Picking Bible Verses

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, April 17, 2016

I see from my scan of the news that this seems to have been a week for people to be asked about their favorite Bible verse. 

For me, I really like John 12:49 where our Lord says, ‘But I did not speak of my own accord’. 

What this verse tells us is that Jesus drove a mid-sized sedan, but didn’t go on about it. (‘For I did not speak of my own accord’).

Sorry.

But, actually, as it happens, one of today’s readings does contain a favorite passages of scripture for me. From the Revelation of St. John:

For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple, 
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them, 
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

I find that image of God wiping away our tears so very moving. I always have done. A lot of my sermons tend to focus on God as a loving parent and his care of his beloved, precious children and, for that reason, I find this such a powerful image.

I had the opportunity yesterday, at the interment of ashes for Robert Haddow, to quote another of my favorite Bible passages, this one from Isaiah, in which he likens heaven to a fine banquet. 

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. 

But perhaps at the top of my list is this verse, also from Isaiah:

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
 The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks

I hadn’t really made the connection until now, about my choices of scripture, but what struck me as I was writing this sermon was this: that the aspect that unites them all is that they deal not with the here and now of how things are, but with the future, and how things will be. They are, essentially, visions of a new world order, be that on earth or in heaven, where love, care, kindness, tenderness and compassion are the everyday and, indeed, the only currency of life.

In that respect, my choice of favorite scripture probably says as much about me as it does about the Bible, or theology. 

Let me, just for a moment, make this sermon mildly interactive. Let me ask you to think for a moment about what might be your favorite verses of scripture, and why? 

We have thus far focused on Bible verses that we prefer for their personal resonance with us, or the ways in which they comfort us, or challenge us personally. 

But we know only too well that getting into the business of choosing Bible verses is also fraught with danger, and with self-justification, and with the perpetuation of institutionalized injustice.

This takes us into the realm of a practice called ‘proof texting’, which is the method whereby someone misuses a scriptural quotation, either by quoting it out of context, or placing a clearly unintended meaning on it, in order to justify a position that they are taking on something.

I saw a Facebook post recently where someone had found one of those day-to-day desk calendars with an inspirational Bible verse for each day. You know the sort of thing. One of the verses was Luke 4:7, “If you therefore will worship me, all shall be yours.” Sounds quite inspiring, doesn’t it?

It’s less inspiring when you know who said it. It was the Devil, during Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. So, context is everything.

 An Eye for an Eye by Garry Knight

An Eye for an Eye by Garry Knight

Let’s take another example. Oh, I don’t know…. Let’s see now, how about this one? “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. You’d be surprised at how many Christians would subscribe to this verse. Exodus 21:24. One thing to be very clear about here is that Jesus specifically repudiated this verse of Scripture. In fact, Jesus couldn’t have been clearer on the subject. Matthew 5:38. Jesus specifically teaches us to do the complete opposite to that verse and, rather than look for every opportunity to punish those who you perceive to have done you wrong, you ‘turn the other cheek’ and you in fact go out of your way to cultivate a loving relationship with them.

Why, then, do we do the exact opposite of what Jesus tells us to do? Why do we choose to ignore Matthew 5:38 in favor of Exodus 21:24. Maybe because it suits us to? An unpleasant truth about us all is that we have a tendency to pick and choose what we want to heed, and what we want to ignore. 

If you want a great example of this, take this one, posted by another friend on Facebook the other day. Honestly, what would I do without Facebook for my sermon illustrations? A man had his arm tattooed with the text of Leviticus 18:22, the verse that people who oppose homosexuality use to justify their position. But let’s have some consistency here, please. Because Leviticus 19:28 specifically prohibits tattoos. “You shall not..... tattoo any marks upon you”.

What Jesus was opening up to us in his discourse about revenge was this: that just because it was in the Bible, didn’t mean that it was an immutable, infallible maxim for all of time. 

It is often said of Episcopalians that we take the Bible seriously because we don’t take it literally. We were discussing this very thing in our Adult Catechesis class last Sunday afternoon. I was describing the way in which the Episcopal tradition comes to a mind on a topic or issue. Or ought to. 

The Episcopal tradition uses a wonderful metaphorical tool called the Three Legged Stool. One of the legs is represented by Scripture. Another is represented by Tradition. The third is represented by Reason. Now, the thing about a three-legged stool is this: it only works as a stool if it has all three legs. Three legs, it works great. In fact, it’s incredibly stable. But, self-evidently, a three legged stool doesn’t work if you take away one of the legs. Same with the metaphor. We can only make sense of Scripture if we apply Tradition and Reason to it. In other words, take a Bible verse and in its interpretation consider how the whole spread of Christian tradition over the centuries has dealt with it, and then also apply reason: your own God-given intellect and capacity for making common-sense deductions about something. Only by deploying Tradition and Reason can we make full sense of Scripture. Equally, only by deploying Scripture and Reason can we make full sense of Tradition. Equally, only by deploying Scripture and Tradition can we make full sense of Reason. You get the idea.

I’m not saying that if you use this method of interpreting Scripture you’re going to end up thinking the same things as me, or reaching the same conclusions about the Bible as me. And that’s fine, obviously! But what I am saying is that no Bible verses can be taken either at face-value or in a context-free environment. And I am also saying that there is a terrifying tendency in this world to do just that. We are familiar with the threats of both Christian fundamentalism, and in Islamic fundamentalism, the kind that ISIS and the Taliban espouses. It comes as no surprise to me, sadly, that world affairs are the way they are if sacred texts are read without the benefit of Tradition and Reason.

Of course, it is quote impossible to take the Bible totally literally. If you did you would have to reconcile a very long list of contradictions from the factual to the fundamental. Even so-called biblical fundamentalists pick and choose to their hearts content. And that’s the key phrase – ‘to their hearts content’. The fact of the matter is that we do pick and choose according to the view we have of God, our neighbor and ourselves. If we choose to believe in a vindictive, judging, authoritarian, distant God then we will of necessity pick verses that content our hearts, inasmuch as they will reconcile themselves with our specific impression of God. If we choose to believe in a loving, caring, forgiving and intimate God then we will of necessity pick and choose what accords with that understanding. 

Picking and choosing from the Bible gets a pretty bad rap generally. It is viewed as inconsistent, self-serving, convenient for our own selfish purposes, ignoring hard truths that we would rather avoid.

But I want to say that picking and choosing is both inevitable and, indeed, required, and this puts an entirely different complexion on the matter. God actively calls us to pick and choose, just like Jesus homed in on certain verses to make a point about the nature of God. God’s Holy Spirit so informs our understanding of God so as to allow us to pick and choose in ways that lead us to know more about God, if we choose to listen. We can choose a God who is loving and forgiving, or we can choose a God who is harsh and judging. It’s up to us. That choice is ours to make. Sadly, so many people unfortunately don’t realize that they have that choice – that the impression of God they have, oftentimes, been made to believe is able to be different.

So, when people tell you that they decided XY or Z because it’s consistent with the Bible, tell them that they pick and choose just like anyone else, and that it might be because they’ve chosen to see God as judgmental, totalitarian and disapproving, even in the face of circumstances that ought obviously to be clearly loving, caring and compassionate. 

I actually believe that God makes love pretty easy to spot. And to pretend that something is not a sign of God’s love - when it clearly is – distorts God’s dream for this world we live in. I believe that those verses I mentioned at the outset, that God would wipe away every tear from our eyes, and that nothing ought to hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain, I believe that they are not distant visions simply for the afterlife, but possible in the here and now, too. Our world could look that way. It really could. If we wanted it to.

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