Opening the Good Book UUCM 10-14-18
Read any good books lately? I have one to recommend, but like any good book, it is important to read it with a questioning mind and an open heart. What does a particular book tell me about my own life? Are the characters and situations believable? Most important, from a religious standpoint, is the message of the book uplifting? Does it contain something that has at least the potential for making me a better person for having read it?
Jewish and Christian scripture, the Bible, is one of the six sources from which our living tradition of Unitarian Universalism is drawn. There are references to Biblical stories everywhere in our culture, including in our music. If we don’t understand those stories, we can be at a cultural disadvantage.
The right of individuals to interpret sacred scripture for themselves, whether that scripture is the Bible or Doctor Seuss, is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition.
Have you ever cried in church? I have. Sometimes the tears are good, and in times of grief or disappointment, just letting them flow can be very healing. We cry when our hearts are touched, and we can cry when we feel like we have found a place to belong, where all of all we are is welcomed and embraced. Rev. Marcus spoke about that a few weeks ago.
But people also cry in churches because their church is hurting them, telling them that they are somehow less than worthy, less than whole. They may be told that God doesn’t love them just as they are if they are gay. They may also be told that they are less than worthy if they happen to be female. All that is in the Bible after all.
This morning we are going to try and unpack some common misunderstandings about the Bible. I hope you learn something new and I hope it might help you resist anyone who may be wounding your heart with their literal interpretations of scripture. We are going to open up that good book and take another look and see if we can find the Gospel there.
The word Gospel comes from the Greek and means quite literally “good news.” It does not mean absolute fact, something that can’t be questioned.
If you study it, you will find that while the Bible may contain some good news, especially for the poor and oppressed, and much human wisdom, it is far from fact. It is not literal and to interpret that way is, dare I say it, fake news.
My Old Testament professor in seminary, a Franciscan priest, was fond of saying that the Bible is not history, it is not science, and it should never be used as a club.
The Bible, he said, is simply a collection of the stories of a particular people and their struggles to be in right relationship with the divine, with God. It is full of metaphor and full of inconsistencies. It wasn’t written down all at one time; and God didn’t dictate it.
Biblical scholars, using modern methods, have determined that the bible is in fact a collection of many stories, most of which were originally oral traditions, and almost all of which were edited and changed over time.
And there is not just one Bible, a fact that many Biblical literalists don’t know. The Hebrew Scriptures are a collection of 24 books. The Protestant Old Testament contains all the same books, but arranges them differently. The Roman Catholic Old Testament is larger than the Protestant version; containing 15 additional books. The Greek Orthodox Church includes even more, and the Ethiopian Church yet again more.
So, if someone tells you that they follow what is in the Bible, it would not be at all unreasonable to ask, “Which one?”
Most of those individual books have also been edited. Some are clearly combinations of different earlier versions.
Scholars have determined that there were originally as many as five separate and distinct written versions of the material in the Torah that were combined at a later time.
Have you ever wondered why there are two versions of the creation story in Genesis? Genesis one describes creation as happening in seven days and God creating both man and woman in his image at the same time. It is in Genesis 2 that God takes a rib from Adam to create Eve.
From the story of the flood to the tales of Abraham and Sarah, from the parting of the Red Seas to the listing of the Ten Commandments, to the genealogy of Jesus, there are both repetitions and differences in what the Bible says. So, if someone tells you they believe what the Bible says, after they tell you which version, you might want to ask, which part of that version?
You also might want to ask them, if they say the Bible is the literal truth, if they think men really have one less rib than women. Did anyone else ever try to count their own ribs and those of an opposite gender friend or sibling? I did. It was very confusing. It also wasn’t particularly easy and I don’t remember even getting a firm number.
Pull out an anatomy textbook later, or ask your doctor if you still aren’t sure. We aren’t going to engage in rib counting this morning here in church. If you want, I suppose you can do that later, in the privacy of your own homes.
It is also important to read the Bible from a historical perspective. Human sacrifice was common in the ancient desert world. First born sons were often sacrificed and sometimes murdered.
It was one of the plagues suffered by the Egyptians, and King Herod was said to have killed Jewish babies trying to murder the infant Jesus. If you read the story of Abraham and Isaac with that understanding, maybe the point wasn’t a test of Abraham’s obedience to God, but instead was a message that God values life. Don’t kill the children. Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Divine. Leave your arrogance behind. That is the message I like to take from Scripture.
There is so much in the Bible, ancient as it is, that can have relevance for our modern lives. If you grew up in a large family, or if you have more than one child of your own, maybe you know about sibling rivalry. Starting with Cain and Abel, there are so many stories about this. Joseph and his jealous brothers when he got a new coat, Jacob when he stole Esau’s inheritance, and the older brother who is hurt when the prodigal son returns and is celebrated. Those stories can help illustrate the challenges of parenting. How can we treat all of our children both fairly and as individuals? It isn’t always simple.
There are also stories in the Bible of alcoholism and abuse. Noah, of the ark fame, after the flood, was drunk and naked and his son Ham saw him and told his brothers. For telling, Ham was cursed and exiled. So many secrets we are asked to keep, and when you have the courage to tell them it is a risk and we may be punished.
Ham is the hero for me in that story. He told the truth and in fact was set free from that dysfunctional household.
Then there is the story of Judith. It is in the Catholic Bible, but not in the modern Protestant or Jewish scriptures. Holofernes was an evil and abusive conqueror who brought Judith to his tent to rape her, but he passed out drunk first. Judith then took his sword and cut off his head. I am not for capital punishment, but in those times, it was a fitting response to a drunk who wanted to commit sexual assault. Today, we seem to make them Supreme Court justices instead.
I just mentioned that the Book of Judith is only in the Roman Catholic Bible. There was much controversy in the early Christian church over what writings should be included. There was a lot of very diverse material floating around as well as some very different oral traditions.
Some writings were lost for more than a thousand years, but scholars were aware of their existence because of historical records that made reference to them.
You may have heard of the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary, from which Anne read a portion earlier. Often referred to as the Gnostic Gospels, they were discovered in 1945 in Egypt.
These writings reflect the incredible diversity of Christian belief in the earliest years.
So, when someone tells you women should be silent in church because it says that in the Bible, maybe you might want to quote from the Gospel of Mary where Levi calls Peter hot headed because he does not want to listen to Mary.
You might also ask them why Paul felt the need to tell women they should be quiet. Most likely they were speaking up and he wanted to silence them. Many men are still trying to silence women, especially those who are saying #metoo.
I haven’t gone into the whole issue of translations, but it is pretty clear that Jesus didn’t speak King James English. He didn’t even speak Greek. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows very well that translations are, at best, approximate.
When in a silly argument with someone who says that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality, I like to quote Luke 17:34 from the King James Version, the favorite translation of conservative Christians. The verse reads, literally:
“I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.”
Now, when you interpret that verse literally it is pretty clear that at least half of the gay people go to heaven, isn’t it?
I don’t suggest that you leave here today and go out and start arguments with biblical literalists. But if it interests you, do some reading about modern biblical scholarship.
But what I most want to leave you with today are some more questions. What is yourholy text, and what good news does it contain?
Do you find meaning in scripture; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or perhaps another tradition? Do you find it in poetry, in nature, in connections with other people?
Each of us must find our own truth. We find it in our own lives and in the lives of others that we come to know. We find it in the world around us. It is also helpful to read, to study, and to learn what others believe to be true.
But in the end, we must each make our own peace with the meaning of our own lives, and our own peace with whatever we mean when we say the word God.
There is some gospel, some really good news, however. We don’t have to do any of this alone. There are other souls engaged in similar journeys. Maybe we can learn from one another. Maybe people can stop using sacred texts like the Bible to justify their own bias and bigotry.
Maybe other people can stop being afraid of what the Bible says and understand that it is not literal and is not meant to be a club to beat you about the head, but is instead a collection of stories told by people trying to understand their lives and the world they lived in.
Isn’t that what we all are trying to do? Amen and Blessed Be.