I have many an intentional conversation. My job as a pastor requires a few intentional conversations. Furthermore, my job as a pastor often means that my intentional conversations will center around God, Jesus, the Bible, spirituality, and the like. I have conversations with quite a few people, my friends inside our church, friends outside of our church. Friends of friends, family members and their friends, social media friends, who are really just friends of cousins of friends who we met for 30 minutes when we were passing through Pittsburgh, and everyone in between.
Here’s what I can tell you about all of these conversations that I have with all people, some of us included. It’s astounding and amazing how everyone has a different opinion on God, Jesus, the bible, and the way to live out a Christian faith. I mean there are some absolute differences of opinion. And yet, everyone cites the scriptures as evidence for their opinion. It’s really incredible. What’s absolutely amazing to me is that each person I encounter, and I’ll throw myself into this mix, creates God in their own image and then uses the bible to back up this God we created in our own image.
I like the way the author Anne Lamott says it,
You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
This is true and exceptional. We create our God in our own image and then go searching through scripture to make sure that there is evidence to back up our God. How do we do this? By taking our scriptures out of context and fitting them into our narratives that confirm all that we think or feel.
I use this example all of the time so my apologies if you’ve heard it before but I think it gets the point across. When I was 31 years old someone reached back and punched me square in the face. It was pretty crazy.
That’s right. When I was 31 years old I was in the hospital. My oldest daughter was just born. I held her in my arms and in the midst of her crying, she held balled up her tiny fist and hit me in the chin. It was crazy. There I was holding a brand new life and this was my daughter. Do you see how we can use context (or lack there of) to create a narrative that meets our own ends, ambitions, desires, and biases? And so we do this with the Bible quite a bit. We cite scriptures to create alternative narratives that help us meet our own end.
An acquaintance and fellow pastor, Rich Villodas says this, and I think it’s poignant for today’s talk,
“We can read the Bible every day and still have our hearts firmly against the ways of the kingdom of God. Until we read scripture through the lens of the crucified Christ, our exegesis (interpretation) becomes subject to political preference and a tool to protect a status quo that benefits us.”
I think this is especially poignant as we end our series on racism and privilege. A couple of weeks ago I preached a message on institutional racism and briefly discussed the historical views of the Christian church. Brief reminder, the historical views of the Christian church were largely racist, bigoted, and inhumane. But how did the church get to that place and how does some of the church maintain the same racist, bigoted, and hateful views? That’s right, scripture. Scripture without context creates for us a narrative that works to benefit our views and beliefs.
And what’s tragic is that scripture without context, while discounted now, created a Christian culture of racism that still persists to this day. I’m going to point to some Bible stories taken out of context used to perpetuate racism. Let me tell you, some of the stories I’ll use today are downright wacky. Don’t let anyone tell you the bible is boring.
For instance there’s a story in Genesis that’s now dubbed, “The Curse of Ham.”
Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked. When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” He also said“ Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. – Genesis 9:20-26
What we have is Noah, of Noah’s ark fame, getting wildly drunk and passing out. We can save that commentary for later. Noah’s son, Ham comes in and sees his father naked, a big no no in ancient near east culture. When Noah finds out he curses Ham and tells the world the Ham’s son Canaan will become slaves. Are we all following along?
For the sake of time I can tell you three things about this passage in context. It was written by the people of Israel during their enslavement by the Babylonians. It was written to instill pride in Israel. Israel finally found their own land by taking over the Canaanites. If you’re trying to tell a story about a nation looking for freedom and revival, you tell a story about the enemy you once defeated named, Canaan. And in context that’s all that this story is.
It is a rousing patriotic tale that begs the people of Israel who are now enslaved to remember the possibility of freedom.
The advent of slavery brought about the need for justification. Like I said, we need to create our own god and scriptural narratives in order to meet our needs. Christian slave holders needed just that. In some poor Hebrew translations, the name, Ham translates to, “Dark” or “Black.” And so without the context of Israel’s own slavery and occupation, without the context of Israel harkening back to a time when they defeated Canaanites to make themselves free, we get a story of Noah cursing his son, “Black” or “Dark,” which means that God must ordain slavery of those with a dark or black skin color. Later on this same story was used to justify slavery of just about any person deemed “rebellious” in nature.
Without context we’ve turned a story that begs the people of Israel who are now enslaved to remember the possibility of freedom into a story about telling the enslaved that there is no possibility of freedom! The irony.
Citing this passage, the Reverend, Henry Van Dyke, a Brooklynite by the way, expressed bewilderment at the fact that abolitionists could ever be Christians. He says these words,
“When an abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is a sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point to him this sacred record and say in all candor (just as the bible does) that the abolitionist’s teaching blasphemes the name of God and his doctrine.”
Let’s do another story used without context to create ideologies beneficial to racist ideology. In fact, this story was brought up and discussed in our small group. Rightly so. This story is used to oppress people and create segregation. It’s so ingrained in our Christian imagination that It had to be brought up in small group.
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. – Genesis 11:1-9
If we were to take scripture as words on page and out of context then we might get the idea that diversity of language, culture, and people is inherently sinful. It was created because people thought that they could build a huge tower as an affront to God. Sadly, many biblical literalists throughout history have used this story to justify racism, slavery, and segregation, just to name a few.
So let’s start looking around scripture for context and when we do that we see some lineages back in Genesis chapter 10. Lineages may look boring but they’re always good for figuring out context. Just start googling some of these names and in a hundredth of a second you’ll find out some interesting info on these lineages. For instance,
Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon…….Genesis 10
Okay, there is a guy who is the lead builder of Babylon. What’s his name? It’s Nimrod. There are better names. There are worse. It says that Nimrod is a mighty warrior and hunter. That’s another way of saying that Nimrod is a military power of the day. He is a metaphor for an empire. Now here’s another fun fact. Nimrod in the Hebrew means, “to rebel.” Here’s where it gets interesting. Where does Nimrod come from? He’s from Canaan. We just talked about Canaan didn’t we? Canaan was defeated. So what we’re doing is telling another story about a descendant of Canaan, the enemy, who by building this tower is rebelling against the good guys, the Israelites. And this enemy was ruthless and powerful. This enemy wanted to crush the little guy.
The story reflects a growing awareness and concern that there is a higher good for humanity than the strong dominating the weak, the powerful crushing the powerless, and the proud raising themselves up to godlike status. It’s a story about what can happen in humanity when power, accumulation, and ego become greater than recognizing one’s humanity.
In short, it’s a story about the dangers of the powerful exposing the powerless.
And what have we done with this story? We’ve focused on the language aspect, which by the way, it’s widely agreed to be a way to explain the fact that Babylon taking over the Israelites did some serious damage to the Hebrew language, and decided that this must be a story about keeping races separate.
We’ve taken a story about God getting angry about the injustice of the powerful exposing the powerless and we used it to justify the powerful exposing the powerless!! Oh sweet irony!
Now you may think about this as being utterly preposterous. I certainly do. And the truth is that this scripture cited and taken out of context was used to justify not only slavery, but the forbidding of mixed race marriage, which is some cases was upheld by some Christian institutions right up until the year 2000! (Bob Jones University) 18 years ago! Most of us were alive! Scripture outside of context is dangerous and has kept Christianity complicit in racist ideology.
I said a couple of weeks ago that we take the Bible far too seriously to take it literally. This is what I mean. Without context we can use the Bible to perpetuate racism, privilege and oppression.
We can take a passage like this one.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, - Romans 13:1
And without context, have no clue that Paul is talking about practicing civil disobedience rather than starting an all out war with the Roman Empire. And so this gets quoted without context by Christian leaders who want us to be obedient when we see egregious acts of oppression and injustice to immigrants, to women, to the LGBTQIA community, and to those of different religions. That’s never what scripture intended!
I can take the Bible out of context all day to justify racism, privilege, power, and anything else! We can do this all day! And it scares me.
If our church cares deeply about ending racism and bringing equity then we cannot take the bible literally. We must take it very seriously giving this living, breathing, covenant the attention it deserves and the context it deserves!
And here is the way we give it context.
One more story. This story is about the transfiguration. After all it’s transfiguration Sunday and I know that so many of you were wondering, “When will he talk about the transfiguration? Don’t think I would leave something so important out. I also think the transfiguration teaches us how to take our scripture seriously but not literally. It teaches us what it looks like to be progressive. It teaches us what it looks like to partner in a movement that ends racism and brings equity to people of color, women, LGBTQIA, immigrants, dreamers, and everyone else who’s ever had to live in fear because of their otherness.
About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen. – Luke 9:28-36
This is indeed the mystery of Christ right here. The flat reading of scripture without context brings up a whole lot.
But if we’re to put this passage into context it becomes a story about the flat reading of scripture and what happens when we don’t put scripture into context. The irony continues!
This is the story where Jesus becomes greater than the Old Testament. It’s where one testament (an old testament) gives way to another testament (the new testament) and that testament is all about Jesus. If we want to take the bible seriously but not literally then we must see scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ. Let’s dig deeper.
Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)
Oh Peter. His impulse is to build three shelters. Why? Because in his reading of scripture and the entirety of Judaism’s reading of scripture at that point, the three men were equals. At that point Moses and Elijah represented holy justice and holy law. Moses represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets. Jesus is just another one of them. Stay with me because this is gonna get good.
Those who practice Judaism will say that they are guided through darkness by the constellations who are considered prophets and the law, which is considered Moses and the prophets. So up until this point anything that is said or done by Moses or Elijah is equal to anything Jesus does. Peter does as much by giving each of them a tent. This is a flat reading of scripture that doesn’t take into account Jesus and what his incarnation means. So what happens when Peter tries to do this?
While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone.
What happens? Jesus is alone. He’s there upstaging the law and the prophets. I think Brian Zahnd says it best in talking about what this means.
“(The transfiguration) shows us that the bible is not a flat text where every passage carries the same weight. There is a new word of God. The law and prophets no longer have final say. It’s Jesus that has final say!
Everything must be looked at through the lens and context of Christ.”
So we know when Jesus preaches his most famous sermon, the one on the Mount, he ends up saying, “I didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets, I’ve come to fulfill them.” This is what the transfiguration shows us! And when Jesus famously says,
“Love the Lord your God with all of your heart mind and soul for all of the law and the prophets rest on this command….” Once again it points to the fact that law and prophets (Moses and Elijah) not equals. Jesus is the word made flesh. Jesus is the ultimate context of scripture.
So today we can look in the Bible and point out any number of places where we see scripture that seeks to oppress, thwart, become violent, or marginalize. Like I said before, they’re everywhere. But the transfiguration tells us that we can’t look at any of them without putting them in the context of Jesus Christ. If the values don’t match up with the values of Jesus then it probably means we need to dig a little deeper.
When we have one of the aforementioned conversations and someone says that God condoned violence and oppression of people because it’s all over the Old Testament, we can point to the transfiguration and say that the law given by Moses isn’t on the same level as the law of Christ!
We can’t cite Moses in order to silence Jesus. We can’t cite segregation and racism in the book of Genesis without looking at what Jesus does first. We can’t look at the book of Romans and the obedience to the rulers without looking to see what Jesus says about this. Jesus is the ultimate context. And here’s the best part. This is radical, it’s powerful, and it’s absolutely central to anyone’s Christianity. It’s this idea that makes us Christian!
During this series we’ve asked you to do a few things. We’ve asked you to listen. We’ve asked you to develop a righteous anger and grief. We’ve challenged you to develop real and lasting friendships with people that are different than you. We’ve told you to read authors who are not your own ethnicity. We’ve asked you dispel racist myths. We’ve asked you to show up. We’ll continue to ask you to do those things. We hope that you’ll go to the racism and faith workshop. Just because this series is over doesn’t mean that the conversation and action ends.
But here’s the last thing I’m going to ask you to do. When you read the bible, don’t read it flatly. Don’t read it literally. Take it seriously. And by taking it seriously I want us to always put in in the context of Jesus. This Sunday tells us that Jesus is the word made flesh, the fulfillment of the law and prophets. If it contradicts Jesus then we’re not reading it in context. So let’s end today by reading the teachings of Jesus. I want to read his most important passage by which we can see the rest of scripture and the lens through which we work to eradicate racism and bring equity. Let’s read it with all of those who are hurt from racism in heart and mind.
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
Let’s get into some trouble. Amen.