Alive and Active?

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 17 included Matthew 5:17-20 and II Peter 3:14-18. 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.

The first car to which I had access on a regular basis was my dad’s 1972 Super Beetle. I called her “Bess”, and I loved that car. I did all the things that people did with our Beetles back in the day… I decorated her for parades, we participated in contests like “how many people can you fit inside a VW”, and I laughed at my friends when I told them to put something in the trunk and they lifted the rear hatch to discover the engine.

It was not really “my” car, but I sought to make it mine – and that means that I glued little figurines to the dashboard and I adorned the bumper with profound theological statements that read “God Squad Car” and “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It”.

As we continue in our examinations of some of the statements that people think are in the Bible, but are actually not scriptural, this represents a subtle change from last week. When I say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or “Everything happens for a reason”, you could make a case that I’m sharing some pithy bit of wisdom in order to make you feel better. As I’ve indicated previously, I think that these statements are erroneous and not helpful, but they are conceived, at least, in some spirit of kindness and care directed at another person.

However, when I proclaimed “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”, I was giving voice to a statement that was, at its heart, designed to make me feel better about myself. I was simply justifying my own beliefs and prejudices.

On the other hand, as aphorisms go, this one is wonderfully multi-purpose and can work for just about anyone. Liberals, conservatives, folks from any culture or walk of life can find this saying to be wonderfully helpful and self-affirming.

For instance, here’s a guy who feels so strongly that we need to follow the commands from Leviticus literally that he has had one verse dealing with human sexuality tattooed on his bicep. I wonder how surprised he was when, after having Lev. 18:22 inked on his arm, he got to Lev. 19:28 which, oddly enough, says that inking things on your arm is a horrible sin for which God will hold you accountable. Ooops.

Or the person who chooses another verse from Leviticus as a statement on immigration policy, without bothering to consider how and why that verse became significant to the original hearers.

You see, that’s the great thing about bumper-sticker theology: I can say whatever I want, whenever I want, as long as I can prop it up with a verse of scripture that I’ve cherry-picked for myself. And if you get offended by my tattoo or billboard… well, hey, suck it up, snowflake… you’ll have to talk with the Man upstairs. I mean, God said it, not me… Deal with it.

So, Pastor Dave, are you actually saying that the Bible doesn’t matter if all I’m doing with it is propping up my own world view?

Yes. That is pretty much exactly what I’m saying – if the only reason you read the Bible is to find support for the stuff that you already believe and you are simply looking for ammunition with which to whack the rest of us on the head – then yes, please stop reading your Bibles. Don’t share stuff like that. It’s not helpful.

As anyone over the age of three has noticed, the sermon is the longest part of most worship services in the Christian tradition. The reason for that is simple: we believe that we are called to focus on the centrality and authority of God’s Word and to provide help in interpreting that Word for our own day.

When I pontificate that “God said it, I believe it…”, I’m turning the Word of God into some bit of wisdom or teaching is that is enshrined in a display case somewhere for us to come and admire. Or, worse, I’m turning the gift of God’s Word into a quiver full of arrows with which I can attack, judge, or belittle another.

When the church charges its clergy to preach a sermon, however, the church is asking those preachers to a) remind us of the importance of scripture in its own time and in ours and b) help us learn how to read it in ways that bring life. We have to read it, but we have to know how to read it.

For instance, let’s look at a text I got from my wife recently. It reads, “We need bread.” Three little words. Ridiculously easy to read, right?

When I read that, I can respond in at least two ways. I could say, “Well, of course we need bread, Dr. Carver. What – do you think I’m some sort of an idiot? I know that the average American consumes 132.5 pounds of wheat in a year. Of course we need bread!” I could say that.

Or I could read that text and say, “Sure. I’ll pick some up on the way home.”

Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be a loving and faithful husband and partner in our household? How I read a message, and what I decide to do with it, reveals a great deal about who I am and who I would like to be.

The literary term for this is hermeneutic. The hermeneutic you employ is the method or theory you use to interpret a message. The hermeneutic you utilize – whether you’re reading the Ten Commandments or your shopping list – will determine the effect that the act of reading has on your greater life.

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

In Jesus’ day, there were men called Scribes and Pharisees who were charged by their faith tradition to be the “teachers of the Law”. They recognized, rightly, that the scripture was a gift of God for the community, and that those who sought to be faithful to God needed to apply that word to their lives. So these groups made it their business to know, study, and share the Scriptures they had received. They came up with extra documents and commentaries that gave shape to specific laws and practices – regulations that were probably, at least initially, designed to increase the ability of God’s people to hear and respond to the Word of God.

Yet over time, these Scribes and Pharisees came to see themselves as curators in the Museum of God’s Word. The religious leaders themselves spoke to what was and what was not allowed. Some of them even put themselves in the place of God as they spoke on behalf of the Divine.

On more than one occasion, Jesus pointed to these folks and said, “Look: these guys are right. The Word of God is vitally important. But don’t treat that Word, like they do, as a commodity to be managed. Instead, allow the Word to enter you, to engage you, to inform you, and to come to life inside of you.”

That’s what Jesus’ friend, Peter, is getting at in his letter to the young church. He says that the wisdom from scripture is not a chisel with which we are called to shape other people. Instead, it is a blessing and a gift given so that disciples may “grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Jesus, Peter, and the Scribes and Pharisees all agreed that the Bible is important and authoritative – and that is why our worship is centered around preparing for, receiving, and responding to the Word of God.

But in order for the Bible to be authoritative, we have got to allow it to shape us, rather than the other way around. When I was starting my theological education, I attended a lecture by the man who was then President of Pittsburgh Seminary, Sam Calian. I literally seethed when he said something like, “Many people are afraid to explore and examine their faith. They come to seminary and they hold their faith tightly, as in a clenched fist. They know what they know, and they believe what they believe, and they’ll be darned if some liberal seminary professor is going to talk them out of it. But we believe that we are called to unclench our fists and open up our faith. We are called to examine that which we believe and the reasons that we believe it – and we do so by holding those things in an open hand, where the light and the wind of the Spirit can help us consider who we’ve been and who we are becoming.”

I’m not going to lie, when he said that, I thought, “Who is this liberal old man, and why is he trying to destroy my faith?” But I have come to see the wisdom in what Sam was saying. After all, if we are growing in any way, then we are changing in some way. Change is not bad – and we are called to embrace it within the context of our ongoing relationship with Scripture as God’s Word.

For example, for centuries some of the leading minds in Christianity used scripture to defend slavery and to support a culture built on racism. If you know how to do an internet search, you can go home and find a hundred sermons by respected churchmen who saw it as their moral duty to prop up the slave-trading industry in Europe or the Americas.

And yet, over the course of time, more and more people began to sense that there was a deeper witness within scripture that was contrary to this. Rather than enforcing servitude and abuse, they began to call the church to see a community that was based on liberty and equality.

In fact, in 1861 the tensions grew so great in our own family that a large faction of people left the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and formed their own church – one that was based, in part, on the supposed moral rectitude of chattel slavery in the United States. They went to the Bible and chose verses that they claimed commanded God’s people to enslave others, permitted the establishment of the Jim Crow culture, and mandated the submission of non-whites as “inferior” races.

It was not until 1983 – more than a hundred and twenty years – that the denomination was reunited. And I would suggest that in every single one of those hundred and twenty years, hundreds if not thousands of Christians changed their minds about slavery, race, justice, and reconciliation.

It is important to note that, so far as anyone is aware, the Bible did not change between 1861 and 1983. However, the way that people read it and came to see it as authoritative in their own lives – in short, the hermeneutic people used – meant that we, as a people, were changed. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the practice, understanding, and theology of the church in regards to issues surrounding race is probably better now than it was a hundred and sixty years ago. Are we where we need to be? Of course not. But have we grown? I think we must answer “yes.” And we must continue to grow in our ability to interpret, understand, and apply the living Word of God in our lives.

We are called to allow the Word of God to impact us, affect us, shape us, and help us grow in every single area of our lives. We are not fixed images, carved into a rock. Instead, we are living and breathing reflections of the Divine image. We are called to grow – and thereby to change – each day into people who are more adequately reflective of God’s purposes and presence. I can think of a dozen areas where my thinking has changed substantially over the past thirty years. I don’t think that’s because my commitment to the scripture has lessened at all. On the contrary, I think that the Word has infected me and changed me from the inside out.

To that end, you may have noticed that I don’t sport that bumper sticker on my car anymore. In fact, I want to encourage you to resist saying something like “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” because that’s an invitation to put the Bible back on the shelf and ignore it. Instead, can we view the Word of God as an invitation to know the heart, mind, and purposes of God more intimately to the end that we can understand, live and reflect those purposes more adequately in a world that is starving for truth?

Hebrews 4:12 teaches us that “the Word of God is alive and active”. It is. Are you? And is your faith?

Thanks be to God for the word that brings life and change. Amen.

Reading in Color

As the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly left Pittsburgh, God’s people gathered in Crafton Heights on July 8, 2012 to worship and think and pray about the ways that our large “family” had come together – and the ways that we still had some work to do.  One of the key issues before each and all of us is how we read and interpret scripture.  Some thoughts, rooted in Psalm 119:105-112 and Hebrews 4:12-13.

 When I was about 8 years old, my grandparents moved in with us.  There was a lot to be worried about, from an adult perspective, I suppose.  Grandpa had cancer and was dying by degrees.  Mom and Grandma had to figure out how to share a kitchen.  There were, I might say, differences of opinion as to disciplining the children – differences that my 8-year-old-self exploited to his own advantage.  I’m sure that there were economic factors, too.  But do you know what?  None of that mattered to me.  I got to see my grandma and grandpa.  And even more overwhelming to me was the fact that grandpa had a color TV with a remote control.  It was the first time in my life I’d ever seen a television picture that looked like my world – the colors were amazing.  It was in grandpa’s room, and so I spent a lot of time with him…watching the Philadelphia Phillies play on green, green grass wearing their bright red caps.  It was magic.

I didn’t always live in color, though.  As I got older, I continued to see a lot of things in black and white.  In particular, matters relating to faith.  When I got my first car, for instance, I had a number of bumper stickers, including one that said, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”  Of course it does.  Unless someone were to stop me and say, “What do you mean by ‘it’?”

I suppose that the younger version of me would say that I depended on the Bible to be the truth from God, and that every word in it was inspired by God, and that every word in it was true.  Listen to me before you hear anything else this morning: I depend on the Bible to be truth from God.  I believe the Bible is inspired by God.  But I have come to see that the Bible is essentially written in color, not in black and white.

The Bible is a complex collection of writings from dozens of different people that was collected and developed over hundreds and hundreds of years.  It is at best simplistic, and at worst disingenuous, to suggest that all we have to do with any issue at all is just “see what the Good Book says” and do it.

Think for a moment about how you read the Bible, or at least how you believe that the Bible should be read.

Is your Bible like a cookbook?  I love cookbooks.  They are so precise and so predictable.  I know that if I take a cup of this and a cup of that and a teaspoon of these other things, mix it for just the right amount of time and then bake it at the right temperature that I’m more or less guaranteed to have a safe and delicious result.   With a cookbook, a cup is always a cup, and 350 is always 350.  There’s no funny business in a cookbook.

Or would you say that you treat your Bible like a text book, where you look for the right answers in the right places and study hard, knowing that you’re expected to do well not only on the pop quizzes that each day will bring, but on the final exam that you know is coming?

There are some who treat Scripture like a novel – an amusing or even inspiring tale; a story worth remembering, but lacking in authority, truth, or reliability.  We read it as a diversion from “real life”, or as an inspiring story, but not really connected to who we are.

The problem is, of course, that the Bible is not a cookbook, or a text book, or a novel.  The Bible is in a category by itself.  It is sacred writing.  When we use shorthand, we often say that the Bible is the Word of God, although if I were being completely honest I’d prefer to say that the Bible contains the Word of God.  That is, I do not think for a moment that the power of the Almighty can be contained in these bits of ink and paper, but that somehow these words help me to receive The Word that brings life.

I’m pretty sure that’s how the Psalmist felt. Sometimes when we consider a Psalm in our morning worship, I ask you to read the entire Psalm just so we maintain the context.  Since this Psalm is 176 verses, we’re not going to do that this morning.  But let me tell you a little bit about this piece.

There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.  Psalm 119 is a tightly constructed acrostic poem, wherein the first 8 phrases all start with Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet.  The next 8 all begin with Beth, then 8 with Gimel, Daleth, and so on, all the way to Taw.  Each of these 8 verse stanzas is an ode to the power of God’s law or God’s Word.  If you take the time to read it, as I hope you will, you’ll discover that the writer of this Psalm is delighted by the thought that God would actually speak to his children.

In the section that we are considering today, for instance, he says that the Word of God is like a torch or a flashlight – God’s word is that which helps the writer get to safety and health, in spite of the fact that there are obstacles and snares along the way.

I have spent some time this week thinking about the ways that the Scriptures are like a flashlight for us.  Consider this: what is it about flashlights that makes them valuable to us?  I mean, I have a number of wonderful lamps that I like to have handy in case there’s a power outage or I have the chance to go camping.  How do I assess their worth and their usefulness?  By how much light they produce, right?  When I buy a can of paint, I’m buying the thing that is in the can and using that thing to accomplish a purpose – to protect or beautify.  But when I buy a flashlight, I’m not actually buying what I really want – only the hope of getting what I want. I’m not buying light for the power outage; I’m buying a device that I hope will provide me with the ability to find light when it’s dark.

To put it a different way: the Bible does not actually contain joy or hope or life; but the Psalmist says that with the help of these words, he can see hope and joy and life better.  The words on the page are not the source of those things: God is.  But through God’s gift of the Word, we are able to realize those gifts of God in a deep and rich way.

The Psalmist also says that the word of God is authoritative: that is, the Bible is a trustworthy and reliable witness on which we can rely to make the judgments we need to make.  The Psalmist says, and I agree with him, that God’s Word gives us a standard, or more accurately, a set of standards by which we can measure our lives.

Hear me: the Bible is accurate.  The Bible is true.  The Bible is authoritative.  But the words of the Bible cannot be taken from the pages on which they are written and simply plastered over our own lives and experiences.  It is dangerous and unhelpful to pretend that we, or anyone else, can take the Bible literally.  So much of what is recorded for us in the Scripture is, of course, God’s word for all people in all places at all times.

In I Timothy, for instance, the Apostle Paul writes to his young friend and tells him to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.” (6:11)  It’s easy to think about that as God’s word to me and to you, right?  That seems to be a universal truth – a command.

Yet the apostle also tells Timothy that since he has a touchy digestive system, he should stop drinking water and drink more wine (5:23).  Can I use that verse say that we should tear out the water fountains in the building and replace them with wine dispensers?  I’m not sure that would hurt our attendance, but it is pretty easy to see that that command, far from being universal, was more likely a specific suggestion made to a specific individual at a specific point in his life. God is not commanding you to drink more wine.  Sorry.

You see, the problem with thinking that we can simply adopt a literal interpretation of the Scriptures is that in doing so we remove both the living nature of God and our responsiveness to God’s spirit from the equation.  One writer was pointing out the fallacy of this approach in an oft-quoted “Letter to Dr. Laura” that’s circulated around the internet for years.  Parts of it read as follows:

Dear Dr. Laura,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can…

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them…

b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?…

d) Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

e) I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?…

g) Lev 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?…

i) I know from Lev 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?…

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help.

Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Untitled, based on Hebrews 4:12,                                                                                                              by Kittie Rene. Used by permission of the artist. For more information, see http://www.withartkittie.com/

Do you see what I am getting at here?  It’s not helpful for me to simply say “Such and such is wrong because the Bible is against it” or “I have to do thus and so because the Bible says I have to”.  The fact is that while the Bible is a book comprised of ink and paper and glue, the Word of God is alive.  Isn’t that what the Word says about itself in the reading you had from Hebrews a few moments ago?  God’s word is alive and active! Whereas the Psalmist compares the word to a light for a path, the writer of Hebrews says that it’s also like a sword that’s been sharpened on both edges – that is to say, it will cut both ways.  God’s word contains power and authority, and we attempt to contain or domesticate it to our own peril.

One of the most important theologians of the 20th century was a German named Marcus Borg.  He said that it is the task of every believer to “read the Bible seriously, but not literally.”[1]  I believe in saying this he was indicating that we are on equally wrong if we reduce the Bible to a checklist of do’s and don’ts that are rooted in another place and time or if we simply dismiss the Bible as a fairy tale that has no relevance to our lives today.  The Bible is important, and it has meaning, purpose, and authority.  But it requires us to engage it and to wrestle with it.

So why do I bring this topic to our worship on this third Sunday in July, 2012?  Because yesterday the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) packed up and left Pittsburgh.  I am grateful for the church and for the ways that it has sustained me over the years.  But I will also tell you that the church frustrates me, in part, because of the way that some of my brothers and sisters seem to find it easy to dismiss those who disagree with them on specific issues. This week, for instance, Presbyterians had long and difficult conversations about marriage, and the Holy Land, and money, and sexuality.  More than once, someone heard a different opinion and snorted, “Hmph.  That’s not even Christian”, by which that person meant, I believe, “my opponent has no idea what the Bible teaches about that issue.”

Friends, the reality is this: I know good and godly people who believe that marriage is to be restricted to one man and one woman.  And some – not all, but some of these friends have arrived at this conclusion because they have sought the heart of God in prayer, in scripture, and in study.

And I know good and godly people who believe that marriage is a kind of relationship that is open to two people – including homosexual people.  And some – not all, but some of these friends have arrived at this conclusion because they have sought the heart of God in prayer, in scripture, and in study.

Listen to me: I do not want to talk about marriage – straight or gay – this morning.  I am simply bringing that up because it’s been plastered all over the papers and it provides a helpful insight into what I’m trying to say: as people who love Christ and who long to be obedient – as I hope we all do – we are obliged to do our best to listen for the Word of God whenever it comes to us.  And it’s possible that we simply might hear things differently.

John Calvin, probably the most influential man in the history of Presbyterianism, reminded people that since the Bible is the Word of God, it depends on the Spirit of God to make sure that the message is received.  Calvin taught that the Spirit of God was at work in the men and women who wrote the first copies of the biblical passages; the Spirit of God was at work in the lives and circumstances of the people who preserved those copies and those stories over the years; and the Spirit of God must be at work in each of us if we are going to be able to understand and truly hear the Word of the Lord in our lives.

I don’t know what’s ahead for the Presbyterians in terms of any of the issues that we’ve discussed or argued about in the past week.  I trust that God does.  My deep concern, beloved, is that as we learn to talk about issues that are potentially divisive and undoubtedly complex, that we will do so in a way that honors and respects the authority of the Word of God and relies on the presence of the Spirit of God – the God who was, and who is, and who is to come.  Let’s talk.  Let’s disagree.  But as we do so, let’s remember that God speaks, and we respond.  Let us remember that God does have a word for us.

William Tyndale believed so strongly in the power of the Bible that he produced the first English translation of the Scripture: an offense against the church and state that resulted in his being strangled and burnt at the stake in 1536.  He said this concerning the purpose of the Bible: “The scripture is that wherewith God draweth us unto him. The scriptures spring out of God, and flow unto Christ, and were given to lead us to Christ. Thou must therefore go along by the scripture as by a line, until thou come at Christ, which is the way’s end and resting-place.” [2]

God’s word starts and ends with Christ.  So let us listen to it and for it and act within it.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.


[2] The Works of the English Reformers: William Tyndale and John Frith (London: Ebenezer Palmer, 1831), p. 354