Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sermon, Easter 4A, 1 Peter 2:(18), 19-25

I am part of an ecumenical group of clergy from Eugene to Medford, called the Micah Group, which takes its name from Micah 6:8.  We meet about every other month to discuss issues of worship and preaching in our various contexts.  At our first gathering, the leader of the group gave us a handout that said, “Context is everything.”

From our varying denominations and worship styles to how we interpret the Bible, context is everything.  Last week I served on a jury.  We were allowed to hear, or not hear, various things about the case.  What we heard or didn't hear shaped our verdict.  Had we heard or not heard other things, the context of the trial would have been changed, and that might have changed the outcome.

Context is important.  And to point out how important context is, and how it can shape our perceptions and interpretations, I am going to address our second reading today.  The Epistle comes from 1 Peter 2:19-25.  To help you, I’ll ask that it be read again.  Pay attention, there will be a quiz.

To whom is this passage addressed?  I’m guessing we hear it addressed to us.  And I’m guessing that we hear it as reiterating the normalcy of punishment for wrongdoing (such as the trial I served on), and a reminder that when we are punished unjustly we walk with Christ; we carry our cross, so to speak.

This passage, in the context presented to us today, reminds us that we are called to follow Christ’s example of suffering.  We are reminded, in the context presented today, that when we suffer in the name of Christ, we have God's approval.  We also need to remember that, in the context of our world today, we are not really subject to persecution and suffering.

As you may have guessed, there's a big BUT to this; and that BUT comes from the lectionary itself.  The lectionary omitted Verse 18 from the reading.  Do any of you know what Verse 18 consists of?  For those who don't, or can't remember, let me read the complete passage.

1 Peter 2:18-25

That verse changes the whole context of the reading.  “Slaves accept the authority of your masters, both kind and harsh alike.  If you are beaten for having done wrong, who cares?  But if you are beaten for having done right, you have God's approval.”  How does that one verse change the context of the passage, and how does it change how you hear it?

This passage, if not condoning slavery, certainly doesn't object to it.  This passage was used by slave owners, and those in favor of slavery, to justify the abhorrent and awful system of human ownership.  This passage was used by segregationists as a justification for the equally oppressive and unjust system of both apartheid and “separate but equal.”  It was used then, and is used now, by people in positions of power and privilege to justify the status quo.  This passage is used to justify an ofttimes snail-paced process of granting equality.

One paper I read about this passage put forward the idea that this country would have been much better off if Lincoln hadn't freed the slaves, but if we had worked out a system of slow release and integration.  And while people have made that argument, what it really amounts to is this: “Please understand how hard it is for those in charge to treat Those People like equals.  Change is hard.  Just be patient, suffer quietly, and eventually we'll get around to possibly granting You People equality.”

All of this amounts to a misuse and abuse of Scripture.  It's a misuse of Scripture on the part of the lectionary to remove passages that change the context of what was originally written.  In their effort to not offend anyone, they remove the very verses and/or passages that we must struggle with to, as Paul said, “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”

And it's an abuse of Scripture when passages like this are used to maintain and defend a status quo that favors those in positions of power.  Asking people to continue to suffer because those in positions of power are uncomfortable with extending equality to others is both unacceptable and abusive.  It is unacceptable to deny justice and equality, and that denial allows for the continued abuse of Others.  And it is unacceptable and sinful to read and interpret Scripture in ways that allow for the sanctioned abuse of others.

Also unacceptable is the penchant for the powerful majority to claim persecution while demanding immediate changes.  Think about the hullabaloo over “Merry Christmas” every year and the claims that Christians are being persecuted by merchants who say “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas.”  They want immediate redress for this perceived wrong.  Or think about merchants who claimed that their deeply held religious beliefs forbade them from doing business with African Americans.  After all, segregation is sanctioned in the Bible.

If we who have power by virtue of our gender, skin color and/or religious affiliation are unwilling to follow Peter's admonition and willingly suffer wrongs (or more likely, perceived wrongs), what gives us the right to force others to suffer injustices and inequalities for things far more serious than a store clerk not saying, “Merry Christmas?”

It all comes back to context.  By removing one verse, this passage from Peter is all about us and how we can better follow Christ.  By including that one verse, it makes us more aware of what real suffering and persecution entail, as well as how the Bible can be improperly used to protect the status quo.

This passage from Peter was not meant to be used as a defense for the mistreatment or denial of justice and equality of others.  What Peter is doing is saying that if we are in a situation of true persecution from which we can't escape, then we should keep the faith and behave toward our captors as Christ behaved toward those who persecuted and executed him.

Almost hidden in this passage and overlooked is Peter's reminder that “Jesus bore our sins on the cross so that we might live in righteousness.”  The sins he bore include our sin of reading Scripture out of context, our sin of using the Bible to sanction discrimination, our sin of preferring the status quo over full inclusion and equality, and the sin of claiming abuse when there is none.

Context is everything.  In the context of this passage we are reminded to treat those who persecute us as Christ treated those who persecuted him.  And in the context of the letter as a whole, we are reminded to not use our freedom as a pretext for evil, remembering to honor everyone.

My prayer is that, sooner rather than later, we will all move beyond using Scripture as a series of verses we use to benefit Us while excluding Them, and get to a point where we use the context of Scripture that calls us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.



Lady Anne | 11:37 AM, May 12, 2014  

Regarding the idea that this country would have been better off if a system had been worked out to free the slaves gradually - such a system was already in effect in England at the time of the American Revolution, which was why the British could offer freedom to any slave who joined their army.

It took five years to gain freedom. The first year, the slave was paid one day's wage per week, but the master was still responsible for clothing, food, etc. The second year, the slave received two days wages per week, but had to provide all of their own clothing. The third year, they had to take care of their own food. And so it went.

This system gave slaves the chance to learn to handle money, which many have never even seen before, and if they had any common sense, to purchase a bed or other pieces of furniture early on, because in a few years, they were going to have to furnish their own homes.

When the American Civil War was over, Union soldiers simply went in and turned the slaves out of their homes. They had no skills and no money, and their owners were not about to be much help. While slavery in America was officially over, it didn't really end - it just took a different form.

Reverend Ref + | 12:07 PM, May 12, 2014  

Oh, I have no doubt that the whole situation could have been handled much better. And how President Johnson handled the end of the war and reconstruction (which didn't really reconstruct much of anything) was certainly less-than-ideal.

I don't think the U.S. would have gotten to the point of England in granting freedom simply because the whole southern economy was built around slave labor.

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