Year A, Proper 14
August 10, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“The word is very near you, on your lips and in your heart… because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Sometimes we encounter a bit of scripture that we just don’t know what to do with. We don’t seem to know where it fits in to our life, how it is relevant. Or maybe we don’t know what it means, exactly, but it is not trending towards anything that you hold as important or even true. Or maybe it is just that the language doesn’t make any sense to you, that is not how you would say it, not how you can hear it. Does anyone else ever have that experience? Does anyone else ever find a piece of the Bible to be confusing, uncomfortable, off putting, irrelevant, or even contrary to the understanding of God that you hold in your hearts? I have no aspirations to become a bishop some day, so I can admit that I have all of those feelings about scripture from time to time, I have feelings like that about parts of our tradition, about aspects of our lives together in Christian community. I know that I am not alone.
I have had a few very frank conversations and email exchanges recently with folks who really struggle with aspects of their faith. We all do, at times, right? We struggle with understanding scripture. Some struggle sometimes with things that I say (I know I do), with things that family members say and believe, and things we hear and read in our wider culture. Our culture has a lot conceptions of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be a church in this day and age, and few of those popular notions look like this, no? It can be hard to get any ping backs, any validation of your faith from the broader society. “Am I/are we actually Christian enough?” “Do I have a personal (enough) relationship with Jesus Christ?” (That one question, or rather the lack of clarity about what that actually meant, kept me out of the church for years). Living a life of faith is a struggle. So that is the first and most important point: if you struggle with your faith, with what to believe in, and what to do if you don’t believe what you think everyone else does, DO NOT WORRY! You are not alone in that and heterodoxy, having differences in belief from the accepted norms, does not preclude you from resting in the arms of God’s saving embrace. (Remember, St. Francis was rather heterodox. So was Oscar Romero. And Martin Luther. Oh, and Jesus Christ, too, He strayed from the confines of conventional wisdom and conventional use of scripture quite radically, thank you very much.) So don’t worry if you feel alone in your doubt or in your beliefs… you are not.
That said, I am not preaching a doctrine of holy flakiness, of a take-it-or-leave-it Christianity. I am not saying that you, we, anyone should dismiss things we find disagreeable or challenging out of hand, in particular in our Holy Scripture. Take the miracles in the Gospels, like the walking on water from St. Matthew this morning… few things throw good rationalist liberals off than having to explain/justify the miracle stories. Some would say that Marcus Borg’s idea of post-critical naiveté, the idea that I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true, that it comes from trying to explain away non-rational texts like this. Borg is not alone in this. Thomas Jefferson was so put off by the miracles and the other “supernatural” stories in the bible (the Transfiguration for instance) that he edited them all out in his so called Jefferson Bible. It was a red letter only version, only the words of Jesus… that’s not the answer, to parse out the parts we find difficult.
That kind of editing is not our place, not for those of us who wish to maturely engage with the Living God. There are myriad complicated passages and themes in scripture like the pretty consistent theme of the subjugation of women (that’s a big one), the anti-homosexuality stuff, all of the violence and justification of violence, slavery, genocide, infanticide… There is uncomfortable, triggering, tear-your-hair-out maddening, revolting stuff in there, very much a reflection of our world, of the nature of things. But it is OK to be uncomfortable, it is natural to be triggered, it is probably good for us to be tear-your-hair-out mad about and revolted by things like scripture because it spurs us to grow. Read deeply and try to understand what was written, by whom and why. Do you remember the old Chinese men in East of Eden? They learned Hebrew to better understand a single word, timshel, “thou mayest,” in the Cain and Able story. That is what I am saying. Learn the context. Much of St. Paul’s writing against homosexuality was in order to differentiate Christianity from the Diana cults, major competitors in Rome, whose worship included all shades of ritualized sex; politics, not hatred drove those regrettable passages. Wrestle with the text, the idea, the feelings. If you don’t exercise, if you don’t put stress upon bone, it goes away, it reabsorbs into the body. Like if you get a tooth pulled, if you don’t get an implant in there relatively soon the bone will go away making implants much trickier later, requiring bone grafts and the like. If you are not engaging your faith, reading scripture, scripture that challenges as well as consoles, that pushes as well as embraces, your faith can reabsorb into the ether as well.
Like unto that, another benefit of complicated scripture is that it pushes us to encounter and (hopefully) deal with things that left to our own devices we would be happy to ignore. That is one of the blessings of the Lectionary. Most of us gravitate to the parts we feel most drawn to or comfortable with or competent in. We are, sadly, drawn to monocultures; they are much easier to navigate. No creatures do very well in monocultures, in systems where everything is uniform. Think farms: acre upon acre of corn (soy, wheat, whatever) is a monoculture, a single crop system… it is precarious because one disease or pest or weather condition could wipe the whole operation out. Monoculturalism is one of the deep moral hazards of the digital age: we live in information monocultures and it is so easy to be exposed only to things we want to see. Our Facebook pages, AOL home screens, Twitter feeds, even the copy of Time Magazine that you receive at home is based on a my preferences world view. You will get advertisements, certainly, but even content that is tailored to what you say you want to see and what some algorithm determines what you want to see based on what you usually look at and by demographic information (tweens don’t get many AARP ads pushed to their screens not do most of us over age twenty get many messages from Justin Beiber or Miley Cyrus). And have you ever wondered why the magazines in doctor’s offices are full of medical advertisements? They are constructed specifically for the target audience, those going to the doctor. The magazines in a lawyers office, the same magazines, will be different, tailored for that audience. It is not good for us to always be surrounded by what we want to be surrounded with.
Scripture, though, in 66 books, written and edited over the course of more than a thousand years, and interpreted and handed down over centuries more is anything but a monoculture. It is not a quarter section of Round-up ready corn, it is a polyculture, like Wintergreen, or Grateful Harvest Farm where we get the grape juice for our Eucharistic table. (The wine is organic, but I confess I don’t know much about viniculture). Those diversified farm systems grow dozens of species, each finding a niche in the economy of needs and offerings that make for a stable, organic system. If a blight kills the tomatoes, bummer, but the same conditions that enabled the blight to take hold was maybe perfect for berry production so the books and the fields balanced out. So it is with scripture. What use (or what fun) would it be if you agreed with everything you heard at church or read in the Bible? Or if you understood everything at first pass? No, that is not how it works and that is a very, very good thing.
There is a religious discipline element, too, that is very important in considering our religious sources and vocabulary, and it is cultivated in encountering scripture and elements of our tradition that aren’t on our preferences menu. An example is the use of the word “Father” for the first person of the Trinity. For some of us, God the Father is how it is; those are the words for God that dwell in their hearts, that roll off our tongue in our most intimate prayer. That is the word Jesus used. For some, it is anathema, half the problem with Christianity, and indicative of its patriarchal roots that bleed into the present. I tend towards the latter, yet every Sunday I offer the opening sentence, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and offer the blessing in the name of God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. And I use that language, language that I personally struggle with, because that is the discipline of the church, and it is not all, can’t be all up to me to decide these things. So I, we wrestle with it, maybe like Jacob wrestled with the nameless man, that is too a draw, and we get up, limping, but better, stronger, more prepared for the world.
So today we have an interesting passage from Romans, where St. Paul teaches that confessing Jesus as Lord and believing in the right thing will lead to your salvation. For some of us, fantastic! How clear. How direct. How unambiguous. Like John 3:16. For others… you could ignore it; but at your peril. For others, our holy imagination comes to bear, finding threads of meaning below the surface, beyond, perhaps, the conventional. I am not a Christian that believes that believing correctly, that thinking correctly has much to do with our salvation or even our relationship with God. For me… well here is what I do with this passage: “The Word is very near you, on your lips and in your hearts.” Thanks be to God. God in Christ dwells within and around and upon us, always, right here, right now in this very moment. “…confess with your lips…” We are directed to worship, to do what we are doing right now. We need to pray, to be in communion with God. We need to articulate what we understand and feel about God in Christ. “…believe in your heart…” To believe in something is to hold it in your heart, to open yourself, to expose your soft underbelly to something, to ponder and contemplate and maybe in the fullness of time understand. “…you will be saved.” Salvation? To be saved is to be as God intended for us to be in life and in death. Full of loving kindness, emanating empathic joy, being at one with God and neighbor and the green grass that grows all around all around. Take the texts we have inherited seriously, open yourself to not only your own assumptions and preferences, but the traditions and communities we share life with, be present to the truth of God in Christ in the Word and the words of our religious heritage… Be brave. Be adventurous. Take risks with your understanding and your beliefs and your comfort zones, because remember, the Word is very near you, always, even right now. AMEN