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Why Bother with the Bible

Sept 8, 2013 Sermon by Nancy Hastings Sehested, Interim Pastor of High Country UCC

WHY BOTHER WITH THE BIBLE?

Years ago I was visiting my friend Susan, also a Baptist minister, who was attending a church on the south side of Chicago.  When we arrived for the Sunday morning service, the pastor invited us to sit on the podium along with all the other ministers. That Sunday Susan and I integrated the church. During the singing of the first hymn the pastor walked over to me and asked if I would be willing to read the scripture lesson printed in the bulletin right after the hymn ended. Sure. I looked at the passage while everyone was still singing. It was straight out of Titus.

The passage: “Wives be submissive to your husbands.” And then a few verses down: “Slaves be obedient to your masters.”

I was stunned. I leaned over to Susan and whispered, “Susan, I can’t read this passage without a sermon coming after it.”

Susan said, “The Spirit will give you the words to say.”

“The Spirit? We don’t have time for the Spirit.”

The hymn singing ended. Susan shoved me to the microphone. I read the first troublesome passage: ”Wives, be in mutual submission with your husbands.” I looked at the pastor. He smiled. I kept on. I got to the next troublesome passage and read it as a question: “Slaves be obedient to your masters?”

I looked at the pastor. He laughed. Then the first row of people laughed. Then a wave of laughter went throughout the congregation. I thought, wow. We have finally interpreted these verses like they should have been interpreted all along…with some laughter.

I sat down. The pastor got up. “Pastor Nancy, I do believe you came to this service today to preach. Come on up!”

“Oh, no! Oh, no!” I shook my head.

“Oh, yes. Yes, you did. Come on up.” He waved his hand.

So I got up. I preached. One of the ministers on the podium came up to me while I was preaching and put her arms on my shoulders and said,  “Preach it, Sister!” And I did. I think it was one of my better sermons. I’m sorry you missed it.

Why bother with the Bible?

It is hopelessly patriarchal. It has been used to justify wars, slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism, cruelty, narrow-mindedness…to name a few.

The Bible is often pushed into the public arenas and asked to take sides. Can you think of a controversial issue in our public life that has not invoked the Bible? War, abortion, sexuality, ecology, immigration, ordination, technology, euthanasia, death penalty, stem cell research, marriage. The list goes on.

The Texas public school system is now allowed to teach creationism. And last spring’s television series on the Bible had the highest ratings of any cable television show in history. Just when we thought we could keep the Bible safely on a bookshelf and out of the way, it keeps getting knocked into our path.

Why bother with the Bible?

It is not so easy to understand. It was written over a span of over 1000 years by dozens and dozens of different writers. It was a vastly different time and place. It was mostly handed down by oral tradition. Then there were many, many handwritten manuscripts with different versions that passed from one generation to the next.

If we were writing the Bible, wouldn’t we start with the model first family? But no. Adam and Eve started bickering from the beginning. It was the standard “He said,” “She said” kind of fuss. God intervened and put them to work together. So then why didn’t they write about the model children? Instead we have two sons who couldn’t get along. And then horror of horrors, one killed the other. Really? What kind of an authoritative word is that?

Wouldn’t we write a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end that flowed together, one that had good character development and a clear moral stance?

But no. The Bible is a library of 66 books that jumps through history, myth, legend, prayers, poems, parables, stories, letters, and laws. It is full of conflicts and contradictions, struggles and problems that are not neatly packaged into easy answers and self-help advice. It is a difficult and dangerous book in the best and worst of ways.

For all of my ministry I have puzzled over the Bible. My ministry has been smack in the middle of communities who have mostly given up on the Bible. Or I have been part of communities like the prison who have an inordinate number of people who continue to use the Bible to bash others.

I have tried to live the guiding light of II Timothy 2:23 Avoid stupid and senseless controversies. But it is not easy to pull off.

I’ve had some times of being bashed by the Bible. I’ve been called biblical names like “Jezebel” and “whore of Babylon”. One of my favorites came from a prisoner who wanted to explain to me why he would never come to a worship service that I led. He explained that since I was a woman minister I was one of the “seven abominations of hell.” I was struck silent for a moment. Then I said, “I love that. I had no idea that I had so much power that I would need to be abominated. But who am I up against? Who are the other six?” He said he would need to get back to me on that one.

When I have been confronted with folk who said that they had nothing against me personally, it’s just that they were “biblical  people,” my head would start exploding with inner thoughts like, “Yes, I can see that. King Herod comes to mind.”

But I’ve known conversions too. During one of the joys and concerns times at a prison service, one prisoner stood up and lamented that some guys wouldn’t come to the service because of me. Another prisoner stood up and said, “I used to be like them. But then I thought, if God can speak through Balaam’s ass, then God can speak through Chaplain Sehested.” We can only hope!

When I was a part of “dialogues” with people opposed to women ministers, I participated in volleying Bible verses back and forth. Then I realized we could do that endlessly. Instead, I started asking the question, “What are you afraid of?”

I grew up learning memory verses and playing biblical games like sword drills, which was a church competitive sport to learn the books of the Bible.

I grew up seeing my dad carry his Greek New Testament. He had his Ph.D. in the New Testament. He would stand to preach or teach, open up his Greek testament, and simultaneously translate the verses into English. For example for 2 Corinthians 9:7 Dad would say: “God loves a hilarious giver.” Dad said that the word “hilarious” was a much better translation of the Greek to English than the word “cheerful.”

As a child I would lean on my mother’s shoulder during boring sermons. My mother would open up her Bible given to her from my dad six months before their wedding. She carried it for all 62 years of their married life. It was a NT translation by Helen Barrett Montgomery, a brilliant American Baptist woman who knew Greek. She decided to translate the New Testament into more current language so that her “street urchins” (as she called them) could understand the words better. The translation was printed in 1924 by the American Baptist Publication Society. In the front cover are words handwritten by my mother that I think were transmitted through her supportive arm to my resting head: “Man’s approval is pleasant but not essential.”

I grew up loving the Bible.

As an adult I have learned to be multi-lingual in talking about faith and spiritual matters. Like you, I have learned from many religious traditions. I have learned from movies, the arts, theater, literature, nature and science. As we already know, soul truths can be discovered everywhere, and we are far richer for having conversations with people who can broaden and challenge our faith perspectives.  God’s word is bigger than the Bible.

Surely we have discovered that there are seasons in our lives to let go of our transmitted faith in order to more firmly grasp a transformative faith that is our own.

With all of that said, my own native tongue for the language of my heart is still biblical language.

We know how the Bible has been used to justify all kinds of horrors. It has played a central role in the cultural, religious and political battles of our time. And it is a captive longing to be free. The Bible is also a pilgrim winding its way through each unique time and people to be discovered and claimed again.

Years ago when I was in the thick of what was called “the battle for the Bible,” I took a Bible in the worship service and started ripping out passages that were violent or verses we just did not believe. I ripped out the one about stoning to death incorrigible teenagers in the town square. Most of us would not be alive today if we still practiced that one. I ripped out verses about mass killings, slavery and the submission of women. I tore out all kinds of verses that have been used to justify violence and prejudice.

Then I asked, “What makes this book holy? The words are right there on the cover “Holy Bible. What makes it holy is the only thing that has ever made it holy…when we become the live and active word incarnated with the love of God.”

Afterwards I knew I needed to do some pastoral care. I first stopped at the home of Mr. Allen who was almost 90 years old. We’d been through quite a journey together with the sickness and the death of his wife. I loved him. He loved me.

“Mr. Allen, what did you think of me tearing up the Bible today?”

Mr. Allen said, “Ah, I knew it wasn’t a real Bible.”

See what love can do?

Why bother with the Bible?

There are more reasons than this one sermon can offer. I hope that you catch some of those reasons in my week to week sermons.

When we step into the world of the Bible we step into a 3000 year old community of mystics, seekers, reformers, prophets, scholars, dissenters, rabble rousers and freedom fighters. Like them, we discover this word for our time and for our quests.

We discover the subversive side of the Bible that has withstood the abuse of the Bible, and been the hope and inspiration for dispossessed people throughout history. We learn that we can “fuss” with the Bible while also being challenged by it. The Bible can handle our dissent and our discomfort. It shows an honest relationship.

We discover the “breakthrough of God”, as my pastor friend George Williamson called it. We discover a wild and untamed Spirit breaking into the lives of people who were without power and without hope. We discover that these stories have been the instigation and the fuel for antiwar movements, civil rights movements, abolitionist movements, prison reform movements…human rights movements of all kinds.

The Bible tells the story of the losers in history, not the winners. It is uncommonly created for those who are all bent over and can’t stand up. It is a live word for those who feel backed up against a wall and cannot find an exit. It is a word for those who can’t slap-dab together enough to make it through another week.

The losers take front and center stage finding the winds of the Spirit propelling them into God’s dream of hope, freedom and healing. People who were considered weak by the world rose up with great strength.  Even with all of the craziness and confusion of this book, the Holy Liberating Spirit of God zings through.

Who would have thought that a murderer and a stutterer like Moses, on the run from the authorities, would be chosen as the leader of a freedom movement of dismissed and forgotten slaves?

Who would have imagined God choosing lowly midwives to go on mission impossible by defying Pharaoh’s orders?

Who would imagine God choosing a peasant girl in the backwoods of Nazareth to body forth hope for the world?

Who would imagine that Peter would be named “the Rock”  to found a daring community of faith when he seemed nothing more than a rolling stone?

God is reckless and outrageous in the choices God makes to carry on redemptive work. You would have thought that God would have given up on us. But no! God sticks with us through it all.

This gives us hope. We are all God has ever had to go on daring missions. The Bible tells us so.

And the story of Jesus is the wildest story ever!  The cruelties of the religious and state authorities did not have the last word. There is life, resurrection life rising up from the ash heap of disasters and death.

Why bother with the Bible? Because we have been bothered by it to the point of it turning us around. It has turned us inside out and upside down. It is still the grand story of God. As the church of Jesus Christ, we still live into this story.

See. It’s all there, a mirror of our lives. The Bible is more honest about our lives than most of us dare to be. It’s all there…the jealousies, the killings, the rapes, the conflicts, the stumblings, the sufferings, the hardness of heart, the wars, the prejudices, the violence, the betrayals, the agonies, the sins.

And it is all there….the healings, the forgiveness, the grace, the transformations, the reconciliations, the joys, the comforts, the thanksgivings, the mercies, the steadfastness, the courage, the resurrections, the hopes, and the love everlasting.

See. Blessings and curses. Life and death.

Let us choose life that we and our children may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

 

Nancy Hastings Sehested, Interim Pastor, High Country United Church of Christ                                                      September 8, 2013