Sermon Jan. 24, 2016 – Text and Tradition – Nehemiah 8 & First Corinthians 12

Scripture Lessons:  Nehemiah 8:1-10 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells
In the beginning God created. God created humanity in the Divine image. This is a foundational premise of our faith. We believe that humans are divinely created in the image of God with an amazing imagination and intellectual capacity. Just look at the size of our brains relative to our bodies.

Our brain ability has made it possible for humans to accomplish incredible things. The development of tools, technology, the arts, bio medical advances, scientific discoveries, space exploration, cellular research, advanced weaponry, all of these developments and more are astounding. And we are by no means finished yet. Many think the real breakthroughs are yet to come!

We also recognize that humans are set apart by the capacity for free will. We can make all of these amazing things but how do we use them? We can discover and innovate, but what guides the implementation? We don’t just live by innate instinct. Humans have the ability to make choices: To show self sacrificing compassion. And to demonstrate an enormous capacity for heinous evil.

Given our intellectual abilities combined with our free will, it appears that we need religion to help to draw forth the best of our humanity and to curb our worse impulses. Religion may very well be the key to human survival, maturation, and constructive development. Our texts and our traditions have the power to guide humanity in positive direction. Yet, there are challenges there, too.

With all of the changes in our social, technological, economic, and scientific context, religions are tested, too. We are in a time of great change and so this morning we take a look at how we deal with our holy texts and traditions in the light of our context which is one of increasing change. How do our scriptures, the Bible, and the traditions of the church inform our faith today?

Incidentally, this same issue is being faced by all religions, not just Christianity. It is a challenge for Judaism, for Islam, for Buddhism, and for other faiths, as well. How do we benefit from our holy writings and traditions in today’s context so that religion can be the positive force it is needed to be in today’s world?

As a case study, we are going to look at something that has been in the news here in St. Petersburg for the past couple of weeks: The controversy over the speaker for the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast. This recent topic gives us an example of how we use our holy texts and our Christian traditions to inform our faith today.

Basically, the speaker, who is the pastor of a church, has vehemently preached that homosexuality is a sin. Some felt this message was contrary to the spirit of Dr. King as a civil rights leader. Area pastors defended the speaker saying that he is a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ and he is compelled to uphold the Bible, so he has no choice when it comes to homosexuality. He has to be against it. Their perspective is that Christians can’t help being anti gay when that’s what the Bible says. Period. So, don’t blame the man for preaching that homosexuality is a sin like gambling and drug addiction. [I’d like to see where there is a reference to drug addiction in the Bible. . . but that’s another topic.]

And while these Christian pastors and churches are decrying homosexuality, there seems to be no recognition that there are other Christian churches, like the United Church of Christ, that draw upon the Bible and the Christian faith tradition to advocate for human and civil rights for the GLBT community. The UCC brought the lawsuit to the Supreme Court which led to gay marriage being legal in all 50 states. That was a faith witness by a Christian church based on the Bible and our tradition which is ignored, discounted, and disrespected by those who take a different view.

So we can see that how we access our texts and traditions can inform our faith in different ways. Let’s look at the way that Rev. Bryant and others like him, are using the Bible to inform their faith today. It’s basically, “The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.” This approach is challenged by the scripture that we heard this morning from the book of Nehemiah. The leaders have found the book of the law of Moses. This is their holy book, their Bible, their scripture. It is read out loud to the whole community – men, women, and children. The people hear it all directly. But then, the Levites, one group of authorized, educated, trained religious leaders, teach. We are told, the Levites, “helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” So, we are told directly that the law needed to be explained, interpreted, and taught to the people. It wasn’t enough just to hear it read. The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.

Well, here’s a brief teaching, interpretation, and explanation about some of what we can say about homosexuality and the Bible.

There are a several verses in the Bible that refer to same gender sexual activity. These references do not refer to sexual activity in the context of a mutual loving relationship. Same gender sexual activity was part of pagan religious practice and therefore forbidden by the Jews and later Christians because it was associated with being pagan.

Evolutionarily, the early Hebrews and even the people of Jesus’ day needed to concern themselves with perpetuation of the species given infant mortality and short life expectancy. So same gender sexual activity worked against that.

In addition, the texts were addressing presumedly heterosexual married people who, when engaging in same gender sexual activity, were being unfaithful to their marriage partner.

We also want to note that there really is no reference in the Bible to what we consider homosexuality today. There was no social concept or understanding that there were people who were born with an attraction to others of the same gender and that there could be mutual, life long loving relationships of that kind. That simply was not conceived of just as there was no knowledge of the atom, or the cell, or the speed of light. They were there, but not yet conceptualized. That’s how it was with homosexuality. It was there but not yet defined.

Also we want to note that in the scriptures we have, there is no record of Jesus referring even to same gender sexual behavior.

So blaming the Bible for a stance against homosexuality is a really weak argument to make. We need to apply our God-given reason, intellect, and knowledge to our thinking about our sacred texts, the Bible, to inform our faith today. It simply is not enough to just be “literal.” There is more to it and even the ancients knew that.

Now we turn to another consideration of how we use our texts and traditions. While some Christians may gravitate toward literalism and legalism based on the Bible, Jesus shows us another approach. In the tradition we have of Jesus, we are told that Jesus broke the law of Moses. He directly, knowingly broke the law. He violated the scriptures. The New Testament tells of Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Against the law. He spoke with women to whom he was not related in public. Against the law. We are told that he let a woman touch him and anoint him with oil. Against the law. We hear that Jesus and his followers picked grain on the Sabbath. Against the law. We have stories that tell us that again and again that Jesus broke the law of his faith; he directly violated the holy scriptures of his tradition. Evidently, he was not a literalist and not a legalist. We are given the impression that expressing compassion, healing, and love overrode legalistic considerations. Jesus defied the religious, social, cultural, economic, and civil norms of the day. This has volumes to say about how Christians today are to deal with the Bible and our traditions. And it leaves little room for condemnation of gay people.

We also want to be sure that we take into consideration that Jesus was an embodiment of God’s preferential option for the poor and the oppressed. The stories we have tell us how he reached out to those that his society and his religion had cast aside. He looked for the people on the margins. He healed those who were other, outcast, and enemy. He directly concerned himself with the condition of people who were oppressed, discriminated against, and devalued. This is why the church must always strive to defend the rights and humanity of all people. Now, when you have to hide who you are to get a job, to get a loan, to receive succor from your religious tradition, and you live in fear for your safety and your life, this is oppression. And this is why the church of Jesus Christ is compelled to advocate for human and civil rights for sexual minorities. The commitment of the United Church of Christ and other churches to justice comes directly from the Bible and our Christian tradition.

Now, in the scripture that was read from 1 Corinthians, we have the beautiful image of the faith community as a body. This body imagery was common in the ancient world. Philosophers thought about the cosmos as a body of diverse, complementary elements. So this image of the body as a unity of diverse parts was not new. What was new was the equal valuing of all the parts. The Corinthians were wrapped up in competition and hierarchy. Who had the most important spiritual gifts. Whose gifts made them most important to the community. Who was better and deserved more status. They wanted a pecking order. The letter to the Corinthians tosses this all out the window. The one who empties the trash is of the same value as the one who preaches. [And in our church, it’s often the same person, as it should be.] All should be needed and valued. The early church was a community of rebellion against the hierarchy and stratification of society. Worldly distinctions – social, religious, ethnic, economic, sexual, educational – were all subsumed to the oneness of the body of Christ. Power, privilege, and position were insignificant. What was important was common devotion to service. The writer of this letter is specifically countering the Corinthians’ penchant for boasting about the more flashy, flamboyant roles in the faith community and competing for those roles. They are reminded that the community of Jesus is a community committed to egalitarianism which values diversity as a gift. It was radical rebellion. Again, an image which mitigates for the full inclusion of GLBT people in the church and society.

This image of the body with many parts has been used to account for the diversity of the church today. A big tent. A huge umbrella. But it seems that we are getting to a breaking point which hinges on how we see the Bible and the tradition. There is growing division within Christianity and it is not defined by denomination. Within each communion, there seem to be those who want to use our texts and our tradition to help navigate the change around us. To help us to maintain our values in the face of drastic technological advances. To help us protect our humanity and our soul as we become more machine dependent. Who want to use the rich tradition and texts we have inherited as constructive tools for building a future of peace and mutual understanding. And, then it seems that there are those who, in the face of the massive changes taking place in our context, want to use our texts and traditions by applying antiquated approaches that exacerbate problems rather than solving them. And, ultimately, they betray the gospel and deny humanity’s divinely bestowed reason and intellect. You can’t build a computer with a stone axe. There are those who seem to want to ignore the contributions of culture, history, science, economics, the arts, and education in advancing human development. These strides can help to advance the positive influence of religion as well.

As the old hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” reminds us:

New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth.

That was written in 1845.

Can we be one church? People who bring guns to church? People who support reproductive rights? People who berate homosexuality? People who endorse the ordination of women? People who are dedicated to God’s preferential option for the poor? People who teach God wants believers to be rich? People who use intellect to inform faith? People who insist on literalism? Can we be one church? One body?

Our context is complicated. There is a professor at Wheaton College, a professed Christian, who was put on leave for wearing a head scarf and affirming that Muslims and Christians are praying to the same God. But her actions seem in keeping with the teachings and witness of Jesus.

And we have Muslim journalists declaring: “To us, the ‘hijab’ is a symbol of an interpretation of Islam we reject that believes that women are a sexual distraction to men, who are weak, and thus must not be tempted by the sight of our hair. We don’t buy it.” [Quoted in The Christian Century, 1/20/16, Asra Z. Noman and Hala Arafa, two Muslim journalists, who discourage non-Muslims from wearing the hijab out of solidarity with Muslims, arguing that it reinforces a patriarchal interpretation of Islam, Washington Post, 12/21/15] That, too, seems to reflect the way of Jesus.

The way we access our texts and our tradition to inform our faith in a constructive way is a complicated challenge in our complex context. But we have such a rich heritage to draw upon that has all the answers that we need for navigating our perilous and promising times. The way of Jesus, of service, of equality, of generosity, of other-centered living, of rebellion, is needed today to foster life and well-being for the whole human family as well as all of creation.

It seems that our world is in a time of transition. There are divides in society, in politics, and in religion. Maybe two hundred years from now people will look back and see with more clarity what was going on.

In the church, did we err on the side of traditionalism? Did we make an idol of the Bible? Did we try too hard to maintain Christian unity, the body, and so betray the heart of the gospel? Did we ignore the influences of our unique intellectual abilities, discounting culture, the arts, history, economics, science, and education, and cling to the past, not availing ourselves of what we were being given to transform Christianity? Did we let our faith have the constructive impact that was needed? Time will tell.

In Jesus’ day and after the crucifixion of Jesus, those who followed Jesus were Jews. They were Jews, within Judaism. A minority movement, but still part of Judaism. But as time went on, as conditions in society had an impact, as history unfolded, the strain between Jews who followed Jesus as the Messiah and Jews who were still awaiting a Messiah grew so great, that the two camps parted company and Christianity emerged as a separate, though related, religion. There are those who think that kind of transition is happening in the Christian world today. That the strain between the varying factions will lead to a parting of the ways and the emergence of separate expressions of the way of Jesus moving into the future.

When Ezra read the law of Moses to the people and the Levites offered their interpretation, the people saw how far they had departed from God’s way. They were afraid of God’s wrath. They sought to repent. And Ezra affirmed their desire to return to God’s way, but encouraged them to have a festival, to feast, to celebrate, that they have recommitted. He tells them this is an occasion for joy, not sorrow.

Our texts and traditions are to lead us to God. They are to be a guide for equipping us to embody divine, unconditional, universal love on earth. And that path is desperately needed in the world today amidst the competition, alienation, turmoil and violence of our times. The gospel is still, and ever will be, good news. Perhaps needed now more than ever. This is not a time to abandon our texts and our tradition. It is a time to embrace them. And to rejoice in the welcoming mercy of God. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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