THE POWER OF SACRED HISTORY
A sermon preached by Brian Mason
at the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
on Sunday, October 21, 2018
Readings: Genesis 2:4-9, 15-24 and Revelation 22:1-5
When discussing a book as contested as the Bible, I think it’s worth pausing to mention my own methodology. As I’m sure you know, there are various ways to interpret the Bible. There is the Historical Critical method, which considers the writers and the time period’s contingent circumstances. In other words, you bear in mind that most of the people you’re reading about never learned to read or write; most of the people experienced night time as something terrifying; middle age back then wasn’t 40-years-old, it was 15.
There’s also Feminist interpretations of the Bible, which always moves the marginal characters from the outside in; in other words, Feminists remind us to consider the role of women in that ancient society, how they were portrayed and overlooked, and how they were treated by their contemporaries and how that informs our own cultures today.
There’s also Queer readings of the Bible that ask us lean in to the in-between or liminal spaces, drawing our attention to the fact that these stories were told by people who lived and breathed and moved in the world just like us, with bodies that ache and tremble and long to be kissed and held and loved.
There is the approach of Process theologians who say that the Bible tells the story of the holy, which they view as an alluring attraction, and it’s up to us whether to respond. Process theologians believe true holiness lures us to love and justice, and to hope and beauty. It isn’t demanding or exacting, rather it is playful, liberal, and filled with grace.
There is no one-way to read the Bible. I always encourage anyone interested in diving deeply into studying it to consider any and all interpretive approaches. But I always recommend one other thing and that is they approach the Bible with a Hermeneutic of Grace.
A Hermeneutic of Grace means that you stay quiet long enough to actually hear someone else’s ideas. It means you stay sensitive to the fact that this book has been used and abused by people in power to justify atrocities and oppression and sexism and slavery. But it has also inspired people to march in the streets and endure violence and even death in the name of God’s justice, righteousness, and Shalom. Furthermore, passages the Bible have been read on billions of wedding days and birthdays and over the bodies of loved ones as they were committed to the earth.
A Hermeneutic of Grace means we admit we can’t and never will know everything, and that even though we are blessed with the ability to criticize we are equally endowed with the capacity to see through to the goodness in things. That is the approach I’m taking this morning, and I kindly ask your participation.
There are many unique characters in the Bible. There is the mighty Samson and his sinister crush, Delilah; there is the genius heroine, Esther; the handsome, red-headed, green-eyed David who, despite being occasionally despicable, is a poet-king selflessly devoted to his people; and of course, there is Jesus of Nazareth who travels and heals and throws parties and loves all across Judea and Galilee.
There is old St. Paul, a man who gave his life to the church. A man who saw his friends at their worst, fighting over how potluck dinners are done and who should eat first and how the money should be spent, but still found it in him to have faith in the great gathering of people that would one day become the modern church.
But the main character, of course, is God. God is right there in the very first sentence of Genesis and is everywhere throughout, right up until the very last chapter of Revelation.
The first time we meet God he’s strolling the Garden of Eden. What’s odd about the Bible’s main character is that rather often God is painfully absent. God is longed for in the Psalms; God is questioned and denied in the forest; and in the final words of God’s only son, all we hear is absence and anguish: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
The Bible is a book about God, of course. But the Bible isn’t really a book at all. In fact, it’s sixty-six books written over the course of about 1,500 years by countless people only God knows whom.
This is a book that has led some people to wage wars and others to wage peace; it is a book that inspired our Puritan ancestors to sail to this land and found a nation; the Bible, its characters and themes are in Shakespeare, Moby Dick, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings. The Bible is there in Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood, The Simpsons, and even Family Guy.
Growing up, in my grandparent’s living room there was a large, white family Bible sitting in the center of the coffee table alongside coasters and ashtrays. Throughout my childhood the Bible was as everyday as my grandma’s Virginia Slim cigarettes and my grandpa’s Busch beer.
I still have the Bible my parents got me on the day I was born. I used it to memorize the Ten Commandments. My dad was so impressed by this feat he spoiled me by buying me a remote-controlled helicopter. The joy lasted only a couple of hours until I gassed it up and lifted it off for its first flight only to be pushed by the wind deep into some nearby woods, never to be seen again.
That night as I lie in bed, I couldn’t help but wonder if God took the helicopter from me because I had broken the first commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. After all, I had coveted that helicopter for months.
At the church I attended as a boy it was customary to bring your Bible with you. I can easily recall walking to our little country church alongside moms and dads and little boys and girls wearing dresses and collared shirts with Bibles under their arms. I so envied how some people could open up their Bibles right to the spot the preacher called out.
When my grandmother died the most coveted piece of her possessions wasn’t her silver dining room set or jewelry or collection of porcelain squirrels; it was her small, yellow leather Bible complete with a closing zipper. When my cousins and I first discovered it in her belongings we gathered around like it was an ancient and invaluable relic.
When we opened it up, we found clipping of her daughters’ hair and four-leaf clovers and dried up leaves and newspaper obituaries stuffed in between the pages.
On the cover page her name was written in a child’s script with her maiden name crossed out, followed by four other names that were crossed out. All those names and all those X’s told the story of love and love lost; all those clovers told the story of a little girl and later a woman who would bring her Bible with her into the fields to think and read and pray; the leaves were small souvenirs from seasons long ago; and locks of hair from the four little girls she would give birth to and watch grow into women and live their own stories of love and love lost. A whole world was there in that tiny little drugstore Bible.
But a time would come when I put away childish things and questioned, even distrusted the Bible’s stories of kings and queens and wandering wise men, and parted seas and multiplying fish.
I replaced those ancient sagas for things provable by science and reason. I traded a poetic story about Creation for an artless, scientific one. I traded the idea that a loving God brought forth Creation in enjoyment for the idea that a big hot accident followed by a great big bang led to life as we know it.
It seemed only natural – After all, my Sex Ed class in the fourth grade didn’t include a section on the possibility of an immaculate conception. My physical science teacher in the ninth grade didn’t teach us about randomly appearing burning bushes or how to walk on water. Moreover, even the Bible’s prose was sub-par when compared with To Kill a Mockingbird or One Hundred Years of Solitude, or O Pioneers! and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
The late Reverend Peter Gomes, minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church from 1974 to 2011, once said, “Traveling in the twentieth century with the Bible as map and compass was like taking a road journey with a two-thousand-year-old atlas: interesting to read but hardly likely to get you to where you wanted to go.”
In addition to the Bible’s inability to inform the modern human, we liberal religious people no longer use the Bible as the touchstone of our faith. Long ago we traded it for the common language of social justice, policy, and politics. As defensible as that may be, Conservative Christians wasted no time filling the hole we left behind, transforming the Bible from a source of hope and faith and love into a bludgeon and battering ram.
Many religious liberals waste a lot of breath defending the Bible and its strangeness in the name of contingency and irony and the historical critical method. Whole religious studies departments are filled with experts on ancient cultures and languages. But the Bible wasn’t just meant for nerds wearing tweed jackets in ivory towers.
Furthermore, the Bible was never intended to be a depiction of history in accordance with the standards most of us expect from modern historians. The Bible is a sacred history meant to inspire a moral imagination. A sacred history serves not simply as a history book; a sacred history is a living tradition, a lens through which the insights of the past are brought into this new age.
In the words of Krister Stendahl, former dean of Harvard Divinity School, the Bible is “Not history minus but poetry plus.” The Bible is the churches book. It is a poetic depiction of life’s mystery and magic. Its stories of judges and prophets and sages and mystics is addressed to anyone brave enough to live as it tells us to live, and love as it tells us to love.
Within its pages we find the words of St. Paul who, in his letter to the Ephesians, reminds us to “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, [and] forgiving” (4:31-32). And elsewhere, John cautions us to “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). The prophet Isaiah reminds us that the Lord loves justice, and hates robbery and wrongdoing (61:8). And the psalmist teaches “Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times” (106:3).
And we’d be wise to remember the Bible’s many lessons to “Fight the good faith,” to “Eat, drink, and be merry,” to look at the “Handwriting on the wall,” to follow the “Letter of the law,” to “Put your house in order,” and follow the “Strait and narrow”; but the wise counsel comes with a warning that we all live but by the “Sweat of your brow” between “wars and the rumors of wars,” and “weighed in the balances and found wanting.” And let’s not forget the cheeriest of reminders that all of us are nothing more than “Dust of the earth,” which means when it rains, we’re pretty much mud.
The story of Ruth teaches us about selflessness and commitment; the Psalms captures the voices of people who struggle with doubt and pain and grief; but just like us, they’re awed by this magical world, inspired by its beauty, and led by its stars.
The Bible is a message sent by people who traveled this world before us in fear and doubt and yet had faith that in the end love will save us all; and they called that love God.
It is commonly said that love has no beginning and it has no end; love is always becoming. It is always searching, forever led by faith, forever led by the love of growth, and the love of loving. There is no other word for this than hope. It is this same hope the authors of the sixty-six books of the Bible refer to as faithfulness. This hope and faithfulness is not some static thing; it requires action, it requires creativity, which leads me right back to the very beginning and the very end.
The Bible begins and ends with Creation. In the beginning a world is created, a world filled with strange people and places. People who fall in love and build cities and wage war and bury their dead and have children; some of those children love their parents while others deceive them to get an early inheritance. It is filled with people who doubt and cry and suffer narrow-mindedness. It is filled with prophets who tell us to beat our swords into ploughshares and love our neighbors as ourselves and to teach our children to love and love alike and to serve and preserve this great big world because in the end it’s the only one we’ve got.
The Bible is a sacred history about all people.
It is a sacred history of people who lived long before us. People who speak to us through centuries of tears and failures and triumphs—they urge us to live our lives with our hearts wide open. They tell us we’re almost certain to get it wrong from time-to-time. They show us our tendency for violence over compromise, doggedness over patience. But in the end, it tells us that to be human is to be a part of Creation itself.
These ancient and anonymous authors remind us that even though this world is wide and diverse and vast and confusing that we are all in this together, and that if there’s any hope at all it rests in our faith in one another. It reminds us we can be better; it tells us to behold each other and the world through a lens of love.
It tells us to live lives of moral courage, to hold fast to hope even in the dark nights of fear and trembling. It tells us that in the end it will be our faith in one another that holds us together. So, dear friends, have faith and give grace.
Peter J. Gomes, “The Bible and the Believer” in Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998), 207.
Gomes, “The Bible and the Believer,” 209.