Monday, 21 August 2017

When the Church Hurts People




I'm trying something different today. The following is the manuscript for a sermon I recently preached at my church based on Luke 19:1-10 and Matthew 5:46-48. An audio version can be found here.  


I really seem to get the fun topics to preach on. When we first started this series on what is the church, the preaching team sat down and had a planning meeting about what we wanted to talk about and I suggested that we end the series with a sermon on when church goes wrong and hurts people. In my tiredness I forgot the old piece of advice “don’t suggest something unless you’re prepared to volunteer to do it”. After all, nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. Although the great thing is that because I’m no longer an employee of the church you can’t fire me if you don’t like what I say. But as I told people what I was planning to preach on I noticed something interesting: a lot of people responded with “I have a friend/neighbour/etc. that was hurt by the church”. Don’t get me wrong. Churches do many wonderful things. I wouldn’t go to church if I didn’t believe in it. But sometimes we can be oblivious to the way we hurt people. Or we don’t want to believe that we do. In 2014 the Irish musician Hozier released a hit song called “Take Me To Church”. Based on his experience growing up in a Christian family and seeing the hypocrisy of the church, he sings “Take me to church/I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies/I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife”. I was having a conversation with someone last year who called it a horrible song. And I found myself explaining that although it may feel like a horrible song it’s actually a very honest reflection on the experience that many people have had with church. And being treated poorly by religious people goes all the way back to biblical times.     

In our Luke reading we come across a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector for the city of Jericho.  Tax collectors were utterly despised in Jewish society. For one, they were agents of the oppressive occupying force. One of the hot political topics of the day was “how are we, the descendants of Israel, going to retake the land from the Romans and become a great nation again?” As a result they had a particular dislike of the tax collectors and Roman soldiers. Secondly, tax collectors were often greedy and corrupt. The system of tax collection in first century Palestine operated like this: You would have a chief tax collector who would hire other tax collectors to collect taxes on his behalf. If it was a large area these tax collectors would then hire more tax collectors to work for them. It ended up as essentially a first century pyramid scheme in which everybody in the chain took their own cut of the profits. This led to taxes being an exorbitantly high. What’s more, tax collectors were not above harassing citizens. Sometimes tax collectors would stop travellers on the road and demand a bribe or they would charge them with smuggling. We might think of these tax collectors as being similar to corrupt cops. They were well within their authority to extort ordinary civilians and because they were agents of the state you couldn’t really do anything about it.
   
To be a Jewish tax collector was especially bad. Your collusion with the Romans meant that you were regarded as a traitor to your people. You were banned from the Temple and the synagogues and your people shunned you. The rabbis taught that you were beyond God’s help and they encouraged the people to lie and deceive you whenever possible.

And Zacchaeus was one of the most notorious tax collectors.      

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Nails Aren’t the Point




If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably sat through at least one sermon where the preacher goes into graphic detail about the crucifixion of Jesus. He[1] may have gone into detail about how they would slowly nail nine inch nails into Jesus’ wrists and feet (and not his hands because the weight of the victim would have just resulted in the nail tearing through the palms). You may have heard that the victim of crucifixion was then lifted up and forced to hang from the cross. The position they hung from meant that they slumped forward, resulting in severe difficulty in breathing. In order to take a normal breath the victim would have to push themselves up with their legs. But this was an incredibly painful act and the victim would soon slump back down again into their original position. Eventually the victim would be too exhausted to push themselves up and they would suffocate to death. If the guards were feeling particularly merciful they might break the victim’s legs to hasten the suffocation process. And of course this was all often done after the victim was severely whipped with a multi-thonged whip, each thong ending with a sharp shard that would dig into the victim’s skin and rip their flesh out.

The whole point of going into this graphic detail is to show you how much Jesus loved you. That he would go through such graphic torture on your behalf because of his deep love for humanity.

But to make the physical pain of crucifixion centre-stage is to miss the point of what Christ went through.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Wait, Adam Had Two Wives!?



Lilith

I recently had a bright young lady I know message me with a rather odd question. Why does the Talmud say that Adam had a wife before Eve? And if it’s true then why wasn’t it mentioned in the Genesis creation accounts?[1]
 
Well it’s certainly true that certain Jewish texts refer to Adam having a wife before Eve. The most famous one is The Alphabet of ben Sirach (although contrary to the original question it is not part of the Talmud).[2] The story of Adam’s first wife sets out to fix a discrepancy in Scripture: why does Genesis 1 state that man and woman were created simultaneously but Genesis 2 states that the man was created before the woman?[3] The answer is that God created two wives – one in chapter one (Lilith) and the other (Eve) in chapter two. 

And, believe it or not, Adam’s “first” wife is mentioned in the Bible. Isaiah 34:12-14 states: 


They shall name it No Kingdom There,
    and all its princes shall be nothing.
 Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
    nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the haunt of jackals,
    an abode for ostriches.
 Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
    goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
    and find a place to rest.[4]            

Wait why is she still alive during the time of Isaiah and why is her description so unflattering? She must be the ex from hell! 

Well yeah, she is.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Must I Like My Enemies?




“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? – Matthew 5: 43-48


Love your enemies is easily one of the most annoying commandments of Jesus. Partly because hating your enemies is a fantastic way to feel smugly superior to them and partly because it’s so darn hard to do. And I suck at it. I mean I wouldn’t wish death upon my enemies and I was pretty disgusted at the crowds of people celebrating Osama Bin Laden’s death.[1] And, as a follower of consistent life ethics, I’m staunchly anti-death penalty. But part of me struggles with the whole loving part, especially when there’s a good joke to be made at their expense.

And it’s because loving people we see as a threat is incredibly hard and counterintuitive to our minds.

In fact, the Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber makes an astute observation in her book Pastrix:

“Where exactly is the verse that says you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemies? Because I hadn’t remembered reading that in the Old Testament, which is where Jesus usually gets his best material.

Paul was right. It’s not in the Bible. But when I hung up, I realised why “love your neighbour and hate your enemy” sounds so familiar… I’m pretty sure it’s in my heart. It’s like, in my DNA.”[2]

Simply put, hating those who are different from us and who we perceive to threaten us is part of our survival instincts. And Jesus’ command is that we are to go against these instincts if we are to follow his new way.

But for now let’s assume that we all agree with Jesus[3] and look at what I think is a more interesting question: Do I have to like my enemy?

Or put it another way: what the limits of loving your enemy?

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Reading the Bible is a Lot like Dating






Because I’m bad and it and most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing.

But now that we have the obvious joke out of the way, I’m currently reading Peter Enns’ book The Sin of Certainty and I came across this passage:

""Speak for yourself. I'm not creating God in my own image. I'm just following the Bible."
No one just "follows" the Bible. We interpret it as people with a past and present, and in community with others, within certain traditions, none of which is absolute. Many factors influence how we "follow" the Bible. None of us rises above our place in the human drama and grasps God with pure clarity, without our own baggage coming along for the ride. We all bring our broken and limited selves into how we think of God."[1]

And I think that Enns is onto something. Often I have heard Christians say “I’m just reading the Bible for what it says” when pressed on an issue or even as an exhortation towards someone who takes a less literal reading of Scripture. But are they really reading the Bible for it says?

I don’t think so.

But first we have to look at a misunderstanding of an idea called “the clarity of Scripture”. Popular within evangelical circles, the clarity of Scripture is the belief that the meaning of the Bible can be grasped by all people, both the educated and the uneducated. However, this idea is sometimes taken beyond its limits to mean that the meaning of scripture is always clear at the surface level. For example, one can read a passage and know its true meaning instantly, often “due to the Holy Spirit”. And while I wouldn’t say this never happens, I don’t think it’s the norm.