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 When the Bible Became a Friend

Sermon - 8/26/12
Dick Busic
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Timothy 1:1-7

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,

2 To Timothy, my beloved child:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

I’ve always had a respect for the Bible.  Like Timothy, my two brothers and I were raised by a mother who learned her faith from her grandmother and passed it on to us.  (Her own mother died when she was 9 years old and her father crawled into a bottle and stayed their most of his life.)

I was fortunate that my folks found a church that they could both attend when I was just in the second grade.  I was doubly fortunate that the minister (Alger Fitch) continued to emphasize the importance of work with youth (and thrice fortunate) that we had a good youth group in our church and two wonderful youth ministers from NCC during my high school years – one with whom I keep in touch regularly.  Yah, pretty fortunate, I know!

I was allowed to be a leader in the youth group and practice some skills at speaking before my piers and the church.  At one point, one of the elders backed me up against the church pillar and asked me, “Have you ever thought of becoming a minister?”  It was the farthest thing from my mind.  That started, however, opening my mind to the thought of being a pastor.

Like a lot of other healthy, hormone rich youth, I was more interested in the girls in the youth group and whether or not I could be liked by any one of them.

As Garrison Keillor says of his experience as a youth in the church, “The gospel hymns are good for the soul and a way to keep you from thinking about sex (which otherwise you thought about only 50 times a day or more).

I enjoyed going to summer camp.  Among my lofty goals, the persistent goal was to get a girl friend.  We were sent out on the sand dunes at Wi-Ne-Ma camp, beautifully placed between a fresh water lake and the ocean beach.  Morning devotions consisted of taking your Bible and going out to a quiet place alone to read and pray.

I don’t remember any instructions as to how to approach the Bible, just open it and read it.  Keep in mind my persistent goal. . . .  When I let my King James Bible fall open, my eyes fell on I Corinthians 7:1 – the chapter caught my eye because the italics describing the chapter referred to marriage. 

I was shocked to read the first verse:  “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote to me:  IT IS GOOD FOR A MAN NOT TO TOUCH A WOMAN.”

I wanted to close the darn book and throw it across the next sand dune!

It was only later that I heard someone say that to just open the Bible may not be the best approach to benefiting from it.  He used the old story about the person who flopped open the Bible and read, “Judas went and hanged himself.”  He closed it quickly and opened it again, only to read, “Go thou and do likewise.”  In one last desperate try he read, “What thou doest, do quickly.” 

I listened enough to the preaching in my church (we had a good “teaching” preacher), that I heard some passages that drew me in – passages about Gods love and grace.

I began to notice that my mother’s bible (show it) had all sorts of markings in it.  I wasn’t sure that a book so revered could be marked up.  She wrote in the margins, color coded some favorite passages, and made her own cross references.  She was working through her Bible (a term I later in life heard from Ronald Osborn [often referred to as “Mr. Disciple”] – when talking of a new book or a biblical book, he would say – I’m currently working through it.)  It was if my mom was recording her journey in faith.

As I learned more about others’ approach to the Bible, even those of our own church heritage like Alexander Campbell, I began to see the importance of context: to whom the scripture was written, what the writer was trying to say and, then, asking what that says to us today (to abbreviate:  What was said?  What does it say (to us)?)

If I had known the context of that passage in I Cor. 7, I would have understood that Paul thought the Lord’s return was imminent – the time was short – if you can refrain from burning with passion, be single – get to work sharing the good news with people hungry for it.

Only later did I realize that all scripture has to be interpreted.  When the preacher stands before you and tells you, “The Bible says. . . , that preacher is telling you what he interprets the Bible to be saying.

In seminary we were taught to bring the Bible text and a good novel together.  This was a class on Biblical Theology, why were we asked to read novels?  It finally sunk in to most of us.  The Bible is full of powerful stories.  If we connect the biblical story to a powerful novel, we bridge 2000 years of history and connect the tradition to our own experience.

I hadn’t placed much value on my own experience before Professor Harold Hat’s class.

We became introduced to interesting ways to study the Bible.

I’d heard others say they had read the Bible through cover to cover (some 2-3-4 times).  That is good to pick up content and context.  But does it translate into our everyday lives?  What about selecting a passage and living with it for a week, bringing our life experience to bear upon the text.  It may not be so important how much scripture we read but how much we listen to the passages we read and let them connect and affect our daily lives.

Another Bible study method helping us listen to the scripture is to rewrite it in our own words (encouraging more personal listening to the text and writing what it is saying to us).  One caution – it is always helpful to share with a group your “hearing”  (or understanding) of the text and allow them to share their hearing with you – keeping you from being so far out “in left field” as they say.

Commentaries, Bible Dictionaries and other study guides are good resources for listening to scripture.  But don’t forget your own experience.  God’s Holy Spirit is within you.  II Timothy 7:14.  God is still speaking.

You may be wondering why I am wearing this tee shirt (have I joined some strange new cult – become a Rashneshe?)  Well, Ginny and I were given these shirts when we worked in New Orleans following the Katrina Hurricane devastation.  We knew we were going to be in the area and so called the Week of Compassion office to see if we could join a work party there.  They told us there were no Disciple groups planning to work at that time, but they would help us connect with a United Church of Christ group from Portland, Maine.  They were very hospitable and included us fully as one of their own group.

I hadn’t noticed the TV adds enough nor learned about the national slogans of the UCC.  When they gave us the shirts we saw the slogan:  “God is still speaking” – “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”  Dan referred to their slogan in his sermon on August 5th.  His interpretation was:  “It’s not what’s in the text but what is in our hearts – perhaps a reference to Jeremiah and the New Covenant – “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:31f)

A number of our congregation is gathered a Camp Lane for a church retreat, as you have likely heard.  The main speaker for the retreat is Rabbi Maurice D. Harris from Eugene.  He as written a book entitled, Moses A Stranger Among Us.  The book was made available for purchase before the retreat.  It is an intriguing book written for Jewish readers but with much benefit to all people of faith. 

Chapter 7 is entitled:  “The Law of Moses Can be Changed.”   In the introduction he writes: 

Before the rise of the modern liberal movements (denominations) of Judaism, rabbis universally taught that the Torah’s divine laws are immutable and perfect   But does the Torah text itself truly advocate the idea that the Torah is immutable and perfect? 

Rabbi Harris takes a Reconstructionist approach to the Torah (and all our sacred texts) which acknowledges that, like all things crafted by human beings, they are flawed texts that at times we may not agree with morally or spiritually.  We are intimately engaged with our sacred texts, but not ultimately commanded by them.  To borrow the words of contemporary Christian theologian Marcus J. Borg, we take the Bible seriously, but not literally (coined earlier by other theologians).  A famous motto of the Reconstructionist movement is “the past has a vote, not a veto.”  P.xxiv

While he points out that human beings can influence God is all over the Torah, he calls our attention to Numbers 27.

Toward the end of the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Torah records an episode about the daughters of a man named Tzelophehad.  The five women’s names are recorded as Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah.  Their father had died without siring any sons, and the Israelite laws of land distribution that God had handed down (Number 26:52-56) did not allow daughters to inherit.  The women brought a challenge to the law arguing that their deceased father’s inheritances should pass to them, and not to his closest male relative as the law required, or else their father’s name would disappear for all time.  Moses had recently taken a census of the Israelites as they prepared for their conquest of Canaan, and soon plans were to be made for how the territory would divided up:  by tribe, by clan, and by household.  The five sisters were worried that the land bearing the name of their father’s household would be merged into another male relative’s allotment.  They presented their case in public, before Moses and the High Priest.

            It’s a fascinating moment in Moses’ leadership.  The law that he has presented the Israelites—the Law of God—has just been challenged, and by a group of women no less (keeping in mind the patriarchal nature of the society at the time).  And the challenge has come in public, in front of the community.  Dramatically, It’s as if all eyes are on Moses, waiting to see how he will react. Will he take their challenge as an unacceptable affront to his (and God’s) law?  Will he censure these women for even daring to speak?

            What Moses and God end up dong has huge implications for how we choose to look at law, whether in religious or a secular context.  First, Moses doesn’t act threatened by the appeal, and in fact simply seems stumped.  On the one hand, there is existing law of inheritance, which is clear.  On the other hand, there is the daughter’s case seems to have some merit.  Moses takes the case directly to God.

            God hears the case, considers it, and then rules in favor of the sisters.  A new, revised law is proclaimed:  Numbers 27:5-11.  p. 63  (read from The Bible)

Again, in Chapter 36 of Numbers another revision is made.

Rabbi Harris points out that the Law of Moses is subject to repeated appeal.  It can change.  We have in these texts a living and evolving legal relationship between God and the people.  In the context of that relationship, the people can have input that influences God, and that even changes God’s thinking.---there is an opportunity provided for questioning and appeal, and there is a Divine Being on the other end of that conversation who is listening and who can learn from us.  P. 65

My professor in seminary, Dr. Fred Craddock, would say to us budding preachers:  “When approaching a text on which to preach, ask yourself, “Do I believe it?”

When taught to believe the Bible from cover to cover, that seems like an odd question.  What we were being challenged to do was ask if we had taken that passage in to our mind and heart and life experience to the point that we could sincerely preach it.

We were reminded of Alfred North Whitehead and his book The Christian Agnostic.  When reading the Bible he envisioned himself in front of a huge roll top desk, the kind with all the cubby wholes where you could store things.  If he didn’t understand or had doubts about a text, he would put it in a cubby.  After some time had passed, he would get it back out and look at the text again to see if his life experience and study had made any difference in his understanding of that text. 

This gave me permission to disbelieve the text and struggle with it (with the help of God’s Spirit and the life experience I was having).

Rabbi Harris says in his chapter entitled “The Voice of Pain an Cruelty in Moses”:

“In case it is not obvious, I have a huge problem with sacred texts (of any faith) that depict God or one of God’s prophets ordering, approving, and rewarding acts of brutality, including mass conquest, genocide, violence against women, children, civilians, or violence based on claims that some nation or people has become irreversibly ‘polluted’ or evil and therefore must be completely exterminated. The Episcopal priest and noted writer Bishop John Shelby Spong recently published entire book on these kinds of sacred texts within his religion, titled ‘The Sins of Scripture:  ‘Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love.’

‘Text by text I will seek to disarm those parts of the biblical story that have been used throughout history to hurt, denigrate, and oppress, and even kill.  I will set about to deconstruct the bible’s horror stories.  But destruction is neither my aim nor my goal.  I want above all else to offer believers a new doorway into the biblical story, a new way to read and to listen to this ancient narrative.  I want to lead people beyond the sins of Scripture embedded in its ‘terrible texts’ in order to make a case for the Bible as that ultimate shaper of the essence of our humanity and as a book that calls us to be something we have not yet become.’

Rabbi Harris continues to write:

Moses teaches us, unintentionally, of the moral importance of being responsible participants of our religions—discerning partakers who don’t follow a tradition as a whole blindly, but who take seriously the ethical duty to weigh whether the teaching that’s coming from the tradition is one that affirm what our hearts and consciences confirm to be the truth.

I was thinking back to some children’s bible story books Ginny and I purchased and one of them I couldn’t read to our sons – Joshua fitting the battle of Jericho – the walls come tumbling down – and God ordering the death of all the inhabitants of that city, including women and children.

Dan Bryant told us just recently that he is known for taking a text and:

  • Departing from it
  • Speaking from it
  • Speaking against it

In a recent morning preface to a sermon that on that occasion he was going to do all three.  What freedom this gives us as members of the congregation to wrestle with the text, just like our preacher. 

Believing everything the Bible says, or for that matter everything the preacher says is greatly over rated.

 

Conclusion:

I’m so thankful for my upbringing – all those who influenced my life and faith journey.  It was through them that the Bible Became My Friend.

I continue to wear out the Bibles that I use as I try to connect with the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) surrounding me through these sacred texts.

I wrestle with the texts, just like my mother.  When told by two of her grandsons that they were gay, she looked at all the passages thrown at her by her own more conservative church and chose to see with the Word “written on her heart” rather than the proof texts thrown at her by her friends and pastor.

I’m so proud of her and so glad to take up this Bible as a friend and share with my friends and even my enemies the grace and unconditional love I have been taught by this friend of mine.

This book can transform your life, the church, and the world. 

I recommend this friend to you.

 


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