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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Easter in August!

rose 7

Here is the column I wrote for the September issues of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

Forget Christmas in July, it’s Time for Easter in August!

Though I have never participated, I know Christmas in July is “a thing.” People who can’t get enough of Christmas or are just looking for an excuse to throw a party host events with a Christmas theme in July (though I expect the baby Jesus can nary be found). When I left the house this morning, burdened by the news of the day, and saw that my rose bushes are in bloom it occurred to me that, more than a Christmas party in July, we need more Easter in August!

In May, my Aunt Dot, sent me six bare-root rose “bushes” in the mail as thanks for performing a grave-side service for her husband, my Uncle Sunny. I opened the box to find what looked like a bunch of brown sticks. You know from other stories I have told that I have the brownest of thumbs, so this box of dead wood was unrecognizable to me until I read the enclosed card. The instructions promised that by following some simple steps, these bare roots and stems would soon produce beautiful roses. I had my doubts, and if it wasn’t for some sense of duty to my Aunt Dot I might have just left them where they lay. But obligation can be a powerful motivator, so before a couple days passed I followed the steps and planted the sticks along my driveway. Sure enough, the stems quickly began to sprout leaves and have continued to grow throughout the summer.

There has been the occasional challenge. I sought advice on Facebook on how to prune them; pretty simple it turns out but even the most basic tasks can seem intimidating if you have never done them. A number of you offered helpful advice, and church members even invited me and my family over to dinner, followed by a hands-on demonstration of rose pruning in their garden! There have been bugs, brown leaves, and other worries, but now the bushes are putting forth beautiful blossoms.

The story of Jesus’ Passion is one of persecution, suffering and death. Likewise, today’s headlines are filled with stories of persecution, suffering and death, whether it be nuclear sabre rattling or Nazi marches. At the same time, members of our church are carrying their own crosses, whether terminal illness, depression, or a broken marriage.

As we anticipate the beginning of the church year, let’s prepare for Easter in August (and September… and October…).

We are planning a number of initiatives to promote resurrection and new life in our church and community. Read the column by our new Young Adult Service Community (YASC) Congregational Coordinator, Jennifer Sanborn, about ways the Spirit of resurrection is moving in this exciting new ministry. Also read about the coming church-wide book group for Rob Bell’s book, What is the Bible? Whether you are a biblical novice or experienced veteran of Bible studies, I guarantee that Bell’s perspective will make the Bible newly interesting and relevant to you! And stay tuned to information about a Greater Hartford Faith-Based Community Organizing Initiative. These, along with our continuing commitment to Spirit-filled, creative, engaging and relevant, Sunday worship remind us that Easter isn’t a once-a-year invitation to a resurrection celebration, but an everyday commitment we make to bring new life to a hurting world.

And just as my rose bushes required community participation (and a dinner invitation!) to bring forth beautiful blossoms from that which appeared to be dead, so we must all pitch in to make resurrection real in the church, the community, and our lives. I’ll see you in church!

In 2017, Make Like a Pig! Rooting Our Way Through the Mud to Unearth the Truffles.

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on New Year’s Day, Sunday, January 1, 2017.

Revelation 21:1-6a

Matthew 25:31-46

 

Research shows that most people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. Complaining is tempting because it feels good, but like many other things that are enjoyable—such as eating a pound of bacon for breakfast—complaining isn’t good for you.

Your brain loves efficiency and doesn’t like to work any harder than it has to. When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future—so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it.

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you.

I thought of this research about the way repeated behavior can change our minds when I read a quote from a book by Rob Bell. In his book Love Wins, Bell writes:

When we speculate about what happens when we die, it’s important for us to keep in mind that choices have consequences that lead us somewhere. It’s possible to make choices over years to become the kind of person who doesn’t want any part in heaven.

Let me read that again:

When we speculate about what happens when we die, it’s important for us to keep in mind that choices have consequences that lead us somewhere. It’s possible to make choices over years to become the kind of person who doesn’t want any part in heaven.

This quote, in turn, caused me to think about the passage I read from the Gospel of Matthew in a new way.

Sometimes called the Parable of the Judgement of the Nations, Jesus speaks here of the consequences of choices we make. Speaking of his own return, Jesus says the Son of Man will choose some to “inherit His kingdom,” while others will be condemned to eternal punishment.

I expect that for many, this image of Christ the King sitting on a throne doling out rewards and punishment feels pretty foreign, inaccessible, and scary, which is why I find Rob Bell’s perspective so helpful. In much the same way that complaining can rewire our brain, Bell suggest that the repeated choices we make over our lifetime can change us to the point that we simply lose interest in God’s promised realm of eternal love and peace.

Jesus is using this metaphor of dividing sheep from goats to show us that the choices we make will determine what kind of people we become. Will we ultimately become one with God’s realm of perfect harmony or will we opt out, deciding we need no part in the choir of angels, deciding instead that we can sing by ourselves in the shower of life.

So what are these choices Jesus presents to us?

We have choices, Jesus says, about the way we treat those he calls “the least of these,” the hungry, thirsty, and naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner. When you feed, give drink, and clothe these, you do it to me, Jesus says. And when you welcome and visit these, you do it to me. Likewise, says Jesus, when you fail to respond to the needs of these so you turn your back on me.

I have preached many sermons on this passage over the years.

On its surface the message is pretty simple. Provide for the basic needs of the most vulnerable. When I arrived at church this morning I encountered a group of volunteers from First Church setting out to Hartford to serve a New Year’s meal to the hungry and homeless. Our church helped found and continues to sponsor a clinic in Uganda that ministers to the sick there. We seek to be a welcoming church to the stranger. Certainly, as we enter 2017 we can recommit ourselves to ministries like these.

But Jesus isn’t just directing us to serve “those people,” he refers to these as members of his family. So I have also preached sermons that have asked what it would mean to treat the least of these as family members.

Family members share equally with one another, not just the good stuff, but family also shares hardships together. Over my daughter Abby’s years playing hockey in Simsbury we have become friends with members of the Melanson family, maybe some of you know them. The matriarch of the family, Ethel, died on Wednesday leaving behind nine children, 31 grandchildren, and 12 great grandchildren, the vast majority of whom play hockey! Some fifty of these, including aging sisters who traveled here from Canada, were at her bedside when she died. Abby was at the Melanson home with her friends Grace and Anna Melanson as the family gathered and said she had never received so many warm hugs. Is this what Jesus has in mind when he calls us to serve the least of these as family members. Warm hugs for everyone, especially in times of trial?

How might we move beyond the soup kitchen model to establish more loving, hugging relationships with one another? Here, we might look toward our efforts to better understand Muslims by inviting Imam Sami Aziz and his wife Vjosa in to educate us about Islam. As part of this effort, our youth participated in a get together with Muslim youth.

So this is where I was with my sermon at the end of the week, thinking about soup kitchens and hugs, when I poked my head in Rev Kev’s office, and he greeted me with these words. Did you know that most animals dig by throwing the dirt behind them, but pigs dig by pushing dirt forward? Well, I did not know that, and I confessed as much to Kevin. I’m not sure exactly what Kevin had in mind when he shared this gem. I expect like most preachers, he thought this might make a good sermon illustration sometime. And so it does!

When I pondered these images of digging through dirt and pushing through mud, I realized that the way I had been thinking about the “members of Jesus’ family” had been too idealized, too precious, too Norman Rockwell. If only we empathize with each other, share with each other, exchange hugs with each other, join hands and sing Kum-bay-Yah with each other, then we will care for each other as Jesus intends.

Yeah, right. The loving Melanson’s notwithstanding, family is messy. Every single human problem exists within families, conflict and betrayal, rejection and judgement, mental illness and addiction, death and divorce. And because of the closeness of these family relationships, these issues are often writ large, are especially challenging and hurtful. I believe that it is often true, that our closest family members, whether a parent, a spouse or a child, know us better than anyone else, and regularly see us at our worst.

There’s an old country song, She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft. Ask any minister’s spouse if they don’t sometimes feel that way when they see the loving pastor who greets the church on a Sunday morning, and experience the grumpy, impatient person that walks in the door at the end of a long day.

Every family has dirt, the question becomes, what do we do with it? Do we try to throw it behind us, like my dog Sweetie does when she buries a bone in the yard? Or do we make like a pig, put our head down, and push our way through.

I actually went online to fact check Rev Kev’s claim about pig digging. Called rooting, it is indeed true, they push their big flat noses in the ground in search of delectable roots and grubs. I even learned about truffle hogs that are trained to root out truffles that grow as deeply as three feet underground. And here is an interesting but irrelevant tidbit, that is likely too much information for a Sunday morning, it is thought that the natural sex hormones of male pigs have a similar fragrance to truffles. There you go.

So, I think this is where Kevin was headed with the pigs. We might think we can rid ourselves of the dirt in our family, in our life, by throwing it behind us. In fact, that might figure into any number of New Year’s resolutions. I have heard many say they can’t wait to leave 2016 behind.

But more often than not, what lies beneath the dirt, is just more dirt. It’s the human condition. So there may be something to be said for just putting our head down and sniffing, snorting and rooting our way through the muck and manure of our lives sure that we will uncover delicious truffles in the process.

So, at this point I have to acknowledge that my New Year’s resolution to preach sermons that have less moving parts has already failed miserably!

But let me see if I can pull this all together just the same.

Jesus asks for us to care for the least of these who are members of His family. We might like to do this in a way that allows us to keep our nose clean, by which I mean not take others’ problems home with us, not having to share in other’s pain. But if we just dig beneath the surface a bit we discover that these are members of our family. There is no escaping hunger and thirst, estrangement, illness and imprisonment in this life. We are called to put our nose in each other’s business and root around until we find the treasured love and peace assured by God’s grace.

So in conclusion, maybe it isn’t a choice between the soup kitchen model, the Melanson hug model, and the truffle hog model that requires us to root through the slop of our human condition, maybe Jesus calls us to choose all three in ministering to each other as members of His family.

May this be a resolution for this good church in 2017, that as members of Jesus’ family we seek to serve each other, hug each other, and be willing to get our noses dirty for each other.

And when we make these choices, and repeat them again and again and again, we will begin to change our minds to become the heaven-ready members of Christ’s family God created us to be.

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