Let’s Talk About the Bible

Emerging Christian Story – Lenten Sermon #3 – March 7, 2012
Pastor Monte Stevens  –  North Riverdale Lutheran Church  –  Dayton, Ohio

“Let’s Talk About the Bible”

The Bible sure is an interesting book!

Actually it’s a collection of books; 66 books in fact.  Thirty-nine in what we call the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament.  Those 66 books have well over 60 different authors and from the earliest written book, to the book written last, those authors span over 1000 years.

So tonight we will not go over every book of the Bible. (I would only have about 20 seconds per book of the Bible.)  What we will concern ourselves with are some overarching understandings of what the Bible is and is not; how we begin to interpret the Bible, and we’ll reflect on how the Bible can function in our lives and faith communities.

We know that the Bible must be important because our presidents are sworn into office on the Bible, and oaths in court are taken on them.  In the culture wars, we argue about the place of the Bible in our civic society, and politicians quote the Bible in justification of their policy positions and moral stands.  The Bible is read each day by millions of people and by pastors every Sunday from every pulpit across our country.

What’s interesting is that the Bible can seemingly be used to justify two opposing sides of a moral issue, various policy issues, and guidance for how to live our lives.  We don’t have to look too far to see how the Bible is used to justify different sides of an issue.

Look at the role of women in our culture and how the Bible has been used to either subjugate women and make women submissive, or to recognize and celebrate women as fully equal with men.

Depending on which side of an issue you might take you can find passages in the Bible to make your point.  And that will be one of the points for us to consider tonight.  If you want to justify something you believe in; if you look hard enough, you can find a verse of scripture that will, at least upon first reading, support you.

We have quite a history of women being told that they are less in status and function than men.  The history of the subjugation of women is long and has its roots in the Bible.  Often, women being subordinate, comes from a reading of Genesis 2 – the second creation story – where Eve is made from the rib of Adam.

The way most people read St. Paul, that is, understand Paul to say that women should be submissive to their husbands and women should not talk in worship and they are to sit in the “back of the church” to worship.

My wife, Chris, has a Baptist friend whose marriage is structured on her being submissive and her husband being the head of the house, thus having the first say, and final say, on the decisions of the house.  As Chris has talked with her, this is all based on their reading of the Bible.

I have tried to have Chris’ friend convince my wife that this is a correct reading of scripture, but Chris reads her Bible differently (just kidding).  Chris would point out that Paul had trusted female partners in his ministry; that at times he lifted women up more than their male counterparts.

Chris would mention that there were strong female leaders even in the Old Testament … Deborah was one of the best remembered judges in the Bible.  She would remind you that as you read through Genesis Sarah is no second class citizen to Abraham.  If he was the Father of the Faith she was certainly the Mother.

And then there is Jesus.  Chris might ask you, can you find a place in the Bible where Jesus treated women as inferior?  Or a place where Jesus treated women, like the male counterparts of his day, treated women?  Or, example after example, of Jesus breaking the cultural customs of his day to lift up and liberate women.

She would remind you that some of Jesus’ closest companions were Mary and Martha.

The gospel writers certainly remember and record Jesus valuing women and their roles in the life of faith.  Jesus didn’t just relegate them to the teaching of Sunday school and cooking.  It is these examples, and there are many more, that have been used over the past century to liberate women in our American context – from voting rights, to their role in society, to being able to be pastors in the ELCA and other denominations.

But, of course, there are still parts of our society that treat women differently because of how they read and interpret the Bible.  The Roman Catholic Church will not allow women to be priests.  And they are not the only denomination nor Christian organization that treats women as less in some form or function.

Remember, I said I was a Genesis 1 (first creation story) guy.

One reason is that men and women were created simultaneously and thus with equality.  And I firmly believe that in Genesis two – Eve being created from Adam’s rib – is not about the women being less in value than a man.  That might be one way to read that passage, but there are better ways, and those better ways are, I believe, more in line with what the original author intended.

So that is just one example of the Bible being used by different groups of people to support two very different positions or sides of an issue.

Slavery is another example of the Bible being used by two different sides to justify their beliefs.

Someplace along the line I picked up a book that contained sermons from the south around the time before and during the Civil War.  I think the title is, “Plantation Sermons.”  These are southern pastors preaching on the God-ordained nature of slavery.  It really is fascinating to see what passages they use from the Old and New Testament to justify slavery.

Now, of course, we realize how misguided and morally reprehensible slavery was and we can’t understand how, at one time, the Bible could have been used to justify it; but it was.

So were parts, and passages, of the Bible wrong or were parts, and passages, of the Bible wrongly used?  I would say, “Yes.”

To understand what “Yes” means, we need to spend a moment talking about the origins of the Bible.  Where did the books of the Bible come from?  Where did your favorite passages of the Bible come from?  Where did those troubling verses of the Bible come from?

There is no question that they came from the minds, hearts, and hands of human authors.  I believe that the 66 books of the Bible are the product of humans.  If the Bible is written by humans it is a human product.

The Old Testament is a product of ancient Israel, and the New Testament is the product of the early Christian communities.  The people of these communities told their story of how they saw themselves and how they saw their relationship to God, all within the historical and cultural context of their day.

To affirm this does not mean denying the reality of God’s inspiring presence in the lives of the people in these ancient communities.  The Bible includes their experiences of God, their stories about God, their understandings of life with God, and their understanding on how we should live our lives in relation to God and one another.

But it is their story – not God’s infallible, inerrant, and absolute story.

We are today still telling God’s story.  We are the author of God’s Word today as we take note of the divine among us and write of our relationship to God and others, relating how we understand God’s Holy Spirit calling us to live today.

A second understanding of the Bible we need to remember is that the Bible was not written for us.  The authors of the books of our Bible were writing for their community of faith and the people living their lives of faith then.

When Paul was writing to the Romans; he was not writing to 21st century Daytonians, or Americans, or even Lutherans.  Paul was addressing the concerns of Romans living in and around the year 55AD.  They were then “the People of the Way” and were slowly moving further away from traditional Judaism while being open and inclusive to Gentiles.

The authors of the books that make up our Old and New Testament include their wisdom, insight, and convictions about God and the world.  They also include their limitations, blinds spots, and limited understanding of human psychology, biology, and modern sciences.

The authors of the books are responding to the divine and sharing their message about who God is and how God desires us to live in relationship to God and others.  Remember last week I talked about how every conception about God will be limited in some way, because we use finite words when we try to describe God?  These authors were limited, but still inspired to share what they believed about God as truthfully as they knew.

So yes, I believe that some of the authors just got some things wrong:

I don’t believe that God held the sun still so that Israel could kill more of God’s enemies.

I don’t believe that women are in any way less than men.

I don’t believe that slavery is in any way in accordance to God’s will for humans.

And I don’t believe women should be stoned for getting divorced.

All these things are in the Bible.

Recently I heard a quote that I liked.  I caught the end of a program where someone famous was being interviewed.  That person said, “My grandmother said she reads her Bible like she eats a fish.”  She said, “She eats the meat and not the bones.”

When people say they have trouble with the Bible, they are often talking about the bones that they have bit into or are still in the meat.  Why they are bones is something we will have to continue to talk about, but mostly the bones are about reading the Bible too literally.

The Bible certainly does contain things that should be read quite literally.

Like the gospel writer saying, Jesus walked from village to village.”  I think Jesus literally walked – remember they had no cars.  The description of the building of the temple in Jerusalem that is found in the Old Testament has pretty literal descriptions of how big and how wide it should be built.

But when a gospel writer says, “Jesus is the Lamb of God,” was Jesus literally a lamb?  No this is a metaphor.  When Jesus says, “I am the door,” in the gospel of John, he is not literally a door.  This is metaphor.

In this year ahead I will be talking more and more about reading the Bible on a more metaphorical level, a way I believe the authors originally intended.

For example:  I don’t think the author of the creation story in Genesis 1 intended this story to be taken literally – that the earth was literally created in six days.  If read literally, in combination with other parts of the Old Testament being read literally, than the earth is only 6000 years old and evolution is an impossibility.  Science shares with us the earth is 4.54 billion years old and, I believe that is in no way in conflict with the Bible.

Reading the Bible is such a literal way has not been with us all that long.  It’s a fairly recent historical development.  It’s also the reason why so many people no longer desire to be part of the Church.  They think they have to believe the entire Bible literally and they don’t find many parts of the Bible that believable – if taken literally.

Recently I saw various Bible passages that turned people off to Christianity or showed how antiquated some things are in the Bible.

Leviticus 19:17 reads, “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard.”  That means no “bowl cut” haircuts.  Does God really care how you wear your hair?

This next one may have implications for football and surely so for breakfast at Bob Evans.  Lev. 11:8 is referring to pigs.  “You shall not eat their flesh not touch their carcasses.”

Do you check your horoscope or open fortune cookies?  Lev: 19:31 reads, “Do not turn to mediums or spiritualists; do not seek them out to be defiled by them.  I am the Lord your God.”  The penalty for this (Lev. 20:6), by the way is, having God turn his back on you and sending you into exile forever.

Before we leave Leviticus, let us remember that one of the seven verses that’s used against homosexuality comes from that same book.  Right in the midst of the verses that I have just commented on, Lev. 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a women” as this is an abomination to God.

But if you read before and after this verse it is also an abomination to God to eat shellfish and wear a piece of clothing with mixed fibers.  I guess we no longer think that eating shellfish or wearing clothes with mixed fibers are an abomination to God because most of us do those things, or, at least, are not against them.

So, why do some pick out this verse and hold it up as an abomination and not stand outside Red Lobster and remind those entering the restaurant of their potential abomination?  And what about Jesus saying to the rich man, “Go sell all that you have and give it to the poor.”  If we follow him are we to literally do that also?

What do we do with laws that no longer apply to our time and culture?  How did those laws function then and should they have meaning today?   What do we do with customs that had relevance, in that day and time, but no longer do in a modern society?  What has eternal value for us and what is time-bound?  Why do some people who claim the Bible to be literal, pick and choose what they follow and don’t follow?

As I stated when I began this sermon, the Bible is a grouping of 66 books that span over 1000 years of authors writing about God and our relationship to God.  When you are told or taught that the Bible is literally true, that it is the inerrant and literal Word of God, there are many, many difficulties.

I believe that much of the difficulty of the Bible can be explained or disappears when we begin to interpret it as it was intended and make sure we know and understand its original cultural context.  Much of the Bible, and many of its authors, never intended their stories to be taken literally and factually.  They were symbolic and metaphorical stories that expressed who God was to them and how God intended them to live in the world and with each other.

But they were working off their best concept of God then, and as I stated last week, our concept of God is always too small, it always needs expanding – which means that sometimes we just get aspects of God wrong.

I wonder if that is what John was getting at when in his gospel Jesus says, “The Spirit will lead you into all truth.”  Jesus was speaking about a future reality; meaning full and complete truth was not captured and fully recorded in the past, but would be realized as the Spirit led Jesus’ followers into the future.

Let me end by saying a few specific things about how I view the Bible and what it means to me.  For me the Bible is sacred, in that it is a vehicle for us to connect with God and the holy to discover how we should live.  It’s where we discover the best, fullest, most-meaningful way to live with God and others as God intended.

Of the 66 books in the Bible some are a better vehicle than others.  Some scripture is just more important than other parts of scripture, because the character and passions of God are more clearly revealed in some parts than others.

The four gospels are where I see God most dramatically and most poignantly revealed.  John opens his gospel by calling Jesus the Word of God.  To listen to Jesus was like listening to God speak.  Remember they reported that Jesus spoke with authority – like nothing they had ever heard.

Jesus is my best window into the divine.  And it is a window I enjoy gazing through daily, and a window that I use to daydream about God’s preferred future.

While the Bible is sacred to me because it has the ability to reveal the divine, I do not worship the Bible.  God has a warning “thou shall not have any other gods before me.”  Too many people, in my opinion, have turned the Bible into something they worship and thus turned it into an idol.

There is a Buddhist saying that I like.  It says, “Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; rather, seek what they sought.”

Each and every day I seek what the authors of the Bible and my spiritual ancestors sought.  I seek God.  I seek the divine.  I seek that which is true and holy.  I seek to expand my understanding of God and deepen my relationship to that which is eternal.

The Bible helps me in that search, but so do modern poets, prophets, and playwrights; so do kids with one-liners that speak deep truth.

Let me end with this plea.  Please, let’s stop beating each other up with the Bible.

Let’s use it as it was intended – as a path to the divine – and on that path we will find nuggets of truth that our ancestors have left us and bits of wisdom and truth for our life with God and each other.

Let us listen for and feel the rushing of the Holy Spirit that will “lead us into all truth.”