What then shall we do?
“10% of life is what happens to you,” I remember my 7th grade science teacher telling me. “And 90% is how you respond to it.”
I am not so sure what kind of statistical tool my science teacher used to get to those percentages, but regardless of the percentages, I do think there is truth that we have to choose daily how we respond to what happens in the world around us.
In middle school, life happens to you. I remember going to school, entering the cafeteria, and coming to an impasse: Am I going to choose to sit with the new kid at lunch, or am I going to choose to sit with my friends. This choice was forced on me. How I respond to this impasse could shape my whole middle school experience. Maybe I have a new best friend, maybe this new kid will have a lonely and terrible middle school experience, or maybe this person will be just fine without me and I have some sort of savior complex? 90% is how you respond.
Years later, the new kid I chose to sit beside told me that it meant a lot for someone to sit with him on the first day of school. As far as the savior complex, I am still working on that.
The question we are posing to us today, is one we are going to entertain throughout this year, and it is a big one. “What then shall we do?” How do I respond to the 90%, or whatever percent it might be, of things that happen to me? How do I respond to the things that happen to other people, or to other forms of life, or our planet?
There are a lot of things happening in this world and it is overwhelming thinking about how to respond to them. It is overwhelming thinking about “what we should do about them.”
Does our faith have anything to say in response to what happens in the world?
Some Christian traditions put very little thought into that question. Some Christian traditions might be a bit more concerned about correct beliefs and individualized salvation.
In the Mennonite tradition, this becomes a bit more tricky. Our understanding of salvation is intertwined with the creation around us. Mennonites have aspired to take Jesus’ ministry seriously, and have prioritized how in Jesus’ ministry there is a deep consideration of how we treat those around us and how we seek justice for those around us.
Our faith – hopefully – calls us to ask the question – “What then shall we do?” Not to simply ignore what is happening in the world around us, but to push us into living and loving in the world
The bible -the topic I would like to touch on a bit today, has been a place where the Christian tradition has searched for stories and guides to figure out how we should live. And even though I have continued to take steps towards our sacred text after a period of disillusionment with it, I still question its relevance for answering the question “What then shall we do?”
An iconic movie moment in my childhood was in the Simpsons Movie. There is a scene where Grandpa Abe Simpson is having a psychotic breakdown during a church service. Lisa turns to her dad, Homer, and says, “Dad, do something!” Homer picks up the nearest book and frantically pages through it and says “I am trying to, but this book doesn’t have any answers.” Little does he know that he is holding the bible.
I think many of us have been there. At a moment of crisis, we pick up the bible because we have been told our whole lives that it holds the answers to our questions, only to crack it open and find levitical law. I remember as a child hearing about magical ways of interacting with the bible. Stories of people flipping randomly through the pages, putting their figure down, and getting exactly what they needed. And perhaps they did.
But is this how this works?
Does this book have any answers for us? Is it relevant in helping us respond to what is happening in our world – like Homer responding to Grampa Abe’s psychosis.
My story with the Bible
Growing up, church was pretty easy for me and the steps toward thriving in it were pretty easy. The Mennonite Church was made for someone like me to thrive in. I liked singing hymns, and connecting in community, and the journey of seeking God.
Way back then, 15 whole years ago, the bible seemed pretty straight forward. Ignore all the old testament stories of violence and keep pointing at how Jesus loves his enemies.
Gender and bible was pretty straightforward for me as a teenager. I was a man and the bible has a lot of focus on Men, and men in positions of power. So just stay celibate until you marry a woman, don’t join the military, and be involved with church, and in return your faith community should be a place you thrive. I thought, this should be easy not only for me – but that should be pretty easy for others.
My world was one where the church that I grew up in was the first church in Lancaster Mennonite Conference to ordain a woman – and that was in 2007 – so women and men have equal rights – right? My world was a post Martin Luther King Jr. World where we had already solved the issue of racism -right? My world was one that mostly ignored people with disabilities and didn’t think to accommodate. It was a world that ignored LGBTQ community and… My world was mostly middle class, and we largely ignored issues of poverty, or at best gave money to a few charities. But most of those issues did not affect me directly. So the church was awesome. And the way we read the bible held it all together.
The reality of the spiritual journey specifically for white Mennonite men like myself, is that a significant part of spiritual growth is beginning to realize that your experience, that my experience, is not the only experience out there – and that in fact, my experience is one has historically thrived because it chose to ignore the experiences of others and maintained a type of world where I could believe “Why wouldn’t everyone want to be Mennonite.”
As most of us know. Everyone does not thrive in church. And to broaden it a bit more, everyone does not thrive in society. And this book- This dangerous book, has been used to prop up and value one group’s experience over the other.
For a large chunk of my 20s – I did not know what to do with the bible. Not that I “know” now what to do with it. My relationship with the Bible has changed – and a large chunk of how it has changed has been through coming to terms with how my faith tradition has historically focused on propping up someone like me.
Angela Parker, a New Testament scholar, wrote a recent book titled, “If God Still Breathes, Why can’t I?” She writes about her experience as a Black woman in the field of New Testament Studies that has been dominated by white men for centuries. She writes about how biblical interpretation done only by white men has created a type of White Supremacist Authoritarianism, where both consciously and unconsciously, the bible has been interpreted to support power in males and in whites. She argues that doctrines like biblical infallibility (which is a doctrine that states that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith is wholly useful and true) and inerrancy (which would argue that the bible has no errors in it) have been used to stamp out the voices of marginalized people. The classic interpretation of the bible by white men is then seen as perfect – almost God-like- and is used to maintain the oppression of other races, genders, and cultures, and keeping white men in power.
The White Male Supremacist Authoritarian approach to the bible, which is the bible that many of us grew up with, is not a fun bible to read. And is why so many of us here have no interest in cracking it open. And I don’t blame you.
So, I thought we might explore some other ways of approaching the bible, that might contribute to the liberation of marginalized people, instead of maintaining oppression. Hopefully, helping us in our question – “What then shall we do?” This not the only way or a perfect way to look at the bible, but another tool in the tool kit when approaching this difficult book.
Traditionally, many of us have been taught to simply consult the bible for a question. Like our question this year. “What then shall we do?” Kind of like one of these paper fortune tellers.
I remember hearing about an intro to biblical studies class where the teacher placed the bible in front of the class and started asking it questions –
What, Oh Bible, should I eat?
How about, who should we hang out with?
How do I treat others?
What shall we do?
Then the teacher asked why they were not getting any answers
Doesn’t the “Bible tells me so?”
How about sexual ethics?
How about violence towards others? Towards animals?
How about money?
How should I treat people with disabilities?
How should I treat people from other races?
How should I treat women?
This exercise could go on to the next level –
Perhaps I should read it.
Okay, so, How should I treat women? Let me just flip through here. How to choose which passage? (Big eyes) Hmmm.. probably not that story.
What is interesting here, is that by reading the bible, I have now inserted myself into the problem.
First, I wanted the bible to speak on its own about the question that I had. However, now, I am needing to read it. I am a part of the equation. It seems the bible doesn’t do very much of anything on its own, without humans. Humans reading it.
And now its kind of up to me to choose which passages to address my question. Okay. Let’s think about sexual ethics. Should I consult Leviticus? How about the unwedded erotic song of Solomon. Should I consult Jesus in Mark about divorce? Or how about Jesus’ different take on Divorce in Matthew? And really, does this book have anything to say about non-hetero relationships.
Regardless of whichever of the varieties of biblical sexual ethic I consult. It’s still you and me reading it. It’s still you and me interpreting it, here in the 21st century. Regardless if the conclusions we come to wildly liberal or staunchly conservative. Regardless if our readings cause mass shootings or create great hope for liberation. Both of which have been outcomes of reading the bible.
We as humans are responsible for our interpretations. We cannot go back and blame the bible. It is us who read it, and whatever we do or say as a result of reading it, we are responsible for. Its not that there isn’t messed up stuff in the bible. As we learned this Advent, there are stories in the bible where people are harmed and no one questions the harm. One could take all of those Advent stories and justify a lot of abuse towards women.
We are responsible for our interpretations of the bible that have condoned slavery, justified the genocide Jews, oppressed women, disregarded people with disabilities, enabled abuse, inspired crusades and wars, shamed varieties of sexual and gender expression, maintain poverty, disregard children, and disregard the earth and all of its inhabitants.
The bible does not simply tell me so. We interpret and it is OUR huge responsibility for us as a community to do it in a way that does not cause all the harm that I listed before.
So how do we do that? How do we interpret the bible in a way that does not justify genocide?
How do we interpret the bible in a way that does not maintain doctrines that silence Black Women like Angela Parker.
One of the key ways that we can liberate the bible from white supremacy authoritarianism, is by hearing experiences. Hearing the stories and experiences of others – who are not like you.
In the Methodist tradition, experience is one of the 4 tools that they use when doing theological reflection – along with the bible, reason, and one’s tradition
It is not simply through the bible that we know that slavery is bad. Paul argues that slaves should remain slaves. It is through the experiences of enslaved people that we know that slavery is bad.
Experience is a tool that is underutilized and it is one that we are going to be prioritizing in this series.
In this series, we will be hearing from members of this congregation and their experiences engaging many issues in the world. Those experiences are important because they do inform our biblical interpretation as a community, and also our response to social injustice.
The potluck we will be having once a month after church, starting today, are a chance for us as a community to share our experience, so that they might inform how we read the bible, and how we live out our faith. Inform our question for the year “What then shall we do?”
I have heard story after story as to how experiences with LGBTQ folks have changed how people think about LGBTQ inclusion. For me, as a college student, I witnessed deep pain in the lives of LGBTQ peers, but I didn’t know what to do with the bible and the issue. It wasn’t untill I attended a church where LGBTQ folks were celebrated and I watched my peers thrive in that space, that everything clicked into place. I remember thinking that if this isn’t the kingdom of God present on earth, where those who have been outcasted by the church, are in fact celebrated and loved, I am not sure what is.
Learning from the vibrant experiences of the LGBTQ community, informed how I now read the bible and how I lived my life.
So, my sermon title “Does this Book have any Answers” is my question for today, and it is in response to our question for this year. “What then shall we do?”
Is this book relevant for answering the question – “What then Shall we do?”
Each of us on some level will need to decide if the bible is relevant for them in considering social injustice.
I believe that being aware of how our experiences shape our reading of the bible, is the key to the bible’s relevance today. Our experiences shape our interpretation, and as a result, we are responsible for how the bible has been used to harm others. And, on the other end, are responsible for how the Bible has created hope and liberation for some many people. Centering the experiences of people who have been marginalized, when we read the bible, is key to reading the bible in a way that is hopefully liberating, instead of oppressive.
I think the bible becomes quite interesting when that is the case. Instead of looking at the bible for enternal rules, we are able to be in conversation with the book. Like this advent, instead of considering the story of Tamar as a set of ethics that maintain power over women, we can look at the story as a picture of how women have been historically abused. During that series we intentionally had women preach and share their wisdom. Over and over again, we were taught ways of hearing those stories that brings hope for the liberation of women.
Centering the experiences of those who have been marginalized becomes the way that we learn and grow as a community into a church where everyone is thriving.
Over the next year, once a month, we are going to take steps on that journey, and learn from the experience of those working with people who have experienced social injustice, or have personally experienced social injustice. And we will share our experience at the potluck. And we will bring along with us this Bible, the book that at times we are not really sure what to do with. And we are going to shake the chains off of it. Shake off the chains that have held this book down and have been used to chain other people down. And hopefully we will hear some music – hear some beauty from these chains falling and clanging along the way
Speaking of which, perhaps I will bring the bible finally into this sermon in our closing, and prioritize a verse that could be a guide for us on the way.
“What then shall we do?”
God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
May we walk together on this journey towards justice.
May we walk together, sharing our journey’s, as we read the bible, and seek justice.