Let’s begin by reviewing the gifts of wisdom we have explored during this season of Epiphany. The gifts of the wise women, from Jan Kinney. The gifts of prophetic wisdom. The gifts of unity and diversity. The gifts of wisdom in our elders, where we had video clips from Jackie and Art Mampel, Roland Holloway, and Carolyn Urban. Then we had Mike Stern, who talked about reviving us again, and Leda Zakarison, who shared her experiences during her time with Global Ministries serving in Lebanon. Wisdom can, of course, come to us from any and all directions. What we haven’t discussed until now in this series is wisdom we learn from the Bible, that collection of 66 books and letters written across a span of a thousand years or so. So today we remedy that situation. And you may have noticed that the sermon title is “The Bible: Dangerous Wisdom.” And perhaps you’re thinking, “Hmmm, what ever can she mean by that???” Stay tuned.
Let’s start with your input. I remember being in a hotel room one night and pulling out the Gideon Bible that was there in the drawer. That Bible had a reference section of specific passages to read depending on your situation. Unsure about a relationship? Read this. Dealing with an addiction? Read this. Depressed and lonely? Read this. How handy is that?
Most of you have been reading Bible passages for decades. What are some biblical passages that bring you comfort and/or guide your faith journey?
The Greatest Commandment: Love God, love your neighbor as yourself
Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
1 Cor 13 on love
Micah 6:8: Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.
Matthew 5-7: The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount
Ecclesiastes 3: To everything there is a season….
Job, on suffering and faithfulness
There is so much wisdom in this book. The Bible teaches us how to center our lives in God; how to open ourselves to God’s love, forgiveness, grace, and still-speaking Spirit to do good in the world. Through God’s covenants with Noah and Abraham, we know of God’s faithfulness to us and of our ongoing invitation to be in relationship with the Divine, however we understand it and no matter how much we may have screwed up. The invitation to love, connection, and relationship is always there.
Early in Christianity, theologians decided which books should be included in the canon of biblical scripture, and which should be excluded. Not everyone agreed, so you’ll see differences between different flavors of Christians. Jews use the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. Catholics add the books of the Apocrypha. Eastern Orthodox may have some other writings that we don’t use.
And each person of faith who studies the Bible has their own canon within the canon—the specific passages that they draw on and believe in, while other passages are ignored or even rejected. You might be familiar with Psalm 23, but Psalm 22 or 21, not so much.
Augustine, who lived in the 4th century in North Africa and Italy, felt the call to become a Christian, but also really enjoyed sex with his mistresses. He famously prayed to God to make him good … but not yet. And one day, he overheard a child saying, “Tolle, lege,” or “Take it, read it,” and he understood that to be a divine message to pick up his Bible and get started.
Early Christians emphasized the importance of scripture study. Eventually a practice called lectio divina developed. One way to practice lectio divina is to choose a very short verse or phrase and approach it in four stages. Stage 1 is to read it. The second time, you meditate on its meaning. This is not about analyzing its historical or cultural context or setting; you just sit with the words and let them work on you. The idea is to draw closer to God. The third step is prayer. And finally, contemplation. The practice of lectio divina can be traced back to Origen in the 3rd century; it comes up through Augustine and others, through the monasteries, and continues to be a meaningful spiritual practice today.
John Scotus Eriugena, an Irish theologian, talked about the Bible being the little book of God, and all of creation being the big book of God. Both were important to one’s faith journey.
Thomas Merton, a 20th-century theologian, wrote the quotation we included in the sidebar on the cover of today’s bulletin:
By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.
What power there is in studying the Little Book—the Bible—to transform our very perception of the Big Book of God’s creation, and our place in it. For Merton, reading scripture was not just about how he perceived holy texts but how that practice opened up to him God’s big book of creation. Reading scripture infiltrated everything in his life.
Perhaps you have had, at points in your life, a spiritual practice of studying the scriptures. When I was growing up at University UCC, the senior pastor, Dr. Dale Turner, made an invitation to the congregation every year: If you memorize the whole Sermon on the Mount—Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7—and recite it to me, I will take you to dinner at the Space Needle. Well, I wanted a trip to the Space Needle. I knew it was expensive and that my parents weren’t going to be able to afford it. So I memorized the Sermon on the Mount, and my mom did it with me. We both got to go to the Space Needle for dinner. A year or so went by, and then I kind of wanted to go again, so I asked Dr. Turner what else I could memorize in order to earn a second trip. I’m not sure anyone had ever asked him that before. He said, “I’ll get back to you.” And a short time later he sent me a whole list of scripture passages—the greatest hits of the Bible—and suggested I pick and choose. The Ten Commandments were there. A bunch of Psalms, some passages from Isaiah, the sheep and the goats story from Matthew, the Good Samaritan, the love chapter from 1 Corinthians 13. Lots of good stuff. I set to work memorizing, and I got a second trip to the Space Needle. Who says bribery doesn’t work? But I also got some key wisdom passages from the Bible into my head, and they have guided me all my life.
People down through the centuries have found the Bible to be a source of wisdom, inspiration, guidance, and more.
And. The Bible also contains some hateful, awful passages, some words open to multiple interpretations.
Psalm 139:19-22 I hate God’s enemies with a perfect hatred
Psalm 137:7-9 dash the little ones of one’s enemies against the rock
There is slavery all through the Bible, and that has been held up as a justification for the brutal form of slavery practiced for centuries in this country.
We all know that there are just a few passages that talk about women sleeping with women, or men sleeping with men, and that these passages have been used against the LGBTQ community to say that God hates them and they’re all going to hell. Yeah, that’s not what those passages are saying, and weaponizing them to put up a barrier between people and their faith journey is, shall we say, just what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing: judging people and separating them from God, as if God had told the Pharisees that this was their job. It’s not. Never was.
How the Bible treats women in a patriarchal society is also something that we have to deal with.
In Gen 1:28, we come to my least favorite word in the Bible: Dominion. Lynn White, Jr., wrote a seminal essay in the 1960s saying that the Church bears a huge responsibility for environmental destruction just based on our understanding of this one word. Does having dominion over creation, as God says in the first creation story, mean that God made creation, called it all good, and then handed it to us to pillage and destroy? That is how many in the Church down through the centuries have interpreted it.
Scripture has been used to justify the Doctrine of Discovery, the Eurocentric thinking that all lands “discovered” by European explorers could be claimed in the name of a European country and any people already living in those lands, like the Indigenous people of North America, for example—could simply be slaughtered or pushed onto reservations. Certainly Native Americans could be seen as less than human, and their spiritual practices, cultures, environmental wisdom could all be disregarded. Think of the centuries of harm—of death and destruction, trauma—inflicted on Indigenous people and people of African descent because of biblical justification and twisted interpretations of scripture.
That’s one way in which the Bible is full of dangerous “wisdom,” and here I put wisdom in quotes, because really what’s happening is people are disregarding God’s message of love and welcome in favor of their personal agendas of domination, oppression, and genocide of peoples and environments.
This is not the wisdom of the Bible. This is humans trying to twist scripture to fit their own desires, to create God in a safe little manageable box. Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
But here’s the other way in which the wisdom of the Bible is dangerous. The true wisdom of the Bible—the wisdom that tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, love our enemies, feed the hungry, forgive people—that wisdom is dangerous if you take it seriously because it will transform you in ways you could not have anticipated. Like Augustine, who prayed for God to make him good … but not yet, we recognize that the wisdom of the Bible calls us to be our best selves, and that’s hard, because we know we’re not there yet, and it’s work, and it can be scary. This call to wisdom and being our best selves shakes us out of our safe and comfortable lives. And if it means we stand up to injustice and whole unjust systems of power, that kind of wisdom can also be life-threatening. Just look at Jesus, considered so threatening that he had to be strung up on a cross. Look at Martin Luther King, Jr. Look at Cesar Chavez, who dedicated his life to better working conditions for farm workers, many of whom are immigrants. Look at Dietrich Bonhoefer, who became part of the German resistance against Hitler in order to save the German Jews; he was imprisoned and hung.
The wisdom of the Bible can guide our days. It can open us to the presence of the Divine in and all around us. It calls us to be our best selves, serving God and each other and all of creation. It will transform us. It already has. This is a life-saving path, a life-giving path—to pursue the wisdom of God through the Little Book of the Bible, to open ourselves to that relationship with the Divine in an intentional and consistent spiritual practice.
Do we dare? Let’s. We’ll be bold. We’ll do it together, holding and supporting each other on this journey of the Spirit. Lent is coming, a time when we are invited to become intentional about drawing close to God. Here is our opportunity. I will see you there.