University Congregational Church
April 10, 2016
To begin the sermon today, I need some audience participation. You can join in (loudly) when I give you the signal! “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. When you read you begin with ABC; when you sing you begin with do-re-me. The first three notes just happen to be do-re-me.”
Start at the beginning – a very good place to start. That’s excellent advice for most things. If you’re reading a novel, it’s best to start at the beginning. And on the rare occasion that I just couldn’t wait to get to the end and I peeked… I’ve been sorry.
You’ve heard about people who make it a goal to the read the Bible from start to finish? Maybe some of you have done it. Honestly, though, I wouldn’t advise it. The Bible isn’t meant to be read that way.
I know some of you may disagree with me about this practice, but when I am faced with a pan of cinnamon rolls or a cake, I go for the center piece. It is the gooey-est, softest, yummiest piece! If you’re going to intake a bunch of calories, the warm center is the best. The outer pieces can dry out a bit, or have too much frosting, or are just a little too cooked. But that inner piece is always just right.
Reading the Bible is a bit like eating cinnamon rolls or cake. It’s best to start in the middle. The middle of the Hebrew Bible is the exodus from slavery in Egypt. In Deuteronomy 6:20-21, it says “When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand’”. This is the single most defining moment for the Hebrew people. It is the center of the cake.
Up until this point, they really didn’t know that much about their God. There were primitive stories of giants and floods and the god who bailed the people out of these precarious situations. There were promises, covenants, and renewals of covenants. But what defines this strange, mobile God of these ancient tribes is that this God has a heart. This God has a soul. This God hears their cries and delivers them. They were slaves, and God set them free.
The central message is that God’s liberation is not based on what the people do, but simply because of who God is. That’s the gooey rich center of the Hebrew Bible. When you start with that, the rest of the stories fall in line.
If you look back at the kings, this nation, and their conquest of the land you will suddenly realize what a volatile, complex, and downright tense work of literature we have in the Bible. It is a literary body rich in internal dialogue, drenched in counterpoint between the prevailing powers and the critics who speak from the underside of history.
By reading the texts backward, or from the center outward, you are suddenly opened to a wondrous new world of hidden critique! The Hebrew Bible tells the story of God’s liberation and love. Even when the people are unfaithful to God, God loves, forgives and chooses them over and over again.
When you read the New Testament, get right into the center of the cake again. If you look for the central theme in the gospels, you will find that Jesus stands with all the victims of history. He embraces them, comforts them, holds them up so that we can see our violence, so that the mess we’ve made can be redeemed and healed.
Jesus illuminates all the history that came before him. Jesus gives us a look into the deep, intimate knowledge of God’s subversive love. Through Jesus we see the grace of God in the most difficult of circumstances.
That’s the center piece of cake in the New Testament: the radical love and grace of God. When the stories and letters of the New Testament are read through that lens, they make more sense.
Much of what I have said is the work of Mark Stenberg, whose book 51% Christian; Finding Faith After Certainty we have been studying. He says, “Please remember. The Bible is not the word. The Bible is a witness, an authoritative witness to the ways and works of the living God, who cannot be captured in propositions and arguments.”
In your bulletin, you will find Mark Stenberg’s other suggestions for how to read the Bible.
If the Hebrew Bible’s gooey center is liberation and the New Testament’s moist center is love and grace, what does it mean for us today? What is our response to be when we lap up all of the liberating love of God?
Every family has traditions that go back through a few generations. All of the Bretz family (my maiden name) agrees with me that the center of a cake or pan of goodies is the best. That’s why, if you attend a family gathering where there are desserts, it is not uncommon for one of us to cut a small square out of the middle of the pie, cake, or dessert before anyone begins to eat the main course – more or less the dessert! Birthday cake? You can be assured that no candle will be in the middle because there is already a hole there. Don’t even bother with putting meringue on a pie. It will be ruined when someone dips into the middle. Sometimes desserts show up to the gathering already missing the middle section.
I figure this family tradition really flatters the cook. It must make him/her very proud to have baked something so delectable that someone cannot restrain from digging in with a spoon.
How, then, do we as people of faith respond to the magnificent story of God’s liberating grace in our world? Do we dig right in with excitement, unable to resist the temptation? Are we so filled with wonder that we join in to participate?
Going back to the Biblical story, the consistent response to God’s liberating love is the work of justice. The people are to:
• “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1)
• “not grow faint or be crushed until justice is establish” (Isaiah 42:4)
• “faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3)
And this justice has a very specific meaning. It is a part of the story of Moses and it runs through the prophetic witness. Justice means a reordering of social life and social power so that the weak (such as the widows and orphans) may live a life of dignity, security, and well-being. Justice means that the scales are tipped in favor of the vulnerable.
It turns out that God does not simply offer liberation to us. God offers liberation to us precisely through us. We who have received the blessings of God are expected to offer these same gifts to others. The measure by which we have received is the measure by which we are asked to give.
The appropriate response is that we reveal and share the patience, the passion, the self-giving, and the steadfast love of God ourselves.
Reading the Bible backwards helps us to understand that we are to be a part of God’s liberating and loving in the world. This is more than doing a nice thing for someone. This is radical behavior! It means we become advocates for those who are outcast, enslaved, impoverished, under-served, on the edges of society, shunned, in prison, unemployed or just downright unseemly.
This week, I’m asking each person here today to put the Bible to use in your life. Don’t just dust it while it lays on the coffee table – actually take part in its radical message of liberation and grace.
Use your imagination. Advocate for someone against whom the deck is stacked.
• Don’t just write a check. You can write a check and then meet the persons it helps.
• Write letters to Congress to support education or a marginalized person.
• Visit someone in prison.
• Volunteer for a social program.
• Become a big brother or sister.
• Actually speak to the person on the street corner with a sign; get to know something about him.
• Serve at the Lord’s Diner.
• Drive to Topeka and speak to a legislator about the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.
Find some way to dig out the center of the Bible – the oohy-gooey part in the center – and take a big bite of God’s liberating power and radical grace! Trust me, it’s the best part!
Stenberg, Mark. 51% Christian; Finding Faith After Certainty. Fortress Press. 2015.