You know, I had this week’s sermon about half written by Thursday morning. I had explanations of the problematic textual history of the bible. I was prepared to point out all the problems with the idea that the bible is perfect and without error. But on Thursday morning I sat down with the intention of finishing this sermon when something stopped me in my tracks and forced me to scrap what I had and start from scratch: the trial and testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford. For those of you who may not quite be following this, a Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, has been accused of attempted rape and sexual assault and one of his accusers, Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, gave her testimony Thursday morning and answered questions about her experience.
And, as I sat there, watching a woman tearfully recount a horrific experience from her youth, I couldn’t help but feel moved by the Spirit to address the topic from the pulpit this morning. Because there are people, many of them Christian, who have chosen to write her off. There are many who have willfully chosen the side of the oppressor Monday-through-Saturday and then come to church and worship a man who died for the oppressed on Sunday.
I cannot sit idly by and claim to be a Christian and a responsible minister of the gospel while refusing to address an issue of morality and ethics when no one else in the church will. Christ chooses sides, and Christians ought to live in imitation of Christ. And if Christ were here, Christ would have stood in solidarity with this woman – this woman who has nothing to gain and everything to lose.
This hit me hard for several reasons, chief among them being the fact that I have a beautiful daughter who is going to have to grow up in this world. And I want her to grow up in a world where she knows she can be whatever she wants to be without fear of being taken advantage of. And don’t get me wrong – Oakley is, already,a strong, independent, woman. I mean, she’s super tenacious and doesn’t take crap from anyone, including me – especiallyme. And though it makes my life significantly harder sometimes, I’m proud of her in a way, because she’s never going to want for anything. She’ll kill people for meat after the apocalypse. I don’t have to worry about her too much. I have no doubt that she will persist. But I still worry – it comes with the territory.
The second reason this really hit me was because of the cliché I’m preaching on this morning: “I believe it because the bible says it.” This logic is not new. It’s old. In fact, it’s older than Christianity. It found one of its earliest incarnations in people like the Pharisees, who followed the letterof the Law while completely neglecting the spiritof the Law. And it continued to reincarnate over the last 2000 years in those who would point to the bible as the thing which sanctioned their oppression. The logic underlying this cliché is the same logic that Christians used to justify slavery and racism. It’s the logic which was used to justify husbands beating and raping their wives.
The bible says all kinds of stuff and a lot of it, whether we want to admit it or not, is ugly. The bible is the thing that bears witness to the person of Jesus and the communities that were founded in his name after his death. It’s value to us, as modern Christians, is priceless. However, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically applicable to our modern context. It’s couched in a first century Palestinian world-picture which is infinitely different from the time and place in which we live and move and have our being. We can’t just point to something the bible says, claim it as “perfect and without error,” and take it at face-value. When we do that, we’re basically picking-and-choosing what we believe is “perfect and without error” and what isn’t. And yes, what we said about Jesus is also true of the bible: we either need to accept all of it, or none of it. But acceptance doesn’t necessarily equal approval or agreement. Let me say that again: we either need to accept the whole bible, or none of the bible. But acceptance doesn’t necessarily equal approval or agreement. Accepting the bible doesn’t mean we have to adopt the underlying logic and world-picture of its authors. It means that we accept it, knowing that it’s both 1) a wealth of knowledge about Jesus and his subsequent communities, and 2) full of contradictions and problems.
Being aware of this necessitates the need to understand when scripture was written, why scripture was written, to whom and by whom scripture was written. This is especially important when people in the bible are talking about “scripture”, because we have a natural tendency to read our own ideas of scripture into those passages, instead of trying to understand the ideas of scripture the author probably had in mind. And when Paul or Timothy or John or Peter talk about “scripture,” the New Testament as we know it didn’t exist. They were writing letters to churches. The only scriptures that existed were the books of the Old Testament. We need to keep that in mind when we read passages like this. It doesn’t mean we can’t adopt these passages and infuse them with new meaning – that’s actually how the whole process of forming the bible happened. The church took letters written byfallible people, tofallible people, and elevated them to such a level that they’ve been equated with God’s direct speech to us.
Now, a counterargument to this would be that the finished product is all that matters – that the Holy Spirit guided and shaped history in such a way that we got the exact bible we were supposed to have. The problem with this, though, is that we still have to deal with all the problems and contradictions, and now they’re even harderto explain because we’ve attributed them to perfect divine agency and not imperfect human agency. And along with these problems come the passages that seemingly support things like racism and sexism. Again, the same thing we talked about with Jesus a few weeks ago is applicable here: it’s a painful act of love to accept the bible as it is, knowing full well the problems. It means we’re not going to let the bible off easy this time; it means we’re not going to make excuses and do mental gymnastics to explain away its mistakes.
Sometimes the bible gets it wrong, just like Jesus did. But the miracle is that, despite its flaws, despite its errors, despite the ugliness which persists within it, it’s still a place where God chooses to meet us. It’s not the only place, by any means, but it’s one of the places. And in this meeting, in this event of encounter with the divine, we’re all, as our scripture says, “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one whom we must render an account.” When God meets us through the words and thoughts and ideas of this book, the skeletons are all out of the closet. We can no longer live under the delusion that we can run and hide from God. There’s no where we can go, there’s nothing we can do, which does not come under the scrutiny of the divine when it is thrust upon us. I once had a seminary professor tell me that, when God comes into your life, he throws light into all your darkest corners. If God is the one throwing, then scripture is the light being thrown.
Our passage this morning says that scripture is sharper than a double-edged sword. It’s sharp enough to cut through your ego. It’s sharp enough to sever any inclination to believe that Christianity is all about you and it’s definitely sharp enough to slash through any idea that we can pull it out of context and manipulate it to support a message or agenda contrary to the ethic of love Jesus lived by. Scripture cuts through our racism and our tendency to discriminate against our brothers and sisters of color; it cuts through our sexism and our tendency to prefer a man’s words over a woman’s; it cuts through our fear and distrust of our Muslim brothers and sisters and it definitelycuts through the idea that Christianity and the outside world are that different. Jesus was hunted as a child by a power-hungry king and crucified by the state as a political agitator. All the apostles were either killed or exiled by Roman officials. So, when someone says that things like politics don’t belong in the church, the only thing I think is that, if politics don’t belong in the church then there wouldn’t be a church at all. Christianity has been political from the very beginning and being disciples of the crucified Nazarene doesn’t mean blindly following a set of ideas because the bible says it. It requires and demands that we live a politically-active existence in support of and solidarity with the poor and oppressed.
When God comes into our lives, he throws light into all our darkest corners. And he comes into our lives with the exclusive intention of sending us into the world so that we might throw light into all of the world’s darkest corners. John’s gospel says that, in Jesus, a light has come into the world which the darkness can never snuff out. Our job is to go into the world and create space where this light can shine. And we do this by loving the unloved, giving a voice to the voiceless, and being the embodiment of Jesus to those who need it most. The bible that we hold near-and-dear to our hearts isn’t perfect, but the God we serve, whom we find in Jesus, is. And, as Christians, we’re to live in imitation of Jesus in the world.