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

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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Interpreting the Bible in Context: Numbers 12:1-16; Mark 12:38-44; Revelation 1:1-3, 9-11

*This sermon was presented at Albany Mennonite Church on Sunday, October 12, 2014. Below is a list of contexts for biblical interpretation.

Ever notice how someone’s words can be quoted out of context to make them say the exact opposite of what they meant? This happens in politics, entertainment, advertising and even religion. Technically these are called contextomies; excluding the surrounding words of a text or quote which distorts the meaning. In 2010 the magazine Vanity Fair’s Mike Ryan, an entertainment writer, described the TV show Lost as "the most confusing, asinine, ridiculous —yet somehow addictively awesome — television show of all time." Looking for blurbs for the show ABC edited the quote a tiny bit. These words appeared on our TV ads for Lost: “the most addictively awesome show of all times---Vanity Fair.”

There is a similar practice in Christianity. It is called proof texting. Texts are yanked out of context in order to prove a preconceived position. There was an illiterate Christian, who did not want to learn to read or study the Bible or listen to anyone else’s opinion. So, he quoted to everyone from 1 John: “You need not any man teach you, for the Spirit teaches you…” Problem is the context of 1 John lets us know that this text is about false teachers and not about reading, learning, or listening to another person’s viewpoint. Context is everything.

You can make the Bible mean anything you want it to mean just by taking verses out of context. For example, a man seeking God’s will used his Bible to discern what he should do with his life. He opened his Bible and put his finger on the text “Then, Judas went out and hung himself.” He was a bit shocked. “Jesus, that can’t be God’s will for me,” he thought to himself. So, he randomly opened his Bible again to another place, put his finger on the text, which read: “Jesus said, “Go thou and do likewise!” Out of desperation he tried again for a different message and to his dismay read this text: “What thou doest, do quickly!” Context is everything.

Context is a key element of interpretation, particularly when it comes to the Bible. I should probably rather say “contexts,” in that there are numerous contexts to consider in biblical interpretation. I have included in the church bulletin a list of the various contexts that will assist us in interpreting scripture. I hope you use them in your study of the Bible. The first context for interpreting a text is its location within the Bible beginning with its closest context and moving on to a broader context. Start by reading the surrounding verses, its location within the chapter, within the particular book, within the testament it’s located, and finally within the whole canon of scripture. Each one of these contexts may shed light on the meaning of the text.

Sometimes simply reading a text within its surrounding verses can open up new interpretations of traditional readings. A good example would be the story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12. The traditional reading of this story presents the widow as a model of giving. We drag this poor widow out during Stewardship campaigns to shame people into giving money. Poor, poor widow. She had only two small coins, but she gave her all, like Jesus, who would give his all on the cross. Why can’t we all be like the poor widow! But, if we would simply read the verses that precede and follow this story, we might just come to an alternative interpretation.

The verses that surround this story should be seriously noted. First, the story is sandwiched in by stories that reflect Jesus’ condemnation of the temple system. The temple was not simply a place of worship, as we tend to read with our Western eyes that separates religion from economics and politics. The temple represented not just religion, but an economic and political system. Preceding the story of the widow’s mite Jesus says that he will be handed over to the “chief priests and the scribes,” who will condemn him to death. This particular elite class of religious leaders, not representative of all Jewish leaders, were clients of imperial Rome. This is the context for Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers, a symbolic prophetic act against the temple as a system of economic exploitation. The temple had become not a house of prayer, but a “den of thieves,” a place where money stolen from the poor population was kept. This is followed by Jesus saying that if someone had enough faith they could say to this mountain, that is the one on which the temple stood, be cast into the sea. Not too complementary of the temple system! Jesus is like the prophet Jeremiah who also decried those who trusted in the temple system, which in his day had also become corrupted.

Following the story of the widow is another anti-temple story. The disciples marvel at the grandeur of the expensive temple buildings, but Jesus tells them that the temple will be destroyed. There will not be one stone left on top of another. The temple was destroyed in the year 70. The temple and those connected to it are portrayed in Mark as an institution that exploits the poor population and is worthy of destruction.

Second, immediately preceding the story of the widow the scribes are described as hypocrites. Some of the scribes supported the priestly aristocracy, who collaborated with Rome. They liked to walk around showing off their long expensive robes, wanted places of honor and who….get this….“devour widows’ houses.” This is probably a reference to these scribes being entrusted with widows’ estates and siphoning off money from them leaving the widows impoverished.

So, does the context lend itself to another interpretation than being a story about Jesus commending the widow for giving her last cent to support the temple? Could this story in its context simply be Jesus pointing out the sad state of affairs of the widow as she, in her desire to honor God, is impoverished even further by the temple system and its wealthy leaders by giving away all that she had? I think this is very possible.  Instead of a tone of cheerful celebration and a commending smile, imagine a tone of sheer sadness and a concerned frown as Jesus says, “She gave all that she had.”

Does the context present us with an alternative interpretation of the story of the widow’s mite? I’ll let you decide. But if we take the traditional route in interpreting this story, we will need to put the story into our own context, a context where poor widows today get behind in their bills, get their heat shut off, don’t have enough food, because they give their welfare checks to wealthy TV evangelists and their lucrative ministries! Then, after we have placed this story firmly in our context we should go out and apologize to all those poor widows for having rolled our eyes at them or judged them for such generosity. If we think this a model story of giving by a poor widow, liberal apologies should be forthcoming. Put that in your context!

Interpreting scripture requires awareness of our own and the Bible’s social and cultural contexts. In other words, we need to read ourselves as we read the Bible. Honestly, we can’t help but read the Bible with Western eyes. Those are the glasses we have been given in our culture. But, we can misread the Bible with our own cultural lens. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien have written an interesting book entitled Misreading the Bible with Western Eyes. Their conviction is that “all Bible reading is necessarily contextual.” We often misread the Bible with the context of our Western culture while the Bible was written in the context of ancient Near Eastern cultures. Their social customs, family structures, religious practices, economic and political situations were different from ours. If we assume the world of the Bible is basically the same as Western or American culture, we may misinterpret certain biblical texts. So we must read ourselves as we read the Bible.

For instance, take the story of Moses marrying a Cushite woman in Numbers 12. It would be easy for us to interpret this story in light of our contemporary understanding of race. By doing so, we have interpreted this story through the lens of modern racism. Moses married a Cushite woman. She was from a land south of Ethiopia in Africa, and most likely dark skinned. Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, complained against Moses’ wife. What do you think their problem was with this African woman? If we consider that, according to the story, God cursed Miriam with white skin (and why not Aaron as well?), then it would seem like God is being a bit ironic. Miriam, you don’t like her blackness, so you wanna be white? Well then, check out your new skin color, Snow White! In other words, if Miriam has a problem with the Cushite’s black skin, then God will make her skin white. So, there does seem to be an issue here with skin color. But, is it the very same issue as modern racism?

At first glance the story appears to be a case of racism in a modern sense, that is, relegating a people to a lower social status based on skin color. According to this traditional interpretation, Aaron and Miriam don’t like Moses’ interracial marriage because his wife is black and therefore of lower social status, which doesn’t seem to bother God. But, does this story fit with a modern understanding of racism?

The problem is that race is a modern social construction. By that I mean, race, as we understand it in modern Western culture, was created as a way to classify human beings by skin color, physical features, and country of origin beginning in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Although differences in skin color, ethnicity, class, tribe, and nationality were recognized in ancient cultures, race was not a way people classified one another. And although they may have had their own prejudices based on skin color, it was not the same as our modern understanding of racism. Race is not a biological reality. There is so much difference within the so-called “races” that classification becomes practically useless. Except that it is used in our white societies to relegate other races to an inferior status.

Modern racial classification was used to reinforce racism. Within those classification systems White Europeans were considered higher on the human value scale than other groups. Racism is different from personal racial prejudice. Racism is prejudice plus the power to enforce those prejudices by those who hold the power and privileges within society. So, racism per se is not primarily a personal issue, but a systemic issue. It is a modern issue, not an ancient issue. And because it permeates the systems, institutions, and power structures of our society, controlled overwhelmingly by a white majority, racism, in the context of the US, is primarily a white problem! Racism in the US is designed to maintain white supremacy.

To read these modern understandings of race and racism into the Bible is to misread it. We have historically read race into the story of Noah’s curse of Canaan (not his father Ham, as some have understood it) in Genesis. Read through the lens of race and racism Noah’s curse was understood to be upon the dark-skinned African people. Slavery was their assigned lot by God. This is a misreading of the Bible through our own racial prejudices.

We read the story of Moses and his African wife through a modern understanding of racism. So, we assume that in the story Aaron and Miriam are expressing a problem with Moses’ marriage because his wife is someone of lower social status because she was a black African, when it has more to do with a mix of class and color.

From his study of African cultures NT scholar Randall Bailey argues that the African woman in Numbers 12 would have been considered of a higher social status than Moses. In the Bible Africans are viewed in a positive light; for instance, the Queen of Sheba and the Ethiopian Eunuch. We might consider what John Kerry said concerning his wife during his presidential debate as applicable to Moses. Kerry said, “I married up!” In this view Aaron and Miriam complained because they thought Moses has gained status before God by marrying up because she was a black African woman. In essence their complaint is: “Does Moses think he is better than us by marry up? Does God only speak through him?” They are exhibiting a prejudice based upon the class or social status of Moses’ wife as identified through her color and nationality.

The subtle differences are still significant between ancient prejudices based on skin color coupled with class and nationality and our modern understandings of racism growing out of a racial classification system based on skin color, which reinforces white supremacy. We can read our modern understandings of race and racism back into the Bible, even though they are really modern Western constructions. We unconsciously interpret the Bible through the modern lens of race and racism because we forget to read ourselves and our culture along with reading the Bible and its culture.

Consider how race colors our religious imagination: How many of us were imagining Moses as a white man marrying a black woman? Moses was a dark-skinned Semite, probably of Afro-Asiatic descent. How do we imagine Jesus? Just take a look at all the watercolor Sunday School pictures of Jesus. He’s as white as Rush Limbaugh! But don’t you dare portray him as a black man! God forbid! And what race do we imagine God to be? Surely not an old Asian woman! The images we have created based on race influence our faith formation and interpretation of the Bible. Modern understandings of race can be easily read back into the Bible and our religious imaginations. Awareness of our own and the Bible’s social and cultural contexts are crucial for biblical interpretation.

Reading the Bible with a collective lens can help us avoid some misinterpretations. Western culture has been shaped by the Enlightenment of the 1700s. This is the period during which our nation was established. One of the key principles of the Enlightenment was individualism, the focus upon the autonomous, isolated individual and their inborn rights. This focus on the individual is reflected in the famous saying of the Enlightenment philosopher Descartes, I think therefore I am. It was personal independence that spurred the pioneers to move West for gold and farmland. Even the contemporary US economic concept of “rugged individualism” grew out of Enlightenment philosophy. This is the idea that individuals can succeed on their own without government assistance. It is also known as “bootstrap philosophy,” meaning that individuals can pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. With only a few resources, a lot of hard work, determination, and stick-to-itiveness, anyone can succeed in life on their own. We were not suckled on an “It-takes-a-village-philosophy.” And any political idea that is collective or for the common good is readily condemned as “socialism” or “communism.” Our culture has been deeply shaped by individualism. It permeates all aspects of our mindset, beliefs, and cultural practices.

So, when it comes to reading and interpreting the scriptures, we tend to read it through the lens of individualism. Last week I mentioned that the characteristic American approach to the Bible has been an individual, devotional approach; studying the Bible on my own and finding out what God has to say to little ol’ me. Not to say that this is a bad thing, but to recognize that this is a typical Western, Enlightenment approach to our sacred writings. The cultural contexts of the Bible were non-Western and viewed life more through a collective lens. Biblical cultures thought more in terms of nations, peoplehood, tribes, extended family units, and “it-takes-a-village.” This is still the case within most non-Western cultures today.

For example, an anthropologist studying a tribe in Africa proposed a game to the children.  He put a basket near a tree and told them that the first person to reach the fruit would win them all. When he told them to run, they all took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat down together and enjoyed the fruits. When the anthropologist asked why they ran together, since one person could have had all the fruit, they said, “Ubuntu, how could one of us be happy if the rest of us are sad?” This collective worldview presents a different slogan than Descartes “I think, therefore I am.” This Ubuntu mindset of the African tribes can be summed up as “I am because we are.” It might be helpful for us Westerners to try and read the Bible through the lens of Ubuntu.

If we read and interpret the Bible through a more corporate, collective, communal lens, we might be surprised not only how we might misread the Bible, but how we might gain new insight and illumination in our reading. Let me share with you a simple illustration. We are all familiar with the verse from the book of Revelation in which Christ is depicted as standing at the door knocking. The verse from Revelation 3:20 goes like this: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock and if anyone hears my voice and opens the door; I will come in to them and eat with them.” Our Western minds paint a sentimental evangelistic picture of Jesus gently knocking on the door of our hearts. If we would only open the door, then Jesus would come into our hearts and save us. Hallelujah!

The problem with this picture is that we have read this verse through a Western individualistic lens. For whom was the book of Revelation written? Individual Christians? No. It was written to seven churches in Asia Minor, modern Turkey. That is the context of this verse within the book. Now, let’s look at this verse in its more immediate context. It is found within a scathing indictment of the church of Laodicea. The church is lukewarm, like warm milk you spit out of your mouth. They are wealthy and independent, but are blind to their own spiritual poverty. They are in need of repentance and correction. Then….comes our famous verse….Behold, I stand at the door and knock….Is Christ standing at the door of an individual’s heart knocking to come in? No! This is an image of Christ standing outside the door of the church knocking to gain entrance! And church is not a building, but the gathered community. This is no sentimental picture of the evangelist Jesus softly tapping on the door of an individual’s heart.  This is a startling image of a prophetic Jesus left outside by the church! That’s a powerful image, a shocking indictment of the church at Laodicea or any church which becomes lukewarm, wealthy, self-sufficient, and spiritually impoverished; a church that leaves Jesus outside in the cold!

Context is everything. It can free us from interpretations that reinforce injustice. It can open our eyes to our own preconceptions and prejudices. It can change a sentimental, evangelistic image of Jesus for individual sinners into a shocking and potentially transforming image of Jesus for a church community that has left him outside its doors. But, the same context can create an invitation for us today to open our church doors to Jesus, in whatever guise he might come to us, so that he might dine with us and us with him.

And if you quote anything I have said today, I just hope you keep it in context!

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

*This sheet on contexts was included as a bulletin insert

Contexts for Interpreting the Bible

Leo Hartshorn

Interpreting the Bible in the context of...

1. Life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ- A Jesus-centered interpretation (an Anabaptist perspective) is an important interpretive stance for the Christian. This approach does not treat the Bible as a “flat book” with equal authority throughout.

2. Canon as scripture- A prerequisite for rightly interpreting the Bible is a recognition that it is scripture, the sacred texts of the church. 

3. Discipleship- Another prerequisite for rightly reading the Bible is to be an actual or potential follower of Christ (an Anabaptist understanding). How can one rightly interpret scripture without the will or desire to follow in the way of Christ?

4. Bible- It is very important to interpret texts within their various contexts within the Bible: a) within the surrounding texts; b) within the particular book; d) within the Old Testament; d) within the New Testament; e) within the whole Bible; f) in relation to similar biblical texts. Look for clues to the text’s meaning within its biblical contexts.

5. Literary genre- What is the genre of literature in which the text is found? Poetry? Wisdom literature? Prophetic? Apocalyptic? Gospel? Letter? The type of literature may have a bearing on how it is to be interpreted. Example: Apocalyptic literature, with its own unique characteristics, is not about predicting the future. Apocalyptic literature speaks truth about the current situation of the writer through this fantastical, visionary genre.

6.  Original languages- Without having to know Hebrew (OT) and Greek (NT) there are commentaries and bible dictionaries that give insight into words and concepts in the Bible. These help to illuminate the original meanings.

7. Historical- Knowing something about the history of the times in which biblical books were written can illuminate their meaning.

8. Political- The books of the Bible were written during various political reigns that shaped the writings of the Bible (e.g., Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman). Example: What does the early confession “Jesus is Lord” mean in the context of Caesar as ruler of the Roman Empire? It is also important to be aware of our own present political contexts that can impact our reading (e.g., capitalism, democracy).

9.  Religious- Knowledge of the beliefs and practices of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, in their various forms, as well as the surrounding religions (e.g., Baalism, polytheism, Greco-Roman religions, Gnosticism, etc.) are helpful in understanding biblical texts. Example: ancient Hebrews had a different understanding of the afterlife than the early Christians.

10. Socio-cultural- The cultures and practices of the ancient biblical cultures and social practices help clarify meaning (e.g., collective vs individual, honor/shame cultures, economics, peasant and agrarian societies, patron/client relations, benefactors, patriarchy, family systems, slavery, etc.)

11.  Worldview- Ancient worldviews (e.g., polytheistic, flat earth cosmology, non-scientific, taboos, etc.) is different from out modern, Western worldview. Reading either one into the other can skew our biblical interpretation.

12. Contemporary contexts- Most of these contexts that help us understand the Bible have contemporary counterparts. Our own contemporary context can both enhance and hinder proper interpretation of the Bible. There is no getting around reading the Bible from within our own current contexts. But, awareness my temper it some. How do my personal experiences shape the way I read texts? Does my religious tradition override what the Bible is saying? Am I imposing my worldview, politics, culture, preferences and biases upon the text?