Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"An Unchanging Text in Changing Times." - Kurt Nelson

Kurt Nelson 
2/13/11  Rollins Chapel 
"An Unchanging Text in Changing Times." 
Philippians 4:4-9 

Our theme for this week is not,
you may have noticed, a question,
It’s a statement.
Times change.
But our scripture, more or less,
does not.

It’s a notion frequently invoked,
when scripture and society seem in conflict.

God is unchanging,
Truth is unchanging,
the bible is unchanging,
Only the times, they are a-changin'.

And so our collective question becomes,
‘What has scripture to say,
about issues of contemporary concern?’
And, ‘How, if at all,
ought our contemporary experiences,
change the way we read scripture?’
Knowing, as we are told,
 that we are to be not conformed to this world.
But knowing also that we live fully in it.

It’s worth noting,
that when someone brings up this idea,
that the bible never changes,
though sinful society does,
they tend to be defending the status quo.
Rarely, in my experience,
is this a reference to the beatitudes,
to blessing the poor and the peacemakers,
or to the call to sell all we have to follow Jesus.
Or various other aspirational biblical ideals.

And especially these days,
unchanging text, and changing society
is brought up regarding questions of sex and sexuality.

A friend and former teacher of mine,
when lecturing on the Bible,
and issues of contemporary concern,
would always start by saying,
“A lot of people ask me what the bible says about sexuality.”
“Well, let’s listen.”
Then he would put his big bible on the lectern,
and cup his hand to his ear, and wait.
It was, and is, a somewhat obnoxious thing to do.
But it makes an important point.
Texts don’t speak,
we read them.
And we have a lot more to do with what we read out of them,
than we might care to admit.
For our unchanging text has,
throughout history,
been argued on many sides of many issues,
including racism, slavery, sexuality, gender, war,
and countless others.

But I'd like to take up briefly,
the particular example,
of Christian treatment and understanding of the Jews.

One needn't look far, in the New Testament,
to discover a particular and fairly ugly attitude toward the Jewish people.
Throughout the Gospels,
especially John and Matthew,
and in much of Paul's writing,
we see Jews and especially Pharisees,
as flawed, misdirected people.
As rejecters, and ultimately as killers of the Messiah.
They are “Broods of Vipers”  (Matt. 23)
and Receivers of God’s Wraith. (1 Thess. 2)
saying “Jesus’ blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27)
Our unchanging text is full of them.
And we could clearly make a biblical case for anti-Semitism.
And yet, I suggest,
that a conventional reading of scripture,
does not.
If you're like me,
when you encounter one of these passages,
you feel embarrassed.
And for good reason.
There's little historical evidence to suggest that the Romans
would ever turn over such authority,
or had any trouble crucifying rabble rousers on their own.
And the early Christ followers had reason to dislike the Jewish leaders,
authorities as they were,
and persecutors of the followers of this new way.

But most important in rethinking our view of the Jews
Is, of course, that Jesus was thoroughgoingly Jewish.
 And if we eschew all that Jewish stuff,
we lose a good portion of understanding who Jesus was,
and what he was talking about,
critiquing that religious world,
and its hypocrisy from the inside.
And so, by and large in the Christian world,
we’ve rethought the place of the Jews in our scripture.
Leaving behind a particular stream of thought
Which travels from Paul,
to the early church fathers
to Luther and the reformers,
and into the modern age.
And which has been a considerable issue.
And instead we seek to understand both the historical context of New Testament vitriol,
the rootedness of Jesus’ message in the Jewish tradition.

I hope none of this strikes you as too surprising or radical.
For my point is not that we need to rethink these issues,
but that we already have.
Many of us anyway.
And we didn't rethink them in light of terribly new historical evidence,
or some lost text.
Rather, our moral imagination changed after Auschwitz.
And indeed, it ought to have.
For while Hitler was no follower of Christ,
the Christian anti-Semitism which surrounded him,
and pervaded Western society,
clearly bears a good portion of the blame,
for who he became,
and for all that was allowed to happen.
Our world changed
- far too late, I might add –
with the Holocaust,
as did our reading of the text.
And this is, I suggest, a good thing.
This is part of the beauty, I think,
of this rich and complicated text.
For while, in the wrong hands,
it can do terrible things,
in support of slavery, oppression, or anti-Semitism,
in the right hands,
it can even-more-strongly critique those notions.

Our experience of history,
forces us to re-examine our unchanging text,
and change the way we read it, from time to time.

And so as we turn our attention,
as often happens these days,
 to biblical arguments over sex and sexuality,
I contend that similar methods ought be used.
We can be ready to push back on simple-minded notions of,
"the Bible says"
for it says many things.
And many of them must be understood in their historical context,
and all of them must be understood within the call to love God, neighbor and enemy.
And we can rightly wonder, explore and discuss,
what the God of Love has to say about sex and sexuality.
And our text is so much richer on these questions
 than the so-often-invoked notion of abomination.
For our text has everything to do with our call to love one another,
as whole people,
For it was our God, who first loved us,
all of us.
And in the face of violence and persecution against gay and lesbian people,
both home and abroad
in the name of Christ,
we can certainly lift our voices in reminder,
that this Gospel is good news for all.
Not meant to do violence and harm.

I believe we are called always to read our text with moral imagination.
And called to read our text with theological conviction.
So that it can speak to us about issues both timeless and timely.

It is a text from numerous different inspired authors,
written over the course of millennia.
It is a text with various accounts of how and why this world came to be.
It’s a text with 4 different accounts of Jesus’ life and work.

And rather than being a scary thing,
or a limitation of our scripture,
I believe it is precisely this that makes our Scripture so timeless,
so beautiful,
and so important.
I believe this diversity within the text,
is an important signal to us about how we are to read it,
in response to all kinds of issues.

Now we could likely name countless ways
that our Christian family has fallen short of the ideal throughout history.
As, I suggest, we have when it comes to Christian anti-semitism,
and our contemporary treatment of sexuality.
But the story of our unchanging text in changing times doesn’t end there.

For when we free ourselves to think and read and work with moral imagination
and theological conviction,
and when we take seriously both our ancient text,
and our contemporary situation,
we can come to even greater terms with what our texts,
and our lives,
have to say to this troubled world.

in the midst of a growing environmental crisis,
and its disproportionate effects on the already poor, marginalized and hungry,
we might return to our text with moral imagination,
and theological conviction,
and realize that it has much to tell us about land,
and food, and Sabbath and rest.
That it demands of us not dominion,
but stewardship.
And that we have something to say to the whole world,
about our whole earth,
and its importance,
not just physical,
but spiritual.
And we can remind the world that these ideas aren’t radical,
but are deeply rooted in scripture and tradition.

And when we face a country with a 50 percent divorce rate,
we might return to our text with moral imagination,
and theological conviction,
and realize that our scripture has something terribly important to say about love,
and family and fidelity,
which go far beyond the “family values” our politicians purport to care about.

And when we face a country,
with growing hostility to immigrants,
both documented and undocumented,
we might return to our text with moral imagination,
and theological conviction,
and realize that the scriptures came to be
during a time of radical difference,
and calls the followers of God to welcome to alien and the stranger with open arms.

When we face escalating violence,
in Iraq and Afghanistan,
and unrest in countless places,
where violence,
even in the name of good,
has begotten more only violence,
we might return to our text with moral imagination,
and theological conviction,
and realize that peacemakers really are blessed.
And that loving our enemy,
as the bumper sticker says,
probably means not killing them.

And when we face a country,
where the rich are getting richer,
and the poorer are getting poorer and more numerous,
we might return to our text with moral imagination,
and theological conviction,
And realize that whatever we do unto the least of these,
we have done unto our Lord.
Not simply in personal exchange,
but in policy and communal practice.

Once we can accept that times change,
and that though our text does not,
our reading of it certainly will,
worlds are opened to us.
And if we are reading and acting with moral imagination,
and theological conviction,
I believe we are being more faithful to the text,
to God,
and to a world in need.

As Paul reminds us,
even as he was nearing the end of his life,

“whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

There are, in our scriptures,
many just and true and excellent things,
that have much to say to us and our world,
if we are ready to read, and listen,
both to the text and to the world in need.


  1. Kurt very interesting sermon. My question for you is how is religion different than any gut-instinct that we have for what is good and right in the world? Instead of sending kids to Sunday School, why not send them to post-Enlightenment values-school? Does religion have what to teach us that the Enlightenment did not?

  2. Good questions...where to begin?

    Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the enlightenment (go Democracy!) but it seems like our ethic of love, our sense of communal grounding and duty, and our vision of an ultimate other than human rationality stem from sources in faith and religion more than in modern thought. And indeed, often offer corrective to the hyper-individualist ethic we seem to live fairly well in this historical moment. But read through the lenses of love, faith, and community, clearly modern thought offers us wonderful means by which to live them out.

    As for the difference between gut-instinct and faith, I think they can be related. I take seriously personal experience, revelation, reason, history, etc. in thinking theologically and ethically. But I don't think any one of these can be entirely normative or foundational. We develop ethics and theology, I think, in really circular ways. I would argue even those who appeal to a static foundation like scripture are working the circle of experience and textual interpretation. Taking this seriously is a little scary, no doubt, but it's also honest.

    Once we admit that, then our interpretation must also be ethical and theological. We don't get a pass on ethics just because we think our scripture offers us one. Though, obviously, scripture informs theology. It's the circle of faith, and ultimately, I think it's faith on which we're floating.