Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A dangerous document

Lenten Meditation  21 March 2012

            “You can prove anything you want from a single verse or passage in the Bible.  It is a dangerous document, as history has shown, and nowhere has this been more true than its continual usage to legitimate hatred, prejudice, violence, killing, punishing and exclusionary systems, even at the highest levels of church.”

Byzantine Icons: The Wedding at Cana (Vladimir Grigorenko) 

            I know of a story of a young seminarian who in homiletics class had used a portion of a verse upon which to construct a sermon.  Apparently the sermon was not bad, but the premise of the sermon was skewed by using only a bit of the verse which did not take the entire passage in context.  The professor, as an instructional lesson, then assigned the student to write a sermon on another partial verse, a portion of the Summary of the Law which in its entirety says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”  (Matthew 22:37-40)  That bit of Scripture on which the student was to preach was: “hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

            That may be an extreme example of misuse of a passage but, frankly, it is not unusual to take a word, a phrase, a verse or a short passage of either Hebrew or Christian Scripture and expand those few words to become the basis of a teaching that separates or isolates individuals or groups and gives permission for prejudice or violence.  For two centuries in the colonies and   later in the United States, slaves were preached at using two or three texts to show how they should be happy with their situation in life and not try to change that system of brutality.  I have read some of those sermons from that time which still exist and I am appalled at the misuse of the totality of the texts.  I believe that most Americans would find abhorrent such preaching today. 

            I have said for years while teaching Bible studies, “We are all selective fundamentalists.”  By which I mean, each one of us has our favorite passages upon which we rely, and we will allow no one to challenge our understanding.  One of my favorite passages is John 2:1-10, the story of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus changes water into wine, and not just good wine but the very best wine.  Some Christians who reject any use of alcohol have tried to say that the Greek word uinos really means unfermented grape juice.  Others try to argue that the six stone jars were not completely turned into wine, only the dipper taken to the wine steward became wine; the jars still were full of water.  Others argue that Jesus himself would never have tasted wine.  My fundamental understanding of this passage, along with both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, commends the use of wine, both as drink and as symbol of the living God.  Even St. Paul commends a little red wine to help digestion!  Actually, I love the passage for many reasons other than the argument concerning wine/grape juice: the relationship of Jesus and his mother, the “first sign” as John calls the miracles of Jesus, the exploration of at least one of the wedding practices of the first century.  All of this together is a delight to me and enriches my spirit.

            Even a brief history of the Christian Church is the story of how individuals and groups have been persecuted.   It is a dark tale which gives credence to the rants of those who have no use for God or the Church.  In some ways we have been our own worst enemies by perverting the teachings of Jesus to meet our own desires and needs for power and control rather than the needs of the world around us.  Our Lord challenges us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and those in prison. (Matthew 25)   However, all too often we have used the poor in our midst to feed our hungers and justified it with a prosperity gospel message of wealth for me and too bad for you.  Your poverty must be your own fault.    

In an earlier chapter, Father Rohr speaks of the “meritocracies, worthiness systems and invariably base them on some kind of purity code—racial, national, sexual, moral or cultural.”  (Page 105)  These systems are not based on Jesus’ life, death, Resurrection, Ascension, much  less the power of the Holy Spirit sent upon the Church at Pentecost.  Rather, we devise ways to insure that we are “in” and “those people”—whoever they may be—are “out.”  What is it about human nature that causes us to think the only way we can be the beloved of God is to have others who are despised by God.  Westboro Baptist Church is a glaring example of such hatred of the other and certainty of their position that they are able to hurl hate-filled invectives at funerals toward grieving families. I suppose it makes them feel superior to put others down, but I also know that Jesus weeps over such misuse of His people.

I encourage you today to reflect on how easy it is to put up barriers between yourself and others, using jokes that demean individuals or groups, subtle inferences, or direct words of dismissal.  It might be good to read the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the Gospels, and look for how often Jesus connects with the outsider, the outcast of His society, the lepers, the tax collectors, the unclean.  If we are to be Christ in this world, can we do less than our Lord?  And let’s be cautious about how we use Scripture to justify any behavior, good or bad.  We may be skating on thin ice.

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