Friday, June 28, 2013

Leviticus, Oh Joy!

Sermon preached June 23, 2013
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Leviticus 18:19-26; 19:9-15, 18-19, 33-34; 25:8-17, 25-28

So here is the Bible I received from my church in the spring of my third grade year – “Young Reader’s Bible.” Doesn’t this just look like the kind of Bible young readers would want to carry around with them – hip, sleek, elegant. May 26, 1968 – doesn’t this just say “1960s”?
Another feature of the Bible was that it used different print sizes. The smallest type was used for long lists of names or rules or materials. Most of the Book of Leviticus is printed in this smallest type.
But here we are. Someone suggested Leviticus for the sticky Scriptures sermon series this summer, so here we are. Leviticus – oh joy!
Before diving into the text, a few words about the book may be helpful. Leviticus takes its name from a Greek term meaning, “of the Levites.” The Hebrew name for the book translates “the manual of the priests.” This is a text focused on rules for Levites, for priests, though there are a number of other rules and laws intended for everyone. There is a great deal of instruction about worship and animal sacrifice. Such material really begins in Exodus 25 and extends through Numbers 10. Robert Alter in his wonderful translation of the first five books of the Bible, The Torah (The Five Books of Moses) writes of the material in Leviticus: Most of the laws… are focused on topics that may seem less than urgent to audiences not part of the ancient world in which they were framed (539)…. The preoccupations with dermatological conditions, genital discharges, mildew, the recipes for fritters and breads used in the cult, and the dissection of animals and the distinctions among their various inner organs does not correspond to modern assumptions about the content of great sacred literature (544-545).
So we have this book full of rules and laws that arise from a cultural situation very different from our own. Much of the material is more concerned with ritual purity than with broad moral issues. Some have argued that many of the rules and laws had a survival function for a small, nomadic community. Cleanliness can mitigate disease. But we who live in a very different social milieu, with numerous public health laws, and with a dramatically different understanding of religious life (there will be no animal sacrifices here today), is there anything in Leviticus for us? How might we discern what has continuing relevance from what seems distinctly culture-bound and time-bound? The question matters because for all its obscurity, passages from Leviticus are still hauled out to condemn certain behaviors. Are these good readings of the text?
I think there are some things for us here in Leviticus, though I would be content to leave a great deal of the book in the smallest print of my Young Readers Bible. Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy (19:2). I think this is at the heart of Leviticus, being holy, being transformed by God toward a divine-like character. Eugene Peterson, in the introduction to his paraphrase of Leviticus, writes this about holiness. Holy refers to life burning with an intense purity that transforms everything it touches into itself. Leviticus, at its heart wants to communicate something about God and the divine-human relationship.
Jewish philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book God in Search of Man: a philosophy of Judaism, writes about this as well. Human life is a point where mind and mystery meet…. Man is driven to commune with that which is beyond the mystery. The ineffable in him seeks a way to that which is beyond the ineffable…. Beyond the mind is mystery, but beyond the mystery is mercy. Out of the darkness comes a voice disclosing that the ultimate mystery is not an enigma but the God of mercy. (353)
This desire to connect with God, merciful and holy, is the heart of the laws and rules of Judaism and of Leviticus. The rules of observance are law in form and love in substance…. Law is what holds the world together; love is what brings the world forward. The law is the means, not the end; the way, not the goal. One of the goals is “Ye shall be holy.” (323).
At its heart, Leviticus is about holiness, about a fire burning in our lives that transforms us. It is about our relationship with a holy God. But what does holiness mean beyond this image of the burning fire of life? Leviticus helps answer this question, too.
Holiness is about justice, about fairness. When harvesting, one is supposed to leave a little in the fields. “You shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” Alien here is the term used for immigrant or non-citizen. “You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but with justice you shall judge your neighbor.” “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity.”
And if all this discussion of fair wages, of caring for those on the margins wasn’t strong enough in itself, there is the whole section on the year of jubilee. “It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” No family could stay poor forever. No family could accumulate wealth forever at the expense of others. What a radical idea of justice, care and fairness. By the way, there is no good historical evidence that this part of the law was ever put into effect.
While the specifics may be time-bound, fit for an agricultural society, the principle of justice and fairness behind the specifics is strongly communicated.
Holiness is not only justice and fairness, it is love. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
At the heart of Leviticus is God and human relationship to God. God is holy. God’s heart burns intensely with love and justice. Human persons, being touched by God, are to be transformed in the direction of love and justice. This is the heart of Leviticus. This is the end to which all the specific rules and laws were directed. But rules can become unloving, laws can become unjust. Heschel: Rules are generalizations. In actual living, we come upon countless problems for which no general solutions are available. There are many ways of applying a general rule to a concrete situation. There are evil applications of noble rules. Thus the choice of the right way of applying a general rule to a particular situation is “left to the heart,” to the individual, to one’s conscience. (327). Leviticus provides within itself a principle for discerning which of its rules and laws might be more time-bound, more culture-bound.
Most would agree that rules about two kinds of cloth are time and culture bound. We don’t get too worked up about that. While tattoos are often a subject of heated discussion, few of us, even those of us not fond of tattoos, regard them as matters of deep moral significance. Yet again and again, this next verse is seen as an inflexible moral law: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.”
Do we hold on to this verse, even when we are willing to let go of so many others, because of our discomfort with human sexuality as a whole, or especially of same sex attraction? Have we allowed what is sociologically normative, that is, there will always be more heterosexual attraction than homosexual attraction, to become morally normative? Do we know much about the cultural context of the verse in Leviticus? We do know that there were some religious groups that used sexuality in ways deemed immoral and inappropriate. Is this verse directed toward such practices?
What about justice? What about love? If holiness as justice and love are the criteria for posing questions about verses in Leviticus, perhaps we should ask about justice and love in interpreting this verse.
In his insightful chapter on homosexuality in his book Jesus the Savior, theologian William Placher writes: Friends I respect who struggle with this issue sometimes say, “But the church needs to take a stand somewhere”…. Even if one concludes that [homosexuality] is a sin – and, for reasons already noted, the biblical evidence does not persuade me of that – it is also a form of behavior that gets people fired from jobs, beaten up, called rude names, generally treated with contempt in many parts of our society, and sometimes even murdered…. Those who grow up gay generally have a hard time of it in contemporary America…. The pattern of Jesus’ ministry would clearly imply that, even if homosexual behavior were a sin, here is precisely not the place to “draw the line.” Far better to draw it in the face of sin like greed, which our culture generally treats with something like admiration, especially when it is masked as “success.” (102-103)
Equally powerful are the words and witness of South African Archbishop and Noble Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu. A student once asked me, If I could have one wish granted to reverse an injustice, what would it be? I had to ask for two. One is for world leaders to forgive the debts of developing nations which hold them in such thrall. The other is for the world to end the persecution of people because of their sexual orientation, which is every bit as unjust as that crime against humanity, apartheid…. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice. It is also a matter of love. Every human being is precious. We are all – all of us – part of God’s family. We all must be allowed to love each other with honor. (God is Not a Christian and other provocations, 54)
People of good faith disagree about how to interpret the passages from Leviticus around human sexuality. If we take the book of Leviticus seriously as Scripture, though, we should find our interpretive key in the notions of justice and love. Justice and love are what matter.
At the heart of Leviticus we find the heart of our own faith because we are invited to discover something of the heart of God. God is holy. God’s heart burns for justice and love. God seeks to transform us in the direction of justice and love. That’s our journey, the journey to which we are invited by God in grace. Oh joy. Amen.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

It Happens

Sermon preached June 9, 2013

Texts: Luke 13:1-9

Theodicy. It is the term for theological thinking about God and evil. If God is both all-good and all-powerful, how do we explain hurt, pain, evil, destruction? Why do bad things happen, and why do bad things happen to good people? These questions have vexed some of the great minds in history, and they continue to occupy people’s thoughts.
We hear some thinking about theodicy in our public life and in the media. The television evangelist Pat Robertson asserted that Hurricane Katrina, which devastated sections of New Orleans, was the result, in part, of abortion policy in the United States. God was sending a message. Retiring congress woman Michele Bachmann said that Hurricane Irene, and an earthquake that occurred about the same time was God trying to get the attention of politicians. Clergyperson and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, after the shootings at Sandy Hook wondered why we should be surprised. “We have systematically removed God from our schools.” Ignoring God, God was ignoring us.
This may not be the best thinking in the realm of theodicy, but it represents our natural desire to try and understand what is going on when bad things happen, and to try and understand where God might be in all of it. We want to understand better the character and nature of God.
Such thinking goes back a long way. Jesus seems to be responding to questions of theodicy in Luke chapter 13, yet his answer appears frustratingly incomplete. The person who suggested this text might have been frustrated by such an incomplete answer, as well as wondering about why bad things happen. One of the favorite theological theories in Jesus’ time, and one that still hangs around, is that bad things happen because the people to whom they happen needed correction, or punishment, or a wakeup call. The common belief that Jesus addresses is that painful experiences are the result of God’s judgment. Robertson, Bachmann, and Huckabee seem to be saying similar kinds of things, don’t they? Disaster was God’s judgment, God’s attempt to get the attention of some.
Jesus seems to reject this theological position. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No…. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.” Jesus does not seem to think that these bad things happened because of human sin or God’s judgment. It happens. Tragic and destructive things happen.
So where is God? Jesus suggests that God is not punishing, but then where is God? Did God allow these things to happen? Are such things part of God’s plan? We often hear such theology. God may not cause hurt, pain, destruction, but God allows it. God allows such things because they are a part of God’s plan, a plan shrouded in mystery. Unfortunately, Jesus does not address these issues in this text. He seems content to say that we live in a world where it happens – tragedy, pain, destruction – it happens. He then shifts the question. I want to follow that shift, too, but not before sharing a bit of my own theological wrestling.
We read the Bible in a wide context. We should read the Bible with a view to the whole story in the various books. We also read the Bible in the context of our lives, and we experience pain, we witness tragedy. We hear preachers and television personalities and politicians say that God is punishing, or God has a plan, and we wonder about all of that. I am deeply moved by the tragic and painful events in our world – the hurricanes, the tornados, the buildings collapsing, war crimes, genocide, slavery, the Holocaust. It was in trying to come to terms with the Holocaust that some of my deepest thinking about evil began. But tragedy is not just large-scale. I have been profoundly touched by the pain of families as loved ones have died so out of time. I have heard some say that God needed another angel. While I appreciate the comfort such thinking can give, it doesn’t do that much for me. It leaves me unsatisfied.
Does God allow wide-scale massacre? Does God allow the death of a mother, a child? Are such tragedies and deaths part of some mysterious plan of God?
In the early third century, the Christian theologian, Origen, penned these words. Moreover, even the simpler of those who claim to belong to the church, while believing indeed that there is none greater than the Creator, in which they are right, yet believe such things about him as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men (On First Principles, 271) The writer of Hebrews, even earlier, makes a simple statement, “God is not unjust” (6:10) Frankly I find it difficult to think of some of the hurt, pain and tragedy in the world as in any way part of a plan of a just God, or a loving God.
In his classic book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner argues against trying to see everything that happens as a part of God’s will, God’s intention, God’s plan. By the way, Kushner writes out of his own wrestling. He had a son, named Aaron, who suffered from a dread disease that aged him unnaturally, prematurely, and his son died two days after turning 14. In his book, Kushner offers an interpretation of the biblical book of Job. The author of the Book of Job… believes in God’s goodness and in Job’s goodness, and is prepared to give up his belief… that God is all-powerful. Bad things do happen to good people in this world, but it is not God who wills it…. Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good, the author of the Book of Job chooses to believe in God’s goodness. (42-43)
Other teachers have helped me think along these lines. One of my doctoral professors, Schubert Ogden argues if “omnipotence” is a coherent concept at all, it cannot mean all the power there is, but only all the power that any one individual can conceivable have, given the existence of other individuals having the power over which omnipotent power can alone be exercised (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 47). That is to say, unless human freedom is a complete misunderstanding, individuals other than God have some power.
Together many of us have read Marjorie Suchocki’s book on prayer, In God’s Presence. Suchocki, too, argues that human freedom and power are real. If we have a situation where God’s power and freedom interact with our power and freedom, then we have a situation where God’s power and freedom are limited by our own (21). Think of it as a dance, whereby in every moment of existence God touches the world with guidance toward its communal good in that time and place, and that just as the world receives energy from God it also returns its own energy to God (24).
If there is such a thing as human freedom and power, we can also detect in the world a certain freedom and power in nature. We may not always like to live in a world where hurricanes and tornados are a part of the picture, but perhaps that is the only kind of world where human life is also possible. And God is always there working and willing and wooing the good in whatever way that is possible in our world.
I believe we live in a world where it happens – tragedy, suffering, pain, destruction, and also kindness, generosity, caring, compassion. It is a frustrating and beautiful world. I believe God is at work in the world toward the world’s good, but sometimes I wish God’s willing and wooing were stronger or different. I understand the language of the Psalms. Without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life…. They repay evil for good; my soul is forlorn…. You have seen, O Lord; do not be silent!... Wake up! (Psalm 35). In the end, I trust that God continues to work toward beauty, justice and love. By the way, you can disagree with where my theological thinking has taken me. It will make for good conversation and lively dialogue.
But Jesus does not spend a lot of time on such theological speculation. He even seems to suggest that it can lead one astray, off track. He shifts the question and the emphasis. “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Instead of focusing on these others who have been caught in tragedy, Jesus asks his listeners the question, “where are you?”
Luke’s is the only gospel to tell this particular story. It fits in with how Luke wants to tell the Jesus story. Remember, the Bible is both a Spirit-inspired and a human book. Luke uses the term “repent” more often than any other gospel writer (People’s New Testament Commentary). For Luke, the presence of Jesus is an occasion for people to consider how they are living their lives.
The irony of Jesus’ words is that in the end, we all die. Tragic deaths are heart-rending. They move us to ask profound questions about God and the world. In the end, though, life is terminal for everyone of us. How are we going to live? Who are we going to be? We cannot hide behind merely speculative questions about the nature of God and the world, intriguing and important as they can be. What matters most is who we are going to be in a world where it happens – tragedy and pain and suffering, and where we will all die.
The parable Jesus tells after his speculation about tragedy is meant both to reinforce the message of repentance, which is another word for turning or re-orienting. It is also a clue as to the kind of reorientation that we want in our lives. The gardener in the story is patient. He is willing to nurture the fig tree, to give it what it needs for life and fruitfulness.
God is a God of patient, tender, caring, wanting to bring the best out of each of us and in the world. This is the kind of life to which we are called. Earlier in his gospel, Luke writes that Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:36).
The writer Albert Camus is reported to have written, “Many oppressors and many more victims and very few healers.” We live in a world where it happens – where there is tragedy, suffering, pain, destruction. It is a world where death comes too early and too tragically for some, but it will come for us all. How are we going to live? Who are we going to be in such a world? To whom should we orient our lives? God’s persistent invitation is to orient our live to God’s love. God is at work for our healing and well-being. Accept that. God continues to work for the healing and well-being of the world. Join that. Now is the time. Now is always the time. Amen.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Sticky Scriptures: Not Getting Stuck

Sermon preached June 2, 2013

Texts: II Timothy 3:16-17; II Peter 3:14-18

In 1616 Galileo went to Rome to persuade the Church authorities that the view he seemed convinced was correct – namely, that the sun was the center of the universe around which the earth rotated, a view proposed earlier by Copernicus, Galileo went to Rome to convince them of this view and that this view was not in contradiction to the Bible.
The Church, at the time, declared Galileo wrong. A verse such as Psalm 104:5, which can be translated “you set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be moved” was considered evidence that the earth did not move. A papal decree was issued declaring the idea that the sun was the center of the universe around which the earth revolved “all together contrary to Holy Scriptures.” Books propagating this viewpoint were banned. Galileo was told not to teach this viewpoint, except as an erroneous mathematical theory. Apparently he did not succeed, because in 1633 he was brought back to Rome and put on trial. He was convicted as being “vehemently suspect of heresy” and placed under house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642.
That the earth revolves around the sun is all together contrary to Holy Scriptures. The Bible might be a problem for us. Here are a couple of sentences from a biblical scholar. The Bible is a profoundly problematic collection of books in many senses – religious, cultural, political, intellectual, moral, ethical and aesthetic…. If reading the Bible does not raise profound problems for you as a modern reader, then check with your doctor and enquire about the symptoms of brain-death. (Robert Carroll, The Bible as a Problem for Christianity, 2)
Strong words, but perhaps necessary ones. If we are honest with ourselves, the Bible is a book we struggle with. We struggle with its age. We struggle with its variety. We struggle to understand it. In some parts we struggle to stay awake for it. And in some of the parts that seem kind of clear, we struggle with what we read there. We can get stuck in our struggle with the Bible. Sometimes we find the Bible used in downright embarrassing ways.
This past week was the meeting of Minnesota United Methodists known as Annual Conference. You would not be surprised that one of the topics discussed was same-sex marriage. While an Annual Conference does not have the authority to change the overall denominational policy about same-sex marriage, which I wrote about in our most recent newsletter, we still debate, and we can make recommendations to the policy-making body of the church. In the debate in St. Cloud, a layperson from a Twin Cities church said something like: “You cannot read the Bible and say that homosexuality is not a sin. It is a sin. You cannot cherry-pick the Bible.” I could not help but notice, though, that this man was clean shaven, something prohibited in Leviticus, but that’s a future sermon. In a debate about divesting from a certain company because of its providing the Israeli government with helicopters used against Palestinians in defense of settlements, one gentleman rose to say that we cannot go against the Bible, and in the Bible the Israelis are God’s chosen people, and that this is the land God promised them.
The Bible is a struggle, and we can get stuck in it.
Part of our problem is in the claim the Bible makes for itself, or rather, certain understandings of this claim. II Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. We speak of the Bible as a uniquely inspired book. What does that mean? For a lot of folks it translates into a view of the Bible as inerrant, and its writers so moved by God that they are infallible. Such folks argue strongly that this is the only true Christian position. Anything less is vehemently suspect of heresy.
If this is the claim of the Bible and the church, we have problems. Certain interpretations of Scripture, taken literally, don’t work well with our understanding of the world. Galileo was more right about the universe than the church of his time. We have seen the earth from space, and Copernicus and Galileo were basically right about it. The church, through Pope John Paul II has admitted mistakes were made in Galileo’s trial. Pope John Paul II did that in 1992. Not exactly scientific discovery at lightening speed.
But I don’t think inerrancy makes sense. Here is a difficult quote from another biblical scholar, difficult but important. This position bristles with difficulties. Human discourse cannot, in principle or in fact, adequately comprehend its subject matter. And all human language changes in meaning and reference over time. It is virtually impossible to say what might constitute a perpetually inerrant statement, much less how such things as poems, parables, or myths might be wholly inerrant since they are not propositional to being with. The problem of how divine inerrancy could characterize essentially limited, perspectival, and linguistically constrained human discourse seems rationally insurmountable. (Sandra Schneiders, “Inspiration and Revelation” in New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible) What this scholar is trying to say is that language changes over time. At one time to be moved in one’s bowels was an expression for compassion, now it is reason to take immodium. Statements are couched in words, language. What would a perpetually inerrant statement look like?
Inerrancy, as an understanding of inspiration doesn’t make a lot of sense, but not to worry, I don’t think that is even the claim of the Bible. II Peter 3:15b-16: So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. Paul wrote according to the wisdom given him – Paul wrote. There is a recognition here that the biblical authors were human persons, writing from the wisdom given them. Inspired, but not infallible – their language can even be confusing.
This summer we are going to be looking at sticky scriptures, Bible passages that have been a problem for someone, perhaps for many. I wanted to do this to help you get unstuck, or prevent us from getting stuck on these. In a Bible with sticky scriptures, how might we avoid getting stuck? I want to touch on some general principles we will use this summer.
We begin by admitting that the Bible can be problematic. We need not kid ourselves about this. The Bible is a difficult book on many levels. It is boring in places. It is confusing in places. It is beautiful in places. Its language leaves us awestruck in places. The Bible is a tough book, yet a wonderful and beautiful book.
We avoid getting stuck when we hold together both the idea of the Bible being Spirit-inspired and human. There has been a great deal of scholarly research on authorship, and the context in which many of the books of the Bible were authored, and this is helpful information. It can help make the text come alive for us, if we are willing to search out that information. And if the authors were human, perhaps some of their cultural and intellectual ideas are part of what’s in the Bible. In the Bible God works as God always has, with human beings. God works with the world as it is, but to try and move it to a different place. That different place may be a place that goes beyond some of the cultural and intellectual imaginings of the Bible’s authors.
We avoid getting stuck by reading the parts in light of the whole. If something of God’s story is being told in the Bible, is there a direction to the story? If the direction is love and justice, peace and righteousness, might we criticize some readings of the Bible that lend themselves to injustice, hatred, selfishness, narrowness?
And if something of God’s story is being told in the Bible, for Christians the center of that story is in Jesus. “For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). Jesus could be pretty hard on the religious authorities of his day. He often challenged the unloving interpretations of the biblical texts of his time. Not getting stuck with a difficult Bible means being willing to read the Bible with this Spirit of Jesus.
So we are going to tackle some particular Bible passages this summer, and I want to do that with the basic unsticking principles in mind. I want to tell you, though, my goal here is not to engage in an intellectual exercise which results in us holding the Bible at arm’s length, safe from its power. I want this work to be soul work, which is in part mind work – but also heart work, and vision work. You see, I want us to not get stuck so that we can open this Bible and at the same time open our hearts, open our minds to the Spirit of God which still uses these words to communicate God’s amazing, transforming love. I want us to meet the God the Bible writers are writing about.
The same man who wrote about the Bible being profoundly problematic, also writes: If you can tolerate contradiction and contrariety and can handle hyperbolic drive and chaotic manipulation of metaphor, then the Bible will burn your mind. (Carroll, 147) We want our minds to burn and our hearts to be aflame.
In other words, All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. The point of inspiration is not the production of an inerrant text. God continues to use the Bible to try and grow more loving lives. The tragedy of getting stuck with difficult Bible passages is not that we need to struggle with intellectual difficulty. That struggle is o.k. The tragedy comes when we get so stuck that we stop growing in love, that our relationship with God gets stifled. Amen.