Saturday, July 25, 2020

Paul's Letter to the Romans

Thomas B. Woodward
July 26, 2020

There were two things I wanted to preach about this morning.
One was the Parable of the Leaven that we heard in Matthew
and the other was to do something like a Bible study
with the Epistle we’ve been hearing this summer, Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Romans it is, mostly because this is the place I go
when I really want to be nourished, spiritually by the Bible.
On the whole, this book of the Bible is really difficult stuff.
When Paul gets into the murky stuff -- it is really murky and confusing;
but the high points of Romans are as good as it gets in the Bible.
And that is what I want to talk about with you.

First, some background:
most of Paul's letters are occasional.
That is, they were written in response to some issue, some occasion (usually big trouble).
But Romans is different:
Romans is where Paul lays out his theological credentials
to pave the way for his coming visit to Rome.

There are times, in Romans, when Paul is really lyrical.
And there are other times when he seems to get so confused
that he argues with himself.
My favorite is when he concludes that it is usually the greatest sinners
who experience the most overwhelming grace and forgiveness.
"Well, then," he asks himself, "shall we sin the more . . . that grace may abound?" (Makes sense).

But then he quickly responds, "Me genoito."
which, loosely translated is "You've got to be out of your gourd."
This happens over and over again: first a question, then me genoito.
It is almost as though Paul had two heads,
constantly arguing with one another.

For me, there are several high points in Romans:
The first is too long to read now, so I'll leave you to it on your own time.
In Romans 9-11 Paul writes about Christianity's relationship to the Jews.
And what he says, with great power and relative clarity
had been ignored by Christians, by the church for almost 2000 years.
Then, an Episcopal theologian, Paul van Buren along with the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth,
wrote, simply: “Read what Paul is saying!"

Christians had always been taught (I was taught in seminary)
that once Jesus Christ had come, the Jewish religion was history.
But Van Buren and nearly every reputable scholar after him tell us this:

“Read what Paul writes."
What Paul says is this:
God made a promise to Abraham
that his descendants would be the people of God forever. Period.
That was a Promise. . . an Unconditional Promise.
That covenant. . . that binding relationship has not been broken,
and it will never be broken by God.”

Paul says, simply: "If God makes promises and then breaks them, God can't be trusted."
"We Christians," says Paul,
"We Christians have been grafted into that holy history."
We are a part (not the whole)
a wonderful, glorious part . . .of the whole people of God."
Our relationship to the Jews is not one of superior to inferior,
but one of gratitude . . . and dependence.

The second high point for me is from chapter 7 (which you heard 2 weeks ago)
This, we know most intimately, as parents...
but also, as church, as nation . . .. (and in all of life)
"The good that I would, I do not. . .
and that which I would not, is precisely what I do. . .”
We get so tied up in knots.
"Who," cries Paul, "who will deliver me from this body of death?"
Who will free me from my conditioning, my prejudice,
my worst impulses, my twisted self-interest, my sin?

And then Paul talks about overcoming our sin and isolation
through the reality of living “in Christ,” who heals and restores.
It’s not a matter of gritting out teeth and trying to measure up.
We get it wrong when we equate faith with belief or a set of doctrines.
Faith has to do with trust and relationships –
and at the heart of it, for Paul, is being “in Christ."

Being in Christ is like “being in the army” or being in the circus.
It is the context for our lives.
Earlier I told you about two short prayers that are at the heart of that:
One is for when you are in your bed and ready to go to sleep:
it is praying “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit – my self”
and letting your bed be the hands of God enfolding you.

The second is for when your feet hit the floor as you get out of bed.
Feel yourself rooted in the reality of God,
flowing from the center of creation, up through the floor,
up through your feet, into your body.
Those are the bookends of your life that day, every day.
And that is at the heart of our Baptism:
Our lives are placed, entrusted into the loving care of the Risen Christ.

The third high point for me is a single sentence
and it is the key to our life in the world.       

        "Do not be conformed to this world,
        but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

That could be the mission statement of any vital Christian congregation. [repeat].
We are in, but not of. .  the world.  
As Paul also writes:  we are here as ambassadors from heaven
That is where our lives are rooted.

The fourth high point is today’s reading from Romans 8.
It’s a passage we use at funerals,
usually when there has been great suffering involved.
Paul, himself, endured awful suffering throughout his life:
first there was his daily suffering from a childhood malady
that he only refers to as his "thorn in the flesh."
And then later the deep, deep emotional and spiritual struggles within himself.
For Paul, suffering is: no one is exempt.
In fact, it may touch those who are more spiritual  . . deeper than anyone else.
But God's love is not bound by temporal limits, by "this age" or "this time."

So, Paul writes,
"I reckon that the sufferings of this time
are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed to us.
The whole creation has been groaning, in anticipation of its birthing
and only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit;
groan inwardly as we await our adoption as children of God.”

There is so much here.
Paul's sense of the creation -- here and in Colossians -- is astounding.
Religion is not just about people or disembodied souls.
It is about all of creation.
And the whole creation groans. . . as it awaits its rebirth, it's restoration.
Sin. . . is not just a bunch of bad choices people make:  it infects everything.
It is in genetic mutations that have gone wild. -. cancer, debilitating disease.
It's weeds and flowers and grasses struggling against one another for sustenance;
it's earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados and drought – menacing the rest of creation.
It's dogs and cats and other animals and humans, dying before their time.
Just as you and I struggle for wholeness and grace
so, in a sense does all of creation.
So, in our prayers, we are to lift up -- not only our personal problems and issues,
but creation, itself, for healing and transformation.

On a more mundane level, what this means, as well,
is that the care we have for our pets and for our gardens is ministry.
It means that the care we take, in this State, for our minerals and for our water
is spiritual work and ministry … as well as good citizenship.

The last high point for me are words that have been, for me, life-saving:
Not physically life-saving, but emotionally and physically life-saving.
When I was working as Episcopal Chaplain at the University of North Carolina
I was working collaboratively with the rector of the large Episcopal Church
which was located, literally, on the campus.
Peter was a very strong, but very jealous man.
And though I worked with him and not for him – he had all the power in the relationship.

I had never done better, more effective work as a priest (and that was the problem for Peter).
My wife and I had bought a house and just had our third child
when Peter came to me after the midweek service on Epiphany.
"I need to tell you,” he said, “that your contract will be renewed  ..  over my dead body."
And I knew he had the power to make that happen.
My wife and I, absolutely devastated. . . went to a movie at the local mall that night.
And at the mall that night was a craft fair. . .
the absolute worst craft fair either of us could have imagined. . .
except for one booth near the entrance to the theater.
It housed a religious calligrapher by the name of Michael Podesta.
He had the most gorgeous work --
and one piece in particular, named "Paul" which read:

          “If God is for us, who can be against us?
           For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life,
 nor angels nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come,
          nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God
which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

My wife took my hand and said,  “We must never ever let anything or anyone else
take our church . . . or God . . away from us.”
And that was all I needed to know – then, and so many times later.
And that is Paul's message to each of us:
never let anything -- no priest, no fellow parishioner,
no slight or oversight, no tragedy or disappointment
no cancer or oncoming weakness or dementia
ever. . .separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.

Never, ever give anything in your life that power
which belongs, only, to God
who works in our good times, yes, and in our times of suffering,
who feeds us, whether we know we are hungry or not.
Who calls us by our names. Our Abba, Father, God.

So, as you read through Romans.
When you come to the dense parts, shake your head and move on (quickly)
Until you get to the good stuff.
Mark it with a highlighter if you want, God won’t mind.
And let that sink in . . . over and over and over again.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Things We God Wrong about the Bible & Why It's Important to Get It Right

Things We Got Wrong about the Bible & Why It's Important to Get It Right

This was my presentation at St. Bede's Adult Forum on March 24, 2019. As members of the church choir misses these forums, I am posting this for them as well as for others who missed the event.

            When I was in seminary our daily morning services consisted in Morning Prayer followed by Holy Communion. We were all expected to attend Morning Prayer, but communion was optional. Coming from a very low church, I was not at all used to daily communion, so I often joined others in leaving the chapel right after Morning Prayer. It was called "The Judas Walk," as. thought the more haughty high church seminarians, we were turning our back on Jesus as a kind of betrayal.
            So, how do you remember Judas. What happened when he identified Jesus to the soldiers with a kiss?
            In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) there are three occasions where a kiss is an important part of an event. They are found in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the story of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet in the Pharisee's house, and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. In their accounts of Judas' betrayal of Jesus by a kiss, both Matthew and Mark (Mark being the earliest gospel) describe the kiss using the Greek verb kataphileo, which means to kiss firmly, intensely, passionately, tenderly, or warmly. As Biblical scholar Clarence Jordan has it, kissing "over and over again."
            Describing Judas' kiss, the author of Luke uses the simpler phileo (22:47) meaning, simply, "kiss" and philemati (22:48), denoting a kiss to show respect or gentle affection between friends.
Luke does use the more effusive kataphileo in the story of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet
and to describe the father's welcoming home of his son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The events in both of those stories are highly charged and speak of the depths of human caring.
            So while Matthew and Mark describe Judas' kiss of betrayal in terms of its tenderness and intense passion, the author of Luke uses the more formal forms of the verb, phileo and philimata. When we pay attention to these differences, our understanding of  Judas' betrayal takes on a quite different meaning. Instead of the usual explanations of Judas' betrayal as stemming from greed, radical disappointment, or wanting to force Jesus to claim his kingdom by might, what we have is an intense struggle in the mind of Judas -- a struggle between his deep affection for Jesus and his pledge, for whatever reasons, to the authorities. Anguish is probably the best way to describe Judas' emotional state.  This is clearly a therapist's or an existentialist's dream - one we have missed over and over again.
            So, when Luke tones down the intensity of Matthew and Mark's description of Judas' kiss
by the use of the relatively pedestrian phileo and philemati, was that done intentionally to set off Judas' kiss from that of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet and the father who smothered his returning son with kisses? Whatever the intent, Luke's change of the form of the verb has reduced Judas  to a one dimensional figure at this point, robbing him and us of the immense power of this event.,

The Popular Claim that the Old Testament God is a God of Violence
While the God of the New Testament is a God of Love.

            In this view, the Jewish Law is seen as a burden, something thoroughly rule based and oppressive. Nowhere, the claim goes, is that more evident than in the Book of Leviticus. So I want to talk about Leviticus, this most maligned Book of Bible to see if we've gotten this theory right or wrong. I want to focus on the Holiness Code (18-20), which in some way may be the high point in Biblical morality.
            Much of Leviticus is concerned with the holy - not the ethereal, spiritual holy, but with the root sense of the word, as "set apart." The People of God had been set apart, made holy. They were different from other peoples and that was reinforced by what they were to eat, how they were related to one another sexually, and even what fabrics they could wear. It was not that they were better than anyone else: they had been chosen, in a sense, to be a city set on a hill. They belonged to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in a special way (Oddly enough, Abraham is noted for, among other things, his lying to save himself, Isaac's name meant "laughter," and Jacob stole his brother's birthright - giving us "The God of the Liar, Laughter, and the Larcenist." As Norman Ewart wrote "how odd of God to choose the Jews."
            Much of the morality of Leviticus has to do with our participation in the reality of God. Here are two high points taken from the Holiness Code in the middle of Leviticus: note that each ends with "I am the Lord your God,"
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyards bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard: you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. Lev. 19:9-10
 When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. Lev. 19:33-34.
This concern for the poor, for the stranger is probably unequalled in all of Scripture and it is enjoined because that is who God is. My last parish was as rector of John Steinbeck's parish church in Salinas, California and some of my parishioners were the leaders of the lettuce industry - and they followed those words of Leviticus, leaving a tenth of their produced for the poor. They were reflecting the very character of God. In part that is also reflected in St. Paul's urging us "to put on Christ."
            Another thing: Jews have always considered the Law as a gift, as it let them know what God expected of them. I think any of us would have been relieved to know what our boss or our supervisor expected of us.

In the Old Testament, there are several strains or traditions of morality:
            First, there is the morality based on the character of God (also, with their                                                    dietary laws, reflecting the experience of a nomadic people).
            Second, there is the practical, most clear in the delightful Book of Proverbs,                                                      where we learn how to be a moral merchant, how to choose a wife,                                    and about such character traits as laziness and generosity.
            Third, the tradition of social justice, as in Amos and the major prophets.
                        Amos 7:7-9 God requires that our morality be judged by a plumbline.
                        Amos 6:4ff. He addresses income inequality/indifference to the poor.
                        5:21-24 This is the heart of Martin Luther King Jr's faith. I believe this is the high                                      point of Biblical ethics.


            Jesus' parables have different purposes, mainly what it means to live in Kingdom of God.
The Biblical scholar Amos Wilder (Thornton Wilder's brother) wrote that they represent a paradigm in conflict with the prevailing cultural values of the time. They are an assault on our cultural paradigms: what we value or prize, how we are organized, middle class ethics, what we reward. This is clearest in the parables of the Workers in the Vineyard, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost Coin (where God's generosity is mirrored in the prodigality/generosity of the woman who spends many times the value of her lost but found coin for the party to celebrate her success!.
            There are several instances where the bite, the controversial nature of a parable is undercut by either translations or later explanations. The most striking is the Parable of the Leaven (Luke 13:21-22 and Matthew 13:33). The Pharisees have just asked Jesus to explain what he meant by "the kingdom of God."

                20. Again he said, “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God with?  21 It is like a                    woman who took leaven and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

There have been hundreds of thousands sermons on this parable, focusing on the way that our faith grows and grows over the years until . .  .However, there is a problem here. Recently it was pointed out that the only meaning of leaven in the New Testament is "corruption," "evil," as "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees." All of a sudden we discovered the revolutionary character of this parable. Can you imagine the horror of the Pharisees? First, a woman is the metaphor for God, but then there is what she does: she takes corruption and hides in the middle of the purity of the flour, kneads it together until the elements are indistinguishable and then it represents the Kingdom of God. What this does, it seems to me, is shift our conception of what is required to be part of the Kingdom away from personal morality - more about that at another time. But you can see how a powerful parable has been turned into a Hallmark card - just because of a mistranslation.
            The same is true with the Parable of the Unjust Judge, only here through the addition of an added explanation. Luke 18:2-5

1. And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 "He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by her continually coming.'" 6. And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?

With the explanation (in italics here), the parable is an exhortation to pray diligently: if the widow finally gets what her family needs from this crooked judge, how much easier it will be with God. A gentle, kindly story. However, with the explanation removed, it is clear that the widow (again a woman) is the metaphor for God - like the hound of heaven, coming back and back until His will is fulfilled. What a great parable for those parents dealing with a child seemingly lost to drugs or criminality. God never gives up.
            The process has, in my opinion, domesticated the Parable of the Sower. The explanation focuses the parable on the soils, describing how different situations or character flaws keep us from being productive members of the kingdom, turning the parable into a theology of works! How different it is when the focus is on the Sower, sowing seeds where there is little hope for harvest. It's not only the spiritually receptive who receive the blessing, but those who through limited intellectual capacity, maybe advanced ADHD, or as a result of being sexually abused are unable to respond at the same level as the spiritually gifted. After all, it is with the outcasts with whom Jesus spent most of his time.
            You can always disregard the explanations - added by editor who "didn't get it."
Relationship between Christianity and Judaism/ Jews and Christians

          When I was in seminary, probably the most prevalent notion of this relationship was what was called Triumphalism, that once Jesus had come to fulfill the Law the Jewish religion had been supplanted. At its worst, Jews who had rejected Jesus as Lord were traitors. Mostly, though, Judaism was treated with tolerance and for its importance in leading up to the Christian faith.
            Fairly recently things have changed, first through the publication of Karl Barth's Commentary on Romans, published in German in 1920 and in English in 1930. Barth's conclusions on the critical nature of Romans 9-11 were popularized by the Swedish bishop and New Testament scholar, Krister Shendahl, while teaching at Harvard and Paul Van Buren, an Episcopal priest teaching at Temple University. Their critical insight or observation was that God does not break promises, therefore the promise made to Abraham that he would be the father of the people of God remains. The Jews remain the People of God and we as the Christian church have been grafted into Jewish holy history. Thus, our relationship to Judaism is one of dependence, not superiority.
Same Gender Relationships
          For centuries, the Christian church believed that homosexuality and homosexual behavior was condemned in the Bible".       What is condemned is male Prostitution and exploitive relationships involving two men. In the Bible there is only one description of a homosexual relationship based on mutuality, sacrificial love, and commitment. That is the relationship between Jonathan and David. Though conservatives believe their relationship was not sexual, I believe the text says differently.
            The conflict within the church about homosexuality mirrors the previous debate within the church about slavery. On the one side has been those who proof texted or used selected quotes from Scripture to defend its position in favor of slavery and against tolerating homosexual relationships and acts. On the other side have been those who argued that the overall witness of Scripture is against the toleration and practice of slavery and in favor of the church's affirmation of same gender relationships and sexuality.
            My favorite piece on the matter comes from the author, Frederick Buechner. He writes that when we say God is love, one of the things we mean is that all love comes from God. There is no other source. It is not one of the things in our power. It happens through us for the other. What this tells me is what St. Paul in Galatians 5 tells us, that when we observe the marks of the Holy Spirit or the presence of agape love, that indicates the blessing of God. There is much more to say, but this is a good beginning.

            I have often heard comedian Bill Maher challenge self-identified Christians by asking "How can anyone believe in a religion with a talking snake?" The line always got a chuckle from his audience, even while demonstrating the amazing ignorance of Bill Maher, who is unaware of the role of myth and metaphor in dealing with the ultimate questions about human life. and in our  addressing our relationship with the infinite.    
          No respectable Biblical scholar of any Christian denomination believes that the stories involved in the creation narratives were intended to serve as history. Their function is etiology, trying to make sense of our place in the world, questions of meaning, purpose, guilt and shame, death and so much more. There are multiple authors of these accounts, ranging from those referred to as "J" for their use of "Yahweh" to refer to God and their existentialist bent to the school of writers called "P" or Priestly School, known for their interest in details and their interest in rituals and priestly governance. J's focus on the creation is reflected in the stories of Adam and Eve and the rest, while P devised the scheme of the seven days of creation - and if you pay close attention you can spot traces of both schools interwoven in each other's narratives in Genesis. They are also probably the first existentialists in recorded history.
            With these stories and others the question is not when or whether they took place (ala Bill Maher and other scoffers). The right question about myths is not "when did it happen?" but "where is it happening?" 
          When I was in Salinas, California I experienced all this as I observed the story of Cain and Abel being lived out in Steinbeck's "East of Eden" in the Salinas Valley. Bruce and Steve Taylor had controlling interest in Fresh Express produce, the successor to the great Bruce Church company, the largest lettuce company in the Salinas Valley. When Steve "got religion," he initiated a brutal battle, forcing Bruce out of the family business. Bruce, my parishioner, then started Taylor Farms, which is now the equal of Fresh Express. The struggles between these two brothers took place within a larger context which had continued through generations - and which has been experienced in other family and cultures. Thus, the important question about these myths of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, and the Tower of Babel should never be "When did it happen?" but "Where is it happening?" And as we will see in a future Forum, they have happened over and over again in communities, intimate relationships, and even among nations.