Our words of integration and guidance this morning come from this book, Biblical Literalism, written by Bishop John Shelby Spong. As many of you know, Bishop Spong was one of the leading biblical scholars of our time, he passed away just last year at the age of 90. And this is his very last book. The whole title of the book is Biblical Literalism, a Gentile Heresy. And in the book, Bishop Spong, who devoted his entire adult life to the study of the Bible, reminds us that the Bible is not the Word of God. It is not words that were spoken out of God's mouth.
He reminds us in this book that the Bible is a human product, which tells us more about what our divine religious ancestors believed, then what God believes. More about what our religious ancestors saw than what God sees. And he reminds us in this book, that the Bible is not a history book. It was not written, literally. And so the Bible should not be read and understood literally. In fact, in this book, Bishop Spong says, to read and interpret the Bible literally, is actually harmful and dangerous.
And he gives example after example of how a literal interpretation of the Bible has been used throughout the centuries to cause great discord in the world. How a literal interpretation of the Bible has been used to to incite wars, how the Bible has been used to justify slavery, how the Bible has been used to subjugate women, to denounce interracial relationships, and how the Bible has been used, even to this day, to reject gay people.
So the Bible has been used and continues to be used by many Christians today almost as a weapon, a way of dividing people, rather than uniting them.
I shared at the top of the service today that today, we are celebrating Ecumenical Sunday. It's the Sunday in which we celebrate Unity, Unity of churches, and religions, and people. For we are all one. And the Gospel reading for Ecumenical Sunday, which I just read for you, is one in which Jesus is reading from the Bible, or what we now call the Old Testament. He's at the synagogue, worshiping, and he's called up to read. And he opens up the scroll and he's reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which says, “The Spirit of God is upon me, God has called me to bring good news to the poor, and to let the oppressed go free.”
Now, this may sound very familiar, because last month, we were talking about his mother Mary's Magnificat. If you remember, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she also said very similar words, she said, “The Spirit of God is upon me, God is going to lift up the lowly and oppressed and pull down the rich and mighty from their thrones.
I explained last month that the Magnificat was considered so dangerous by people in power over the centuries, that many governments up to the 20th century, banned it from being read aloud or sung aloud.
And these words of Jesus are also going to get him in trouble. In fact, we're going to hear next week that after Jesus said these words, he was kicked out of his own hometown. Becauseafter he sat down, Jesus said, “Today, these words are fulfilled in your hearing of them.” What he was saying to the people is yes, change is coming. We are starting a new world order today, a new world in which the last are going to be first and the rich and powerful are going to be pulled down from their thrones.
So you can see why Jesus would get in trouble for saying these words. The world in which Jesus lived – people were categorized by the authorities, and by the societal structure. So there were certain groups of people, sick people, poor people, women, foreigners, a whole host of other people who just didn't measure up to societal standards and to the religious purity codes that were in the Old Testament. These codes classified people as clean or unclean, worthy or unworthy, insiders or outsiders. And Jesus comes along and says, ‘No. No longer. All people are one.’ He's saying, all are worthy, all are clean. And he's saying that those who are the outsiders, the ones on the margin, now they're going to be the insiders.
So you can see why people in power were so threatened by Jesus's words and by the movement he was leading, that they needed to silence and kill him. But even after he died, the early Christians continued his work. In Galatians 3, the early Christians said, “You're all children of God, there are no more Greek or Jew, no more male or female, no more slave or free. We are all one.” And Jesus's wish for us, of course, in his very last discourse, in John 17. And these are the words that are on our UCC logo ‘that they may all be one.’
Jesus's wish for us was that we would discover our oneness. Now, I want to be clear, oneness is not sameness. We don't want everybody to be the same. In fact, we're all different, and we should celebrate our differences, but recognize our oneness, and how much we need each other.
That's why our first scripture reading for Ecumenical Sunday is that beautiful metaphor that Paul gives us in Corinthians. We have the one body with the many parts. I love that metaphor, because each part of the body is different, but it's important to the workings and functionings of the whole. And the same is true for us.
Yet there are many Christians today, unfortunately, who seem to want sameness. They want everybody to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. They want everybody to be the same religion as them, to worship the way they do, to pray to the same God that they pray to, to vote the way they do, to think the way they do, and to love the way they do.
And if someone doesn't, they categorize those people. Like the Leviticus purity codes from the ancient world. They say, ‘Well, if you don't accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you're unsaved, you’re unclean, you’re unworthy of God's love.
That, my friends, is unChristian.
That goes totally against the teachings of Jesus, the teachings that say, ‘We are all one, I am in the Father, You are in Me and I am in you. We are all one.’
Our friend, John Pavlovich – who I know many of you follow on social media, and if you remember, he came to our church back in 2018, and gave us a wonderful sermon – said this, “If someone's color, gender, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation keeps you from fully loving them. You're doing love wrong.” I'll always remember it. And he recently said, “At the end of your time here, you will either have lived as a table maker or a wall builder. Are you building a wider table? Or are you building walls between people?”
Pope Francis recently said something similar. He said, “A person who thinks only about building walls wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not a Christian.”
This is not the gospel. People think that if we marginalize, separate and isolate others, all of our problems will be magically solved. We must create dialogue, to help overcome fears and suspicions that live in the imaginations of people. Builders of walls. So be builders of bridges, not builders of walls. I love that. And that's what we're being called to do. We're called to find common ground.
But I know, I know, I'm with you. It's hard for us to build bridges with people during this very divisive time in which we are living. I've got to be honest with you, I do not know how to find common ground, or build a bridge with someone who's in the KKK, which by the way, defines itself as a Christian organization.
I find it hard to build bridges with people from the Westboro Baptist Church, who hold up signs that say God hates gays, and God hates Jews. How do I build bridges with someone like that?
And how do I find common ground with young white Christian men who carry torches and proclaim white supremacy? How am I supposed to build a bridge with them?
I don't have the answer.
But I think it's why Jesus said over and over again, things like “Bless those who persecute you.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Love your enemy.” “Forgive 70 times, seven times.”
And it’s why He himself said on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And I think it's why Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrated this past week said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is far too great a burden to bear.” Now, the writer James Baldwin, who was both black and gay said, “We can disagree and still love one another. Unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression, and in the denial of my humanity, and my right to exist.”
It's hard to love one another, to build bridges with those people who are denying our humanity and our right to exist. But the love that Jesus is calling us to is a transformative love, a healing love. It's a love that doesn't stay silent. I mean, look at Isaiah, and Mary, and Jesus. They all were proclaiming changes coming. They were all speaking truth to this new social order. The love Jesus calls us to is not a nice kind of love, that just lets everybody say what they want to say. It's a love that speaks truth to the powers that be so that we can be the change that we wish to see in the world. Change is coming. But it's up to us. So let us on this Ecumenical Sunday, my friends, in this season of Epiphany, let us be the light and the love that the world needs. Especially right now. Let us be people of love and light so that we can continue Jesus's work of bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven, right here on Earth.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
Rev. John Shelby Spong from the book Biblical Literalism
I live in despair when I see the state of the Christian church today. The Bible, a text the Christian church claims to hold dear to, is frequently an embarrassment in the way it is used and understood. In our history, we have seen people of color enslaved, women reduced to second-class citizenship, and gay people rejected and blamed for natural disasters, all by "Bible-quoting" Christians. It is often so embarrassing to continue to identify oneself as Christian and to see how the Christian church's holy book is used in the service of prejudice, hatred and oppression. For anyone to call the Bible "The Word of God" or to treat the words of the Bible as if they were words spoken by the mouth of God, is to me not just irresponsible, it is also to be illiterate. The Bible reflects a worldview of an ancient, pre-modern time and holds as truth many things that no one believes today. Back in the 17th century, Galileo was condemned at a heresy trial for his challenge to the idea that the planet earth was the center of a three-tiered universe. A biblical text from the book of Joshua was used to seal Galileo's fate. Later, the works of Charles Darwin were attacked and ridiculed by Christians on the basis of the seven-day creation story in the Bible. Yet, today, I watch members of the church continuing to quote these Biblical texts as if they should still be authoritative. Yet, I love the Bible. I have been fed by this book. I have found the Bible and my study of it to be a deep resource to my life and faith, so I am driven to find a different way to read the Bible that allows me simultaneously to be both a person of faith and a person thankful to be living in the 21st century.
What did you think?