This sermon wraps up our series on Deconstructing Theology, though I will follow it up with a postscript this week with a case study working through a specific issue in light of what we’ve done the past six weeks. I will post that sermon on Monday and be done posting sermons for awhile. I try to reserve this space for other random thoughts, so I’ll get back to those soon. Here’s last week’s installment – thinking about things that don’t “fit” the structure . . .
We began with this video clip from the Today Show accessible here:
Deconstructing Theology #6
Alum Creek Church – February 7, 2010
When All Structure is Gone
Last year, while Mary Beth and I were forced indoors with our newborn (who turned one yesterday!) we spend some time reading through Jacobs’ book, The Year of Living Biblically. Jacob’s intention of following the Bible literally is an overstated attempt to obey the laws since he doesn’t leave any room for metaphor or poetry, but the work is still an interesting reflection on obeying the Bible. Have you ever considered what it would take to keep all the laws of the Bible? Jacobs has a Jewish heritage so he is more interested in the Old Testament than the New Testament, which makes his foray into the Law of Moses especially interesting.
One of the most memorable experiences that I remember from his yearlong experiment was his concern over purity. You may or may not know that in the Old Testament, a woman was considered unclean when she was on her period. She was instructed to go to the edges of the community for the duration of that week. The law goes on to instruct that anything a woman touch while she is on her period is unclean as is anything she sits on. (Leviticus 15: 19 – 23). This caused quite a problem for Jacobs as he set out to follow the Bible as literally as he could. He lives in New York City, regularly takes the subway and eats and rests in public places. How could he be sure the seats in which he was sitting would be clean?
His wife, a bit embittered from the weeklong abstinence of touch demanded by the law, took this simple fact to really challenge his commitment.
The no-sitting-on-impure-seats presents more of a challenge. I came home this afternoon and was about to plop down on my official seat, the gray pleather armchair in our living room.
“I wouldn’t do that,” says Julie [his wife]
“It’s unclean. I sat on it.” She doesn’t even look up from her TiVo’d episode of Lost.
OK. Fine. Point taken. She doesn’t appreciate these impurity laws. I move to another chair, a black plastic one.
“Sat in that one, too,” says Julie. “And the ones in the kitchen. And the couch in the office.”
In preparation for my homecoming, she sat in every chair in the apartment, which I found annoying but also impressive . . .
I finally settle on Jasper’s six-inch-high wooden bench, which she had overlooked, where I tap out emails on my PowerBook with my knees up to my chin.
His solution is a creative one – a Handy Seat, which he describes as his “little island of cleanliness.” The Handy Seat was a portable seat that he took with him everywhere he went to ensure his cleanliness remained intact.
I have spent so much time talking about A. J. Jacobs this morning because I believe he illustrates the problem the Jews had with the Mosaic Law well – they couldn’t keep it. Last week as we read about the council in Jerusalem, in the midst of their considering the Jewish implications for Gentile converts Peter stood up and said, “Why should we expect the Gentiles to keep the Jewish laws? Our forefathers weren’t able to keep the laws!” “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are now.” (Acts 15: 11).
We are saved by grace, through faith. What of everything else? What about the way we understand everything else? What about your stance on gay marriage? What about your stance on the environment? What about your stance on communion? What about your stance on salvation, and the salvation of others? What about these questions . . . and what about a million others? Where’s the line? Does grace eliminate the need to seriously address these things?
As we’ve spent six weeks now deconstructing our thoughts and ideas about God and faith . . . where do we go from here? All of our understanding and beliefs are laying on the ground before us in pieces, how do we put it all back together? What are we left with when the structure is gone?
I want to share with you five snapshots from Scripture that don’t’ fit into the structure. I think these snapshots help shed light onto what we are to do when our structure of knowledge and understanding is shaken – when we begin to realize that we don’t know as much as we thought we did and we’re unsure of the way forward.
Snapshot #1 – The Priest Melchizedek
I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on this first snapshot, mainly because there isn’t much to say. We begin in the story of Abraham. Abraham had been called by God and was blessed by God in all he did. He began amassing great wealth and notoriety in the area. Genesis 14 tells the story of two kings coming to see Abraham: the King of Sodom and the King of Salem. It is the King of Salem that brings our attention this morning. Read Genesis 14: 18 – 20.
We aren’t told much about Melchizedek and, for the most part, is an unimportant character in this story. He is mentioned again in Psalms and Hebrews which is very interesting, but for our purposes here, we just want to note one thing about Melchizedek – who is he? Not only is he a king – he is also a priest. Where does his priestly credentials come from? The priestly line through Aaron won’t be established for a long time. The extent of our knowledge of God’s working in the world are through Abraham and his family. Where does Melchizedek go back to? What is the nature of his priesthood? How many are blessed through his work?
Obviously, these are all questions that we can’t answer, and that is exactly the point. We don’t know. What we do know is that God was working in a way that we are completely unaware of and that completely does NOT make biblical sense.
Snapshot #2 – Celebrating Passover (Numbers 9: 1 – 14)
Two years after Israel is led out of Egyptian bondage, as they continue their traveling through the desert, it is once again time to celebrate the Passover. The Lord tells Moses it’s time to celebrate the Passover and all the preparations are made. Read Numbers 9: 6 – 8. Some of the Israelites had a problem. Many of them were not ritualistically clean as required by the Law of Moses prior to participating in Passover. There were some families that had funerals recently and had come into contact with dead bodies. What were they to do? Must they be excluded from this celebration? Moses inquires of God. Read Numbers 9: 9 – 13. Here, a very noticeable and obvious exception is made to one of Israel’s most fundamental laws.
You can interpret this text as an extremely rare exception to the norm . . . but you have to ask the question, why was an exception allowed? On what grounds is the appeal granted? Was God feeling nice that day? Had he not thought that far ahead? Or, was there a higher law He could appeal to?
Snapshot #3 – Finding the Book of the Law (2 Chronicles 29 – 30)
A similar situation comes about in 2 Chronicles when Hezekiah uncovers the Book of Law that was lost long ago. Upon finding the book, they realize the temple has become unclean, and Hezekiah had it cleaned and purified. Read 2 Chronicles 29: 35b – 36. With the temple back up and running, the regular worship of the community could begin. Central to the religious way of life for Israel were their festivals and they had just missed Passover. Passover was celebrated in the first month and it was now the second month.
Read 2 Chronicles 30: 1 – 6. The leaders consorted and determined that it would be good to go ahead with Passover. They sent letters out throughout the nation inviting everyone to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. This was to be the greatest Passover celebration ever.
Upon the arrival to the city, many people had not been ceremonially cleansed. Read 2 Chronicles 30: 13 – 20. Again, the question remains, why the exception? Was God so excited to have his people back in conformity that he gave them a little leeway on how they went about the celebration? I can envision a group of devout old Israelites sitting on the outskirts of the party pointing and saying, “You know they haven’t been cleansed? What is this world coming to?”
Snapshot #4 – The Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11: 27 – 30)
Read 1 Corinthians 11: 27 – 30. 1 Corinthians 11 is a passage that we often read before taking the Lord’s Supper. It speaks to the seriousness of the Lord’s Supper. But, have you ever known anyone to get sick because they weren’t observing correctly? Paul indicates that that is exactly what is happening in Corinth at the time. Have we not experienced that because we have never done so inappropriately? Was that just something that happened back then?
Again, we can’t answer those questions, but we’re left with the idea that there is something going on here that is out of our typical experience and understanding of God and of the church.
Snapshot #5 – Deathbed Salvation (Luke 23: 32 – 43)
And we come to the final of our snapshots – on the cross of Calvary. Jesus is crucified between two thieves. Read Luke 23: 32 – 43. Of all the snapshots, this one is most difficult to fit into our structure. This criminal is given the promise of eternal life right here on his deathbed. He probably wasn’t a Jew. He didn’t know the Torah. He wasn’t circumcised. He wasn’t baptized. He wasn’t religious.
Yet this final professional of belief in Christ brings him the promise of eternal life. There are a few questions glaring back from this text. Was this a one-time exception? Granted, this is a unique, never to be duplicated event, but is there nothing timeless we can glean from this episode? Does this not say something about our attempt to figure things out? Doesn’t it provide us with at least a small dose of humility to realize that God is going to do what God is going to do, and we should be careful about telling people what God is like, or what God is going to do, and simply stand back and testify to what he is doing and what he is like and what we’ve seen – just as Paul and Barnabas do in their explanation of the Gentiles inclusion in Christ?
The passage of Scripture that is on the front page of the bulletin brings us to a fitting conclusion to this series. The questions the prophet asks reflect the same question we’ve been asking throughout this series, “What do you want from us? How do you want us to be your people? What are the rules of church?”
“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Sacrifices and offerings were all commanded by God. They were the “right” way
to do things. But there was a better way. There was a higher way. There was something that was more important.
I subtitled this series “Unlearning the Rule of Church.” I’m afraid we’ve spoken in far too many places in establishing the rules of church. We have become more concerned with “doing church” right than with living out the kingdom right. If I were to pray Micah’s prayer in this setting this morning, I think it would sound like this:
“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I ensure my singing is done in the right way, without instruments, and from the heart? Will the Lord be pleased if women are excluded from all forms of public service during our assembled times? Shall I present my certificate to him – baptism by immersion upon the age of accountability? Maybe I should be baptized seven times – just to be sure. Must I keep track of my how many times I celebrate communion? Should I insist that everything that happens during a two-hour window on Sunday mornings at the church building is exactly perfect – exactly the way that I want it?”
The answer that comes so boldly and powerfully to Micah screams from the pages to our ears this morning . . . “He has showed you, O man, 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.” Perhaps as poignant as what is said, is what is not said. No sacrifices. No burnt offerings. No temple rituals. Justice. Mercy. Humility.
In a similar vein, Paul ends his letter the Philippians with a memorable teaching:
“Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent of praiseworthy – think about such things.”