Sunday, September 26, 2021
Biblical literalism certainly possesses an attractiveness or an allure for certain folks. With biblical literalism comes a sense of an unwavering truth, a bedrock of surety, and an exactness that cannot be compromised. The difficulty with biblical literalism, however, is that it is an illusion. A colleague once humorously demonstrated the pitfalls of literalism. He noted that many times when a person who takes the Bible literally has a question, he or she will open the Bible and place their finger on a verse. The act is a way of seeking guidance, direction, a sign. The Bible randomly offers guidance because it is inerrant. My colleague used the fictitious example of someone practicing this Biblical roulette. One opens the Bible, and her finger alights on the verse, “Judas hanged himself.” Unsure of what that might mean for the particular quandary she experiences, the individual flips to another section of the Bible hoping to find a clearer verse that will give direction. Again, the finger alights on a sentence. It reads, “Go and do likewise.” Oops.
Similarly, the text for today functions to disabuse us of Biblical literalism. Jesus’ words are crystal clear:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell
Yet, how many of us would really cut off a hand or foot or tear out our eye? Certainly, all of these body parts have caused us to sin at some point in life. Thus, for those who want absolute certainty and faith beyond the shadow of a doubt, this is not the text that you want your fingers to alight upon when you are seeking a sign. As one colleague noted, “We take the Bible so seriously that we don’t take it literally.” We take the Bible so seriously that we don’t take it literally. Indeed, when we take the Bible literally, it loses so much of its power. Metaphor, allegory, analogy, symbolism, and the many other tools of literary analysis are deprived of their power and force when we pretend that this sacred text can be read literally. Such literalism places the text in a prison cell, where the very life of the narrative goes to die. Rather, the text is to be interpreted, played with, given the respect that it is due so that the text might live and breathe new life into the old bones of our interpretations, our actions, and, indeed, our very selves.
Which, interestingly, is part of what Jesus teaches in today’s text: new life into the old bones of what people thought or practiced. The disciples come to Jesus, bothered by a man who drives out demons in Jesus’ name. Their vanity precedes them. They tell Jesus that they tried to stop him, because he was not following us. And how often has this been the cause of strife and division in churches down through the centuries? It’s not so much that others are heretical or misapplying the teachings of Jesus. More often than not, the difficulties and problems that we have with others is that they are not doing it our way! There certainly have been appropriate reformations in the history of the church. People guiding us all back to a more faithful rendering of following Jesus. However, so much of the alphabet soup of Christian traditions--ECUSA, ELCA, UCC, UMC, AME, RC, PCUSA, and more--is belief in our way more so than Jesus’ way. How easy it is to get onto this slippery slope of mistaking our piety and peccadilloes for Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is right. When we do this, it would be better for a millstone to be hung around our neck and we were thrown into the sea. By mistaking our piety and peccadilloes for Jesus’ teaching we become a stumbling block, or, as the Greek word translates, a scandal.
Yet, the true scandal is Jesus himself, not in a way that horrifies people but in the way that his life reflected God and challenged the conventional wisdom of how God should act. Paul says as much in his letter to the Corinthians, “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” That stumbling block should be translated scandal. It is not Jesus’ birth that offends. It is not Jesus’ teachings that irritate. It is not Jesus’ healings that confound. It is his crucifixion that is a scandal. Which also may give us a lens through which to interpret what is at the heart of our tradition and should be at the heart of our belief and practice. Literalism is not necessary. Christ crucified is. This act shapes and critiques everything that we create and invites us to keep this event front and center to how we pray, commune, gather, and act in the world. The fullness of God and the humility of God undergoing ultimate pain, suffering, and death. Thus, inviting us to lose ourselves and our piety and peccadilloes and follow in the humbleness and self-sacrifice of Jesus.
And doing this can become transformational for us. It is not that we need others to believe the way that we do. Our engagement in the community of faith is to belong to something larger than ourselves and to enjoy the goodness that can come with connection. However, it is never done as a way of closing ourselves off or excluding others. Proper humility doesn’t allow us to judge those around us as unworthy because they are not following us. Rather such a posture reminds us that the life that God gives us is the life that is offered to all, yet such life in others may manifest itself in ways that are different from how we may experience it. Indeed, as Jesus says, “no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” There are many ways that Christ is present and active in the world. There is no one way of living into this reality. Which is a wonderful truth. Our motto reflects this: Inclusive because Diversity was God’s idea. We welcome the other. We embrace difference. We look for how the body is strengthened because it is diverse and multifaceted.
We are participating with Yale Divinity School in a program of Reimagining the Church. It is clear that the way many of us have experienced church over the years, while nurturing and sustaining also is something that may not be viable in this way long term. Thus, we are invited not to conform the world to our way of seeing it and being in it. Making people follow us rather than Christ. On the contrary, we are invited to imagine the myriad ways that God is at work in the world and how our lives align with that presence and that promise. It means walking away from literalism, leaning into the stumbling blocks of life, and seeking wisdom and meaning and purpose there. Such a posture can be unnerving, uncertain, unpredictable. Yet, isn’t that what life is? And the scandal that we hold to is a reminder that we are never alone in this endeavor. Christ crucified: the sign and symbol of God’s eternal love for you.