October 6, 2009

Wrestling with Scripture

Year B, Proper 22, RCL
October 4, 2009
Christ Church, New Bern, NC

Audio version available here.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, oh God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Several years ago when this particular Gospel passage came up in the lectionary, or maybe its twin passage in Matthew, there was a couple sitting behind me in church who had recently gotten married. They were both divorced, and this was the second marriage for both of them. As the people responded at the end of the Gospel, “Praise to you Lord Christ,” Beth turned to Nicholas and said, “Oh boy. This should be a doozy of a sermon.”

I’m not sure how it affected their psyche or their soul that the person preaching was the same one who had married them only a couple of months before.

This morning’s Gospel lesson, at least the part about Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, as well as our lesson from Job, makes a lot of people squirm in their pews. I’ll admit: I’m one of them. But if we are really paying attention to what the Bible is saying and the stories it is telling, and in particular what the Gospels are saying to us, we should be squirming a lot more. The Scriptures are full of tough, tough passages, passages about the wholesale slaughter of human beings at the hands of God’s people, tales of neglect, tales of deceit, and stories of some of the worst sides of humanity. And then we get into the Gospels where Jesus is calling us not only to shape up, but to show us a better way. When our eyes are not turned towards God and towards building up the Kingdom of God, it is easy for us to display our bad side, both as individuals and as a society. The Bible is not and cannot be easy reading. I have a Bible that is thin and almost pocket sized. A seminary classmate commented that it was perfect because it was lightweight and easy to carry. Our ethics professor was standing there and said to my classmate, “If you think anything about the Bible is easy to carry, then you might just be going into the wrong field.” Of course they were talking about “easy to carry” in two different contexts, but what Dr. Wheeler said was exactly true. As is what Will Williamon, noted author and former dean of the Duke University Chapel, once said. “No one can preach the Gospel until they have been smacked around by the passage the hope to preach.” And if we are living out Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations, then each of us should have been smacked around by the Gospel at least once or twice.

I did a very unscientific poll on Friday and Saturday. On Facebook (that ubiquitous social networking website), I asked, “What passage of scripture do you struggle with the most and why?” Not surprisingly (since most of my Facebook friends are through the church), I got a lot of answers.

One person told me the whole Noah story makes her uncomfortable. What made Noah’s family more worthy than any other family on the earth, and where, she asked, is the grace of God for the rest of creation.

Several of my female friends said the whole “women be submissive to your husbands” thing bothered them. Someone else quoted the prophet Malachi that says God loved Jacob and hated Essau (Isaac & Rebehak’s twin sons from Genesis 25).

Several people commented that some of the laws of the Old Testament are more than they can understand, especially in light of how many of them require the death of the person who violates that law.

A couple of people didn’t cite specific passages, but noted that any use of scripture that used to oppress or demean others was bothersome to them.

One passage I’ve wrestled with is the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham and Sarah had waited so long for a child, and finally this is the son that God had promised them. What kind of God would then say, “Take him up on that mountain and sacrifice him to me.”?

So what do we do with these tough passages? How do we look at Leviticus 19:19 which says do not wear clothing woven from two kinds of materials? I bet most of us aren’t wearing 100% cotton from top to bottom today.

What do we do with the story of the Prodigal Son, where the son who wanders and returns is celebrated, but the son who never strayed doesn’t get a party?

What do we do with St. Paul’s directive for slaves to obey their masters when the church stood up long ago and said that one human owning another human is deplorable?
What do we do with today’s Gospel lesson about marriage and divorce when nearly 50% of all marriages end in divorce? There is no evidence that suggests Christians are immune from that statistic.

Much like the face value of the words on the pages of the Bible, the answer is both simple and difficult.

We continue to wrestle. We continue to be smacked around, as Willimon says. We continue to wrestle with the text because we continue to be engaged in it. We recognize that people of deep faith have been wrestling with the Hebrew scriptures for nearly four thousand years. A friend of mine who is a Rabbi says that if you put four rabbis in a room with a passage of scripture, you’ll get at least 40 different view points on what that passage of scripture means.

It is not up to our generation to have the final resolution on what a passage of scripture means. It is up to us to continue to prayerfully discern as a faith community what the Scriptures are calling us to be and to do.

We are called to engage in a willingness to keep our hearts and minds open that God will lead us to truths we may not be ready to see or be in a place to see.

The discipline of personal scripture readings is invaluable, but the Word of God has always been intended to be read in the community of others as well. Our common search for insight into God’s will for our lives is made infinitely stronger when we engage in that search with others who are on a faith journey, too.

In a Newsweek magazine profile a few years ago, Billy Graham said that while he believes Scripture is the inspired, authoritative word of God, he does not read the Bible as though it were a collection of Associated Press bulletins. He tells a story about struggling with a piece of scripture and praying, “Lord, I don't understand all that is in this book, I can't explain it all, but I accept it by faith as your divine word.” Graham then concluded, quoting Saint Paul, that when it comes to scripture, “human beings on this side of paradise can grasp only so much. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, [but in eternity] we shall see face to face.”

Today’s scripture lessons are tough to hear. But that doesn’t mean they can be dismissed or written off. It means we are invited and called to continue wrestling with them, trusting that God will continue to inspire us if we continue to engage the Scriptures.