The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Saline Deut.
8:1-10; John 6:37-51
Good morning. I know I’ve only preached here a couple of times before; and you really don’t know me that well, so I need to ask your permission to speak rather bluntly and confessionally this morning. Is that alright?
Because what I have to confess to you is that sometimes — and I know this might be a shock to you but here it goes — sometimes I find the Bible a little bit boring.
In fact to be perfectly honest, the other day, while I was doing some research for this sermon, I just dozed right off. When I woke up (about two hours later) I had to ask myself: why is this so boring sometimes? I mean, I’ve devoted my life to this book; its implications to me are profound. And these readings that we’re assigned today — they form the cornerstone of our faith. So why am I not more excited? What’s wrong with me?
The answer came to me as soon as I asked the question; and I’m taking a little bit of a risk by sharing it with you. The problem is this: sometimes I don’t think I believe a lot of this stuff.
I mean, I’m thinking that if every time I picked up the Bible I found it speaking directly to me about things I completely believed with all my heart, then maybe I’d find it a little more interesting.
For example, to be brutally honest about our reading from Deuteronomy this morning: I really do not believe that God gave the people of Israel the promised land as a reward for their faith or their good works. I do not believe that God decided that the people who were living in the land of Cana were less deserving of that land than the people of Israel, or that whatever their moral failures were, that justified the violent seizure of their land. That same kind of thinking was used by the Dutch in South Africa to justify apartheid, and of course, by our own ancestors when we took over this land. So when the Bible talks about the ‘land of milk and honey’ given to the people of Israel as a reward for their faith, I find myself thinking about the babies who were left as orphans, crying at the doorstep of a burned-out house; I’m thinking about smouldering villages and blood on the streets; and I’m thinking about the thousands of Palestinian refugees living in squalor today because they refuse to release their claim on their land.
I think the idea that God favors one tribe or nation over another is bad theology and the cause of endless suffering; it’s the kind of lie we tell ourselves in order to get what we want; and any god that inspires people to pillage, burn, loot, and murder is not my god.
And another thing: I don’t think that God rewards good people with lands of milk and honey or any other kind of material wealth while punishing bad people with poverty and disease, as Deuteronomy suggests — because there are just way too many good people getting the short end of that particular stick — and they don’t deserve it.
And while we’re at it, here’s another thing I have a problem with. Today’s reading in the gospel of John contains the first use of the phrase ‘the Jews’ to refer to a group of people that are opposed to Jesus. Now here’s the problem: Jesus was a Jew; all of his disciples and followers were Jews; with a few exceptions, just about everyone that Jesus associated with were Jews; so who is John talking about when he says, ‘the Jews murmured against him’?
Which Jews? Why is it that whenever John says, ‘the Jews,’ he’s talking about people who are speaking against Jesus and trying to get him killed? Why is it that he never includes Jesus and his disciples and the hundreds of people who followed him from town to town as Jews also?
The fact is that John’s gospel has very strong anti-semitic language in it. Why is that? Well, it’s because by the time John’s gospel was written, some 60 years after the cross and resurrection, there were very intense and bitter conflicts going on between the Jews and the Greeks, and so John’s writing reflects that deep animosity. Of course, John could never have imagined the centuries of bigotry and the millions of innocent victims that his book would help inspire, so that even today it’s still an open question whether a Jew can get elected Vice President. I’m sure that if he could have known what the future held, he would have changed his tune, so I have no trouble today simply substituting the phrase ‘the people’ for ‘the Jews.’
So there are some things in the Bible that I believe, and there are some things in there that I don’t believe. But if that is true, then we’ve got some problems to deal with, right? Like, how do we know what to believe, and what not to believe? That’s a dangerous question, isn’t it, since we’re told — even in this gospel lesson for today — that the way we get into heaven is by believing, and our failure to believe gets us, shall we say, elsewhere.
And maybe even a bigger problem is this: how can I trust anything that I read in the Bible? I mean, if one part of the Bible isn’t true, then what else isn’t true? Why should I believe any of it?
Whenever I start thinking about all of this, and I find myself spiraling into an anxious tailspin of questions without answers, I try to remember a few people I’ve met over the years who have helped me find some answers.
I think of a young man I’ll call Joe, who graduated with an undergraduate degree in engineering from the U of M three years ago. He was a good techy, with excellent people skills, so his first job offer was for a position in Boston starting at $50,000, with a signing bonus and lots of percs and benefits.
Over the next three years I heard from him once in a while; he was doing well, climbing the ladder; and then a few months ago he called me. He had quit his job. He said he just grew tired of the constant obsession with money and material possessions that his co-workers had; he found the business culture in that industry tiresome, competitive and shallow, and he couldn’t stop wondering what it was all for. Did he really want to devote twelve hours of every day to the singular pursuit of money? Wasn’t there something higher to strive for? He said he had seen the rat race, and the rats were winning. After quitting his job, he said he felt lost, but not nearly as lost as the folks he was working with.
When I think about Joe, I remember that the story in the Bible is true; because it’s primarily a story about being lost, and trying to find your way out of the wilderness; and about how if money and possessions are your only concern, you are more likely to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt than to seek out a new thing; that the love of money leads us into slavery, not freedom; and that if you put God first; and seek God out above all other things, there is a great reward. It is worth the effort.
Then I think of a person I’ll call Sam. He called my office in tears a few weeks ago, asking if he could come over to talk. I said of course. He arrived three weeks later, putting me off as long as he could. When he finally showed up, he said that he had an emptiness inside that wouldn’t go away; he was hungry for God but he couldn’t find God anywhere. He had dropped out of church years earlier and hadn’t found a way back until now. We talked about his hunger, and we realized that just talking about it helped a lot, because you aren’t likely to stop what you’re doing and go get fed if you aren’t hungry. And we talked about how that hunger itself is God calling — that he wouldn’t even feel hungry if he didn’t have God in his life talking to him.
And when I think of him I remember that the story from the Bible is true; that when they were in the wilderness God fed them manna from heaven; it was God’s bread that fed them. And in our Gospel today it’s Jesus who comes to us and says, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread he shall live for ever.’ It’s only God who can truly feed us.
And another thing about Sam and those people in the wilderness. They weren’t allowed to collect more than a day’s worth of the bread; if they tried to store it up it went bad. The only way they could be fed was to go out there every day and get the fresh stuff. If you went to church 10 years ago and you think that’s going to do you for the rest of your life, you’re wrong. You’ve got to go back every week and get some fresh bread.
And finally I think of a woman I’ll call Zola — a very beautiful young woman who lived in a town called Pristina in the former Yugoslavia. Then the Serbs took over and began a long campaign of terror in her town; she had friends who were raped and murdered; she risked her life every day to go to an underground school because the Serbs had outlawed education for the Croats. Then finally one day they starting rounding up the men, putting them in trucks, and telling the women and children to leave town or be killed. To prove their point they murdered many people on the spot, including an old lady who lived next door to Zola, who was killed in front of her.
And that began a long exodus for her and her family, through freezing mountains with no protection, through mud and rain, many people dying along the way, until finally they made it to the border, where they were terrorized some more before being allowed into a squalid refugee camp. Weeks later she arrived in Ann Arbor with her family, having been sponsored by the refugee office of our Diocese.
We invited her and her brothers to Canterbury House, where they could find some people their age, and Zola shared her story with us, and we were all weeping. And when I think of her I remember that the story in the Bible is true, because it’s a story about refugees escaping violence, and refusing to descend to the level of their oppressors; it’s a story about how a people, when surrounded by violence on all sides, can dare to dream of a land of peace, and try to get there. It’s a story about how hope keeps us alive, and keeps us human.
It is the great dream of humanity: that someday we will all know peace and wisdom; someday we will all learn how to live in harmony with the earth and with one another. And it is only by cherishing that dream, and risking our lives to keep that dream alive, that helps us to get there.
So I think the bottom line is this: of course, the Bible isn’t perfect; and people will always use the Bible to get what they want. Even the authors of the Bible were not immune to that.
But the next time the Bible seems exquisitely boring or unbelievable to you, maybe God is inviting you to remember Zola, and Joe, and Sam; or better yet, maybe you are being invited to go more deeply into your own story — because we are all on this journey through the wilderness together.
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Chaplain, Canterbury House
Director, Institute for Public Theology