Can a Nation That Practices Terrorism Be Born Again?

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I.

Here is a list of those who did the right thing in the midst of and in response to the Boston Marathon terroristic attacks.

 

1)   The Good Samaritans. I’m talking about runners who escaped explosives, spectators, medical professionals, police officers. I’m talking about people who immediately came to the rescue of their injured fellow human beings without knowing exactly what had happened and not knowing if they might be next.  I’m talking about people who in most cases had no idea necessarily who any of the people they were helping were.  It simply didn’t matter.  The last total count of deaths and injuries I saw reported, which was last night, indicated that three people have died from the explosions and that 176 others were injured.  The death count definitely would be higher if not for the Good Samaritans. They were amazing.  Remember the guy in the cowboy hat?  He inspired one reporter to write this:  “Most people run away from chaos, especially after a bomb goes off.  But in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Carlos Arredondo, 52, ran to the aid of a man lying on a sidewalk and helped stem the flow of blood from his severely damaged legs.”

 

2)   Law enforcement personnel from local police to the Massachusetts State Police to FBI to CIA to the Justice Department. It was to the public eye an amazing process of cooperation that led to the prompt apprehension of two vicious murderers.  Not only did the investigations move at a thoughtful though rapid pace, but also law enforcement personnel saw to it that others were not initially injured—though the explosives-laden young men could easily have hurt who knows how many others.

 

3)   News sources. Real journalists. I saw no one grand standing—maybe because Geraldo Rivera didn’t get the scoop–or taking advantage of the tragedy in order to boost their networks or their personal careers. I saw fellow human beings reaching out to real human beings, trying to give us information so that if there were ways we could have put the pieces together or tried to make some sense of the senselessness, which by the way was not possible, we could have begun.  They were there for us, much of the time at risk.

 

4)   Those spokespersons for local government and police departments and such who briefed appropriate groups regularly about the status of the injured as well as the status of the search for suspects. It was more bearable to be on the hand-wringing end knowing real facts as they became available.

 

Here is a list of people who did the wrong thing. 

 

1)   The two brothers who planned and carried out this heinous murderous terroristic plan—perhaps with help–and implemented it with cold calculated intensity.

 

2)   Those who immediately interpreted the situation as an ethnically and/or a religiously based crime. Religion may indeed come into the picture, but, even if it does, a wholesale condemnation of a religion as favoring terrorism is inappropriate.  Still, I saw—after the first of the two brothers was killed–news clips of people applauding and screaming things like, “Yea, America. Go, USA.”  The younger brother, as you have heard and read, was a naturalized US citizen.

 

I have read in a few places about a suspicion that some informed sources have expressed about the actions of these two young men being connected to Iran’s current hatred of our country, though the brothers were not/are not Iranian.  But it’s much deeper than just that. 

I had no idea there was an apocalyptic element to some branches of Islamic thought.  A YouTube video thought by some to have been posted by the now deceased bomber details a belief in the coming of the Shiites’s Twelfth Imam, Mahdi, and with that messianic figure’s appearance on earth, there will be, in this theological framework, the rise of a huge Islamic army with black flags centered in Khorasan, a province in Iran.  This sounds to me like the Christian version of a similar event chronicled in the book of Revelation, which has nothing in it other than symbols.  As long as one knows everything is a symbol, it’s an amazing piece of literature, but if taken literally it plants dangerous notions in the minds of its most ardent literal interpreters.

Some highly influential mullahs in modern Iran have promoted the notion of this apocalypticism.  Similarly, the present supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the one who will create the circumstance for the coming of the last Islamic messiah, Mahdi. Khamenei was born in Khorasan.  Iran’s interest in using nuclear weapons, some say, is in part to force the coming of Mahdi.

There are those who believe the Boston bombers from Chechen were recruited, trained, and funded so that there could be no apparent line drawn back to Iran. This is scary stuff.

        

 

II.

Nicodemus was as steeped in traditional Jewish religion as anybody could possibly have been, and the day came and never left when he had this uneasy and expanding sense that he was lost. When I use the word “lost,” I do not use it and would never use it in the sense that someone is separated from God and needs to be united or reunited to escape hell.  It is impossible to be separated from God, and no one is ever lost from God or to God. So when I say “lost” I mean he felt he was in a wilderness. He was wandering around; what he had taken to be his bearings no longer steadied him or secured him. He did not know any more what he could depend on.  He continued to go through the motions of how religion HAD worked for him and to do what it asked of him in terms of keeping rules and celebrating certain events, but something was unmistakably, sadly missing. The good news is that he realized this, and he was willing to take some concrete steps to see if he could figure out how to fix it.  For him, Nicodemus, the most radical possible response would turn out to be the only one that would work for him.  He couldn’t fix his faith, as he had known it for a lifetime.  He would have to leave it behind altogether, a way of saying, “I’m adopting a whole new way of living, a whole new way of understanding and relating to God.”

There are so many lessons, so many areas for potential application from this story about the famous encounter of a Jewish bigwig coming to Jesus by night and asking this radical, according to his colleagues and peers, Jesus from Nazareth, to explain his take on God and how to relate to God.  Jesus was not a mainstream person in the minds of Jewish leadership in his day, and yet here one of the primary Jewish leaders comes to Jesus asking for guidance, maybe some help.  He really doesn’t know what he wants to discover or hear or do. But he has heard consistently enough about patterns of rethinking based on Jesus’ teachings that had turned around people’s lives for the better so Nicodemus thought maybe, just maybe there was some answer for him in hearing Jesus.

It was a peculiar question that Nicodemus asked, Jesus.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In all probability, Nicodemus was a part of a religio-political party, the Sadducees, that officially did not accept an afterlife, did not believe in an afterlife. But for him to have asked the question about how he could gain or claim or be assured of eternal life is quite unusual. It reveals his uncertainty about the theological places where he had long stood. And it reveals Nicodemus’ dissatisfaction with where he found himself.

Another part of what makes his question peculiar is that there were religio-political parties who clearly did believe in an afterlife, and he knew exactly what the pat answer was to the question. He did not need to come and have Jesus tell him the answer that the Pharisees among other groups (in all probably) made very well known.  Maybe Nicodemus believed his circumstance was so unusual that he needed some very personalized coaching.

The pat answer to the question from those who did believe in an afterlife would have been:  Keep all the laws.  Obey all the laws, and everything about your connection to God here and in the hereafter will be perfect.  Nicodemus said to himself in the frightening wee hours when he couldn’t help confront his true feelings that obviously keeping all the laws didn’t do it for everyone, himself included.

If you have ever tried to maintain a relationship ONLY by keeping rules, you know that it can be done, but you also know after a while your heart likely won’t be in it. If I only follow moral principles because I have to–otherwise I would be punished, then I’ll keep them. But if I have an opportunity not to have to keep them in some context I might just let them go.  They’re just rules to me.

If I’m keeping moral principles because I’m convinced and convicted deep down that these principles reflect the right way to live then chances are wherever I go and in whatever context I find myself I’m going to keep following the standards because they’re much more than just rules to me.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, bottom line if you want to be connected fully to God you can obey a lotta rules, all the rules, and still find that you are self-separated from God, from love that is God.  You can’t revise and rethink, Nicodemus.  You have to start all over again.  Seriously, literally.  You have to start all over like a baby who has just been born. Helpless, uninformed, dependent on the goodwill those closest to you to see to it that make it through. You cannot bring a thing to this process from your past.  You will not have a head start.  You will be not a step ahead of anyone else!  You must become an infant at the absolute beginning of things.  If you’re wondering where the subversive Jesus comes in to play today, here it is. 

He was independent and competent and accomplished, that Nicodemus.  He hated Jesus’ answer to his question—though surely he anticipated something unsettling.  The Apostle Paul would later describe the same process as giving up your old self to take on your new self.  Jesus encouraged Nicodemus to accept the reality that even what he had regarded as positive in his religious past had to go because it couldn’t help but cause him to be biased against what had to happen.  By the way, this story conveys a paradigm not just for individuals, but also for groups.

 

 

 

III.

Can a nation who has practiced and funded and sometimes applauded terrorism be born again?  Clearly, the response Jesus gave Nicodemus was for an individual to put into practice, but the principal can be applied to a community or nation. Can a nation who has dirtied its hands with terrorism step back and say, “Oh, that’s horrible; that’s not for me.  Anybody who disagrees should be blown to bits.” 

We have lived by certain admirable principles, but have said that when and where it seems to be expedient to practice terrorism, we will.  If Jesus’ message says anything at all to us as a community, our response will be, “Yes, we can be born again IF we are willing to start all over again, if we are willing to leave the past behind.” 

Trying to use terrorism on a limited basis and then attempt to negotiate with terroristic nations with whom we have tension isn’t working.  Things are worsening.  How is table talk and would-be diplomacy among heavily armed nations coming along?  When we will not pass laws to stop the mini-wars in our own land by limiting free access to weapons—sold locally all over the place and on the internet, how serious can we be about seeing terrorism end?

So, if Jesus’ words to Nicodemus can help us, they push us, initially, to confront reality:  what we’re doing isn’t working.  We must try something else, and that something else is going to have to be something completely new to us.  Therefore, we have to start all over again, literally.  But who of us in this nation, elector or electee, is willing to leave the past behind in order to do things a new way?

Let’s remember this.  Violence and apocalyptic destruction are not the only outcomes in visions of the future.   “The nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

         Amen.

 

 

 

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Holy Sabbath, Batman!

disciples eating grain

 

 

I.

One of the few great preachers in our time, pitifully few, is Barbara Brown Taylor.  The gifted pulpiteer, and I mean seriouisly gifted, left parish ministry years ago to teach philosophy and religion at a southern Georgia college, Piedmont College, about which few people outside its geographical area had ever heard before she joined the faculty.  Where she goes, where she writes, where she preaches, she is noticed and read and heard—very deservedly.  Among her many gifts are her way with words and her ability to see a practical life lesson in any text she comes across; listen to what she said about the Sabbath:

 

Anyone engaging in the practice of Sabbath can expect a rough ride, at least at first. This is because Sabbath involves pleasure, rest, freedom and slowness, and most North Americans are sold on speed, productivity, multitasking. Stopping for one whole day can feel like a kind of death.

 

The first thing you may have noticed about her insightful interpretation of life on North America is that she isn’t just talking about going to church on Sundays—and maybe not that at all.  Sabbath has never just been about attending a weekly service.  Sabbath is the rest part of the rhythm of life.  Bad news for happily addicted workaholics:  all work and no rest undermines our physical and emotional health.

If your employer isn’t concerned about protecting your time off the job as well as ensuring your productivity on the job, then you are not in any full sense a real person to that employer; you are a functionary, and when you cease to function according to the company’s benefit, then you’re a nobody—and fast.  I don’t care how much your employer may pad your paycheck with bonuses for work well done, if she or he or the company isn’t concerned that there is real rest for you with zero phone calls or emails or texts or tweets from the office during your off time you need to have an understanding of how that employer really feels about you.  I don’t know if there are any exceptions to the maxim, “Actions speak more loudly than words.”  Probably not.

Few of us want to believe such a thing about the company that helps us support our families and helps us have what we want materially, but I can tell you that before the representative from your office who is tapped to represent your employer at your funeral leaves bosses and coworkers behind to keep the grind going while she or he goes to express collective sympathies there have been meetings and perhaps interviews to name the person who will next sit at your desk.  Corporate overwork isn’t what the overseers demanded of the slaves in the old South, but it can still do you in—end your life or cripple you WAY before your time, as it were.

In Corporate America today, overwork is not an extra for those who’d like to move up the ladder; it is a basic requirement.  One of my friends who transitioned out of academia into Corporate America doubts that she will make it.  The office opens at 9; everybody who is anybody is at her or his desk by 7:30, and if anyone cares to slip out before 6 or so except maybe on Fridays, the walk to the door is accompanied by icy, condemning eyes—a pair or two of those belonging to someone who has sold out to the higher ups and, thus, expected to report “early” departures.

CNN called us “the no vacation nation.”

 

The United States is practically the only developed country in the world that doesn’t require companies to give their workers time off. In Germany, workers are guaranteed a month. In the UK, they’re guaranteed more than five weeks of paid vacation. In the U.S., unique in its class, there is no such guarantee.

 

Austria and Portugal are the places to be if you want to live where laws guarantee your paid vacations and holidays.  In those countries, every fulltime worker gets 22 days annually of paid leave, typically vacation, and 13 additional days of paid holidays.  You math whizzes have already added it up.  That’s a month and a half of paid off time even for company newbies.  This is not to say citizens there are unable to earn more time away to reward quality work and longevity.  Closest to us is Japan that offers workers 10 days of vacation in the first year of employment.  (Richard Bunce tells me that some Japanese friends of his wouldn’t dare take the days off, however!)  Canada offers its workers, right out of the gate, 10 days of paid annual leave plus 8 paid holidays.

Wouldn’t you think that a well-rested worker is a more effective worker?  Work, rest.  Work, refresh.  Work, renew.  It’s all about balance.

Sabbath takes a healthy daily pattern and considers it in the context of a week.  The Sleep Disorders Health Center contends that adults need about one-third of every 24-hour period in slumber, about 8 hours of sleep nightly.  One day out of seven–8 hours are for sleep, and the other 16 are for uncommitted, non-stressful enjoyment of life.  Otherwise, we forget that there’s any life to enjoy, and that is unspeakably sad.

This Sabbath thing sounds great, for a minute or two, but upon reflection we’re not sure we can buy in.  The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor again, who decided to live on a farm down there is South Georgia, knows us doesn’t she?

 

Sabbath involves pleasure, rest, freedom and slowness, and most North Americans are sold on speed, productivity, multitasking. Stopping for one whole day can feel like a kind of death.

 

 

 

 

 

II.

As an undergraduate student at Carson Newman College, recently Carson Newman University, my first Hebrew Scripture course was taught by a master teacher, Dr. Ben F. Philbeck, who happens to have been studying at the Johns Hopkins University while our own Tom McDaniel was working on his doctorate at Hopkins in ancient Near Eastern Studies.  Philbeck was my professor in a course called “Foundations of Biblical Faith.”  I learned a lot in that class.

When we came to the Ten Commandments section of the course, we naturally got to the commandment, Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Dr. Philbeck’s summary of the teaching of that commandment’s life lesson was this:  even religion takes time. Even religion requires time.

That commandment led to all sorts of explanations in ancient Israel about how exactly to keep the Sabbath holy.  Initially, it seems to have been a reflection, though, on the rhythm of life as evidenced in the story of God’s having created the skies and the earth in six days, whatever days may have been in the ancient storyteller’s mind, and then taking the last day, the seventh day, for divine rest.  It was not only, therefore, a way of honoring the God of creation by following that God’s example of work then rest, but also it was a practical reality or a practical need.  People needed to know that in order to be able to continue to do diligent work rest was needed.

Wayne Muller wrote:

 

When we live without listening to the timing of things, when we live and work in twenty-four-hour shifts without rest – we are on war time, mobilized for battle. Yes, we are strong and capable people, we can work without stopping, faster and faster, electric lights making artificial day so the whole machine can labor without ceasing. But remember: No living thing lives like this. There are greater rhythms, seasons and hormonal cycles and sunsets and moonrises and great movements of seas and stars. We are part of the creation story, subject to all its laws and rhythms.

 

If there were ever a time in modern history when people needed to be reminded that there must be a Sabbath rest in a weekly schedule it’s today.  In ancient Israel where the Sabbath commandment was first given, no work whatsoever could be done on the day of rest.  Meals for the Sabbath day were prepared the day before the Sabbath. One could only help the neighbor on the Sabbath if the neighbor’s life were in danger.  No entertainment. No partying.  No sports undertakings for children or adults.

Jesus was subverting the ancient Sabbath teaching when he insisted that the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.  We’re supposed to benefit from practicing the Sabbath, which means rest and renewal.

At my home church during my impressionable childhood years I was hearing from the pulpit, because children were required to go into big church as soon as they started first grade, frequent sermons on how the Sabbath was being abused.  Generally the culprits were those who were not present to hear the sermons castigating them. In that context Sabbath competition was boating or the movie theater or retail stores opening on the Sundays leading up to Christmas.  The general threats said that when Jesus comes back to call history to a close he will find those who should have been in church on the golf course or in the movie theater or on the lake or, worst of all, in Sears and Roebucks.

My parents were very supportive of our pastors so in our household we were forbidden from any of those activities.  My, my how things have changed. Now everything competes with weekly worship gatherings. The Catholics and some of the larger Protestant churches have tried to combat competition by having services more than once per week.  They have more than one Sunday service as well as in the case of Roman Catholics a Saturday mass in addition to the standard Sunday mass. In that regard, for those of us who meet only once per week and that on the day when many people think they have just those 16 hours to get everything done they can’t get done during the rest of the week, we might not be enhancing our draw.

How much can we do though?  How can we encourage new members into the fold, when many members we already have are chronic no-shows?  And it’s not just about us.  Fewer and fewer people are going to religious services of any kind in our country.

In 2005, opinion polls showed that 40 percent of all Americans were attending a religious service at least once per week.  That’s quite a chunk.  Sadly, some sociologists got involved in trying to understand what seemed to be an incongruity, and sure enough they found that only about half of those who told pollsters they were in church on a weekly basis actually were.  What an awful thing to lie about!  And to a pollster who couldn’t care less!  So in 2005, 22 or so percent of all Americans were attending a religious service of some sort each week.  Another 20 percent were liars who needed to be in church to hear a few sermons on truth-telling.

What is going on now is that less than 20 percent of Americans attend a religious service each week, but about 40 percent attend often enough that most everybody knows their names.  Cheers to keeping the Sabbath!

 

 

 

 

 

III.

So what in the world could the teaching on Sabbath possibly mean to Silversiders and to you WordPress readers who find these sermons because we call them sermons for progressives and liberals?  We have truly bought into Jesus’ lead in rejecting the idea that keeping rules in any way pulls us more dependably into God’s love.  Let me speak to you as I hope I do in all of my sermons–from the heart and about practical realities.

You do not have to come to church on the Sabbath or at any other time in order to have a future in God’s more intimate embrace if that is what you choose for the next realm. You do not have to keep the Sabbath by attending Gatherings to benefit from whatever blessings the universe spills out onto the whole of humanity. You do not have to come to church to prove you’re pious, and I happen to mean piety in a good sense here; indeed, many of the people who are attending church across the world today have no piety.

Yet, if you do not include us regularly in how you keep the Sabbath because we happen to meet on what is generally taken to be the Sabbath day, you will be missing out, and so will we.  Keeping the Sabbath holy, different, in a Silverside setting means that you offer the gift of your presence; at every event you attend your presence is always the best gift you can give to your church. Nothing can be more valuable to us as a community than the presence of all the people who are a part of our church family. Of course we realize the many reasons our people have to be away from a Sunday morning Gathering these days.  If you are not here, the reality is that you are missed for several reasons.  Most significantly, you are not using this time to deepen your spirituality; nor are you able to witness nonverbally to the importance you place on this church.

Your presence here shows a visitor or potential member as well as those who are already a part of the Silverside family more than anything else how much you value your church. The Sabbath has never been simply about what your religious institution can do for you.  What can you do for it?  Most prospective members are not going to join us if they come on a Sunday with attendance so low that the main thing they remember about having looked around during the Gathering is wood.

The church will not run itself. If those who are a part of the church do not become involved in making healthy and vital decisions for the well-being of the church where do you think we might end up?  If we do not model Sabbath-keeping in connection with active church involvement for our children, what will they be doing when they hit adulthood?  Only when our core community is present to enjoy Sabbath rest and renewal together, in a Gathering context, can we look and feel alive.

Even religion requires time. We could say that nurturing a healthy spirituality also requires time though you wouldn’t have to go to church for that to happen. We certainly hope we can make a strong contribution to that.  Bottom line, there are very few things that mean anything to us that we fail to support with our presence.

When I was a pastor in New Orleans my very best clergy friend was Rabbi Ed Cohn from Temple Sinai.  He was all excited one spring about some classes he was going to be offering at Temple for people who were interested in learning more about Reform Judaism—meaning, liberal Judaism. I thought I should take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about Reform Judaism and who better to learn from than my own Rabbi!

I went, and indeed the classes were terrific–filled with good will, humor, challenge, and intriguing information about this particular branch of Judaism. When Ed got to the session on the Sabbath he seemed even more enthused than usual.  Everything is a little bit better on the Sabbath, he said; it’s a day of plusses.  The food is tastier, even if it’s what you eat every day.  Your joy is heightened. The sense of God is intensified. And Sabbath sex, he said, is better. I thought that was a really cheap way to get seekers to come to his place instead of mine!  I privately asked him why Sabbath sex was better sex, but he couldn’t explain why he included that on the list. The only thing I could think of as I reflected back on that statement was if you’re just sitting around the house pretty much doing nothing, as Sabbath directives describe, I guess there’s a much greater chance that someone will initiate sexual activity.

I don’t know if Ed would go so far as to say the Sabbath is special just because it’s Sabbath or that we have to allow it to be all it can be if honored.  Alice Walker, a God in nature kind of person, said:  “Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”  If God only pops up in our thinking on the Sabbath, there’s not much going on with God and us.  Incidentally, “holy” simply means different or unique.  It’s a day unlike all the others because our Jewish friends are having better sex and because we rest from the heavy responsibilities of the workweek.  Rhythm and rest.

 

The Necessity of Updating Ancient Documents for Practical Use in the Modern World

I. The World Has Moved On.

Poet James Russell Lowell:

 

New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth.

 
Bishop John Shelby Spong:

 

The world has moved on, leaving [those] elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance.

 
Theologian Dale Moody, one of the few people I’ve known personally who have earned two doctoral degrees, used to rail in his classes about the absurdity of interpreting the Bible using what he called “the flat Bible approach.”  What he meant by that was some interpreters believe all parts of the Bible are of equal value so regardless of where one reads, she or he has access to absolutely reliable information.  In this way of thinking, the teachings of Jesus are of no greater value than the book of Esther, just to compare, which makes not a single mention of God.  The late Dr. Moody believed that the picture of God as liberator in the ancient Hebrew story of the Exodus was of greater value than any other part of Hebrew scripture.  Similarly, he believed the teachings in Christian scripture about the power of life over death were of much greater value than the Apostle Paul’s admonition to slaves to obey their masters.
I would say this is the starting point for interpreting scripture–understanding the value of what we are reading.  The obscure, solitary reference to the spirit of Jesus descending into hell in writing attributed to Peter, probably erroneously, might have minuscule metaphorical value, but it certainly shouldn’t have found a prominent place in a key creed of the church.  In contrast, if I find words attributed to Jesus that seem to be universally applicable in confronting life’s mysteries and challenges, I’m all ears.  I ponder the teaching, “The truth will make you free,” with rapt attention.
The next level of interpretation is asking a very simple question of any passage we may read:  is it true?  Yes, I know that the mere act of asking the question is in itself blatant heresy for a significant percentage of people who count the Bible a worthwhile resource in any sense.  When I was growing up at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads, one pastor taught us this maxim about anything found on any one of those impossible to turn, thin-thin-onion-skin pages of the Bible:  “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”  Of course, we church kids had no clue what that really meant, but later if we investigated we learned that it reflected a view of every word of scripture as literally God-breathed and therefore, of necessity, unquestionably true.
Well, then, science happened along and said, for starters, biblical cosmology is all wrong.  Earth is not the center of the universe, and Earth is not comprised of three levels–our big flat island of a planet between the skies above and the underworld beneath protected from watery chaos above by the firmament.  What caused rain, therefore, other than one of God’s attendants opening a window in the firmament thereby letting water fall to the ground?
Galileo took one of the first steps in negating biblical cosmology by challenging the assumption that the Earth was at the center of the universe.  Galileo took Copernicus’ contention that the sun was at the center of the universe and ran with it despite the fact that the Vatican had placed Copernicus’ study on the revolutions of heavenly bodies on its index of prohibited books.   In 1633 Galileo was sent to trial and pronounced guilty of teaching the Copernican falsehoods. His imprisonment was commuted to house arrest, but for the rest of his life he had no freedom.
Eventually, irrefutable evidence proved that Copernicus had been correct all along.  The order of what was created when given in in Genesis 1 was proven to be flawed. Stars were formed on the fourth day of creation according to Genesis 1:16, astronomy established that stars are still being formed today.  Earth, apparently, is the only planet in the Genesis 1 account, whereas modern cosmology has shown us several planets with ours coming into existence relatively late.  Interesting to note, but those who finalized the beautiful Genesis 1 myth are in all probability in the next realm laughing themselves silly at the efforts, still very much alive–consult the Texas Board of Education if you don’t believe me, to turn their poetic myth into chapter one of a science textbook.

 

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights (Gen 7:11-12 NRSV).

 
I listen to the Weather Channel now and then, and I’ve never heard one of the meteorologists mention heavy rains due to the opening of windows in the firmament.  It would be fascinating–a bit like Orson Wells’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast–if the Weather Channel gave a weather report using strictly prescientific perspectives.  “God is really angry at the west coast of the United States today, so the windows of the firmament have been opened directly over Sodom and San Francisco!”
Of course, you’re a couple of steps ahead of me AT LEAST, and you’re thinking, “Exactly what kind of truth are we talking here?”  That’s exactly the question to raise.  Did the writer of this part of the book of Genesis, chapter 7, give a flying hooey about where the rain and flood waters came from?  Probably not.  This detail is just a part of a story with a much more worthwhile message to present; namely, despite the horrible pathway we have to travel to get to the moral of the story, “God is not a big fan of evil, but God isn’t going to give up on humanity.”

II. “…but I say to you.”

“You have heard it said of old…BUT I say to you.”  Those words and the series of juxtapositions they conveyed probably ensured Jesus’ death more than anything else he said.  Traditions were not to be tampered with much less trampled upon in the views of the aristocratic Jews governing, to the degree permitted by Rome, other Jews.  As a group, these privileged and powerful leaders were called the Sanhedrin.
Jesus had no intention of attempting to do away with the ancient teachings.  He wanted religious renewal, not a tossing of the baby out with the bath water.  The Jews in leadership positions evidently lived and believed by an all-or-nothing philosophy.  Thus, for Jesus to have suggested as he clearly did that the interpretations of the ancient religious teachings needed to be adapted for a community hundreds of years removed from the original setting for the teaching made him a marked man.
In fairness though commonly done, it is not OK to take ancient teachings out of context and try to force square pegs into round holes, that is try to force the ancient teaching to make sense in our society by having it appear to mean something that it never could have meant. Certainly those people who approach the Bible with the flat Bible interpretation mentality are more likely to do that than those who are sensitive to interpretive factors such as original context, language, societal norms and manners, most importantly theology. There was not one ancient Hebrew theology any more than there was one early Christian theology.  Those sorts of false unification imaginings only cloud and complicate the effort to find, as closely as we can, the original meaning of a saying or a text.
In the name of humility and common sense,we have to be willing to admit, and without arm twisting, that some of the teachings in Hebrew and Christian scripture may never make any sense to us or–more optimistically–we may never be able to grasp the full impact of the teaching. Sometimes the context in which something was said is as important as what was said.  The one cannot make sense without the other.
With his “You have heard it said of old…but I say unto you” teachings, Jesus not only subverted religious authorities but also established an informational process for those who would like to find some applicable, practical suggestions in ancient literature for how to live in today’s world. Rarely is it possible simply to turn to ancient texts and find ready to use, ready to wear teachings without some investigative work. In some cases the surface issue in an ancient teaching is completely irrelevant to our society.  An example would be the Apostle Paul’s telling women in the Corinthian Church not to shave their heads.  That’s a hot topic for most of you ladies, I know, so let’s allow Paul to have his say.
Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil (1 Cor. 11:4-6 NRSV).
Now, there are still some groups within Christianity who believe this is a literal teaching that must be adhered to yet today by the faithful, and they require on the basis of it that women must never cut their hair at all.  Respectfully, I say:  that is ludicrous, and it is based squarely on interpretive abuse.
As you well know, Paul did not have any real concern for fashion–either men’s or women’s fashion.  What he wanted to stress to the women in Corinth is that they should look considerably different than the prostitutes who wanted to be easy to spot for the benefit of potential customers.  Before getting snooty about prostitutes and seeing himself as morally superior to them, Paul should have taken time to recall unless remember that some of the primary heroines in Scripture including some of the ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth were prostitutes. I’m not recommending the profession or the utilization of the profession, and we may be able to wring some kind of moral lesson out of this teaching for our use today.
I come back again to say that some ancient teachings that we can interpret without difficulty should be condemned and not utilized in any sense.  What about some of the ancient disciplinary codes?  There is a  reference in the book of Deuteronomy on how to discipline a son, probably not a little boy, who disrespects his parents specifically by being gluttonous and/or a drunk.  Children’s protective agencies should scrutinize churches who are preaching this principle or even some adaptation of it literally.  The biblical teaching is this.  If you have such a son, you are left with no alternative but to take your tipsy, overweight son to the city fathers and ask them to stone your son to death.
God is portrayed by some ancient Hebrew holy writ as directing them, if they are victorious in battle, not just to walk away in celebration leaving behind them the bodies of their enemies strewn across the battlefield. Instead, they’re supposed to go into the cities and towns where the survivors of the enemy soldiers live and kill them all, leaving not one alive–child or woman or man.

III. The Flat Earth Society

Bishop Spong again:

 

I do not debate any longer with members of the “Flat Earth Society” either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection. I do not converse with people who think that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as punishment for the sin of being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres or that the terrorists hit the United Sates on 9/11 because we tolerated homosexual people, abortions, feminism or the American Civil Liberties Union. I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church’s participation in causes that are quite unworthy of…the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day.

 
There are parts of the Bible that even with some kind of updated interpretation cannot be used and should be tossed out.  We can sympathize with Marcion and Thomas Jefferson who created their own bibles by doing more cutting than pasting.
Yet, there are parts of the Bible that are of tremendous potential value if interpreted correctly.  For example, the teachings of Jesus properly interpreted have changed the world for the good–over and over again.  For several reasons, his voice has been heard calling us to sanity and spiritual health when no other voice could get any attention.  We need to hear his truths, properly interpreted, again and again.
Amen.