HOMILY Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria
Proper 33 B Nov. 18, 2018
Delivered by The Very Rev'd Ansley Tucker
Theme: The Bible
If you perused the silent auction at yesterday’s bazaar, you will know that one of the items on offer was a sermon preached by the Dean on the topic of the highest bidder’s choice. Today, I’m delivering on last year’s bid: a request to say something about the Bible – and particularly about those stories that stick in our craw as unworthy of the God we worship. Stories of violence and vengeance, of plague and punishments, all apparently wrought in the name of God, and with God’s blessing.
For instance, each Easter we tell the story of the flight of the Israelites from under the cruel hand of the Pharaohs in Egypt. So far, so good; God parts the Red Sea and makes a path for the refugees. But what about the Egyptians, all of whom get mired in the mud, and perish? How do you think this story reads to contemporary Egyptians?
Or what about all those wars aimed at the displacement of the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites; all in order that Israelites might move in, and take possession of the Promised Land? Or consider Abraham, called by God to prove his loyalty by sacrificing his son, his only son, Isaac? What kind of a God is this? What kind of a Bible is this? How can we possibly think of such stories as the “Word of the Lord?”
Let us begin first by recognizing that a very great deal of what offends our modern sensibilities about the Old Testament (in particular) – whether it is the violence itself, or the conclusion that God aids, abets and condones such violence - isn’t that far off the global realities of 2018.
How many times, for example, have you heard that AIDS was a plague sent by God to punish gays and drug users, and to winnow their number? Or that New Orleans deserved to be purged by gun violence?
Or what about the recent travel bans into the United States? You can dress these policies up as a safeguard against terrorism, but really you’re putting lipstick on pig. This is xenophobia however you look at it, “ethnic cleansing” by prevention.
My point is that the writers of the Bible aren’t alone in bringing God in to anoint their victorious conquests. Nor, by the same token, were they the first or the last to assume that if something bad happened to you, you probably deserved it.
If nothing else, Scripture is a caution against our own tendency to assume that we are always the ones on the side of the angels.
As some of you know, I spent part of last week with the Faith, Order and Doctrine Committee of the ELCIC. Now, Lutherans love their Bibles! But they take a very sensible view of the Bible’s contents, a view which goes back to Luther himself in the 16th century. For Luther says that the Bible is to the Word of God what the manger was to the Christ Child. It is only a container, a vessel which God chooses to “inhabit.” But the thing about mangers is they also contain an awful lot of straw. This is what accounts for Luther’s famous saying that the Letter of James, which he thought should never have been included in the New Testament, was “an epistle of straw.”
The trick is to learn how to discern which is which: which narratives and writings reveal God to us “on their face;” and which stories cannot be taken at their word, but must be unpacked, like a gift packed in straw, before we can discover their worth or beauty.
In this regard, are there some lenses we can bring to our reading of the Bible?
First, it is important to measure the tales that trouble us against the whole historical arc of the Bible – context, as they say, is everything. For example, some of the most violent stories in scripture take place under the leadership of the warring kings of Judah and Israel. Remember, though, that right from the start, the prophet Samuel had warned the Israelites that introducing a monarchy was a Bad Idea. Up to that point, Israel had been a theocracy: God was king, and God made the rules. Samuel warned them that with kings would come taxes, forced conscription (which is to say, war and violence,) and loss of economic control. But the people were determined, and so Samuel anointed Saul king. Do you see that in the overall account of things, all those wars, and depredations and deportations, were but the logical outcome of the Israelites’ insistence on having a king “like everybody else.”
A second rule of thumb is always to look for the love, the beauty, the grace, or good news in any story – that is, we must read Scripture in the context of its main themes. This is the business of sifting wheat and chaff, Word and straw. Sometimes, this will even allow you to reinterpret what on first reading seems wholly unsatisfactory.
Let me offer a non-biblical example. I was once the rector of the Church of the Redeemer in downtown Toronto. The Redeemer’s walls were positively festooned with brass plaques and war memorials. On the west wall was large stained-glass window of Jesus standing on the battlefield, in a posture of blessing over helmeted soldiers, their guns and ammunition. There were people in that parish who would happily have thrown a rock through that window: for them it glorified war, and showed Jesus condoning the violence. I can’t say I disagreed. Until one day, a wise old bishop was visiting. He paused by a plaque which read, “Sacred to the memory of John Naismith Fletcher, 1903 – 1919, killed in action on such and such a date.” He was 16 years old, hardly old enough to shave; obviously he had lied about his age in order to enlist. Did he also lie to his parents about where he was going that day? “Oh Rector,” intoned the bishop, “think of the parents, think of the parents.” I was 42 at the time. Old enough to be that boy’s mother. And all of a sudden my world turned upside down. I saw the love. Those plaques, that window: they were all about the parents trying to make sense of something unspeakably painful, and just plain wrong. So where do you turn? You turn to your Church. And what do you do? You try to find God in your pain. You need to believe that John Naismith Fletcher didn’t die alone, and so you put in a window, with Jesus smiling on him. You try to make a statement with something beautiful. Mr and Mrs Fletcher didn’t glorify war: they loathed it. But I needed to look for the love to see it.
Let’s try a couple of biblical examples, both about sacrifice. We’ve already alluded to the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Where is the love in a story like that? It is in the appearance of a ram in the thicket at just the right moment, saving Isaac from his father’s knife and funeral pyre. It is above all in our inference that Jacob was wrong. God does not require the sacrifice of children. Not then. Not now. Not ever.
Now, this is great news for children. But it’s not so great for the rams, is it? Nor the calves, bullocks, turtledoves, lambs or any other of the livestock which became part of the sacrificial cultus of the Israelites.
But then, along comes Jesus, whom we have often described as himself a sacrificial offering. Again we ask, Where is the love? Well for the rams, it is in “one, full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” It is in the assurance that the death of Jesus marks the end of sacrifice. God is saying, “I don’t want your violence; I don’t want your sacrifices.” Not now. Not ever. And to prove the point, he hands Jesus back to us, alive.
You have to look for the love. And if there’s none there, it’s straw.
This brings us to one last point. It is really important to understand the bible as part of an evolving witness to our human understanding of God. We’ve seen in the case of sacrifice that even within the text itself, attitudes and beliefs can change, must change! Our job is to treat the bible as a living text, and to take up this never-ending journey of learning. The evangelical scholar and bishop Tom Wright has a helpful way of thinking about this: he invites us to think of the bible as the first four acts of a play, whose fifth act has been lost. We are the actors, and the play must go on. Our role is to improvise, on the basis of our deep understanding of the first four acts, a fifth act that will be coherent with the first four that will take us forward to a new and satisfactory conclusion.
We are the chapters which have not yet been written.