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Sermon for May 29, 2005
Lionel E. Deimel
President, Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh

I was invited by the rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, to give a presentation and to preach on Memorial Day weekend. The lessons for the day—Proper 4, Year A in the Book of Common Prayer—naturally lent themselves to a meditation on the need for humility and modesty as we struggle to interpret scripture. I would like to thank the Rev. Martha Eilertsen for inviting me and the Rev. John Thomas, who served as my mentor on sermon writing.

— LED, 6/1/2005

Good morning.

Thank you for inviting me to Open Mike Sunday at St. Thomas’. I say this because I’m not used to preaching, having last done it more years ago than I care to remember. In my last sermon, I expressed a young adult’s frustration with the apparent hypocrisy of his elders. My effort had no discernible effect on my audience. Nevertheless, when I accepted Martha’s invitation to be here today, I took it on faith that the Holy Spirit would somehow point me in a useful direction.

Being a well-trained Episcopalian, my first preparatory step was to examine the lectionary readings for today, which, as a heavy computer user, I did at the Web site known as The Lectionary Page.

I’ve learned that the lessons for any particular week sometimes seem to address a particular theme. Other times, they seem unrelated, apparently chosen with random abandon. Sometimes, like those for this morning, the readings actually seem contradictory.

Today’s lessons, in one way or another, all address discipleship—how are we to follow the God of Israel? How are we to follow Christ Jesus? What, in fact, is our relationship to the divine?

Much of what we read today is straightforward and comforting, Deuteronomy tells us to put God’s words in our hearts, and Paul, writing to the Romans, tells us that “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Familiar stuff, particularly Paul’s discussion of justification by faith, the redemption that is the gift of God’s grace, rather than a reward for our righteousness. “[A]ll have sinned,” he says, “and fall short of the glory of God.” We are saved not by our works, but by our faith.

This message is not exactly what we see in Deuteronomy, however, where God offers a blessing “if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God” and a curse “if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God.” We can perhaps dismiss this Old Testament warning as something nullified by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ—Paul is telling us, after all, that we now have a new way to relate to God. The gospel passage, however, presents serious problems.

Matthew has Jesus, that other great figure of Christianity, seemingly contradicting not only Paul, but even himself. He calls the man wise who hears and acts on his message, and he calls the man foolish who hears but does not so act. But this teaching comes immediately after Jesus suggests that sincerity is not enough to earn a place in the kingdom. Even those doing powerful works in Jesus’ name may be rejected as not doing God’s will.

I think that, with some effort, we can extract a deeper and perhaps even coherent meaning from this morning’s gospel. Jesus’ building analogy is actually a variation on a rabbinical story of the time that contrasted building an adobe house on a stone foundation, rather than the reverse. If Jesus is actually alluding to this story, then he may be expressing a concern for planning, for thinking things through, for building on a firm foundation, as it were, for apostolic action. Perhaps this kind of deliberate discipleship is being contrasted to knee-jerk self-righteousness, or even to the use of Jesus’ name as a mere magical incantation.

Today’s gospel comes near the end of what my friend and retired professor, the Rev. Peter Bercovitz, calls the “so-called sermon on the so-called mount.” He means by this that this “sermon” in Matthew is a literary device used by the evangelist to present sayings of Jesus first circulated as oral tradition separated for precise knowledge of the original context. (Luke has Jesus saying many of the same things on a plain, by the way.) This matters because, even if Matthew accurately presents what Jesus said, it is reasonable to believe that that is not all he said. We are therefore challenged to provide context—Peter calls it a “frame”—for each saying, and we can only look to the New Testament as a whole for such context.

Paul ... is comforting and reassuring. Jesus, by contrast, seems demanding and unforgiving.

So, what are we to make of Paul’s message when considered next to the Jesus saying in Matthew? Paul, admitting that we are all sinners in need of redemption and incapable of earning it, is comforting and reassuring. Jesus, by contrast, seems demanding and unforgiving. Do we earn salvation? Do we simply accept it? Is the truth more complicated?

Well, apparently.

I’m not going to try to untangle this paradox, but a solution to the problem presented by today’s readings is surely possible. What I want to do instead is to suggest that the seeming contradictions and lack of historicity in the New Testament belie the claim, often made by the so-called conservatives in recent Anglican controversies, that there is some unambiguous “plain meaning” we can extract from scripture without benefit of theological or scholarly resources. The conservatives, or, as I prefer to call them, the neo-Puritans, are interested in establishing, say, the unequivocal sinfulness of homosexuality. These Calvinists among us may even be right about homosexuality, but they are assuredly wrong in insisting on the existence of some “plain meaning” of often very controversial passages. I might also add that they conveniently ignore the “plain meaning” of many passages that are unacceptable to contemporary sensibilities, despite the fact that they are fond of accusing others of surrendering to the “secular culture.”

In The Good Book, Harvard Divinity School professor, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, traces faith in the most straightforward reading of biblical texts to the Protestant Reformation. He calls this approach to reading the Bible literalism. The Protestant reformers wanted to wrest authority for scriptural interpretation from the Church, so they argued for putting the text into the hands of ordinary believers, a program that had only recently become practical. This, however, raised the prospect that each Christian could extract a different meaning from the Bible, potentially leading to ecclesiastical chaos. By arguing that the meaning of the text is straightforward to the point of being incapable of misinterpretation, the Protestants denied the traditional role of the church while seemingly protecting correct belief.

Any historian or linguist—and most modern theologians—would immediately see the literalist approach to scripture as naïve and misguided. The biblical text, after all, has made a long and uncertain journey to reach us, and, in any case, meaning is not carried in words like water in a bucket. Moreover, the scholarly conclusions of a Professor Bercovitz are almost certainly true, yet not immediately obvious to the casual reader.

Gomes points out that simply asserting the reliability of untutored interpretation does not make it true. Also, by equating meaning with truth, this approach impoverishes the text by dismissing the importance of literary devices such as symbolism, thereby obscuring, rather than explicating the text. Investing the English text of the Bible with such a power to communicate God’s intent is to invoke magic of the sort that some think Jesus is speaking against in the passage in Matthew.

So what ideas do I want you to take home with you today?

bullet  God loves you and offers you redemption through his son Jesus Christ.
bullet  Everything else is complicated.
bullet Read your Bible, and keep coming to church.
bullet Be wary of simple answers.


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