A Sermon for 9/4/16

Congregational United Church of Christ,  Iowa City, Iowa

"Why Are Some Bible Texts So Difficult?"      Rev. Jeff Barton

Jeremiah 18:-1-11 Psalm 139:1-12,17-18, 23 Luke 14:25-33



Bill Lovin has been asking questions in his sermon titles the past weeks as he has begun to help us consider, learn from, and be inspired by the story of Jeremiah, a prophet who spoke with God's purpose in his time and with God's promise for all times.  


As I tried to find a particular question to use as a title,  and as I deferred to the selected lectionary texts for this Sunday, I wanted to be helpful and faithful; I wanted to be clever.  Instead I am confused.  Thus I have labored quite diligently to share with you a way past all the confusion towards some creative understanding of the good news of faith for us and for all.


So, beyond the texts, I recognize that this is Labor Day weekend and a moment in time to honor and highlight the work of women and men in our society that too often values capital more then it values labor.   And I recognize that this is the beginning of the NCAA football season, which is valued even more by many of our neighbors than the Advent/Christmas or the Lent/Easter season.  And I recognize that this is part of the end of summer and start of the school year experience in which many individuals and families struggle to gain - or regain  - a balance of the life of meaning, purpose and connection that is a key component of the faith covenant we claim and we share.   And I recognize that this is one of our special communion Sundays, where we try to find comfort and strength in sharing a symbolic ritual that speaks to both our particular individual lives and also to our communal connection to each other and to generations of those who have shared this sacrament in ages past.  


So I admit,  I am confused.   I want the lessons for this Sunday to clarify things for me,  and for us all.  But they are,  as are many such Biblical texts, difficult.  They are difficult to understand.  They say nothing at all about Hawkeye or Cyclone football, which might be the deepest concern of most of our neighbors this coming week.  Or about the Dakota Access Pipeline, and those like Megan and James who find good reason to protest its purpose, its impact and its completion - at Standing Rock on the Missouri River in North Dakota and at Pilot Mound on the Des Moines River in Iowa - which I care about far more than football.    These lessons, like so many, seem to be texts that are difficult sources to find good news in clear and direct ways.  They seem to ask too much : turn from our familiar ways &/or give away all our possessions.  They seem to offer too little : the knowledge that evil is rampant &/or we must take up the cross.  I am confused.


For example;  if Jesus in the Luke lesson is actually speaking to his followers in real time, why is the cross the example of the burden they must carry?  Didn't the cross become the symbol of Christ's love and complete devotion to God's peoples only after his death by crucifixion?  Why would it be a remembered teaching point after the years went by instead of something more like the easy yoke of the light burden?  Or would the cross be language that would be added to the story - to make a pertinent and powerful point - in the appreciation of the way things turned out and were then known by those who struggled to follow the teachings and examples of Jesus in the midst of their own challenges and confusions?  This seems to be difficult, at least to me.  


Or, for another example  (linking this Sunday to the series on Jeremiah that Bill Lovin is returning to in the weeks to come),  does the image of God as the potter, creating one ceramic piece from the wreck of another, offer us a glimpse of hope?  Or does the story of Jeremiah, where the chosen people of God are unwilling to turn away from their selfishness and abuse of their sense of privilege - where the covenant community will be vanquished by the armies of the surrounding nation states - tempt us to pull figurative covers up over our heads and wish the realities of the present challenges would just go away?   


As scripture was formatted, and reformatted over time, both the teachings of prophets like Jeremiah and gospel writers like Luke share a sense of not being limited by mere time and place.  They are not limited by one person's account,  but in faith communities they were edited and re-edited prior to acceptance in the canon.  Further, they have been interpreted and re-interpreted in faith communities ever since.  They became, and still become, inspirational collections of story, wisdom, direction and promise.  For some,  this is so difficult it is beyond imagination. So some will claim to find a way beyond such confusion by asserting that the Bible is a literal, historical, factual collection and is not to be questioned.  Others,  looking at the same difficulties, will dismiss the Bible completely as a collection of wrong headed stories which serve no purpose other than to control and limit the full human experience of multitudes in favor of a few who benefit from the scam.  


I suggest (and by and large we of the United Church of Christ participate in a faith tradition that says) the better way to deal with the difficult texts and the confusion is to find ways to appreciate and appropriate what scripture offers with a sense of the unfolding grace and love that increasingly moves us forward.  Forward towards our deeper connection with the Holy.  Forward toward a more just and sustainable relationship with an ever increasing circle of our neighbors.   Maybe it might be helpful to consider the earliest understandings of the Bible to be as silent, black & white films?  Maybe the invitation of our teacher, who called us to love with heart and strength and mind, then allows us, at times,  to see the old understanding anew, now with Dolby sound and technicolor 3D high definition IMax projections?   Forward even and especially now,  as we stay open to yet better understandings, yet to be revealed or re-imagined.  


Scripture can be difficult, especially when we fail to appreciate how it offers divine direction in both it's own time and in ours.   I was reminded of this by a John Dominick Crossan piece posted by a facebook friend this week :   " My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally. ”    I agree with Crossan, and insist that we are blessed to have the permission and even the expectation to move forward beyond the merely literal and find contemporary beauty, truth, freedom, hope and power in our texts.  


So, on this Labor Day weekend,  is it helpful to recall that liturgy has been defined as the work of the faithful?  Our vocation -- whatever our jobs or however we make a living -- our vocation as followers of the good news of the Christ and of the Christian experience is to labor with the difficult texts, to wrestle with our complicated life circumstances, to take up some of the burdens of others and not insist on carrying all of our own challenges all by ourselves.  If this definition of carrying the cross and following Jesus is helpful, then maybe you and I will be inspired by our time together in the tradition of worship as work  for the task of living.  Giving away that which buries us as we cling to it -- whether that be unhealthy attachment to things or even a troubling connection to those who do not want us to fulfill the promise that Jesus offers to his followers -- giving such impediments away does free us to be what God creates us to discover and become.    If and as that is helpful, or at least points a way towards something that might be helpful,  then this is a cross worthy of carrying.


On the communion table this morning is a ceramic paten and chalice.  I asked that they be on the table to help us connect with the Jeremiah text.   Have any of you had success with putting a piece of clay on a wheel and making something that you found more than just "interesting"?  I admit, the few times I've tried, I've been artistically something quite short of even "interesting".  Still, I did learn how that once I deformed a potential mug or vase,  I could return the clay to a new lump and start again.  A couple of the pieces that I tried to throw on a wheel didn't even survive the firing process, I must admit.  But thanks to a couple of art classes along the way,  I can appreciate the image that Jeremiah is working with.   


As Bill has noted,  Jeremiah is rarely a "don't worry, be happy" sort of prophet.   He has cycles of speaking out with the word of the Lord against the peoples of Judah and Jerusalem.  He warns of the opportunity to return to God's teachings,  to turn from selfishness and a sense of privilege, and to escape the near certain fate of occupation and even dislocation by the armies of surrounding powers.   Jeremiah also notes,  in long "confessions" or "Jeremiads",  that he in particular was the object of repeated persecution and abuse.  Bill has challenged us to read more or even all of Jeremiah during this season.  It's helpful to see that as the account unfolds here further in chapter 18,  Jeremiah goes from asking the people to turn from evil to praying that his Lord would "not forgive their iniquity" and "deal with them while you are angry."   Jeremiah was a prophet.  He was able, at times, to share the word of his Lord.  He was also - like most of us -  a real human:  who was sometimes a troubled and even angry man,  who wanted his own way, and was on occasion someone who even hoped for the punishment of those who tried to get in that way.  Warts and all,  Jeremiah was both a genuine human character and a servant and prophet called by God.  In chapter 19,  a potter's earthenware jug is used as another metaphor for Jeremiah's telling of God's intent :  " so I will break this people and this city, as one would break a potter's vessel, so that it can never be mended. "    Jeremiah wasn't very well liked in his own time we read, and not really someone I think many of us would gladly invite over for the bar-b-que tomorrow on Labor Day, don't you agree? 


Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber, in an essay offered in response to the question, Was Jeremiah a Failure?,  suggested this bit of wisdom :  " More than any other prophet, Jeremiah is a prophet for the ages. This may be the reason why he was a failure in his own lifetime. His was not a truth for one time. It was a truth for all time. The more we delve into his remarkable biography the more we find out how relevant he is to our own time and to all people. Jeremiah’s life is an object lesson for all those who oppose the status quo of their place and time and seek a 'kinder more humane society.' ”  


 We are not yet glazed and fired, it seems.  We can be formed or reformed for better purpose,  or for more beauty, or for stronger and longer lasting value.   We can recognize the imperfections of what Jeremiah called evil - and what I suggest might be called imperfections of selfishness or privilege that are part of our experience - and we can, at our equivalent to the potter's wheel, work them out and discard them.   This isn't easy work, and the labor of those who strive to shape us to be more helpful to each other, to the land and the eco-systems,  and to the future generations who will bear the cross we have left for them to carry; is difficult and confusing labor, indeed.   But it is our labor, our calling, our vocation as those who would follow Jesus in his century and -- two millennia forward -- in ours.    It is work that has a reward, in our sense of meaning, purpose and in lives made more in balance by grace, hope and love.   


Why are some Bible texts so difficult?  I'm not sure there is a simple answer to that question.  But I am sure that those who blithely insist that all scripture is clear and easy to understand don't really or fully appreciate the living, evolving, unfolding, expanding richness of the Biblical witness to the Holy One which loves all people and all creation.  I'm not sure who first said this,  it was shared with me by UCC pastor Jack Bixby, who I did my seminary field study with many years ago, and it continues to be an axiom for me:  " Those who read the Bible as simple and clear direction for modern living are the same people who read Moby Dick as an instruction manual for whaling. "


So let us, regardless of our clarity or confusion, gather together at this symbolic table of our Christ; to be renewed, reformed, and refreshed for the work ahead of us. The table is not merely for those who are seen to be worthy in the eyes of their sisters and brothers, instead it is an open invitation for all who desire to become increasingly at peace with God and with their sisters and brothers.   For this moment, we can set down our cross, and join with the Spirit at this loving feast of memory and hope.  


Thanks be to God for even the difficult texts of our Bible.  Thanks be to God for the Spirit of intellect and imagination as it encourages us to take up the cross so to find and share even more meaning and value with prophets and disciples in our own time.  Thanks be to God who helps us -- people made of clay that are being refreshed and re-formed --  join the labor of those who will speak and act for justice and grace, for promise and hope, for peace and love.