heart. But it’s OK. They needed another angel in heaven. See? All better! Really? No, of course not. Now that you understand what you are saying, can we just stop it?”
Do we understand what we are saying? God took your loved one? God needed your loved one? What does that say about God? Does it not proclaim a selfish God with little regard for those who mourn? God needed, so God took? What kind of good news is that? We try to teach toddlers that just “taking” something is not appropriate. It’s not loving. It’s not respectful.
What if Jesus had said to Martha and Mary, “God needed another angel?” Can we even imagine such words in Jesus’ mouth? He didn’t offer easy platitudes. He mourned with them. He wept at Lazarus’ tomb. Of course, we might notice Jesus declared that he was the resurrection and the life. Then he raised Lazarus. But, he knew human grief. He knew the pain of loss.
Part of our difficulty may be that we proclaim that God is all powerful and in control of all things. Therefore, we must attribute suffering and loss to God’s intent. For centuries we have portrayed the crucifixion as something God required of Jesus, something God ordained. What if we begin to see in the story of Jesus’ grief at Lazarus’ death a story of God’s grief at Jesus’ death? What if we begin to acknowledge and claim the cross as a human act of defiance, fear, cruelty, and oppressive power that caused God pain? The cross is not, then, God’s punishment, but God’s total immersion in the suffering, the pain, and the grief of human existence.
I refuse to excuse last Sunday’s violence with platitudes that declare God needed its victims. I refuse to excuse the pain of losing a loved one, to illness or accident, by declaring God needed that person. Instead, can we not look for God who weeps with those who weep, who comforts those who mourn, who lifts up the weary, and who promises that the world’s brokenness and evil will not have the final say? Jesus mourned Lazarus. He wept with Martha and Mary. And, he declared the promise of resurrection! God answered the world’s cross with hope, with life, with eternal and everlasting love.
Sandlin objected to the “God needed” part of this cliché. God doesn’t rip our loved ones away. I’d like to look a little more at this phrase, this well-meaning phrase, and explore the “angel” portion. “God needed another angel.”
The lost loved one has become an angel. We think of those wonderful cherubs, clothed in white, with their wings. Where does this “theology” come from?
I suspect we might cite, in part, that beloved Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey encounters his guardian angel, Clarence, who is striving to earn his wings. Clarence, we understand, has an earthly history as a human being. With death, he became an angel — not a first class angel, but one that needed to earn his wings.
When we die we become angels. That’s a prevailing understanding. But, is it Biblical?
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible says that when we speak of angels we tend to mean messengers from God and spiritual beings. In the Hebrew Scriptures, angels were messengers and celestial beings. The New Testament doesn’t change that understanding. They are different from human beings. Psalm 8 declares, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than angels, and crowned them with glory and honor.” They are sent to humans with messages from God. They surround God’s throne singing songs of praise.
So, what about the resurrection? It is a question that has been before God’s people since Jesus promised us that he is the resurrection and the life. Paul responded to the question, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Paul asserts that we are resurrected as spiritual bodies. The “perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”
What Paul does not say is that we become angels. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” Those familiar words from John’s gospel tell us of God’s love for human beings. That love is so profound that God entered human existence through Jesus. The Biblical witness is of God’s love for this world and its inhabitants, and, particularly for those inhabitants created in the image of God —human beings.
Angels may be heavenly creatures. But, they are not created in the image of God. Human beings bear God’s image. God resurrected the crucified Jesus. We are promised a resurrection like his. Paul said to the Romans, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his….if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”
“God needed another angel.” That statement falls short in so many ways. It portrays God as selfish. And it diminishes the good news that God passionately loves human beings, so much that God, through Christ, has given us the resurrection. The Book of the Revelation to John declares, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
What do we say in the face of tragedy, of illness, of death? What can we offer as comfort? What words make a difference?
Maybe, sometimes, we’re too quick with words. Maybe, like Jesus, we need to weep with those who weep. Maybe we need to join our voices with those who cry out against the unfairness of untimely death, of undeserved suffering. We need to be willing to say that there are no good answers. We walk through the darkest valley, through the valley of death.
The good news is not an easy answer. The good news is that God knows human pain, grief, injustice, tragedy. God knows intimately the struggles we have in a broken world. God is not the author of the brokenness. But, God is present with us, in the brokenness. God is present.
And, when it seems that the powers of death have won, God gives us hope. For in the resurrection we see that God has conquered even death. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.
Ephesians 2:14-18, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:28-32
A former moderator of the Presbyterian Church came to Utica Presbytery, years ago. She preached at our meeting, critiquing the church. One example she used was the hymn, very familiar African American spiritual, that we will be singing later, “Let Us Break Bread Together.” Now, Vilia and I chose this hymn weeks ago – because it is familiar and, I think, beloved. But the moderator, an African American clergywoman, said that Presbyterians should not sing this hymn. She thundered, “It says, ‘let us break bread together – on our knees.’” She noted that our knees, our Presbyterian knees, showed that we never took this hymn seriously. We didn’t, we don’t, fall on our knees before God. We don’t live the faith that asks us to humble ourselves before God.
The suggested focus scripture for today is Ephesians 2:14-18, which tells us that Jesus the Christ has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Paul was writing – at the time – about the hostility between Jews and Gentiles. We know in our world that there are numerous dividing walls. They exist within Christianity, within our culture, and across the world, setting nation against nation. It is no wonder that the scripture was chosen for this Sunday of World Communion when we focus on Peace and Global justice.
The lectionary epistle lesson for today is from Philippians. I thought about leaving it out and focusing only on the suggested text. However, it speaks of kneeling – and the issue of kneeling has become a great dividing wall in our nation today. We could say that it’s a coincidence that this is the lectionary text for today, but, to quote someone from the Iona Community in Scotland, “If you think that’s a coincidence, you deserve a dull life!”
Our former moderator was right. Presbyterians don’t have a tradition of kneeling – except in ordination and installation. We’re asked to kneel to acknowledge our humanity, our brokenness, our need for God as we undertake those particular roles to which we have been called by the church – the roles of ruling elders, deacons, and teaching elders. But, generally, we don’t kneel. I remember seeing kneelers in a church for the first time when I was nine. I was at my great uncle’s funeral – and his family was Episcopalian. I thought they had provided footrests until members of his extended family pulled them out and knelt.
But kneeling as a sign of respect has not been limited to the church. Those who are knighted kneel before royalty. Kneeling is, for many, an accepted and expected part of a marriage proposal. It’s romantic! – because it is also a sign of respect.
It has struck me as odd that kneeling has become such a divisive issue. How did it become, for many, a sign of disrespect?
The Washington Post had a wonderful article by Michael Frost titled “Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: a tale of two Christians on their knees.” Frost wrote, “They’re both Christian football players, and they’re both know for kneeling on the field, although for very different reasons. One grew up the son of Baptist missionaries to the Philippines. The other was baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, and attended a Baptist church during college. Both have made a public display of their faith. Both are prayerful and devout.”
“Both are prayerful and devout.” Tebow, Frost notes, has become a symbol for many Christians because he has made his faith so public. He is acceptable –perhaps in part because, as Frost puts it, “He’s clean cut, polite, gentle, respectable.”
Kaepernick was given up for adoption by his single, white mother after his black father left before he was born. He was adopted by a white couple. He is not clean cut like Tebow. He is covered with tattoos – religious tattoos. He asserts that his faith undergirds his playing. It has also undergirded his approach to life. He became an activist and a philanthropist. Tebow did as well – but later. Kaepernick decided, last year, to sit or kneel, to protest, until, as he said, “[the American flag] represents what it’s supposed to represent.” (First he sat. It was a veteran who suggested kneeling was more respectful.)
A blogger noted that people feel a need to critique our society, to protest its injustices. He also noted that the ways those critiques and protests have been made, recently, have been divisive. So, kneeling is out. Peaceful protests are out. “I’ll provide you with a list of acceptable ways to protest,” he wrote. He wanted to offer something to those who are frustrated – something that wouldn’t stir up the ire of others. So, he made a list – five ways to protest that wouldn’t offend.
But, The list was empty. It’s not possible to critique, to protest, without causing discomfort, without pricking the status quo and illuminating its flaws.
Too often we seek peace not as something that emerges from justice for all, but something that silences the injustice and ignores the pain. Then peace is an illusion because it is enforced by those who have power. Grayson Gilbert said, “Christians are far too easily distracted by things that don’t matter.” We get caught up in these cultural wars at a surface level and ignore the great needs which, if we claim to be God’s people, we are to see and address. How can we spend our time berating one another over “kneeling” when people are struggling to survive, in Puerto Rico, in the Virgin Islands, in the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, in Mexico, in the face of escalating conflicts on the Korean Peninsula?
Frost suggested that Christianity is on its knees. He sees in Tebow and Kaepernick a division in Christianity itself. Tebow represents faith that “values personal piety, gentleness, respect of cultural mores, and an emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality.” The other approach “values social justice, community development, racial reconciliation, and political activism. One version is kneeling private prayer. The other is kneeling in public protest. One is concerned with private sins like abortion,. The other is concerned with public sins like racial discrimination. One preaches a gospel of personal salvation. The other preaches a gospel of political and social transformation.”
Frost mourns this division in God’s church, this division among God’s people. It has left “the church all the poorer, with each side needing to be enriched by the Biblical vision of the other.” He quotes Walter Brueggemann who said Christianity should be “awed to heaven, rooted in the earth.”
“For he is our peace,” it says in Ephesians. “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
Last Sunday Mark and I worshiped in a Presbyterian Church in Dublin, Ireland. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting – probably a very traditional service with very Irish looking folks – all befitting a beautiful, Gothic styled structure. Well, the order of service was fairly traditional. But, everything else was somewhat unexpected. The congregation was truly multi-cultural. The Abbey singers, their choir, were four black women whose accents indicated they were not natives. They sang African-American spirituals and African freedom hymns. Mark and I shared our pew with a 3 year old who “read” my Bible from back to front, muttering in some language—it may have been English, but I couldn’t understand a word until he got to the front and proudly declared, “The end!” The place was full of life – sometimes evidenced by the chaos. It was wonderful. We were warmly welcomed.
The sermon theme from that service is appropriate for today: Jesus is God’s hospitality in a hostile world – and—we are to extend that hospitality. It is not our place to judge or to label others. God has been hospitable to us. Now we share that hospitality.
That moderator who came to Utica Presbytery left the Presbyterian Church. She became disillusioned, perhaps because we, in the entire denomination, couldn’t find it in ourselves to fall on our knees before God and confess that we, too, are a part of the world’s brokenness. We had appropriated a wonderful spiritual – but we sang it without an awareness of the pain and suffering of those who wrote it, of those who had to rely on God to see them, to know them, to love them and value them. We were not hospitable to a voice that had a different story, to a voice that knew the realities of racism.
I told the pastor of that church in Dublin that I appreciated the diversity of his congregation – that such diversity is still a rarity in our country. He said, “It’s hard.” I respect the older members who were there who have been willing to share their space, and, perhaps, let go of their traditions to welcome, fully, people with a different background. It’s hard work to extend and receive God’s hospitality in a world that is too often hostile. It means we need to be humble in God’s presence. We need to be humble when we encounter those who have lived in a different world than the one we know. And some of those who have lived in that world are our neighbors.
Grayson concluded, “At the end, everyone will kneel. Not to a flag. Not to a president. Not to a tyrannical ruler – but to the Lord. There won’t be a debate over this; it will simply be a reality for all [people]. The wicked and redeemed alike shall bow before the righteous Judge of all the earth. In light of this, what have Christians to do with flags and football players taking the knee during the anthem?”
How easy it is to get caught up in the hostilities – to proclaim what is right and condemn those who see things differently and act accordingly. We, however, are God’s people. God, through Jesus, has been hospitable to us. We celebrate that hospitality as we come to the table. But, even as we come, we need to acknowledge that God’s table is bigger than we can imagine. God has broken down the dividing walls of hostility. So, this table is offered to the world, to all who hunger and thirst for that which God offers. God calls us to share in offering God’s hospitality, to work for a world of peace founded upon justice, to walk in the way of Jesus who humbled himself and “became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
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