Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sermon; 18 Pentecost, Proper 21B; Mark 9:38-50

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean.”

I could be wrong, but I think this quote is more meaningful now than when Lewis Carroll penned it 145 years ago.  It seems to me that people will use a word of opinion and treat it as fact, while using the same word of fact and treat it as an unverifiable opinion.  There are many ways this comes up, but one of the most annoying uses of words to mean what a person wants them to mean is the word “literal” – especially when that word gets tied to the Bible.

As in:  I believe in the literal word of the Bible; I believe the Bible is literally true; we take the Bible literally.  The overarching term for this is called biblical literalism, and some people use it as a club against anyone who they think is not a real, true Christian.

You can hear cries of biblical literalism when people rail against marriage equality, women's ordination and accounts of creation, just to name a few.  And you will always know when you've come into contact with a biblical literalist when that person begins or counters an argument with, “The Bible clearly says . . .”

But here's the thing, there are very few things for which the Bible clearly says.  Or, more correctly, there are very few things for which the Bible clearly says that we actually believe and obey.  And that is why biblical literalism is, at best a myth, and at worst a club used to beat down those who have different interpretations.

The Bible clearly says slavery is not only normative, but condoned by God; but this country fought a war to banish that evil practice.  The Bible clearly says we are to honor the Sabbath; but how many of us will do some sort of shopping or work today?  The Bible clearly says that those who don't honor the Sabbath are to be executed; but how many of us fear for our lives as we do that shopping?  The Bible clearly says that women are to be silent in church, that we are not to wear two kinds of fabric, that those with physical imperfections or foreign blood are not to be admitted to the house of God, that aliens are to be treated as equal citizens, that newly wed soldiers are to receive a year sabbatical from military service and a whole host of other things that we conveniently choose to ignore.

If you think I am cherry-picking selected, brutal Old Testament passages, let's pay attention to today's gospel.  If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.  If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.  If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.

These are not the brutal edicts from an iron-age desert tribe.  These are the words of the man whom we consider to be the Savior of the world.

Biblical literalism is a myth.  Nobody follows the bible literally.  Everybody makes personal or communal interpretations.  Everyone picks and chooses which parts of the Bible are important and worth following . . . or worth using to attack others.  And this is where biblical literalism is most problematic, because those who claim a version of biblical literalism spend most of their time attacking those who don't follow their particular understanding of the Bible.

I was in a group one time where I put forth my understanding and reasoning for granting LGBT people full equality:  love God, love your neighbor; there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; God shows no partiality; respect the dignity of every human being.  I was soundly attacked by a woman who pastored a church where she taught, and her congregation understood, that gays were going to hell because the Bible says so.

Um . . . think about that for a minute . . . a woman . . . pastored a church . . . where she taught . . .

Biblical literalism at its finest right there.

But we can get so hung up on what the Bible says and arguing with others about that, that we forget something very important.  We can get so focused on the fact that some people aren't doing things the way we are doing them that we miss the bigger picture.  And that bigger picture comes at the beginning of today's gospel.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he wasn't following us.”  At which point Jesus ordered his disciples to stone the heretic because he wasn't using the authorized version of exorcism and he wore a cotton-flax blended shirt while doing it.

No, that's not what happened.  What happened is that Jesus chided his disciples to focus less on their differences and more on their similarities.

Let's face it, we are not going to make every person in Grants Pass an Episcopalian.  We aren't even going to convert every Christian in Grants Pass to the Episcopal church.  The goal of Christian unity is not to make everyone Episcopalians; the goal of Christian unity is to focus on our similarities.

Biblical literalism is a myth, but biblical truth is not.  What would happen if people spent less time on where others are getting it wrong and more time on what we are all doing right?  What would happen if we spent less time attacking others for not following the Bible as we understand it and more time on living into the truth of Christ?  I think what might happen is that the words of the Lord's Prayer might actually come true . . . on earth as it is in heaven.



Lady Anne | 8:25 PM, September 28, 2015  

As I have mentioned before, one of the biggest problems with taking the King James Bible literally is that it was written in plain old every day English. Seventeenth century plain old English. How many people would know that St. Paul's remark "I know nothing *against* myself" actually means "I know nothing *by* myself"? (Go stand against the wall.) Or that "meat" was simply food, whether fish, fowl, or lamb. Even by the eighteenth century "meat" was meat, and side dishes were sauce, so your could sauce your roast venison with carrots and potatoes, without any gravy. I'd venture to guess that nary a one of these "literal" Bible thumpers have seen the inside of a seminary, never mind studied second century Greek. They are sore let and hindered by their ignorance.

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