Monday, August 31, 2015

Don't Bother Defending Scripture


For once, I'm partly thankful that Labor Day weekend will interrupt the momentum we've built in our congregation since school started two weeks ago. Have you read Sunday's lessons? James tortures my Calvinist-leaning, Luther-loving soul by writing "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." And Jesus looks at the Gentile woman whose daughter was tormented by a demon and drops a racial slur, saying, "Is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." It's a lectionary nightmare. Maybe it's good that fewer people will turn up on Sunday to hear the preacher struggle with these formidable texts.

Don't worry. I haven't lost my edge. That's just Monday's pessimism creeping in. Of course I'm excited about these lessons. Of course I hope the church is full on Sunday. Give me Grace vs. Law or a Jewish-Gentile controversy over Bread of Life any day! I'm not preaching, but I will enjoy spending the week digging into these texts to try to make sense of them for myself.

This is one of those weeks when my instinct is to try to defend scripture, which, of course, is folly. I want to take James' text and stretch it and bend it and twist it until I can make a claim that faith alone saves. "When James writes about works, he's focused on a description of salvation--not a prescription. Faith alone saves us. But the life of the redeemed is marked by care for the community. Don't confuse his 'faith without works is dead' for 'faith isn't effective without works.' They aren't the same thing." I could write that. I could preach that. I believe it. But why I am trying to pull punches for the bible? Can't we let the bible speak for itself?

My approach to the gospel passage is similar. "Jesus didn't really mean that she was a dog. It was a term used to get the attention of the disciples. He was proving a point. Or, if Jesus wasn't, Mark is. This isn't a story about Jesus' shocking racism. It's a shocking story about a woman's faith and God's surprising inclusion even of the Gentiles." I could preach that. Actually, this time I don't believe it. At some point this week, I'll try to hatch a post on worldwide salvation through Israel as promised to Abraham. But I'm still left with a racist Jesus. You might not like it, but, when Jesus calls the woman a dog--directly or indirectly--he spoke a commonly used racial slur for Gentiles like that woman. What do I do with that? Do I pretend he's my grandmother who was raised in a generation when "colored" was thought to be an appropriate label for a human being? Do I whisper from the pulpit, "He didn't really mean that; he's just from another time?" But why should I try to defend Jesus? That's absurd.

Of course, I'm using the word "defend" to overstate my point. I'm not actually trying to defend the bible--or these two passages in particular--as if they were on trial. It would be more accurate to say that I was excusing them or softening them or, to use a technical theological term whose meaning somewhat breaks down in modern language, apologizing for them. Call it what you will, but I'm still watering it down. Why not let James say something that ruffles my Protestant feathers? Why not let Jesus drop the d-bomb and own it for himself?

This week, I'm going to try to explore the context of these two passages. I want to pick at them and understand them--not to excuse or distract from the challenge that both present to me but to allow their sharpness to hold its original edge. Sometimes preachers are given a gift--tough passages. Sometimes those passages shouldn't be explained away in order to dull their message enough for young children to hear and handle. Sometimes we're supposed to go to church and get cut by the word. May my work this week and the work of other preachers, too, be preparation to hear the sharpness of scripture.

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