Sermon of the Week
God’s Good Treasure: The Word, Unchained.
Keywords: Biblical interpretation, hermeneutics, Rachel Held Evans, Joseph, Bible unchained.
I was, oh, maybe 14 or 15 when I realized how complicated the Bible really is.
It was December, so we were in the Season of Advent,
leading up to Christmas,
and there were maybe four of us in Mr. Dabler and Mr. Shaw’s church school class
and we were talking about the story of Jesus’s dad, Joseph.[i]
That story is found in the Gospel According the Matthew,
where you read about Joseph (who was a carpenter),
from a small, out of the way place called Nazareth.
He’s your average guy, trying to figure things out,
do his work, keep his nose down,
not make waves.
He doesn’t stand out, one way or the other.
Not particularly exceptional, nor is he a problem.
If not for this story, he probably would have gone unnoticed.
He was engaged to Mary, a young girl from town.
Some of the older versions use the more formal word betrothed
which sort of opens up a bit more about what these sorts of relationships meant
because a troth, in more archaic English, means loyalty, or faith
when pledged in a solemn agreement to do something.
When you pledge your troth,
you’re saying you’re going to do it.
It is a commitment on a commitment.
No fingers crossed.
Joseph was engaged to Mary.
It was a solemn agreement. They were to wed.
Like many Bible stories, this one is short on some details.
We want to know where Mary is going to get her dress.
Who are the bridesmaids? Where is the reception going to be? Will there be cake?
In truth, the two are rather poor,
the wedding will likely happen in Joseph’s family’s house,
and the guest list will probably include the relatives that live nearby
a neighbor, perhaps,
and the scattered sheep and chickens and other animals that they keep
for company and survival.
When we turn our attention on this couple,
in the Gospel of Matthew,
there’s a bit of a problem.
Mary is pregnant.
Then, like now, there was a lot of stigma for teenage mothers,
but particularly so then when she wasn’t married.
Young girls would regularly be married during the biblical period—
Mary was betrothed herself, after all—
but you weren’t supposed to get pregnant out of wedlock.
This had the potential of being a HUGE scandal.
And it wasn’t all that big a town, Nazareth.
It’s not like she could just have her child. Blend in. Go unnoticed.
Not much to do there, either.
No Chiefs football games to watch on Sundays
and to talk about all week.
No cable news or TicTok feeds to keep you busy.
The gossip had the potential of travelling far and fast
and, well, Mary’s future might be ruined.
The text tells us Mary is pregnant because, well, it’s Jesus.
This is a God thing.
But I doubt it felt much like that to Mary
or to Joseph, actually, who seems to have been pacing the floor
trying to figure out what to do about all of this.
So we’re in Mr Dabler and Mr. Shaw’s church school class
one December Sunday morning
when I was about that same age as Mary and Joseph might have been
maybe 14 or 15 years old, something like that,
and we were talking about this little pickle.
Here’s what custom and scripture would have them do,
Joseph would call it off.
They were betrothed, but there’s evidence, apparently,
that the solemn vows were broken.
Just give it a few months, and you’ll be able to see that evidence, too,
and then people will talk and word will spread
and it won’t be good.
Call it off, Joseph.
You still have time to re-set everything and make your future work.
The law and tradition gives Joseph the right to break it all off,
under these circumstances.
But Joseph doesn’t do that.
He decides, no, that’s not the right thing to do.
Not right for Mary.
Not right for the child.
Not right for him.
He’s going to stick with it. They’re going to get married.
He is going to raise the child, love him, care for him.
Help him to thrive.
Without that, maybe Christmas,
maybe Jesus would have turned out quite differently.
But here’s the question, said Mr Dabler and Mr Shaw:
how did Joseph think he could do that?
How could he just decide to go against
what generations of teaching and reading
of his holy texts told him that he should do?
Why did Joseph stay with Mary?
And we talked about that for a good long time.
He loved her, we offered?
He worried about her, and about Jesus, and about himself.
He didn’t want that gossip to get around, and maybe he was more worried about that
than about anything else?
He thought it was the just and right thing to do, not to abandon Mary.
Those were some of our suggestions.
Truth is we don’t know.
The text says that Joseph had a dream
where an angel said to him:
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,
for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit….”
and so he did.
That very first story in the very first book of the New Testament,
the one where we read about the birth of our Savior,
starts with a narrative about Joseph
and his willingness to read his scriptures with a fresh set of eyes
to interpret them in a new, but faithful way,
and to listen for God’s guidance for his future.
And, because of that,
Joseph and Mary become the parents of Jesus,
and the whole story of HIS life begins to unfold.
The Bible is a winding, complicated, endlessly fascinating book.
I was deeply impacted by reading this story about Joseph,
a story about a faithful guy interpreting his tradition and his scripture
for a contemporary moment.
The Bible itself talks about its own interpretation,
how we can read it, how we can understand it,
what it is for.
The Bible points to God’s amazing activity in the world
as experienced and shared by the Hebrew people
from their origin stories
to their founding patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob
and then through the rise and fall of communities, kingdoms, prophets,
then through the Christian testament, what we call the New Testament,
the stories of Jesus
and the people captivated by Christ’s work in the world.
That biblical story is complicated.
It shows a movement,
from polytheism to monotheism,
from polygamy to monogamy,
from less to more gender equality
from more to less violence,
from more to less ethnocentrism,
from less to more inclusion.
A friend, who shared this observation,
added, maybe a bit too dismissively of both vegetarians and those who keep kosher,
the Bible shows a movement from, as he put it, “less to more bacon.”[ii]
But this same Bible is read by a lot of different people,
and yields so many different versions of the Christian faith.
And, contrary to the views of some of those people
who want to just open up the Bible and ostensibly run with whatever they read,
whatever they think it says,
it’s just not that simple.
A literal reading of the Bible doesn’t work.
People who claim to just be reading what the Bible says
are, instead, choosing one story over another,
or this emphasis over that one.
Because the text was written over a long period of time
with all these movements and developments,
and, therefore, with internal tensions and contradictions,
who is to say that one moment is better than another?
Well, all this has kept preachers and pastors busy for generations.
But the truth is that this is something for all of us to attend to.
How we read, and try to understand the Bible,
is a really important question.
How do we do that faithfully, and well?
How do we take this text seriously, if we cannot take it literally?
The answer to that question is that we need to do our best
to read the Bible with faith, with hope, and with love.
In other words, we need to do our best to read the Bible
so that it teaches us about Jesus, the living Word of God.
And to do that, we need to pay attention to our interpretation.
The fancy word for how we interpret the Bible is hermeneutics.
It is the method, or the art, of reading the Bible,
learning about how it was written, who wrote the various books,
the history and culture of the time.
Good hermeneutics seeks to understand the questions behind the books:
What were the authors trying to address?
Why did they say this, and not that?
What is the point behind the point?
Hermeneutics seeks to discern themes and trajectories,
to weigh them against fundamental values and ideals,
and to then ask what those look like in our current world.
I once heard someone say that
you can use the Bible to back up anything you want to prove.
That’s not quite true.
The Bible doesn’t talk about the longstanding
Apple iPhone vs. Samsung Galaxy debate.
Even if those who swear by their Apple iPhone point to Adam and Eve in the Garden
and those who love their Samsung Galaxy argue about the God
who promised faithful descendants more numerous than the stars in the heavens.
I’m sorry, the Bible doesn’t wade into the area of cell phone platform.
But the point of that statement is the
people can bend and twist this text into anything they want.
Earlier this year, I mentioned the life of Rachel Held Evans,
a popular author and speaker who died this year.
Evans explored, very publicly, her faith movement
away from a sort of close-minded version of evangelicalism and toward,
well, in her words, something deeper, more loving, more free.
A friend shared an excerpt of one of her books this week
that fits this point very well.
Here’s what she wrote:[iii]
“If you are looking for verses with which to support slavery,
you will find them.
If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery,
you will find them.
If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women,
you will find them.
If you are looking for verses with which to liberate or honor women,
you will find them.
If you are looking for reasons to wage war,
you will find them.
If you are looking for reasons to promote peace,
you will find them.
If you are looking for an out-dated, irrelevant ancient text,
you will find it.
It you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it.
This is why there are times when the most instructive question
to bring to the text is not “what does it say”,
but “what am I looking for?”
I suspect Jesus knew this when he said,
“ask and it will be given to you,
seek and you will find,
knock and the door will be opened.”
If you want to do violence in this world,
you will always find the weapons.
If you want to heal,
you will always find the balm.”
Personally, I take all that to mean
that what we ask of these texts
is almost as important as what we understand it to say.
And if we want to be faithful in following Jesus,
we should do our level best to look for the right stuff in here,
or we might not follow the example of Joseph
and rely instead on a reading that sends away our beloved,
or closes the door on the future that God is dreaming
and scheming and plotting to achieve.
In this letter we call Second Timothy,
the author suggests that he is writing from prison.
He refers to being chained up because of his faith,
and offers some encouragement to the reader
not to let that sort of situation deter them.
He talks about his suffering,
encourages people not to wrangle over words,
but to do our best to present ourselves to God as one approved,
not ashamed, seeking out the word of truth.
There’s a little line in there that seems hidden,
but may be the most important sentence in the entire letter.
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead,
a descendent of David—that is my gospel,
for which I suffer hardship,
even to the point of being chained like a criminal.
After that, he says this:
But the word of God is not chained.
What does it mean to unchain the word of God?
To free it from captivity?
To loosen it so that it can be free?
I would submit to you that we can read these sacred writings
in a way that tries to keep them caged,
We can use them to reinforce our biases and our fears,
to keep people who are different at bay
or to suggest that God really doesn’t care all that much
about the poor, the sick, the outcast, the hurting,
or about a society and a government that effectively argues the same.
But the word of God cannot be chained.
It cannot, faithfully, be interpreted that way.
This is particularly so for those of us who follow God on the way of Jesus.
Because no matter how much you read the text
to support those ancient vices of slavery, or patriarchy, or violence,
the movement of the scripture shows a God that breaks each of these
with a mighty hand.
The Gospel of Luke tells a story
about Joseph and Mary’s boy
who was walking through Samaria and Galilee
when 10 people with Leprosy approach him.
The rules say they have to keep their distance.
They have to be shut off from society.
They are destined to be out outcast.
And they follow those rules,
calling out to Jesus from a distance:
Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!
Which was their way of calling for maybe a bit of financial support
maybe a sandwich,
some care and compassion, some nod to their humanity.
But Jesus looks at them and tells them to go to the priests
which is what you’d do if you were healed,
and didn’t have that skin disorder any more
and wanted to be brought back into the fold.
Go, show yourself to the priests.
So they did, and along the way, they were healed!
Why did Jesus do that?
This Jesus, who engaged with those who were not worthy.
Who did so on the sabbath sometimes.
Who ate with tax collectors, and sinners,
maybe would sit next to them at a baseball game, who knows,
and modeled a broad, warm, generous inclusive humanity
while calling each of us to live up to the ideals of justice and righteousness.
Why did Jesus do that?
Because the word of God cannot be chained.
It is set free, when it is rooted in love, and healing, and care, and compassion.
To read the Bible through THAT lens.
To bring THAT question with you as you devour these texts:
that’s the hermeneutic of God’s grace.
That was Joseph’s hermeneutic.
That was Jesus’ hermeneutic.
It is the way to find INSIDE these texts
a faith that builds communities and ignites hope with us.
This Kirk, and our denomination,
the Presbyterian Church USA
has sought to stand with Jesus the best we can.
It means critically asking what we are looking for
when we read the Bible,
and to listen with fresh ears to the movement of the Holy Spirit
so that we can see new opportunities
to live out the ancient faith in fresh, new ways
guided by the word of God according to the prompting of the Spirit.
The Bible itself encourages us to do this,
when you look at how faithful people wrestle with all of this.
as we live our lives rooted in Holy Scripture
seek to seriously set the Word of God free
not just the written word
but Jesus, the living word.
Because God breaks the chains of bondage everywhere he turns
and asks us to follow Jesus in doing the same.
In this, God is faithful, says Second Timothy.
Let’s get going.
May it be so. Amen.
[i]This is explored more fully in a sermon by Peter Gomes.
[ii] Tweet from Josh Rowley, found at https://twitter.com/joshmrowley/status/1182301117637513216 (accessed on October 12, 2019). It should be noted that Judaism itself has a similar transformation. This should clearly not be read as an argument for supersessionism.
[iii] From Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2012) p.296
Image: From user ‘congerdesign‘ on pixabay. Found at https://pixabay.com/photos/books-study-literature-learn-stack-2158737/ (accessed October 13, 2019). Distributed under pixabay license,