Reclaiming the Bible for Progressive Christians (Sermon September 6,2020
Reclaiming the Bible
In her book To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of [another] ... There are just some kind of men who — who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” That is precisely why it is so important in these days that progressives reclaim the Bible and its message of liberation and social equality.
Listen to the words the Psalmist writes in Psalm 119.
“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will
observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may
keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”
The great theologian Walter Brueggeman calls the Psalms
“human emotional extremes voiced to God.” These are
words of the heart. The writer is baring his or her soul.
Pleading. Knowing how important it is to understand the
Word of God, this is as a plea, a raw plea from someone
feeling the need to understand the holy writings we
call the Bible.
Remember during the Vietnam War how supporters
of the war co-opted the American flag, displaying it
on their lapels? It became a symbol separating supporters
of the war from its opponents, designed to say those who opposed the war, were opposed to America. The Bible has been allowed
to become that sort of dividing line; separating conservative
Christians, who call themselves “Bible-believing Christians” from Progressive Christians.
Our statement of values here at Highlands says we take the
Bible seriously but not literally. We also value an honest,
Intellectual study of the faith, which is founded in the Bible.
Someone recently pointed out a great irony to me. Both
atheists and fundamentalists tend to read the Bible the same
way, literally. Each relies on a literal interpretation to make their case about the existence or non-existence of God. Like my Facebook friend, an atheist who responded to my post inviting people to join us this morning for this sermon about reclaiming the Bible. He wrote: The Bible supports slavery...the Old Testament condones...even requires genocide. I don't think "reclaiming the Bible" is in any way a rational option for those that support the compassion of Jesus.” He said the Bible depicts a “tribal war god converted to the Imperial religion of Constantine by Eusebius?” I suppose he’s right if you read it literally without digging deeper into the cultural and historical context in which it was written in order to sort through it to find God’s contemporary message. All of which causes me to believe that if Christianity is to
survive, Progressive Christians must reclaim the Bible.
Many of us first met the Bible in Sunday school. What I remember about being a child in the church was how many Bible verses we memorized. Our Sunday school classes and our youth group, the Christian Service Brigade, memorized Bible verses on Tuesday Evenings and repeated them to the congregation on Sunday. Dozens of Bible verses. Looking back on those years, I remember memorizing Bible
verses but never actually learning how to read the Bible.
We learned the content of the Bible was important but we
were never actually introduced to the content.
I have come to realize the meaning of the Bible is not in isolated verses. A child can memorize a verse and come to believe the Bible condones genocide, and condemns a loving relationship between two people of the same sex.
A child can memorize a few verses and grow up believing women
are subservient to men. In the mid-1800s, people who memorized
a few verses came to believe God sanctioned slavery and killing
Native Americans. If your only relationship with the Bible is
pulling a few verses out here and there to make your point,
you’ve missed the point. That, in fact, can lead one away from
the meaning. When we were children, rewarding us for memorizing
a few verses became a substitute for teaching us how to read it.
But, we are no longer children. As the Psalmist reminds this morning, we are called to actually study the Scripture, to find meaning in our lives and, more significantly, in the life of the community.
The Bible occupied an important space in my childhood home.
So, there it was. On our shelves. Gathering dust. I still have my
Father’s Bible but I have no memory of ever seeing him read it.
It was what Sarah Ruden describes in her book as the Bible
of her youth. A pebbly black cover. Nothing like a book
you’d feel invited to open and read. A withered ribbon
bookmark. Looking too holy to hold in your hand. So, it sat.
And mine. It too sat on a shelf. All alone for many years.
Gathering dust. Causing guilt. We know God wants us to read it. Sometime we try. But, it is a strange book. Even translated
into English, the language is foreign. To open it and begin to
read only intimidates us more. And so, it sits. On a shelf. Out of our league. Inaccessible. If God wanted me to read it, God should have made it easier to understand. Right? Who’s with me? Well, actually,
God did. The Bible need not be inaccessible. Reading it can be one of the most invigorating experiences of your life. Let me explain.
If I could achieve only one thing in however many years I have
left in this pulpit, it would be to instill in you the love of
the Bible that I experienced beginning in my years in the
seminary. Now, you’re going to have to approach this
differently than the other times you have attempted to read
First, look at the Bible, not as a book, but as a library. It is a
collection of history, mythology, letters, diaries, and poetry. You won’t find any science. Don’t expect to and that which is presented as history is not like what we know as history. Treat it as a library. Somedays you want to read poetry, another day legend or mythology or the sort of academic theology offered by Paul as you eavesdrop on his conversations with one of the early churches. Be aware when you open the book and start to read, what kind of book you have checked out. These books were written over an eleven-century period from about 1000 BCE to the early years of the 2nd century of the Common era. Some of the plots were borrowed from earlier faith communities, including pagans and polytheists.
Most of these books, even those that carry a name like Mark or Paul have unknown authors and multiple editors. They all attempted to give us “the Word of God” through human understandings and language. It is unlikely any of the writers ever thought their words would end up in a book that some would be considered the inerrant and infallible word of God. That challenging and intimidating viewpoint was attached to these books long after they were written.
The ancient writers were steeped in mythology and metaphor, not so much in what we view as actual history. They were preoccupied with social justice, not individual salvation. The defining story for the Jews was the Exodus and the obligation they had to a God who delivered them from slavery. What motivated the writers? For the Old
Testament writers, it was the drive to create a new religion
and a strong community. That’s why you will read the 623
Jewish laws dealing with sexual responsibility, dietary laws,
community norms and morality and a focus on radical
hospitality. And please don’t think the Old Testament is
irrelevant. Keep in mind that the Old Testament is the Bible
Jesus read. Its teachings became what Jesus taught. It is
where he first read how important it is to love God and our
neighbor. There is nothing Jesus taught that you will not find
in those ancient Hebrew scriptures.
With the possible exception of John, who wrote perhaps eight decades after the crucifixion, the Gospel writers never intended to create a new religion. The defining context for them was Roman oppression, which formed the basis for much of Jesus’s teachings and led to his crucifixion. Correctly understood, nearly all of Jesus’ parables, the beatitudes, and his actions such as overturning the tables in
the Temple were about resisting Roman power. You hear that theme in Jesus’s first sermon when he read from the scroll of Isaiah. The Old testament words of Isaiah 61 find themselves in chapter 4 of the Gospel of Luke.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has
anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent
me 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.”
For Isaiah and Jesus, a relationship with God as set forth in the Bible, is about the well-being of the community. As the Psalmist implored God to teach him the ways of the Lord, we are implored to study this book. So, here are my suggestions.
Go slow. Start easy. Plans to read the entire Bible
often fail. But, take the first step. Here are some ideas on
how to begin
Do not try this alone. The Bible is a communal book. It
speaks of and to a community, not an individual. There
is nothing wrong with a daily, personal, Bible devotional. But, if your goal is the study of the scripture, do it with a group. At Bibles and Beer, we have Jews, knowledgeable about the beliefs and
worldview from which these writings arise. There is
Mohammed, reminding us of how many of our Bible
stories are a part of the Quran. We have people around
the table deeply steeped in the history and the culture
of the times. The Bible says different things to different
people at different times. Hearing what it says to others,
will test your beliefs while opening the meaning in ways
that will surprise you.
Bishop John Shelby Spong emphasizes the need
to examine what he calls “the sweep of history in
which these books were originally written.
Sarah Runden’s book, which is on a list I provided you at the end of this morning’s bulletin, talks about the need to understand the context in which the various parts of the Bible were written. She says the QUOTE original Bible was, like all ancient rhetoric
and poetry, primarily a set of live performances, and
what they meant was tightly bound up in the way they
meant it.” Imagine the mistaken interpretation we
would reach if we read what is intended as myth to be
science? Or what was meant to be satire as doctrine?
Don’t expect to understand the Bible by reading only the
Bible. Take other books along for your journey. The
following examples can accompany you through the
entire Old Testament and shed helpful light on what
you are reading in the Bible.
“A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures” by
Frank S. Frick
“How to Read the Old Testament” by Etienne
“God: A Biography” by Jack Miles
“Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World”
by Bishop Shelby Spong
“Who Wrote the Bible” by Richard Elliott Friedman
“The Face of Water: A translator on Beauty and
Meaning of the Bible” by Sarah Ruden
“The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on genesis” by
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
Who Decided Which Books to Include in the Bible? https://people.howstuffworks.com/books-of-bible.htm
Choose a good study Bible with ample footnotes
The Oxford Study Bible
“The Hebrew Bible: A translation With Commentary”
Robert Alter (Warning: It is pricey, but can’t be
matched for the helpful footnotes)
Start with Genesis. Experiment with your new study regimen, the Bible in one hand, another of these books in the other, using it like a roadmap for your journey. In fact, if you are only able to read and study one book in the Bible, this one is essential. Genesis will open you rmind to what the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur called “the second naivete.” It will move you beyond the first
naivete, i.e. those days in Sunday school when you were
taught this was the literal, inerrant word of God.
Reading and studying Genesis will teach you what the
ancient writers knew. Myth is the highest form of truth
telling. The great myths of Genesis, such as the Creation and
Flood stories, were not original with those who wrote
them. They were borrowed, or what Sarah Ruden says,
“plagiarized,” from other civilizations that came before,
and they hold within them the greatest truths of our
So, start there, with the Creation and Flood stories
Take time to consider the role of mythology in
Read summaries of the Epic of Gilgamesh https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgamesh and https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/m/mythology/summary-and-analysis-babylonian-mythology/the-creation-the-flood-and-gilgamesh
Note, Genesis has two versions of each story
One of the ground rules at Bibles and Beer is that we are to give attention to the actual words in the Bible. Over the years preachers and Sunday school teachers have told us what these texts mean BUT when you pay close attention to the words you are reading, you will be surprised at the new meanings that arise from the pages. In two weeks I will show you what I mean when I preach the familiar story of Jonah and the Whale.
In her book, “The Beginning of Desire,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
tells readers to find the tension between then and now, the place where what they wrote thousands of years ago speaks to us in this moment. The you’ll know, she says, the act of interpreting the Bible
has become the act of creating its meaning
Take the journey. Reclaim the Bible. We progressive Christians
have as much right to claim to be Bible Believers as our
fundamentalist brothers and sisters. We have a lot to offer t
o a world so badly in need of an understanding of the true
message of the book read in its entirety.
To close, I want to read from Sarah Ruden’s excellent book.
Page Roman Numeral 36
Now, as Bishop Spong said, “Raise the curtain, watch the drama unfold, and step boldly into the content of what is clearly the most influential book the world has ever known.” AMEN