Readings: Exodus 20:24 and Deuteronomy 12:13-14; John 13:34-35
“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” In the beginning of writing – when writing was invented about 5,000 years ago, up until the era of mass literacy – the written word was a numinous, holy thing. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in these early days the ability to write and to read was considered divine. A written text was, in a sense, God incarnate. Because of this, the scribal enterprise was essentially conservative – not politically, but in habit. Scribes, those few literate members of society, were textual pack-rats, never throwing anything out, never letting any text, no matter how much they disagreed with it, disappear. No matter how controversial, those words were still holy.
The scribes of Israel were no exception to this rule. If you’ve ever wondered why the Bible contains so many inconsistencies, this is your answer: the scribes wouldn’t throw anything out. Hundreds of years before the Bible became a book, it was many separate texts: legal codes, narratives about the ancestors or the kings, songs and fragments of poetry, which ranged in content from the frankly erotic poetry of the Song of Songs to battle-prayers such as Psalm 18. It is this impulse to save texts that leads to some of the funnier inconsistencies, such as Proverbs 26:4: “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” Which is followed by Proverbs 26:5: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” And then there is Proverbs’ teaching on bribery: Proverbs 17:23 reads, “Under cover of his cloak a bad man takes a bribe to pervert the cause of justice,” whereas Proverbs 21:14 counsels the use of bribes, saying, “Anger is mollified by a covert gift, raging fury by a bribe under cover of the cloak.” One of our readings this morning is very old legal text, dating to the time when the patriarch of every house was his family’s priest, which commands altars of unhewn stone to be set up wherever God reveals himself. Animals were slaughtered only a few times a year, so every meal that included meat was a religious occasion, with some of the meat going back to God who gave it. But when the professional priests proclaimed that Jerusalem was the only place where animals could be ritually slaughtered, they shut down those rustic altars, making the altar of the great temple the only one for religious use. Yet both texts remain.
There are three ways we can respond to these contradictions and inconsistencies in Scripture. We could choose, as fundamentalists do, to deny the very fact of their existence, to try to explain them all away. Or we could choose to reject the idea that there is any value in Scripture, maybe even in religion itself. Or we could see these contradictions and inconsistencies for what they are: a model not only for engaging with and interpreting Scripture, but for engaging with faith traditions anew in every age. The Bible shows us how to interpret itself. It models for us a healthy tension between revering the traditions that our forefathers and foremothers in the faith have passed down to us on the one hand, and critiquing and questioning those traditions on the other.
By holding two or more views simultaneously, the Bible shows us that, at different times, God’s revelation was understood in different ways. An earlier teaching was perhaps found to be unhelpful or even problematic, and so the community re-thought it. Just as the church has done with the subordination of women, the institution of slavery, and the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folks, the Bible models the necessity of reinterpreting Scripture in light of changing social realities. It models a faithful engagement of God’s revelation with the understanding that God self-reveals not only in writing, but in the world we live in.
And it models true worship of God, rather than the idolatrous worship of an ideology. Contrary to what we have been told, there is room for disagreement in the Bible, and there is an ability to engage critically with earlier teachings. And yet even when God’s continuing revelation seems to contradict earlier teachings, our ancestors in faith didn’t throw anything away – they continued to preserve earlier teachings even if they disagreed with them. All of the texts that had been important to them and to their ancestors in faith were bundled together in this little library of texts we know as the Bible. In fact, rather than a library, it might be better to understand the Bible as a conversation, one that not only allows and invites, but even requires our continued participation and the use of our critical faculties, and demands our respect for those with whom we disagree.
Our Gospel reading this morning gives not only a new commandment for how we are to treat each other, but also a new hermeneutic, that is, a new way to guide the interplay of text and interpreter. But first, a little context: This passage is traditionally read at Maundy Thursday services, celebrating Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, his washing of their feet like a servant, and his “new commandment” to love each other as he loves them. That is, to love by serving, to let love for another person, regardless of that person’s power or status, completely direct our actions. Here’s an illustrative example of the kind of humbling love Jesus is talking about: Roman Catholic tradition used to dictate that the Pope washed the feet of ordained clergy, or at the very least, men. But Pope Francis decided to do things differently: He has celebrated Maundy Thursday at youth detention centers, prisons, and refugee centers. He has washed the feet of youths and elders, men and women, Christians of all stripes and Muslims and Hindus. Of all of these changes, perhaps the hardest for some to stomach was the idea of the Holy Father washing women’s feet, mainly because it suggested that women, as well as men, could represent the original twelve disciples, calling into question the restriction of Catholic priestly ordination to men alone.
But this willingness to place another human being, especially one we think of as the other, the one who is different from us and possibly morally suspect, above even our most cherished traditions—that is an action that stems from love. Such willingness does not mean chucking those traditions, but calls us to re-engage with them thoughtfully, always keeping love of God and love of neighbor before our eyes. Put it this way: Jesus commanded his disciples to love each other as he loved them the night before he went to his death because of his deep love and solidarity with the world. “There is no greater love than this,” he also said that night, “than in laying down one’s life for another.”
This love looked like scandal: Not only the scandal of death, but the scandal of touching those who were ritually unclean and healing both their bodies and their religious estrangement. This love looked like defending the life of a woman who cheated on her husband, like hanging out with sex workers and Roman stooges, like showing the same respect and care for Jew, Gentile, and Samaritan, for men and women and children, for the dirt-poor and the filthy rich. It meant, finally, being so outspoken for the dregs of society and against religious hypocrisy that he was willing to share the death that so many of his countrymen shared, the death of all who were suspected to be resisting Roman rule. Jesus’ love is total solidarity, kicking dust over all the lines people draw in the sand to separate themselves from others.
The Christ who calls us to lay down lives in solidarity with others surely also calls us to lay down traditions that are harmful to others. This is why I call the new commandment a new hermeneutics as well; if we cannot humble ourselves to consider the ways our interpretation of Scripture has harmed people, we fundamentally lack the solidarity Jesus modeled for us. If we cannot practice hospitality and openness to others when the stakes are relatively low, we are not cultivating the habits that could empower us to lay down our lives in defense of another.
A decade or so ago, the United Church of Christ adopted the slogan, God Is Still Speaking—that’s God Is Still Speaking, Comma, not Period, because God’s revelation is ongoing. The ancient Israelite scribes knew this, and their openness to new ideas, while still treasuring older texts, should model for us a way to fulfill Christ’s commandment of radical love.
My aim this summer is to explore some traditional concepts in depth and start a conversation about who we are as a church. We’ll be looking at concepts we may have taken for granted and examine both their historical context and newer interpretations. We will explore the language of salvation and redemption, the genre of apocalypse and its place in resisting oppressive regimes, and theories of atonement. The simple word atonement practically used to make me break out in hives, that’s how much baggage it carries. And yet the atonement theory most of us are familiar with – one in which God sends his son to take the punishment of humankind – has been seen as a heresy in many times and places. What’s more, there are some beautiful and life-giving theories of atonement, of becoming one with the divine, that most of us know little about. There are hidden treasures in some “traditional” concepts.
Here’s the takeaway: the church’s tradition is so much richer than what modern Protestantism, and especially American Evangelicalism, has reduced it to. What we’re faced with now – those of us willing to question some traditions and rediscover others – is an opportunity to become more conscious of who we are as spiritual people and as a faith community. This is not going to be a summer of being told there’s one way to live a spiritual life, but of discovering and deepening ways, both new and old, of practicing our faith and being spiritually alive people – people who can model spiritual aliveness for others. I encourage anyone who has struggled with aspects of faith and spiritual practice to feel free to ask questions – even in the middle of a sermon – and to attend our summer Theology Pubs, where we can discuss some of these issues in more depth. If you have a question you’d really like me to tackle this summer, or just one you’d rather not ask in public, feel free to call or write to me about it. Above all, I want everyone to know, wherever you are with faith these days, whatever your questions are, however you practice your spirituality, no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable you are with so-called traditional Christianity, you belong here. We are all of us in process, and none of us have it all figured out. And we all need to hear each others’ voices and to be heard. Let us practice Christ’s command to love by listening without fear, by learning, by growing, by trusting in the One who promises us goodness and life. Amen.