If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, January 30, 2017

God is Our Ever Present Help: Psalm 46

*Sermon at Salem Mennonite Church on Sunday, January 28, 2017

Ein feste burg ist unser Gott. A Mighty Fortress is our God. In 1529, when the Protestant cause of the Reformation was wavering in the balance, Martin Luther wrote the hymn A Mighty Fortress is our God. His song was based upon Psalm 46, a hymn of God's enduring power. This psalm has provided assurance and comfort for many from generation to generation who have faced crises and struggles. It is a psalm that I, in my days as a pastor, often read to people when they were in the hospital enduring sickness or facing death. In powerful poetic images the psalm extols confidence in God, our refuge and strength in times of trouble. In his hymn Luther captured well the psalm's image of God as a mighty fortress, a bulwark against the surrounding chaos of a world on the brink.

Psalm 46 is a psalm of Zion, the city where it was believed that God dwelt and from where God ruled. It was the place of the temple, the treasury, and Israel's military stronghold. But, this Psalm of Zion doesn’t extol the security and strength of the city itself. The psalm reminds us that it is not the king in the palace, nor the priests in the temple, who brings security, order, and peace to the world. Neither church nor state is our refuge and strength. God alone is our ever present help.

The psalm is structured in three parts. Verses 1-3 assure us not to fear, even when all of creation is collapsing around us. Verses 4-7 proclaim God's presence in Zion's midst, even when surrounded by conflict and catastrophe. In verses 8-11 God calls for peace among the nations. Each section of the psalm contains a confession of confidence in God and a reassuring refrain reminding us that God is with us and is our refuge and our strength.

God is our security when the world quakes. Psalm 46 opens with the assurance that God is our refuge and our strength, an ever present help in times of trouble. There is no need to fear, even in the midst of cosmic cataclysm. The psalmist seems to paint a graphic picture of a catastrophic earthquake. Earthquakes are so powerful they cause everyone to fear. I was scared out of my wits during the big earthquake in California in 1971. It measured 7.1 on the Richter scale. One morning I woke to a deep rumbling in the earth. My bed was bouncing across the wood floor. I could hear the house creaking and moaning. Books were flying off the shelf. My mother was outside banging on my bedroom window yelling at me to get out of the house. It was like waking up to a nightmare. I prayed to God in fear. It literally felt like the end of the world.

There are times when the ground beneath us shakes and quakes and it feels like the end of our world. Metaphorically speaking, the ground on which we stand are those things which provide us with security: our welcoming nation, our rock steady church, our clean bill of health, our dependable job, our home sweet home, our reliable family and friends, our Social Security payments. These things make us feel safe and secure in the world. Then, something happens unexpectedly, like an earthshaking election, betrayal by our leaders, loss of privileges and benefits. And suddenly we feel the insecurity that many people of color have felt all their lives.

Or what happens to us to shake our security may not be something that can be measured on the Richter scale, but it may feel like a 7.1 quake in the soul. The boss calls you into the office and with eyes to the floor says, "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to lay you off." The letter reads, "Your Medicare benefits have been cut." The doctor walks into the room with a file and some x-rays and states rather stoically, "The test says it’s a malignant tumor.” Your sister calls you aside and tells you, “I overheard mom and dad say they are getting a divorce.” Dark clouds gather overhead and we shiver. Waves of mortality and breakers of insecurity crash on our shore and we tremble. The mountains of our strength rock and reel and we shake in fear.

The psalmist assures us that God is our refuge and our strength. God is ever present when our bodies fail us, our years pass into nothingness, and the vibrancy of life fades into faint memories. God is a mighty fortress where we can flee when our faith is being attacked by the swords of doubt and spears of misfortune. God is the Rock upon which we stand when the quicksand of human troubles would pull us under. God is our strength when life has wrung from us the last drop of energy we need just to make it through another day. God, that mysterious bedrock of Life, is with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an ever present help in times of trouble.

God is ever present when cities and nations rage. The psalmist pictures the nations round about Zion as being in an uproar. Kingdoms totter. The earth melts like a wax candle. The world of politics and policies, of economics and ecology is teetering on the brink of disaster. You don't have to live in ancient land of Jerusalem to understand what this is like. Those of us old enough to have lived through a World War and the Depression know how nations and economies can stagger like drunken men. Or just listen to these recent words from a pessimistic politician painting an apocalyptic picture of American carnage: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation…and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. We listen to these dark words from our new leader and envision an even worse future ahead of us and we quake with fear at a world on the brink.

We have seen leaders resign, impeached, deposed, assassinated, and countries go into economic free fall. We have watched as congressional leaders and even church leaders have stumbled and fallen. We have stood flabbergasted at wholesale lies whitewashed as “alternative facts” and pulled our hair over the blatant sexism, racism, xenophobia, islamophobia, and ableism that are being normalized. We have tasted the bitter waters of broken pipelines from industry without conscience and smelled the fumes of a world burning up its resources without limits, while rich CEOs and lucrative corporations line their pockets. With darkened vision we gaze at a world that seems to be melting into oblivion. Our hearts long for a better world, a city of God, as it were, whose foundations are sure.

It was St. Augustine who so eloquently wrote of The City of God. He put in sharp contrast the divine City of God and the earthly city of humanity. The psalmist contrasts the world where the "waters roar and foam," with a peaceful river that makes glad the city of God. God is in the midst of the city. It is God who makes its streets secure. When all we see are cul de sacs of injustice and dead end streets of beaurocracy, this vision of the city of God opens our eyes to God's presence on the highways and byways of our own earthly cities.

To look at our world, our nations, our cities, with an eye only on the earthly, darkened city is to overlook God’s shining presence within the world. It can only lead to despair. We can catch glimpses of the city of God within our earthly cities. The city of God is where justice weighs heavy on the scales, righteousness rules the city council, the weak are made strong, the wounded are healed, the hungry are fed, and people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

We have seen the city of God in the faces of Native Americans fiercely protecting their sacred waters in North Dakota. We have caught a glimpse of the city of God in black lives that matter speaking the discomforting truth to power. We have been overwhelmed by a vision of the city of God in the faces of women and men and children in countless cities across this land and around the world speaking with one voice, crying out for dignity and justice and human rights, longingly marching toward the city of God.

The city of God is governed by what rabbi Michael Lerner calls the "politics of meaning,” a reconstruction of "the world in a way which takes seriously the uniqueness and preciousness of every human being and our connection to a higher ethical and spiritual purpose that gives meaning to our lives." A river of life flows in the midst of this city. It quenches the thirst of those panting for purpose, longing for justice and peace, and calling for the celebration of life in all its shimmering diversity.

The other day I caught a glimpse of what looked like signs on the doorway to this heavenly city. These signs are particularly poignant for me in light of the executive order that led to yesterday’s detention of Muslims at American airports. These signs were in an unexpected place; my grandson’s public Middle School. There were signs posted up and down the hallways where students walked each day. They read: We welcome all races, all religions, all countries of origin, all sexual orientations, all genders. We stand with you. You are safe here.

The gates of this city are open to everyone. The spires of God's city reach into the heavens, while its foundation is rooted in the earth. God is its maker and builder. Each new day which dawns illuminates the presence of God within this city. God roams its streets with sleeves rolled up. God is hard at work tearing down the walls that divide us, filling in the potholes of inequity, and checking the flow of its life giving waters, making sure its refreshing streams flow to all people. God is working at building a New Jerusalem, a New Washington D.C., a New Salem.

So, even though the nations rage and the cities seem to be crumbling around us, God, that mysterious bedrock of Life is with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an ever present help in times of trouble.

God is our peace when strife and warfare blares its noise. In the final section of the psalm the poet invites us to come and see the things God has done upon the earth while the nations rage and their cities crumble. The carcass of buildings in Hiroshima, the flames of the L.A. riots, ashes at Ground zero in New York City all tell the tale of human folly. Our flood of handguns and semi-automatic rifles, stockpiles of nuclear weapons, FBI and CIA surveillance, and reliance upon our omnipresent US military bases around the world bear witness to our utter insecurity and our trust in human power to save us. Beyond the sands of Baghdad, above the explosions in Aleppo, and throughout the noisy halls of the Pentagon, God is shouting, "Be still and know that I am God! It is my reign of peace which shall rule the nations. I will be exalted above the earth. It is my kingdom which is to come on earth as in heaven.”

We have often taken the words "Be still and know that I am God" out of context and used it as a call to quiet meditation. Be still….meditate….contemplate. Rather, in its context, the phrase “be still” is God's command to cease war, to stop the flurry of violence and destruction. "Be still! Stop the fighting, then you will know I am God." To know God is to end our strife and warfare. “Be still” is immediately followed by the truth that God is the one “who makes wars to cease to the ends of the earth.” God snaps the M-1 rifle in two. God disables the armored tanks. God obliterates the stockpile of nuclear weapons. "Be still," says God. "Stop your fighting and know I am God."

The cry for a world without war and violence is not simply the yelling of some radical protesters with their signs waving in the urban air or the rural whispers of a minority of pacifist Mennonites. It is the roar of God above the raging nations. Be still! Stop the war and violence!

You have heard this voice crying out, haven’t you? You have heard it in the words of the prophets Isaiah and Micah, who proclaimed a day when swords will be beaten into plowshares, nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3). God's voice echoed in words of Hosea who spoke of a day when weapons and war will be abolished from the land (Hosea 2: 18). The advent angels chimed in at the birth of the Prince of Peace singing, "Peace on earth. Good will to all." You have heard this same cry in the voice of Jesus, who said, "Blessed are the peacemakers," and "Love your enemies." God's voice continued to ring in the words of Anabaptist Conrad Grebel, who reminded us that the sword and killing had ceased with the true Christian. The call for peace could be heard in the words of A.J. Muste when he said, "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." God still cries out to a warring world, "Be still, stop the war and violence, and know that I am God."

For we, the people….of faith, do not ultimately trust in leaders who fail us. We do not ultimately trust in nations that teeter on the brink. We do not ultimately trust in weapons of warfare to keep us safe. We trust in God, that mysterious bedrock of Life, who with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an ever present help in times of trouble.

This truth is worth singing. The psalmist long ago proclaimed this truth in a song. Martin Luther penned a hymn so that the truth of this psalm would ring from the rafters. Let us now sing with our voices and lives these truths of our God, a mighty fortress.

A New Psalm 46
written by Leo Hartshorn

We need not be afraid,
though oil spills blacken the seas
and volcanoes spit ash into the skies,
though the ground beneath our lives
shakes and cracks,
though tornadoes of tragedy
rip up the roots of our world,
though the seas of chaos
engulf us beneath their waves.

God is our ever present help.
God is our refuge and our strength.

The peaceful streams of God's presence
water the roots of our spirits
and flood the streets of our cities with joy.
God is always with us,
and comes to us in hours of darkness
as the dawning of a new day. Presidents and kings may cause
their petty skirmishes.
Dictators and regimes may topple
to the ground. But, when God speaks with hot breath the icy world melts.

God is our ever present help.
God is our refuge and our strength.

Take a good look
off into God's future
and see the new world
made by divine hands.
That ol’ Peacemaker
has called a halt to all wars.
See, the rifles snap over God's knee.
Behold, God smashes
stockpiles of nuclear weapons with a mighty fist
and puts the match to a fleet of stealth bombers.
God shouts over the noise of battle,
“Stop the fighting!
When the world obeys,
they will know me
as the God I am,
Lover of justice and peace.
When the world finally ceases
its warring ways,
then they will know,
I am their refuge and their strength.
I will be exalted
over all the earth.

God is our ever present help. 
God is our refuge and our strength.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Us! Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 4:16-30

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church on 1/24/16 and at Portland Mennonite Church on 1/31/16. Audio of the sermon can be found at: http://zionmennoniteoregon.org/worship-services/worship-recordings/

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

It was just another normal Sabbath day in Nazareth when ol’ Joe’s boy stood up to read scripture in his home congregation. It was like any simple Sunday at church when the reader grabs a Bible, thumbs through the pages and finds the assigned text to read for that day. There were no angels flitting about willy nilly. No bright star in the sky. No heavenly visions. No devil offering rocks for bread. No crackling of straightening limbs. No matted-hair-camel-hide-Jordan-drenched wild man screaming across a muddy river. Just a bunch of regular church-goin’ folks, like you and me, sitting in their pews waiting for the scripture to be read. That’s all they were expecting to hear. The plain, unadorned reading of their Bible. No big whoop.

If, as a young man, I had heard in my home congregation what was read on that routine Sabbath, my ears probably would have tingled. It seems to me that back in my younger years the kind of text that Jesus read must have been cut out of our Bible, or at least the Bible I heard in church. You see, my home congregation was deep fried in the Southern evangelical tradition. We knew the Bible from “civer to civer,” could quote chapter and verse. But strangely enough, rarely, if ever, was anyone assigned to stand on a Sunday morning and read the text for the day. And the texts that were read and preached upon were usually chosen randomly by the pastor, that is, if they were of the John 3:16 or Roman Road variety. And our response to the word was consistently a long, drawn out plea for sinners to come forward, with every head bowed and every eye closed and just one more excruciating verse of Just As I Am. You could expect to hear about how to get to heaven and avoid the scorching heat, and I’m not talking California desert, on any given Sunday. So, to have heard about good news for the poor, liberation for the captives, and freedom for the oppressed, would have probably sounded like Chinese at Pentecost! I mean, it would have been as foreign and as scary as that ol’ boogey man we called “the social gospel.”

But, these weren’t Southern evangelicals in Jesus’ home congregation. They were traditional kosher Jews. But like the evangelicals of my upbringing, they knew their scripture. And like those evangelicals they considered the scripture holy, sacred, God’s very word, to be heard and followed. Difference is that most people in Jesus’ day were part of oral cultures where only a few could read. They had to learn and remember their sacred scripture by heart, through word of mouth. And from our story today, it appears that Jesus was one of the few in his home congregation who could read the text on that Sabbath day.

The synagogue attendant hands Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. In our Christian imaginations we might picture Jesus with a glowing gold halo behind his head as he semi-floats to the podium to read from the scroll. We would like to imagine that he had a deep, commanding James Earl Jones voice with a British accent. But, when he starts reading he sounds like he has a plain ol’ Nazareth twang like e’rybody else. Most likely what he read was an assigned text in a cycle of readings for that particular Sabbath, like our lectionary reading for today.

With prayer shawl over his head and every eye glued upon him, Jesus begins reading:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

There were no social-gospel gasps, no ears burning at Isaiah’s prophetic message of social justice. The reading was as welcome as it would be at a progressive Mennonite Church listening to one of their own preaching on the same text. There was no noise of protest at such a liberating message. Just the sound of the scroll being rolled up and Jesus handing it back to the hazzan or synagogue attendant and sitting down. No big whoop.

I could expound on how Jesus cut off his reading right before the verse that speaks of the “vengeance of our God.” And I could further elucidate on how Jesus creatively interpreted scripture through a lens of nonviolence, but I would only digress. Instead, I will turn to the longing eyes that are fixed on Jesus. These eyes are wet with the hopes of release from their captivity to the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. These eyes blink bewildered by their own bigotry. These eyes search for signs of freedom from the impoverishment and sickness of an oppressed people. These eyes weep for that day when God’s grace and favor will pour down like rain on parched land. These eyes are fixed upon Jesus as he takes his seat.

Now, this was no ordinary sitting, like a 60s “sit in” was no ordinary sitting. In Jesus’ context sitting was the position that the teacher took in the synagogue. Scripture was read standing. Exposition or explanation was done seated. Their eyes are fixed upon Jesus because they’re eagerly waiting for him to exegete, expound upon, and interpret the scripture for them and their day, like a Rabbi or teacher. Jesus has no long speech. His commentary is short and sweet. He simply says: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Hmmm. Now, what in heaven’s name does that mean?

Well, we know what it means for us. We have the advantage of 2000 years of hind sight. We know that Luke placed this story at the opening of his gospel as a way of encapsulating the whole of Jesus’ ministry. So, we need not resist the truth that the “social gospel” of justice and human liberation are at the very heart of Jesus’ mission. We know Luke will focus his gospel and its sequel, the book of Acts, on the poor, women, outsiders, and the goyim, Gentiles or non-Jews. We know that this story fits into the larger picture of Luke’s gospel in which the message and mission of Christ begins among his own people but ends up spreading out across the whole world among all peoples.

We also know that Jesus is taking on the role of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, as he reads “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Isn’t it obvious to us that Jesus is speaking about himself? Well, at least to us. The text is no longer about the Spirit anointed prophet during the days of Israel’s exile or some obscure figure who will eventually come to enact these signs of God’s coming reign. For us, Isaiah’s words are about Jesus. And we, unlike those who are hearing these words from Jesus’s lips for the first time, recognize that he is applying Isaiah’s words to himself. Jesus dares to take the words of scripture and make them about his life, his mission, his day and time. What a wild and daring idea Jesus enacts! Taking these ancient words of scripture and applying them to himself and his mission in his contemporary world. What a revolutionary thought! I wonder what that would mean for us to do the same. I wonder.

Through his baptism Jesus has been anointed as God’s prophet. The Spirit is upon him to bring good news to the anawim, the poor, up to 90% of agrarian peasant societies; proclaim liberation to the captives, in Isaiah’s day those bound in debtor’s prison; sight to the blind, both physically and spiritually; freedom for the oppressed, economically and politically; and to proclaim the time of God’s favor, rather than God’s vengeance. God’s new age begins at that very moment. Jesus’ presence on that day in the synagogue inaugurates the coming kingdom of liberation for all God’s people! In response to the words of Jesus we might expect those in the synagogue to shout, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” Hallelujah!

But, there are no shouts of “Hallelujah!” or “preach it, brother!” not even a “Thank you, Jesus…for reading the scripture this morning.” The words that describe the response to Jesus are as plain as an Amish meeting on a Sunday morning: All spoke well of him. Don’t they fathom the depth of the words that Jesus just spoke? Not only does God bring liberation and justice for their ancestors in exile, but for them starting right here and right now! Doesn’t his revolutionary message register?

I imagine their response was kind of like the compliments a typical preacher hears on a Sunday morning after the sermon as church people file out of the building and give the preacher that obligatory handshake: “Sir, that was a rather interesting interpretation of scripture, very articulate.” “Pastor, that’s one of my favorite Bible verses. I could listen to it all day long.” “Nice sermon, preacher. I heard every word. Boy, you sure know how to stick it to those people!” And they were all amazed at his gracious words.

There was no “Finally, the Messiah has come!” or “Justice and liberation are at our doorstep!” or “God’s reign has now begun!” They simply said…. “Ain’t that ol’ Joe’s boy?” He’s just one of us local yokels. Why, his pappy done built a crib for my eldest daughter. He went to school with Ezra’s boy, didn’t he? Ahh, he’s no big whoop!

Jesus must have intuited what was on the people’s minds and hearts when he responded: I suspect you will quote to me that old folk saying, “Doc, cure yourself.” Jesus, why not perform some miracles among your own people. It’s like they didn’t get a word Jesus said. My mission is about justice and God’s reign, beginning here and now. And you ask for signs, miracles? My mission is not about turning stones into bread or being able to leap off tall buildings with a single bound.

Doctor heal yourself. Do some miraculous razzle dazzle among your own people, Jesus, like you did in Capernaum. Jesus perceives that their concern is more about healing and signs for themselves, than it is about the reign of God for all people here and now. They don’t catch what his presence implies or the broader meaning of God’s reign.

But, Jesus doesn’t break out into a fiery, John the Baptist rant against his own people. Jesus speaks as a prophet, but in a rather oblique way, at an angle. What Jesus does seems rather innocuous on the surface. And yet, he’s about to explode all their narrow-minded, parochial views to kingdom come by telling stories. Hidden inside his storytelling is a Trojan horse, as dangerous and explosive as a stick of dynamite in a nursery rhyme. He basically tells them treacherous stories, volatile stories from their own sacred scripture, God’s holy Word, to be heard and followed.

Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you…” Better watch out when Jesus uses those words. I first heard those words in good old inspired King James English: Verily, verily, I say unto thee… That meant something significant was about to be said by Jesus, so listen up, people! Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. Jesus’ friends, neighbors, community, his own people seem to take him for granted and end up rejecting him, especially when he speaks as a prophet of God’s inclusive, liberating reign right here and now.

Then, Jesus grabs hold of a couple of tough-as-leather stories from their own holy scriptures, like two boxing gloves. These were stories they knew by heart, or should I rather say, stories they knew by head. These stories were like a one-two punch in the gut! Ding. Ding. Round One. Jesus floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee! He winds up. There were many in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine in the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. Holy Jesus, what did you just say? While God’s own people are hungry, the prophet Elijah shows God’s grace to a woman, a widow, a foreigner, a non-Jew who lived among the worshippers of Baal? Pow! I imagine the heads of Jesus’ listeners were reeling, wobbling, and spinning, as they hung on the ropes about to hit the mat. And our heads are spinning trying to think of what this possibly might mean for us today.

Without hesitation, Jesus goes in for the knockout punch. Ding. Ding. Round 2. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. What did you say, Jesus? Did you say Syrian? Jesus, are you serious? Is this just some odd coincidence or do you mean Syrian as in (gulp) Syrian refugees? O Lord, show us, what in the world this scripture might possibly mean for us today?

Let me chew on this for a minute. Does this mean God’s message may not be welcomed even by God’s own people? Could people, like me, who call themselves “Christians” not really get what Jesus is saying, like when he says, “Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you”? That’s not fair, Lord. I’m on your side. I just want to see you give those right wing bigots what’s comin’ to them! It’s time for God’s vengeance! Are we unable to recognize the face of Jesus in the poor and the prisoner, the unwelcomed and the undocumented? Jesus, are you implying that you may need to take your healing grace to people who are not your own people?

Lord, I’m still searching for what this might mean for us right here and right now. Do you mean God may favor people from another country over the U.S.? God forbid! Lord, haven’t you heard that we are exceptional, a Christian nation? Jesus, do you mean God’s favor might sometimes fall upon another faith other than Christian? No way! Becoming a Christian is the only way to receive God’s favor. And how about me, Lord, your servant? I didn’t spend all these many years in Christian ministry with all its struggles for you to just turn around and say you’re showing your favor to someone else! That’s not fair! Lord, could this word mean that today God might be acting for the benefit of another race other than us white folks? Surely, not! All Lives Matter! And how could that be since it’s mostly us white folks who are here in this congregation on any given Sunday listening to Jesus’ message? All the while, do those of us listening to Jesus’ words fully comprehend their meaning for ourselves and our own context?

What is the reaction of God’s people to Jesus’ words? Nice sermon, preacher. That’s a rather interesting take on that scripture, sir. No. No. No. When they heard, all in the synagogue were filled with red, hot, boiling, rage! Why were his people so enraged? Was it simply because Jesus implied that his own people aren’t really grasping the full import of his message and not welcoming him? Yes, but I think it was more than that. Jesus was proclaiming that God is graciously working in healing ways that transcend God’s own people by bringing good news, liberation, freedom, grace and favor to others, like the Canaanite widow and Naaman the Syrian. Or we could add from Luke’s continuing story, the Ethiopian eunuch (possibly a gay, black man) or Cornelius the centurian (a Roman military soldier) or Lydia the business woman (probably a leader of a local synagogue of women). God only knows where divine healing grace and transforming favor will end up.

How did Jesus’ home congregation react to this message? They reacted like a mob of “radicalized Christians” at a rally of a certain politician when they saw a Muslim woman wearing a hijab silently standing with this message printed like words of Jesus on her t-shirt “Salam. I come in peace.” They reacted like the crowd that encountered a black man at their rally who openly proclaimed the message, “Black Lives Matter!” They got up and drove Jesus out of town. They took him on a loooooong walk off a short cliff, a cliff that oddly enough looked like the shadow of a cross, or should I say, a foreshadow…of the cross that was to come.

The difference for us well-mannered, peace-loving Christians today is that we probably wouldn’t become enraged and try to shove Jesus off a cliff. If you’re like me, you don’t want to openly offend anyone. So, we might simply clench our teeth, give him a limp handshake and with a smirk on our face say, “Nice sermon, Jesus,” and go on our mad and merry way. No crucifixion; at least for this moment. Somehow Jesus passes through the midst of the angry mob and goes on his way.

And when he went on his way, where did he end up? Christ ended up on an old rugged cross, the emblem of….state torture and terrorism. Christ ended up in a dark Saturday tomb. Christ ended up on a bright Sunday triumphing over the oppressive forces that snuffed out the candle of his life. Christ ended up bringing light and life to people of all races, gender identities, sexual orientations, national origins, political persuasions, and economic circumstances. Christ ended up within the sacred scriptures of his own people which beckon us to truly hear and follow his word. Christ ended up inspiring movements of liberation, freedom, justice, peace, and equality across the globe. Christ ended up transforming hearers and believers into followers and advocates engaged in the ways of God’s reign in their own lives. Christ ended up embodied in his forgiven people, followers of Jesus’ way, who seek to live out his life-giving, liberating word in the world in which they find themselves. They, like Jesus, dare to take upon themselves his words for their own time and context with whatever risk and danger may come their way.

We are these very followers of the Risen Christ, baptized by water and Spirit. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because we have been anointed to bring good news to the poor! Here and now! The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, to proclaim liberation to the captives! Here and now! The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, to give insight into God’s healing work in the world! Here and now! The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, to free the oppressed! Here and now! The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because we have been anointed to proclaim that now is the time of God’s favor for all of God’s children. Here and now! Truly, truly I say unto you, my people, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us! Here…. and….now!

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s holy Word.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Interpreting the Bible for Discipleship: Matthew 7:21-29; Luke 8:21; James 1:22


*This was my last sermon at Albany Mennonite Church presented on October 26, 2014

 Sola fide! That was the cry of Martin Luther and the Reformation. We are justified before God by faith alone, sola fide, without works. This doctrine had a profound effect upon how Luther read the apostle Paul, the book of James, and the rest of the Bible. His belief in sola fide led him to call the book of James “an epistle of straw.” He felt this scarecrow of a book contradicted Paul’s teaching of salvation by faith alone. Although Luther once commented that he would like to “throw Jimmy in the stove,” he didn’t remove the book of James from his Bible. He did detach it from its usual order and place it as an appendix at the end of his German Bible translation.

The Anabaptists had a different understanding of the Bible from Luther and the Reformers. They appreciated the book of James. Their cry was not sola fide! It was nachfolge Christi, that is, following Christ or discipleship. Although they believed in justification by faith through God’s grace, they called for a faith inextricably tied to good works, as did Jesus and James. And they used James as an argument against what they viewed as a justification for “cheap grace” by the Reformers, that is, grace devoid of a life that gives evidence of one’s faith.

The Reformers and the Anabaptists interpreted the Bible differently, particularly concerning their understandings of “works” or practicing the faith. How one understands and practices discipleship can have a profound effect on how one interprets the Bible.

Each of the texts we read this morning promotes the priority of practice. If Martin Luther had a hard time with the teaching of James, he should also have had a hard time with the teaching of Jesus. And I suspect that most evangelicals will swallow hard at Jesus’ words. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has some strong words for those who simply confess him as “Lord.”  Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one does the will of my Father in heaven. It appears that Jesus doesn’t put too much stock in confessions of faith devoid of works or doing God’s will.

In the book of James it says that the devil believes the Word so much that he trembles. That’s “shakeable” faith! Jesus places a priority upon the “unshakeable” faith of hearing and doing God’s Word, not just believing and confessing it. But, this has nothing to do with salvation, says Mr. Luther and the evangelicals. Well, then, what about the part of the text that mentions “entering the kingdom of heaven”? According to Jesus entering the kingdom of heaven requires more than confession. Entering the kingdom of heaven requires following God’s will.  Confession also calls for “procession,” that is, following God’s will. Faith includes faithfulness. This doesn’t mean that we merit our own salvation, but that real faith is proven by faithfulness.

If we look at the next paragraph, Jesus goes on to liken the person who hears his words and does not act upon them as being like someone who builds their house upon the sand, which crumbles when the rains fall and the winds blow. Hearing the Word of God and doing nothing with it is not a stable foundation for a spiritual house. Simply confessing and believing isn’t a strong enough foundation. Hearing the Word alone is a house built on sand.

Is this some isolated teaching of Jesus about faith being inextricably tied to practice? Can’t we just stick this text in the back of our Protestant Bibles and forget it’s even in there? No. It’s at the heart of Jewish faith and the tradition of Jesus.

If you want to know how important this teaching was for Jesus, just remember what he said to his own flesh and blood, his mother and brothers. He was surrounded by a crowd of people and his family wanted to see him, so they asked for him. Now, anyone who promotes supposed “traditional Christian family values” ought to plug their ears at this point. Okay, are you ready? Jesus had different values from most of those who spout “traditional family values.” Traditional family values were not a priority for Jesus. If it was, why didn’t he have his own family? Jesus was something of an oddball for his day; a single, unmarried man with no children to carry on his name. And what he said about his family should gag those who pound the bully pulpit about traditional family values. By the way, the Bible is crammed full of non-traditional families.

Jesus said to those relaying his family’s request to see him, “My mother and my brothers are those who…have a working father, head of the household, a mother who stays at home, raises the children, cooks the meals, and is submissive to her husband, and they have a quiver full of disciplined children from the Lord.” No, Jesus didn’t say that! This wasn’t even the case for most families during the idealized 1950s. Jesus said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God anddo it.” I think I just heard James Dobson fall flat on the floor!

There it is again. Practicing the faith. Discipleship. Following Jesus. That’s what makes up Jesus’ family. Not those who have traditional, nuclear, heterosexual marriages and families. And not just those who simply hear the word, or who just confess it and believe it. But, those who are in Jesus family hear the Word of Godand do it!

Well, let’s turn to that rather strawy epistle of James. James states the relationship between faith and action in rather blunt terms. No beating around the bush. James says, “Faith without works is dead.” For him works of care and compassion are like the animating spirit in the human body. Without it the body is dead. Without these kinds of works, faith is as dead as a door nail. James asks, “If you have faith but do not have works, can faith save you?” Now, Martin Luther would be yelling, “YES!!” For James faith and works are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other. But, doesn’t Jesus say the same thing, just with different images. Hearing the Word alone is like a house built on sand. The person who confesses Jesus as “Lord,” does not enter the kingdom of God, but the one who does the will of God. And Jesus’ true family is those who hear the Word of God and do it.

Performing the faith is essential to what faith means. We should think of faith as more than believing in the heart and confessing with the mouth. Think of faith in terms of faithfulness. Faithfulness is action, evidence of life, movement, discipleship. No one is talking here about saving ourselves by all the things we do for God. We are saved by God’s grace. That was the case even for Jews in the OT. They didn’t consider salvation a matter of their observance of the law. They were saved by God’s grace. Obedience to the law was part of their covenant with God. What we are talking about here is real faith evidenced by real faithfulness in real lives in the here and now. Faith that works. New birth evidenced by living as if we were born again. Salvation evidenced by living a saved life. Hearing the Word of God and doing it. Discipleship evidenced by following Jesus.

I grew up in a faith tradition that emphasized believing over performing the faith. Faith was about accepting Jesus into your heart, confessing him publicly, with the assurance that you would go to heaven. Our duty as Christians was to share the good news, in a type of 4 easy step formula, which led to their “being saved.” In my congregation there was little talk of discipleship or the ongoing life of following Jesus. So, when I heard this following story, I immediately recognized a different perspective that shaped the Anabaptist tradition. As someone from an evangelical background, who was new to the Anabaptist tradition, hearing this story was a kind of “aha!” moment for me.

As the story goes, a young evangelical meets an Amish man in Lancaster County, PA. The young evangelical asks the Amish man, “Sir, are you saved?” The Amish man takes off his straw hat, scratches his head, and then pulls aside his suspenders grabbing a pencil and paper in his pocket. The young evangelical looks at the Amish man rather oddly as he scratches out something on his piece of paper. He’s probably thinking to himself, “Why can’t this man just give me a simple answer?” “Well, sir, are you saved?” the young evangelical asks again rather impatiently. The Amish man hands the young evangelical the piece of paper and says rather humbly, “Go ask these people.” Aha!

For the young evangelical “being saved” was more about whether or not he had said the “sinners prayer” or “followed the Roman road” or “confessed Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior” and was “assured that he was on his way to heaven after his death.” For the Amish man “being saved” was about whether or not there was evidence of being saved in the life that he lived day by day. And that required witnesses. His was a faith that needed to be seen in his life. Faith confirmed by faithfulness. Hearing the Word and doing it. Following in the way of Jesus.  

Okay, but what does this have to do with interpreting the Bible? Discipleship is not only the proper response to hearing the Word, it is a prerequisite for an appropriate interpretation of scripture. Anabaptist scholars refer to this as a “hermeneutic of obedience.” By that they mean, interpretation of scripture requires obedience. Not only is obedience a key element for living the Christian life, but a precondition for rightly interpreting scripture. The Anabaptists were not proposing any complex, scholarly methodology for biblical interpretation. For the early Anabaptists interpretation was not about methodology, but about obedience. They proposed the simple truth that anyone willing to obey what Christ has said could understand the Bible.

Anabaptists believed that the Bible was not that hard to understand. The hard part was putting it into practice. Even the phrase “following Jesus” may sound simple, until we realize that the way of Jesus leads to the cross! For Anabaptists the willingness to suffer was an element of rightly interpreting the message of Christ. Anabaptist Pilgrim Marpeck stressed that interpreters should not explain the meaning of scripture without taking responsibility to apply it. Interpretation was not merely the practice of finding the truth in the Bible, but practicing it. Knowing the Bible backwards and forwards and having the right doctrine was clearly not as important to the Anabaptists as radically living by scripture in one’s life.

This principle of a “hermeneutics of obedience” is reflected in the popular saying of Anabaptist Hans Denck: No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life. Knowing Christ is not simply a matter of believing or confessing Christ. Knowing Christ is bound up with following him in one’s life. So, in like manner, for the Anabaptists no one could truly know scripture, unless they followed Christ as revealed in scripture. Hearing the Word and doing it was an essential Anabaptist view of the Bible and what it meant to know Christ or be a Christian.

So, I hope you have heard the Word of God through something I have shared about scripture and interpretation over these past 8 weeks. But more importantly than hearing the Word of God, I hope your heart is set on following in the way of Jesus as revealed in scripture. If you remember nothing else, remember this: Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and do it. If reading, memorizing, studying, and interpreting scripture remains in the head or even just the heart, it has not accomplished its ultimate goal. The purpose and function of the Bible as scripture is to become fully embodied in our lives. Its role is to shape us as a people into the likeness of Christ. Its role is to lead us further along the way of following Jesus.

God’s invitation to all who have ears to hear is to come and follow Jesus. Confession and profession are followed by procession. God invites you who may have not yet committed yourselves to follow in the way of Jesus to join in the procession. Not just hearing the Word, but doing it in your daily life. Build your spiritual house with a solid foundation that can face the storms of life. God’s invitation is to you who have been sidetracked and gotten off on some side road of focusing upon yourselves, your family, your friends, or your career to renew your faith and faithfulness by re-joining the procession of following Jesus. God’s invitation to you who have sought to faithfully live for Christ is to be encouraged and strengthened to continue on the long journey of following Jesus.

I would invite each person here today to respond to God’s invitation with your bodies. Following Jesus is a metaphor of a journey through life and it suggests something we do with our bodies. Following is not static. It involves movement. So, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you are invited to affirm your desire to follow Jesus by standing, singing out with joy, clapping your hands, dancing, embracing one another, shaking a hand, raising your arms, or following me in a procession around this sanctuary. You decide how to respond to the invitation with your bodies. Whatever your response, remember, we are celebrating our commitments to hear the Word of God and do it, to follow in the costly, but joyful way of Jesus! Amen? Amen!

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Interpreting the Bible for Social Transformation: Luke 4:16-30; Matthew 5:38-48; Ephesians 5:21-25, 6:5-9

*This sermon was presented at Albany Mennonite Church on October 19, 2014 to numerous amens!
I was inspired to read the Bible for social transformation through the influence of, believe it or not, an atheist. It was the early 80s during the Reagan years when the US was involved in conflicts in Central America. These conflicts had already been going on for a long time with the US backing dictators and their oppressive regimes. To address this political and economic oppression, the Latin American Catholic church created a new form of theology known as liberation theology. This atheist friend, who worked with my wife Iris, was interested in what the church was doing in Central America to resist the injustices and liberate the people from political oppression. An atheist introduced me to liberation theology. I am forever thankful to God for placing an atheist in my path.

One of the first books I read in liberation theology had a title that grabbed hold of my imagination: Thy Will Be Done: Praying the Our Father as a Subversive Activity. I was inspired to read Gustavo Guttierrez’ classic A Theology of Liberation and many other books on liberation theology. My new awareness led me read the Bible with a new lens and to get involved locally in the resistance movement against the oppressive US policies toward Latin American during the Reagan years. For me, reading the Bible for social transformation or liberation is a critical practice of interpretation of the Bible for the times in which we live.

Did you know that Jesus interpreted the Bible for social transformation? Jesus inaugurated his ministry by going to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Luke places this story at the outset of his ministry so that it defines the character of Jesus’ mission. Jesus was handed the scroll of Isaiah by a synagogue attendant. Of all the texts to read from the scroll, he chose to read from Isaiah 61. He read this: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to…(anointed=Christ, Messiah) and the reading goes on to define the center of Jesus’ ministry as bringing good news to the poor, liberation to the oppressed, freeing those in debtor’s prison, healing those physically and spiritually blind, and proclaiming  the day of God’s favor. That sounds like a politically conservative’s nightmare! The social gospel is good news? Lord, help us! O, but Jesus is not through yet. It gets worse…or better, depending on your social and political viewpoint.

Jesus also does something interesting by what he chooses not to quote from Isaiah. He leaves out the text that immediately follows about the “vengeance of God.” Jesus doesn’t view the day he inaugurates as a day of vengeance, but of God’s favor. I believe his omission was intentional. Jesus was creatively re-interpreting scripture through a non-violent lens.

So, Jesus read scripture with a mission and mindset for peace and social justice, the agenda of a prophet, things that are not on the top of our government’s agenda, and not on the agenda of most Christians for that matter. But, peace and social justice are at the heart of Jesus’ mission!

Then, Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. That was the position for interpreting the scripture. Every eye was glued on him, waiting for his interpretation of the text. Jesus looked around at his people and said: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. That’s his interpretation. Short and sweet. The prophet is speaking about me! Hold on Jesus! This sounds like the age of the messiah has come. Your fellow Jews are not going to like that. Following his interpretation there’s a rather surprising response….All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. What?! Did anyone hear what Jesus just said? Maybe they were just adjusting their hearing aids or just being nice, like when you shake the preacher’s hand after a fiery, prophetic sermon and say, “Nice, uh, sermon, pastor (gulp).”

But, the tone of their conversation soon began to change. Maybe what he said began to sink in. Isn’t this ol’ Joe’s boy. No big whoop. Jesus read their minds and said: Well, I’ll bet you want to quote that old saying “Doctor, cure your own family?” Do right here what you did in Capernaum. You can tell Jesus is about to get worked up into a fiery, prophetic sermon. But, instead he simply hands them some exploding stories from their own scriptures.

If you don’t like the words of a prophet, then you won’t like my words either. No prophet is accepted in his hometown. And here are a couple of stories of prophets to chew on for a while.  There were many hungry widows in Israel in the prophet Elijah’s day, but God sent Elijah only to a widow at Zarephath, a foreigner. And there were a slew of lepers in Israel in the days of the prophet Elisha, but none were cleansed but Naaman, the Syrian, another foreigner. So, what makes you think you’re so special? Well, uh, American exceptionalism, of course?

This story of Jesus is a microcosm of the story of Luke-Acts with the gospel starting in the synagogue and moving to the nations. Nevertheless, Jesus’ own people had become blinded by their xenophobia, the fear of the stranger and foreigner. They were supposed to be  exclusively chosen of God. So then, the smiles and back pats turned into angry scowls and clenched fists. They decided to take this radical Bible reader on a long walk off a short cliff!

Oddly enough, those in the synagogue didn’t appear to be bothered by Jesus’ biblical interpretation in which he seemed to apply messianic ideas to himself. Today this scripture has been fulfilled. Maybe he wasn’t being clear enough. But, what he said afterwards was as clear as a bell!  Talk about God healing and caring for foreigners and outsiders over us? That’s blasphemy! (Even though it was there in black and white in their own scriptures).

Buddy, that kind of dangerous talk can get you killed. Saying “God loves strangers and foreigners” right in the middle of a we’re-proud-to-be-an-American house of worship can get you strung up! That’s as dangerous as shouting “I have ebola” on a crowded airplane. It’s like saying “God blesses Buddhists” in a conservative church service. Or saying “God embraces gays” at a Mennonite convention. It’s as dangerous as saying out loud at a fourth of July rally, “God loves Muslims!” Hey, Mr. Bible interpreter, let me show you the view from this nice cliff nearby.

Through his interpretation of scripture Jesus informed his people, right from the get go, that his mission was going to be about peace, healing, reconciliation, economic and social justice, inclusion of the stranger, foreigner, and outsider. He broke down ethnic, social, and cultural walls with God’s inclusive love. Jesus interpreted the Bible for social transformation. Are you still with me?

Jesus also read his Bible with an eye toward nonviolent peacemaking. What may seem implicit about peace by leaving out a part of his quotation from Isaiah, Jesus makes explicit in his so-called “sermon” on the mount. Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses, who proclaims a new law on the mountain. Jesus creatively re-interprets the scripture of his people for peace and social transformation. Again, he uses scripture to address a social issue.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We’ve heard it and we love it. We love this law more than we love Chuck Norris! We love it so much, we use it in our justice system. Tit for tat justice. It is the law of lex talionis or law of retaliation, by which justice is meted out as the same degree of punishment as the offense. Except, if you’re a black man in the US, then it’s 10-20 years in the slammer for smoking a joint.

Believe it or not, this Mosaic law of an eye for an eye was a step forward from the cultural practice of unlimited retribution, which goes; Yous knock my tooth out and I’ll make you toothless! Kapeesh! Or you kill someone you get the chair, but no more. This Mosaic law put a limit on retaliation. Unlimited vengeance was the practice before the law. It is expressed by Lamech in Genesis. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times! Sound familiar? “How many times should we forgive, seven times?” asks Peter? Jesus said, “Seventy-seven times.” In other words, until it becomes a fixed habit! Jesus transforms unlimited retaliation into unlimited forgiveness. There you go again, Jesus, taking our violent social practices and turning them on their heads.

In this case, Jesus goes further than the tit-for-tat law, extending the trajectory of its movement, creatively re-interpreting scripture for the sake of nonviolence and social transformation. But, at the same time, Jesus is taking some liberties with sacred scripture in his interpretation. He is definitely not a literalist when it comes to his approach to interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus’ repeated formula, “The Bible says that…but I say this,” should cause any biblical literalist to pull out their hair!

In essence Jesus is saying, Remember Moses’ law about an eye for an eye? Well, I’ve got a better law. What? A better law than Moses, who spoke face-to-face with God? Jesus, do you think you’re better than Moses? I say to you don’t fight fire with fire, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, tit for tat. Instead, if someone gives you backhanded slap on the left cheek to try to put you in a class beneath them, stand up tall and offer them your other cheek as an equal. If your creditor takes the coat you have given as security for your loan, give him your clothes down to your skivvies to expose his injustice. If a Roman soldier forces you to carry his load for the required mile limit, carry it two miles and make him a little nervous about his oppressive practices. This doesn’t sound like being a passive dormat, but more like active nonviolent resistance!

Jesus goes on: The Bible says love you neighbor…and…uh…well we have interpreted the Bible to say….hate your enemy. But I say unto you, “Love the Muslims and pray for ISIS”…What? I mean, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And if that wasn’t hard enough to swallow, Jesus turns God into some kind of bleeding-heart liberal who sends the many blessings of his creation upon both good and bad, grateful and ungrateful, black, brown, yellow, red, and white people alike. Do you mean God offers unconditional universal welfare?  And if that still wasn’t enough, Jesus says that to be like God we need to love those who don’t love us as a sure test of real love. Why, anyone can love a red-blooded, white American Christian with proper documents.

Jesus Christ, what happened to an eye for an eye? Jesus Christ….that’s what happened. Jesus got hold of the scripture and read it in such a way that if it were truly practiced the way he read it, it would dramatically transform the social, religious, and political landscape of this here so-called “Christian nation” of ours and the world. Are you still with me? Jesus interpreted scripture with a lens of nonviolent peacemaking.

Today, as followers of Jesus we can interpret the Bible with a lens for social transformation. Yeah, but what about those texts we read from Ephesians about slaves and women being submissive to their masters? Those texts don’t sound very transformative. They sound socially backward.

I can almost hear some white person saying: Well, we ended slavery a long time ago. Today we’ve got a black president and Oprah Winfrey. The command for slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling no longer applies to us. We live in a post-racial society. Besides, slavery in the Bible was different from US slavery. And slaves in the South didn’t have it so bad. They were treated well and were happy. Anyway, those texts are from a culture when slavery was considered okay. We no longer think like that. We can’t take what the Bible says here literally.

Well, folks, we once did! We once did! These slavery texts were literally used by Christians to justify enslaving black Africans not that long ago in US history. These texts were interpreted literally as God’s Word and used to keep slaves docile, submissive, and obedient to their masters, even the harsh ones! We ended up fighting a bloody civil war over our differing views on slavery! Thank God, the anti-slavery position won out and our society was transformed….to a small degree.

History and society may have changed, but did what the Bible say change? No. Those slavery texts are still in there. What changed was how the Bible was interpreted. Many black slaves, who had become Christians through their masters, along with white abolitionists, simply ignored these slavery texts or they interpreted them as cultural artifacts or they focused on other texts like God freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt (Go down Moses!). Or they turned to the Golden rule or texts about how God loves the whole world and is no respecter of persons. They re-interpreted the Bible for social transformation!

Most Christians today have taken hold of what were once subversive biblical interpretations by those who believed in and worked for the end of slavery. Today we nonchalantly say, “How could Christians back then have ever used the Bible to justify slavery? Unthinkable.” But, we must remember that these differing interpretations were once hotly debated. There was no one universal interpretation of those slavery texts that everyone agreed upon. The church was split over slavery, kind of like the church is currently split over how to treat LGBT people, as brothers and sisters or “foreigners”? And yet, today there are hardly any Christians that would claim that these biblical texts justify slavery, or even racial discrimination, outside of a few racist bigots. A social transformation took place that allowed the majority of Christians to re-read these texts in a new light, like Jesus and early church re-read the OT law. But, at the time of slavery, to ignore or re-interpret these slave texts was a subversive act.

Then, we come to the text in Ephesians about wives submitting to their husbands. I can almost hear the voice of a young woman saying, “My husband is not my master!” And another older woman thinking to herself, “I just skip over those texts in the Bible.” Another woman murmurs under her breath, “I never did like Paul.” And probably some man is thinking, “Well, the text actually says, right there, Husbands, love your wives like Christ loved the church. Where does it say anything about submission? Tell me that. Edith, get over here right now and show me where it says that!” These texts don’t appear to be very liberating for women.

Remember context from last week? These household codes in Ephesians are set within a larger context of ancient Mediterranean cultures, when women were not only to be submissive to husbands, but were considered men’s property. Ever been to a wedding where the father “gave away” the bride? This is a symbolic vestige of that old patriarchal idea. The father owned the daughter and transferred that property over to the husband in marriage. Otherwise, why would one of the Ten Commandments forbid coveting of your neighbor’s property; house, ox, donkey, and….you got it….wife! Ephesians may be a step forward by telling husbands to love their wives, but the husband is still the head of the wife like Christ is head over the church. You can’t get around that it still says: Wives are to be subject to their husbands in everything. My wife would disown me if I quoted this verse to her!

Well, along comes another historical moment of social transformation. The women’s suffrage movement in the 1800s, when women fought….I’ll say it again….fought long and hard simply for their right to vote. Blacks were free by then, but black men and women didn’t have the right to vote until very recently. At that time Elizabeth Cady Stanton and 26 other women re-interpreted the Bible with women in mind by writing The Women’s Bible, which was discouraged by Susan B. Anthony and denounced by other women suffragists. Still, it became a popular book. Then, a new wave of women’s liberation burst forth in society in the 1960’s. Women called for full equal rights. Christian women began re-interpreting the Bible with a women’s liberation lens, that is re-interpreting the Bible for social transformation, which continues to this day. And I suspect that most people in this congregation have been shaped to some degree by these movements and the Christian women who re-interpreted those biblical texts about women not teaching men and women keeping silent in the church. How do I know this happened? You see, I just happen to know the gender of your pastor.

So, whether some of us acknowledge it or not, like Jesus, we have practiced or accepted re-interpreting the Bible in such a way that it supports social transformation. While at the same time there are those who will continue to interpret scripture so that it becomes bad news for the poor, imprisons the captives, blinds the sighted, supports the oppressor, and proclaims the time of God’s vengeance.  I say, let us not wait until society is transformed around us and then begin to read the Bible through a liberating lens. I say, let us follow in the way of Jesus and be proactive and intentional in our interpretation of the Bible and read it for liberation, deliverance, hope, justice, inclusion, peace and social justice, and to break down the walls of discrimination, inequity, and oppression in our world. Are you still with me? Let us do this until that moment when we can say with Jesus, today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!

The Spirit of Christ is upon us
because Christ has anointed us
to proclaim good news to the poor
release to the captives
sight to the blind
liberation to the oppressed
and to proclaim the time of God’s favor! Amen and Amen!


There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s holy Word.