Have You Never Read the Scriptures?

what is the bible

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 8, 2017 as an introduction to a book study of Rob Bell’s, “What is the Bible?” 

Deuteronomy 34:7,  Isaiah 43:18-21

Matthew 21:33-46

I was recently talking to a church member about an issue in the morning’s headlines. Though we had differing opinions, the conversation was respectful. At some point I shared a Bible story about Jesus that seemed like a helpful way to frame the issue we were discussing. He all but rolled his eyes. It was obvious that for him, the biblical reference was irrelevant, meaningless, maybe even ridiculous. I was disappointed though not surprised. Even for lifelong Christians and every-Sunday church members, the Bible can seem peripheral to our day-to-day lives.

In the Bible passage from Matthew Jesus tells a parable of wicked tenants that is meant to criticize the leadership of the religious authorities. When it becomes apparent that the chief priests and Pharisees have missed his point entirely, Jesus responds, “Have you never read the scriptures?” He then quotes from one of the Psalms to strengthen his argument against these powerful Jewish leaders. Jesus is challenging them to hear their ancient texts in a new way.

I am not going to delve more deeply into the meaning of the parable itself, rather I am going to use Jesus’ challenge to church leaders, “Have you never read the scriptures?” as a challenge to us all to think about the Bible in a new way.

As I was reminded in my recent eye-roll-inducing encounter with a church member, many today just don’t take the Bible seriously. There are a whole host of questions that are commonly used to dismiss its value and authority. Why should we bother with such an ancient book? Isn’t it all myths and fairy tales? What about all the violence? And the contradictions? Isn’t it only those scary fundamentalist Christians that take the Bible so seriously?

Next Sunday, October 15, following worship we will begin a five week book study of Rob Bell’s latest book, “What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think About Everything.” Like Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees, Bell’s book invites us to approach the Bible in a new way, a way that reveals these ancient texts to be not just relevant but potentially life changing.

Most of the rest of this sermon will present Bell’s first chapter. My hope is that this will both make the case for the transforming power of the Bible in our lives today, but also entice you to sign up for the book study next week

Chapter 1, Moses and His Moisture

A little background. God promised to lead Abraham and his descendants to a better life in a new land. Many generations later, Moses leads Abraham’s descendants out of slavery in Egypt, accompanies them though 40 years in the wilderness, and finally arrives with them at a vista overlooking this long promised land of Cana. All this only to find out that he will not cross over with his people to this land of milk and honey, that here he will die.

This is where Bell begins, quoting a single verse from Chapter 34 of Deuteronomy:

Moses was a hundred and twenty five years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak or his strength gone.

OK, so admittedly, thus far this is the kind of Bible story that can make our eyes glaze over and our heads begin to nod. C’mon Pastor George, I thought you promised relevance.

At first it isn’t clear where Bell is going with this. He focuses in on one short phrase. Though Moses dies at the ripe old age of one hundred twenty-five, his strength is not gone. This is counter-intuitive, right? When we are old and die, it can be assumed we have become weak.

Then, Bell focuses in still further on a single word, the word translated as strength, the Hebrew word leho, which literally means moisture or fresh. Other translations read:

nor had is natural force abated

he still had vigor

he had not become wrinkled

Bell asks, “Do you see where this is going?” then makes it plain.

This phrase with the word leho here, just to make sure we’re all clear, is a euphemism for sexual potency. That’s what the storyteller here wants us to know about Moses at the time of his death.

That’s right, friends, Bell continues, Moses, the great leader of the Hebrews, the liberator who led his people out of slavery, the hero who defied Pharaoh, the one who climbed Mount Sinai to meet with God, the towering figure of the Hebrew scriptures, when he died,

(and remember, I am quoting Bell here)

When he died, he could still get it up.

Now there’s something you don’t hear in church every Sunday!

And just so you know, this kind of playful, seeming irreverence, is typical of Bell’s writing. That said, this is as naughty as he gets in the book. So if you are sensitive about such things, you have now heard the worst.

So, beyond finding this mildly titillating, why should we care about Moses’ erectile functioning at his death?

For an answer Bell takes us back generations to Abraham. Before Abraham, there was a belief that there was nothing new under the sun. What happened to your ancestors, would happen to you, would happen to your children. God invites Abraham to step out of this cycle, to walk into a fundamentally new and better future. This was a new idea in human history. We aren’t stuck. We don’t have to repeat everything. Up until Abraham, humanity had fallen into a cycle of violence. Empires had formed that perpetuated systems of injustice. People are left to wonder, how much worse can it get?

This is the question that hangs in the air when God tells Abraham that he has a destiny to fulfill, to be the father of a new kind of people, a new era for humanity, an era built upon love not violence.

God tells Abraham that he and his progeny will be a blessing to all people on earth. Instead of being sent out to conquer, he is being sent to bless.

And how do you form a new kind of people that will take the world in a new direction?

You have kids.

And how do you have kids?

You have sex.

And sex involves – that’s right, says Bell – moisture and freshness.

He continues:

So when the writer tells us that Moses wasn’t wrinkled and his strength hadn’t abated and he still had his force, the writer is telling us that Moses was still able to participate in the creation of this new kind of tribe that would take the world in a new direction away from all that violence and destruction.

Can the world head in a new direction, or are we trapped, doomed to repeat that same old, tired cycle of conflict?

That’s the question at the heart of this Abraham and Moses story.

Of course, this question is just as relevant today as it was in Moses’ day.

And of course this question meant everything when Moses was called by God to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. After all, why would Moses even try, or why would anyone follow him, if they believed that once a slave, always a slave.

Bell writes:

If you’re a slave, you have one burning question. Will we always be slaves?

Or to put it another way: Will Pharaoh always have the power?

Or to put it another way: Who’s side are the gods on – ours or Pharaoh’s?

Or to put it another way: Are the deepest forces of life for us or against us?

Or to put it another way: Are we here to suffer, or are we here to do something else, something bigger and better?

Or to put it another way: Does oppression or liberation have the last word? Does injustice or freedom win in the end?

So when Moses led his people out of Egypt, this wasn’t just the liberation of a specific tribe – it was the answer to a question people have been asking for thousands of years:

Are our lives set in stone and unable to change, or can we be set free from whatever enslaves us?

But it wasn’t just an answer to a question. This story about Moses and the Exodus was also a warning to anyone who has ever bullied another person, anyone who has ever held their boot on the neck of someone they were dominating, anyone who has ever used power and strength to dehumanize and exploit the weakness of another:

Your days in power are numbered because the deepest forces of the universe are on the side of the oppressed, the underdog, and the powerless.

 

And this is where Bell brings it all home.

For this Hebrew Tribe, then, passing this liberating and intoxicating idea along to the next generation was really important. That’s how you change the world, by entering into your own liberation and then passing that freedom and joy and liberation along to your kids.

And how do you get kids?

You have sex.

And how do you have sex?

Well, as we all know, that involves leho, moisture and freshness.

So, there you go.

A seemingly obscure, irrelevant affirmation of Moses’ organ potency, in Bell’s hands, leads us to confront the despair we all flirt with from time to time, are we stuck? Can we hope for anything better? These questions along with the accompanying doubt and despair we sometimes feel in response apply equally to our individual lives and to all humanity.

Bell concludes:

We started with a line about his life, which led us to a line about their life, which led us to your life and my life, which led us from the past to the present to the future of all life.

All that, from reading one line in…

the Bible.

And this brings us back to Jesus’ question for the Pharisees, “Have you never read the scriptures?” Which brings me back to my recent conversation with a church member about the news of the day. Which brings us back to the book study that begins next week.

In his light-hearted, seemingly-irreverent way, Bell responds brilliantly and beautifully to all those tough questions so many of us carry around about the Bible.

I close with that verse from Isaiah that I read:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Come next week and see for yourselves.

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Wrestle With This! God, Taxes and Politics of the Apocalypse

This sermon seemed to strike a chord on Sunday and remains relevant despite the apparent deal on the debt ceiling. For those that know my tongue-in-cheek, wry, irreverent presence in the pulpit, forget that. Forget Pastor George and imagine, if you can, Prophet George. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and George. Hmmm, not sure it will catch on. Nonetheless, wrestle with this and comment.

I don’t know about you, but I find much of what is happening in the world today to be depressing, anxiety producing and infuriating. It is bad enough that we are involved in intractable wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, wars that continue to inflict death and destruction, not only on our own troops and families but also in the lives of millions of innocent people in these countries. It is bad enough that we are mired in an intractable recession that is inflicting gross hardship on millions of people. It is bad enough that we are confronted with a debt crisis that threatens entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, leading to financial insecurity and high anxiety all the way around. Wars, recession, debt crisis and to top it all off we have these idiots in Washington D.C. who are holding the country hostage to make political points. It all makes me completely insane and I am just fed up!

Remember those commercials for Calgon bath beads. We see a harried woman overwhelmed by the chaos at home who pleads, Calgon take me away. We then see her blissfully reclining in a luxurious bath. Our temptation in the face of the chaos and anxiety that surrounds us is to call out, not to Calgon, but to God, “Lord, Lord, take us away!” Take us away to some imagined, blissful paradise.

Perhaps this is what Jacob is feeling. Jacob has plenty of chaos to deal with himself. You will remember that Jacob tricked his brother Esau into giving away his birthright. In a rage, Esau vows to kill Jacob. To preserve his life, Jacob’s mother Rebekah sends Jacob to live with her brother Laban where he marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years pass and as we come to this morning’s scripture lesson Jacob is hoping to reconcile with his brother Esau. Jacob has sent a peace offering of livestock but is still terrified that Esau will destroy him and his family. Jacob sends his family ahead of him and settles down for the night. The scripture doesn’t record his thoughts or his prayers but we can imagine him pleading, “Lord, Lord take me away.”

Instead of whisking Jacob and his family away to a place free of all conflict, fear and hardship, God comes to Jacob in the form of a stranger and wrestles with him. God leaves a mark, striking Jacob on the hip that he will forever walk with a limp, but Jacob refuses to let go of God. God renames Jacob, saying “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means “the one who strives with God,” or “God strives”) for you have striven with God and humans.” And God blesses Jacob.

Jacob is confronted with chaos, fear and suffering. But instead of taking him away from it all, instead of taking Jacob up the ladder into heaven, God comes down Jacob’s ladder and wrestles with him. As we face the chaos, fear and suffering of wars, recession, debt crisis and political Armageddon, a wrestling match with God is hardly the answer we seek to our plea, “Lord, Lord take us away!”

Which brings us to this video that narrates and illustrates a contemporary parable written by an Irish writer and storyteller, Peter Rollins. What do you think?

The idea of God abandoning people in heaven as a judgment on their failure to commit themselves to and engage in the hardship and suffering in this world is creative if not strictly biblical. But Rollins’ parable certainly gets at biblical concepts that are at the very heart of our faith. God’s promise is not all about some future escape to a blissful paradise. God promises to be present with us in the chaos, fear and hardship of our lives in this world, today. And God asks us to be present with, not escape from, those who suffer the most from our present tribulations.

God descended to wrestle with Jacob, wrestle with Jacob’s history of selfishness and deception, and wrestle with the fear Jacob felt as he anticipated the possibility of redemption and reconciliation with his brother Esau. If we stop reading at verse 32 as we did this morning we miss the real outcome of God’s wrestling match with God. The very next verse reads, “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming.” Jacob advances toward Esau bowing to the ground seven times as he goes, (and) Esau runs to meet him, and embraces him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and they weep.

God descends among us, wrestles with our fear and dread, our hardship and suffering, and leads us to redemption and reconciliation. Of course we know this because in Jesus Christ God didn’t just come down a ladder to Jacob, God descended to wrestle with human sin and suffering and redeem all of us. But God does more than wrestle with us and redeem us, in Jesus Christ God calls us to wrestle with and redeem all those who suffer the consequences of war, illness, poverty, and injustice.

Nothing communicates this call more effectively than the story of feeding a crowd of 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. Note, though, that it isn’t Jesus who feeds the crowd. The disciples come to Jesus at the end of the day and say, “it’s late Jesus, send all these people away so they can buy food for themselves.” But, knowing the plight of this battered and broken rabble, Jesus responds to the disciples saying, “No, don’t sent them away, you feed them.” He blesses the bread, breaks it and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. Some scholars explain this miracle by suggesting that once the crowd saw that the disciples were sharing everything that they had, everyone in the crowd responded by sharing what they had.

How might these two stories, Jacob wrestling with God and the disciples feeding the 5,000 with 5 loaves and two fish, respond to the hell, and I mean hell, that is breaking loose in Washington? Here are a few thoughts:

God is here in our midst wrestling with us to bring redemption and reconciliation out of sin and conflict. Bearing the name Israel, we are called to strive with God and humans. We can’t hide, as people of faith we are marked by our encounters with God. Wearing the mark of these encounters for all to see, we are called to confront fear and humble ourselves before our brothers and sisters in Christ. If Jacob and Esau can reconcile, so can Democrats and Republicans. But it requires all sides humbling themselves, maybe even bowing to the ground to each other seven times. Just imagine! And Jesus commands us, you feed my hungry, my hurting, my naked, my sick; give everything you have.

This is one of the ideas behind taxation, taxes are a way of sharing our loaves and fish with seniors who have worked their whole lives trusting that they would not be abandoned when they cannot work any longer, taxes provide for those impacted by the recession, the unemployed, the homeless and the hungry, taxes provide healthcare for the sick.

Now, some say that it is not the government’s role or responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. O.K., truth be told, this libertarian perspective is not inconsistent with the Bible. There is no clear biblical mandate for government to provide for human need. So one can believe that the government is not in the best position to meet these needs, that the government is inefficient, that the government doesn’t spend tax money wisely, and still be a faithful Christian. But if we are to be faithful to the Bible, we absolutely cannot write the most vulnerable out of our lives of faith and this means challenging ourselves to give everything that we have for the least of these.

Jesus commands us to meet these needs somehow. I paid over $16,000 in taxes last year. Unlike the loaves and fish it isn’t all that I have, but it is a lot. You bet I’d like to have that money back. But if I am going to make a case that I don’t want the government to have this money, that I don’t want the government to respond to the needs of the hungry and hurting, then I darn well better be prepared to give that money and more to the hungry and hurting crowd around me.

How many of the people who are raging about the government taking their money are upset because they would rather give all that money away to the most vulnerable people in their community. How many would give the $16,000 or $6,000, or $160,000 that they paid in taxes to the homeless shelter down the street, to Iraqi children who lost limbs in the war, to a neighbor who hasn’t worked in four years. I can tell you how many. Zero.

Some of the voices I hear in the budget debate cry out that the government is taking their hard earned money, money that belongs to them. Rubbish. All that we have is given to us by God, only so that we can share it. Wrestle with that!

Retelling Redemptive Stories: Leah and Casey Anthony

Based on very little biblical evidence, scholars have often reached the verdict that Leah is the ugly, less desirable sister who was rejected by Jacob in favor of her younger, more attractive sister Rachel. Midrash brings sacred imagination to the biblical bits of Leah’s life to weave stories that reveal Leah to be strong and compassionate. These stories redeem Leah and her reputation in history.

Casey Anthony has been almost universally condemned. Can we pick up her story at the courtroom exit and use our sacred imagination to craft narratives that are redemptive, for Casey and for ourselves? What would such a story look like? Where would we begin?

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