Sunday, June 13, 2010

My last sermon until August 8!

WHAT THE BIBLE CAN MEAN TO UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS
By Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 13, 2010

Do you have a favorite Bible story? If so, toss it out there; let’s see what the stories are that stick in our minds. Now, is there a story or other passage in the Bible that bothers you a lot? Let’s get those out there too.

We Unitarian Universalists, as well as many other liberally religious folk, often have a love-hate relationship with the Bible. On the one hand, we love its wise stories, we revere much of its wisdom and poetry, and we have so many Biblical references that have taken root in our culture that it would be hard NOT to have some familiarity with the Bible.

On the other hand, there are a whole heap of stories and references that seem cruel, nonsensical in our day and age, and too puzzling to be meaningful in a good way.

When I started seminary in 1995, I felt a little wary about studying the Bible. Iliff was a United Methodist seminary and Methodists are big on the Bible, so it was a requirement at Iliff---a full year of Bible, one half of it being on the Hebrew Scriptures and one half on the Christian Scriptures. And I needed it to qualify as a Unitarian Universalist minister, as well.

I was pretty sure I didn’t know everything there was to know about the Bible, but though I liked some of what I knew, I was very uneasy about other passages and stories. And it bothered me a lot that many people whom I loved dearly believed the Bible was the literal, inerrant, totally true Word of God, straight from the mouth and heart of the Creator who put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

I was there, at one time. As a young child in a devout Christian home where Bible reading and devotional time was the order of every day, I heard the stories endlessly, was told they were true, and had no reason to believe otherwise. I knew my parents considered them true and that was good enough for me.

But as time went on, like many of you, I suspect, I began to wonder how they could possibly be factually true and eventually decided to just quietly wonder, commit myself to the passages that made sense to me, and see what I might discover as time went on.

So, getting ready to enter seminary, I was both excited to have scholarly men and women unfolding the meaning of such passages as a 6-day creation story, a water into wine story, and a bodily resurrection story and worried that perhaps even these learned professors would say that the stories were literally true.

I need not have been concerned. My Hebrew Bible professor was a top scholar in his field, a master of both the Hebrew and Greek languages, skilled in presenting the research that has gone on for centuries to reveal the culture and history of those ancient times, and a funny man to boot.

He unfolded for our class the mysteries of a set of books, supposedly written by Moses yet bearing evidence of several different authors and editors. For example, in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the writing style, the use of different terms for God, chunks of text that seem to have been inserted later by an editor, all betray different minds working to set down in writing the worldview of an ancient people of prehistory who knew nothing of science but did know how to shape a creation story into something meaningful for that culture.

We learned that there were actually two very different creation stories, one in which it took 6 days to set the universe and earth and living creatures in place, and another in which humans are created first. In this second story, the first man and woman receive names: Adam, which signifies “everyman” and Eve, which means “Mother of all living”. These then were symbolic names, not actual monikers. And the two stories seemed to indicate that there were at least two different story-tellers.

We learned about the context in which the purity laws in Hebrew scripture are distinctly apropos to those ancient times and reflect the ways by which a beleaguered people maintained their distinctiveness as a community and discouraged any act which did not further this cohesiveness.

The punitive nature of these laws, which have been so often used against sexual minorities, women, and children, was a factor of the times in which those early people lived and clearly out of place in our culture today. At the same time, other laws reflected universal human moral precepts: don’t steal, don’t covet others’ property or partners, don’t murder, take time to rest, honor your elders.

We learned to “unpack” the passages of the Bible to reveal the culture and mores of the writer, to find the original meanings of words and put them together to understand what the author meant by his or her words, to reveal the structure of the society in which the author lived, and to find meaning in it for our time, where possible.

We learned to look at scripture metaphorically, not literally, and I have to tell you, this was hard for some of our more conservative classmates, some of whom bailed out and went down the street to the Southern Baptist seminary nearby.

When we had completed our term of study of the Hebrew Bible, we turned to the Christian New Testament. Our professor was a young woman, an observant Conservative Jew whose doctoral thesis had been on the years linking the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures.

She too was a challenging and stimulating teacher, unfolding the differences in theology within the first four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

We learned that these books had been written up to 100 years after Jesus died, that they were similar in some places and very different in others, that the names of their authors were probably not actually Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John but that these names had been given to lend their stories credibility.

Each author had a particular bias about Jesus’ life and told the story with a certain slant, emphasizing certain aspects over others. In some, there is no birth story or the birth story is very different from the others; in some there is a resurrection story; in each book, some details are identical to the other books and other details are different.

During our yearlong journey in understanding the Bible not only as traditionally sacred literature but also as a guide to early religious and social culture, we learned the skill of “exegesis”, a term that refers to the critical analysis or interpretation of a word or a passage, particularly of religious texts.

There are several lenses to use in analyzing a text. I went back into my files from seminary looking for examples of some of these and was reminded of just how complex this task can be, dissecting a text for its historical context, its original sources, its setting and the traditions of that setting, its unique message, the meaning of its story and who its author might be, the ethical implications of the text and the comparison of it to our own time and place in history.

Whew! Just writing it all down again reminded me of how hard it can be to really understand all the factors that create a text----and how human it is to put our own spin on the text, whether we are reading and using it today or whether we were ancient people who revered a story.

Each term, we were assigned the task of “exegeting” a passage from the scripture canon we were studying. And in my excavating of my Iliff years, I ran across a paper I wrote at that time. We had been assigned to choose one of the methods of exegesis we’d studied, take one of the Psalms, and explain it, amplify it, unpack it using that method.

It was my first experience of feeling enraptured, enclosed, embodied in a Biblical text. I’d like to share part of it with you.

I’d been sitting at my kitchen table with books and journal articles piled around me, studying Psalm 121. I’d read it over and over:
1I lift up my eyes to the hills—
 from where will my help come?

2My help comes from the Lord,
 who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
 he who keeps you will not slumber. 

4He who keeps Israel
 will neither slumber nor sleep.
5The Lord is your keeper;
 the Lord is your shade at your right hand. 

6The sun shall not strike you by day,
 nor the moon by night.


7The Lord will keep you from all evil;
 he will keep your life.

8The Lord will keep
 your going out and your coming in

from this time on and for evermore.


I’d always thought these words were beautiful yet in my post-modern skeptical frame of mind, I’d dismissed their literal meaning, and then …

As I sat at the kitchen table, looking over my stack of articles and notes, trying to find the right approach, one that was scholarly but also meaningful to me, unbidden music came into my thoughts, as it often does when I’m pondering. An old Sunday School song: “Safe am I, safe am I, in the hollow of his hand; sheltered o’er, sheltered o’er, with his love forevermore. No ill can harm me, no foe alarm me, for he keeps both day and night. Safe am I, safe am I, in the hollow of his hand.”

The song sang itself over and over. I closed my eyes and tried to let myself feel where it was coming from.

Noise in my ears, a roaring. Rain down the back of my neck, my wet sneakers desperately trying to find a toehold on the steep slope. A long way down to the rocky beach beneath me, the sound of sobbing, and a deep voice----“hang on, honey, Daddy’s coming”.

My father’s gasping breaths, his anxious face, and then his strong arm scooping me up and carrying me bodily up the ocean cliff to the safety of the path, as the rest of my family hurried up the trail to us.

We had been walking on an isolated scallop of shoreline near Cannon Beach, Oregon, when someone commented that we needed to be careful because the tide was coming in and we could easily be cut off and stranded by the rising water. I had panicked, as six-year-olds will, and had, in my fright, climbed halfway up a steep, grassy cliff before getting stuck--unable to go up or down--and clinging precariously to wet hummocks of slippery seagrass. My father’s quick action and strength had rescued me from terror and possibly serious injury, and as he held me tight, once we were safe, it seemed as though a miracle had occurred.

At the top of the headland, my mother scolded and hugged me, while my sister looked on wide-eyed. My father leaned against a tree and tried to breathe. The desperate trip had cost him dearly. “Merritt, are you all right?” my mother was alarmed.

“I’m not sure--let me rest a minute. I can hardly breathe and my chest hurts. But Betsy's okay, that’s the important thing.”
Psalm 121, a child’s version

“I lift up my eyes to the hills,
Where is someone to help me?
My help comes from my father who is coming for me,
He will not let me slip from the cliff,
He is always alert to his child,
He who keeps me will neither slumber nor sleep.
He will keep me safe,
He will protect me from the terrors of the day and of the night.
He will protect me from all evil, he will save my life.
He will carry me to the path, he will be my help forevermore.”

Psalm 121 to me will always be a cry for rescue and comfort, though as I examined others’ arguments on this text, which have to do with warrior prayer and pilgrim journey poetics, certainly Psalm 121 has a broader, earlier application than to a little girl trapped by her fear on a steep cliff. But this is a psalm that has had a good deal of personal meaning to its readers over many centuries, and its meaning to me has endured these many years.

In fact, as I thought about my own choice of this Psalm, I realized that I have thought about its words as I puffed my way up steep slopes in the Cascades and the Rockies or pondered my life after some experience which shook my equilibrium and sent me reeling into the mountains for comfort.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where will my help come?” is a question, a prayer that many of us express in troubled times.

As Vicky and I were preparing this service together, we talked about our own misgivings about the Bible, our lack of trust in translations that leave women out of its history, that support cruelty toward minority groups, women, and children, that seem to be taken so literally by so many believers.

Jesus felt like a true prophet but were his words written down faithfully? Wasn’t it possible that the authors of the gospels, relying on oral versions of Jesus’ life, wrote their stories with a less-than-factual slant? How could we possibly know what is true and what is legend?

The Bible is only one of the many sources of inspiration we Unitarian Universalists use in our spiritual journeys. Some of us have shunned the Bible as a source because of the difficulty in finding modern meaning in it, because of the supernatural aspects of some of its stories, because of the war-like attitudes that permeate so many of its passages.

So what can the Bible mean to us Unitarian Universalists, spiritual seekers who have deep reservations about beliefs in the supernatural, who need a rational approach to truth, who reject cruel advice and rules, and who may have been badly hurt by religions that enforce punitive religious laws.

Here’s what I think:

I find meaning in the Bible when I read between the lines, when I look for the deeper message in the puzzling stories, find the passages that speak to me, and let go of the ones that do not. Perhaps someday I will find meaning there; for now, I will leave them to others.

There are parts of the Bible I find inspiring and parts I reject. In all of those parts, the good ones and the bad, I am reminded that these are the words and deeds of an entirely different time and culture and these are the responses of people who were very different from me. But they are human and we share many of the same struggles.

Many others before us have doubted the traditional interpretations of the Bible. Thomas Jefferson took a King James Version of the gospels and examined it closely, cutting out the parts that he felt were not really Jesus’ words, that were in conflict with the lessons Jesus was teaching during his ministry.

He then published a small book which we call nowadays the Jefferson Bible, containing only those words and stories which seemed to him consistent with Jesus’ message. He felt that the Christianity of his time had diverged tragically from Jesus’ message and intent.

The Bible contains so many cultural references, in Shakespeare’s plays, Renaissance art, Milton’s poetry, in countless songs and symphonies, so that not to know something about the Bible can make us culturally impoverished.

The Bible can help us understand ancient peoples and their culture. It offers us timeless wisdom via its stories and historical themes. It offers us insights into early religious history and practices. It reveals the origins of the now badly-battered foundations of Christianity and gives insight into the life and philosophy of one of history’s most influential teachers, the man Jesus. And it offers many universal and timeless moral precepts.

The Bible in all its human imperfection, its portrayal of human joys and cruelties, its stories of timeless human struggle and heroism, its drama and poetry and legend, the Bible is worth our attention, our study, our respect, and our judicious acceptance.

Its cruel passages do not negate its loving passages, just as our own human wrongdoing does not negate our own ability to love and nurture. It is as human as we are and as worthy of our love.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, reconsidering the wisdom of a set of books we may have previously rejected. May we be open to the ancient wisdom of the Bible, finding new insights and understandings in its timeless stories and precepts. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

5 comments:

LinguistFriend said...

Well, I have lost track of what is happening between now and August.
This is part two, that much is clear. And there is a place for such learning, especially since Christian laymen do not often learn those things which you learned in seminary to take for granted (or, more wisely, not to take for granted). In my life, I have mainly known Jews for whom such study of texts is important, and for some of them it is as heretical as it is for many Christians. This morning I visited the Lutheran church of a woman minister whom I had learned to respect in other contexts, apart from her church services, so that I felt obligated to visit. And there I found the Shema, the Jewish declaration of the unity and divinity of God, as part of the service. Wherever someone has learned to fit these things together is a good place to be, even to visit.

ms. kitty said...

I'm going on vacation in July and am not scheduled to preach again until Aug. 8, that's what is happening. Not that I'm going anywhere much, just enjoying not working very hard.

Thanks for your thoughts, LF. The congregation was appreciative this morning as well.

Miss Kitty said...

Ms. K, once again you've posted a wonderful sermon. Thank you for your thoughtful words! They're just what I needed to read, and should be read by many more people.

Congrats too on your upcoming vacation. It sure is nice to take a break now and then from one's vocation, isn't it? :-)

kimc said...

While I don't remember my Papa rescuing me any specific time (he did rescue my sister though), that is how I felt about my father too.
You used the word "murder" rather than "kill" when referring to the Ten Commandments. Is it your opinion that the writer meant murder rather than kill? I've heard strong opinions both ways.

ms. kitty said...

Hi, KimC, when I was in seminary, my Hebrew Bible prof translated the word "kill" as used in the 10 Commandments as "murder", to differentiate the act of killing for food from killing for other reasons.

And Miss K, thanks for your kind words.