Sermons

Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise

April 12, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Surreptitious binaries abound. Good/bad. Male/female. Scriptural Literalism/Scriptural Metaphorism.

My goal today is to teach the art of exegesis, better put as the practice of interpretation. Why dress up interpretation into a master’s thesis kind of word, especially when most of us don’t get that far in our daily living. We do interpret all day long. We might even call it an art although more properly, it is a craft. Artisanal, organic, local, the work of the plumber as much as the poet. Interpretation is something we do in worship and during the week. We can’t prove that our interpretations are right so much as we can promise that we hope they are so.

The practical and spiritual question is whether you can think something through or does it think you through? How active can we even be in interpretation? Or is interpretation a passive activity, like being scripted for life by things that happen long ago?

The word scripture has its root in the word script or scribe. It is that which is written down, in the Spanish escribir, in the Latin, scriber. Today, I’m told, people don’t talk about being scripted so much as they talk about the narrative that has formed them, the frame that framed them, the story in which they live. More often than not we talk about being scripted as a negative thing. I am scripted, some say, to have become the alcoholic that I am. Or I am scripted, some say, to not trust men. Or women. Or dogs. We use the language of being written upon as a kind of curse. When we say we are scripted, we imagine we can’t change very much from what our instructions are.

Scripture, scripted words, can also be a blessing. They can frame and hold us, as the text argues. “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” This is a fat text, warning us not to be literal about scripture or the larger scripts that our forbears have recorded for our instruction. The word of God is alive and active, not dead or static. It is also sharp and can cut. It can cut by the way you try to make it dead, as some who defend the Koran are doing, in appropriately and wrongly. It can cut by the way you try to make it living, only to your century or your seminary or your moment in time. You can get stuck in the script of your day and not understand what Karl Barth argued that indeed scripture is such a profound disturbance that it will need constant, daily demythologizing in order to penetrate to its purpose. Its purpose to ground you in a unified soul and body, an integrated human, one who is grounded in the big written down truth and able to transcend them. Note that in this one verse we are warned not to separate our soul from our body, our joints from our spirit, our spirits from our marrow. Finally scripture is a judge, an exegete, and an interpreter. Indeed it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

So of course we are scripted. Our scripts can be blessings or they can be curses. Ursula le guin calls it “management by metaphor.”

So much ink is wasted on curses that I thought I’d head straight for the blessing of scripture. It is holy. It is big. It can connect your marrow to your mind, your soul to your self, and your joints to your spirit. In a way scripture is the consent to be passively interpreted, to let something larger than you tell you how to live. So precious is it that it can also get in your way, causing the violence we know as Christian history as we have violently defended our ways.

Some of you know Stephen Weierman and know that he has been interning at a sister church this year so we haven’t seen much of him. He has written an amazing paper as part of his studies at Union. I can send it to you if you want it. It is a study of Karl Barth and shows how Barth used scripture. Barth saw early on how liberal Christianity, the kind that took on the literalism of the ancients, also paved the way for German Nationalism to triumph. Stephen outlines the path of liberal theology as it lost the anchor of literalism. He argues that liberal theology failed to become liberation theology precisely because it had its own hidden literalisms. I daresay we can all identify with that. More profoundly it is scripture itself that has taught me about this universal and ongoing habit of pouring concrete over just about everything. Even Annie Lamott says that orthodoxy is whatever you and your friends think together. Stephen actually explains in a beautiful way what Barth meant as a constant demythologizing. That is a big word for a good habit.

Demythologizing is even better than exegeting or interpreting. It is a highly encouraged suspicion that is based in the experience of grace. Barth – and Stephen – argue that the only decent basis for human integrity, the companionship of body and mind, spirit and mind, marrow and mind – is piety. Yup, piety. What is piety? It is the feeling of the presence of God. Nothing more, nothing less. Right next to most of our scripts, all those ideas that are constantly having absurd conversations in our heads, are our feelings. Scripture, finally, encourages strong positive feelings, a sense of the cosmic protection of the universe, what some do call God, and others Jesus. We have to find a theology that will pull us back from the brink of utilitarianism.

Liberal theology didn’t become liberation theology because it froze God in a book, rather than warming the heart. Piety is nothing more or less than religious feeling, that sense of absolute dependence on that which we are not and cannot be. The Gospel, to Barth, and to me is the shattering disturbance, which brings everything into question. It is both the sacrifice and the cosmic event of Jesus. There is no need for Christian supremacy to imagine the cosmic event of Jesus as disturbing. It may mean that the ways we live, so colonized by the powers that be, are not the best ways to live – and that our days may be spent bowing down when instead we could be lifted up.

Big framework. You don’t get bigger than Barth. Big text. You don’t get bigger than declaring that the word of God is a two edged sword, ready to shake you up any which way you turn.

Small examples are necessary. Otherwise you won’t be threatened enough to care about scripture or encouraged enough to care about it. You will remain in spiritual unconsciousness about what really matters.

When we write something down, it often matters. Let’s warm up to the small by thinking about the act of journaling. When you write it down it makes a difference. Something happens in the writing down thereof. Sarah Mangeso’s memoir ONGOINGNESS. We keep a diary when we find ourselves in moments too full or to be able to say I was really paying attention. A strong defense against waking up and finding you’d missed it. To stay partly contained in one moment. “Nursing an infant creates so much lost empty time. I failed to records so much.

Journaling – escribir – is one example of the inner scaffolding, which is darn similar to scheduling a day, which adds up to amount to scheduling a way. Our calendars are our exegesis of our lives. They tell us what is important and what is not, what is necessary and what is not. Often these days and these diaries are filled with the quest for what really matters. We write scripture this way, that living word of God in us.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS discloses quite brilliantly the way most of us are way too dependent on our peers. Successful people break this pattern. We think for ourselves. We think outside the proverbial box. We distrust the conventional wisdom. We write down or read what is written down to demythologize.

SO I ask you and myself again, can you think something through or does it think you through? Did your superb liberal arts education or Sunday School work or not? When was the last time you changed your mind about something? Like the right way to talk about terrorism, so much of which is rooted in the protection of ancient scripts. Or the right way to talk about how you spend your days, liberally scripted to be against German nationalism or the monetization of just about everything but imagining falsely that there is nothing you can do about it anyway? Or the right way to talk about North Charleston without being worn down?

The kid who says who found the internet not who founded it gets it. We find scripture as a basis for our life. We understand that it is a passive gift not something we can own or change. We become more comfortable with the passivity of receiving scripture as scripture. Then we go on to demythologize it as a motion, a one two chop.

Another example. Should kids use the internet at what age? Krista Tippett’s show this morning helped me change my mind about children and screens. Argued that this is the only time kids get to relax because otherwise they are preparing for those tests that third graders will take this week. By the way the town of Tonawanda is opting out. Talk about demythologizing the script. They may even use their federal funding if they go all the way to opting out of texting. You may not know where Tonawanda is. But I’ll bet there are lots of places you don’t know about, even though you may be scripted by the curse that imagines you know everything you need to know. Did you know that kids are going back to school in West Africa this week because there is a strong likelihood that Ebola is no longer the level of threat that it once was? If I had the time I’d love to exegete the text “Standardized Tests.” Standard. Standardized. Tests.

What about teenagers? Should they live on line rather than go out to play when they can’t go out to play any more because we’ve scared their parents to death of the outside?

Rev. Otis Moss, the pastor of Trinity Church in Chicago, accuses most of us of sanitizing our scripted stories. He says he woke up one day and took a good long look at his teenagers and realized he was raising a thug and a thuggette. Ouch. Many parents, and I am one, have woken up one day years later and realized the hard way that we missed a lot of marks in how we loved the children we assured ourselves we loved so thoroughly. It doesn’t matter that “they have turned out all right” or some other cliché we use to massage our failures. What matters is what we didn’t see when we could have seen it, so busy were we looking at what we could easily have missed, had we the freedom to look and see.

Joan Didion calls our masters “the Himalayas of tedium.” I know most of us would like to blame the big colonizers of capitalism and literalism. We might blame instead our tedious participation in their calendars of assumptions about our days.

I ask again have you changed your mind about anything lately? Or in the last year? If not, why not? Wouldn’t a constant practice of demythologizing be a blessing to your life, maybe not immediately, but on that day when you wake up and look back and say OH MY, how could I have missed that?

Some more brief mind-changing examples. I said that I am coming to the position that the use of tablets by my grandchildren might be good for them. They need to relax. They are being oppressed by tests, testing and testing mythology. I know it’s not big but it’s as close to my moral marrow as I can get today.

Secondly, I found myself strangely moved by Eileen Fischer’s critique of capitalism in a recent ad. It said a lot to me about thinking about Judson 2020 or Judson longer term than the exigencies and urgencies of tomorrow and next week.

Eileen Fischer VISION 2020: “No excuses. Our vision is for an industry where human rights and sustainability are not the effect of a particular initiative but the cause of a business well run. Where social and environmental injustices are not unfortunate out comes but reasons to do thing differently. Where excuses are ignored and action is taken. We’re working toward a world in which the clothes you love to wear create nothing but love.” Take that Edwin Friedman, take that. You will remember him as the gentleman who, in 1959, argued that the purpose of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders. That script is fundamentalism at its best.

Somewhat closer to home. I have long been annoyed by Howard Moody’s benediction. “The real service begins now,” or some such. I didn’t know why and figured it was that strange smallness that comes to someone when they follow someone truly great. I hope my appreciation for Howard doesn’t need restatement. A man who really helped women. A Baptist who brought those dead Baptist bones to life. I love Howard and I still miss him. And, not but, and that benediction bothers me. I think I have finally changed my mind about the difference between worship and activism, inside and outside, liturgy as the work of the people. When I insist on the constant perpetual demythologizing of scripture, including our own most beloved methods of interpreting it, I bump up against this inside/outside binary, this spiritual/prophetic binary, and this passive/active binary. I’d like to queer that benediction and say it like this: The reality of this worship service ends now and the reality of our ongoing service continues as we leave here. Yes, it needs editing. So did Howard’s.

In the next few weeks we’ll hear a lot about the big change that is happening in the world right now. In my reflections on behalf of my 40th ordination anniversary, I have come to one big conclusion. I wasn’t ready till now to say it out loud because I knew it wasn’t true enough in me. I knew I was still scared of men and their dominating dominance.

I was scared to challenge men who said they had a headache because children were yelling about siting waterfalls on a change. I had to ask, “Do you need an aspirin or a laxative?”

Here’s how I have changed both my mind and my marrow the most:

Women’s impact is infinitesimal compared to our potential. You can know something for a long time and not really know it. Unfortunately it will have to be the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, which will ram this issue down our throats. Such an ugly thought, like my machinesta (daughter in law’s father) trying to make my mother in law eat whip cream at our Passover Seder. Even the masculine assaults of mostly white men on mostly black men strike me as rooted in the deeper silencing and silence of women. Follow the weak. There you will find the energy.

Yes, aging kicks up all the dust of childhood.

How I’ve changed my mind may not be how you’ve changed your mind. But, back to those surreptitious binaries, it is not changing our mind. It is changing our marrow.

When the Dalai Lama was asked what he thought death was like, he smiled and said, “A change of clothes?” A look the other way or another way? A look from the bottom up not the top down? A fight with a man on a subway for man splaining or whatever you call it? We can change our clothes. I can’t prove that but I can promise it as an interpretation, rooted in scripture, which is something important, with roots, roots that also have wings. Beware the surreptitious binaries of active and passive, literal and metaphoric, then and now, even that of living and dead. We may need to not just change our clothes but the way we make our clothes. Scripture can bless us along that way.

 
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