Listen to the sermon from Sunday, October 11, 2015 titled “The Sword and the Scalpel” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Okay, you know I love the Bible. It is our sacred story. I know that many people, perhaps even some of you, would set the Bible aside as antiquated, incomprehensible, even dangerous in the hands of the wrong people.
I understand. It ought to be a fountain of life-giving grace, an antidote to the poisonous false advertising of the world’s deadly glitter. But sadly, the Bible has been weaponized as a means to attach God’s name to abusive agendas.
Take Hebrews 4:12 – “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” These verses have been taken out of context as permission to use the Bible as a weapon against people, to shame and abuse and ostracize not just individuals but whole nations, races, genders, orientations, and religions in contexts where no one is allowed to question their interpretation of scripture.
Many of you (and I myself) have been the object of hateful preaching in God’s name. The medium becomes the message, replacing the grace of the gospel with hatred, division, and self-righteousness. And their prevalence on mass media has made them seem like the voice of Christianity. No wonder so many people not only run from the Bible but from the Christian Faith itself. You remember that wall of preachers I showed you last week?
Many of these folks are the very ones who misuse the Bible to abuse, and not enough of us have called them on it.
To be sure Hebrews offers a picture of the Bible as a means of God’s judgment. But that’s just it: God’s judgment. It is not a weapon God places in our hands to use against other people. It is an instrument God uses in relation to us. When we read the Bible it reads us. It questions our priorities, challenges our choices, examines our trajectories. Rather than turning us hateful and abusive, it humbles us and calls us to be better, to become whole. In modern terms the Bible is not a blunt sword but a sophisticated scalpel in God’s hands.
Listen again: “The Word of God is… sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Heb 4:12-13).
Think of God’s judgment as diagnosis. Think of The Bible as God’s scalpel. Nobody likes surgery, but we know it saves our lives and serves our quality of life. Think of the Church as God’s hospital, of worship as God’s operating room.
Take for example Mark’s story of the Rich Young Ruler who came to Jesus asking, “What must I do to be saved?” Wrong question, of course, as if getting a life is about your accomplishments, or worse still, your bank accounts. Jesus says, “You know the commandments,” then rattles off a few. “Done, done, and done,” the guy says. Epic Fail: getting a life is not about being a good boy and earning God’s nod of approval. Clearly it hasn’t worked for this guy since he is still unsure and insecure.
Mark says far from being hateful or abusive, Jesus looks at him and loves him. “One thing you lack:” Jesus says, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The Bible doesn’t prescribe everybody this extreme medicine. Maybe just those who are rich by the world’s standards and have many possessions. Which is pretty much all of us, I suppose.
This guy is shocked, and walks away grieving because, Mark tells us, “he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22). Which is another way of saying, “He was possessed by many things.”
The Bible prefers the poor and warns the wealthy about the systems that impoverish some people while providing others far more than they need. Earlier we heard the prophet Amos warn the people of Israel about their disregard for the disadvantaged. The other prophets, including Jesus, sound the same warnings. The Bible holds us accountable for global poverty. But of course, poverty is not just a problem in other places of the world.
Because they wrongly consider wealth a sign of God’s approval, the disciples are shocked when Jesus says: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). How did that get in there? Wealthy Christians have been looking for loopholes and wrestling with reinterpreting the plain meaning ever since!
There is even a popular urban myth that Jesus was actually referring to the small gates designed for defense in those days – their version of the gated community – where you had to take off the camel’s pack to squeeze it through. There is no good evidence camels ever used these gates. And I suspect the disciples’ comment (“Then who can be saved?”) and Jesus’ answer (“All things are possible with God”) were added later in the transmission of the story since it pretty well erases what Jesus just said.
Let’s have the courage to stick with the bedrock of Jesus’ teaching here. Isn’t he talking about our universal human impulse towards materialism? How we measure our worth and find our identity in the things we own? How our possessions actually possess us? “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
At the heart of our materialism is the greed that begins early in life that tells us we can never be enough until we have enough, which sends us looking for life outside of ourselves rather than within. The biblical word for this is “idolatry,” following the wrong gods, who do not and cannot give you life that lasts.
But you don’t have to be wealthy to be idolatrous. We run after all kinds of addictions searching for fulfillment and they take control of our soul. They don’t even have to be illegal or unsavory to be idols driving our days. Take our smart phones. I laughed when I heard the uproar over a UT football player tweeting on his cell phone at halftime because it showed he wasn’t seriously focused on what is most important. I’ve seen people doing that in church for years, and is football more important than God?
But listen, most of us are lost without our gizmos. If we aren’t connected by texts, tweets, emails, and calls, we feel like we don’t matter. If you don’t believe me, try taking a sabbath from your electronics one day a week, and see how you feel. There are other approved idols that possess us, like sports. Football this time of year. But you know all kinds of diversions can take over and become so central as to eat up your time and devotion. And there are other approved idols.
A few years ago Martin Marty observed “What you say about the Bible has become more important than what you say the Bible says.” Hence the “Bible Wars,” which I think are not about actually about an inerrant Bible but your acceptance of their interpretations as inerrant. And it’s not just the Bible that can become an idol.
The church can become an idol taking the place of our spiritual focus. Any institution can become a diversion and thus an impediment to our spiritual growth. As one person observed, “They wanted God and we gave them the church.”
Anything that distracts us from our deepest connection with God is a danger to our souls. Thus, Mark’s story of the Rich Young Ruler moves beyond materialism to ask us all a spiritual question: What possesses you? What gets your best attention? Where do you invest your time and money and heart? Is God at the center or just somewhere in the mix, maybe even low on your list? And if so, could that be why you feel unsure and insecure instead of having a whole soul?
You see how the Bible functions as a scalpel? We may be able to hide from each other with our dissembling, and facades, and excuses. But not from God. And the scripture is God’s tool for showing us the truth about who we are.
Surgery is never pleasant, but it saves lives. It takes spiritual courage to submit ourselves to God’s operating table. But after Hebrews describes the Bible as God’s incisive scalpel, it immediately reminds us God’s purpose is not shame and abuse, but grace:
“Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:15-16).
Beloved, the Doctor is in. May we pray?
You know us, God, better than we know ourselves. And we cannot hide from you. You know our hearts, our intentions, our shortcomings, and our chronic failures. You know our joys and sorrows, our heartaches and heartbreaks, our courage and our cowardice. You know us as we truly are. And you love us and invite us to choose the ways that lead to life. Forgive our idolatries and show us their dead end. And by your grace, keep our minds staid on Jesus, who leads us into life. Amen.