Many thoughtful people in our culture are turned off from religion for a variety of rather persuasive reasons:
Biblical literalists and fundamentalists who insist that the Bible was not written by mere mortals but was dictated, word for word, by a god who, if we do take the Bible literally, said and did some terrible things, giving the God of the Old Testament a bad name;
Killing in the name of that god, or that religion;
Theocracies that deny human rights, dignity and freedom to women, and who rule by their interpretation of religious texts; etc. (The list goes on.)
Religious fanatics and fundamentalists tell us that we should take the Bible literally, in spite of all of its contradictions and the Biblical god’s horrendous behavior. They tell us that their way is not only the right way, but the only way; they paint a picture of an imagined hell to which those of us who disagree will be sent by the monster-god they imagine. Any rational, sensible person is repulsed; turned off.
Good, compassionate, reasonable people distance themselves from that kind of religion, and rightly so.
There is a deep hunger for spirituality-a hunger that needs to be nurtured and satisfied. There is a deep longing to touch the transcendent and to acknowledge that there is something that is both within and beyond us. Respect for the dangers of idolatry cause us to hesitate to put a name on this thing, this deep power in which we live.
I do not mean to suggest that I know for certain that this hunger is widespread among thoughtful, rational folks. I can only report what I’ve experienced in myself, and what so many people have told me over the years of my ministry.
I make a clear distinction between a personal faith–the thing we call spirituality–and institutional religion.
Many people distance themselves from the religions because they have had a particular brand of religion forced on them, in direct or subtle ways. Religion can be abusive.
We need to rescue the Bible from the literalists who use it as a weapon of mass spiritual destruction.
That’s why I want to encourage us to give the old stories another look-not as literally true, but as the beautiful myths and metaphors they were meant to be-myths and metaphors that help us to understand ourselves and one another in deeper ways so that we can continue to evolve, to grow, and to nurture the ingredient in us which we call spirituality.
If you take another look you might be surprised to hear those old stories with new ears; surprised, for example, that stories and concepts you dismissed as silly, outrageous, or offensive, seem suddenly to take on new meanings.
EVOLUTION OF THE CONCEPT OF GOD IN THE BIBLE
At first we saw an all-powerful Creator who could make everything with a word, (and God said ‘let there be light, and there was light’); then we saw the well-known angry and jealous God who expelled his human creatures from the Garden for their disobedience.
God felt threatened. He said that ‘they have become like gods, knowing good and evil.’ He realized that he had to evict them from Eden, ‘lest they eat from the Tree of Life and live forever.’
Then God’s anger builds to the boiling point–he decides to destroy all life on the earth. He chooses Noah, tells him to build an ark onto which he should put his family and a pair of each of his creatures so they could begin again after the flood.
This angry, oh so human-like God, looks at what he has done and is upset with himself. He looks at the devastation and says, in effect, “My God, what have I done!” He repents. He promises not to do that again. He makes a covenant with Noah, tells him he won’t ever destroy the world again.
God repents from his own acts of anger and destruction. To remind himself of the promise he made to Noah, he puts a rainbow in the sky as a sign of his vow, like a wedding ring on the bride and groom.
The concept of God evolves in these stories. He becomes a self-limiting God. He acknowledges that it is not within his power to complete what he started. He needs help. He can’t do it all alone. He forms a partnership or covenant with the creatures that He ‘created in his own image.’
In his famous sermon launching Unitarianism in America in 1819, William Ellery Channing said, simply, that the Bible ‘was written by men, for men, and in the language of men.’ Rather than calling the stories in the Bible myths, he said that the language was figurative, which is to say, not to be taken literally, but as illustrative. The Bible stories illustrate the human experience-we need to see ourselves in the stories.
What we call the Bible is, of course, a collection of sixty-six books written over a span of more than a thousand years, written by people who drew from their own experience of living on this earth, of trying to understand what it means to be a person who pays attention, who evolves, who is challenged and changed by experience. At its best, then, the Bible provides a foundation for civilized society.a structure with rules, guidelines and an encouragement to good living.
The Genesis story says God chose Abraham to be his partner, and he makes a new covenant, saying to Abraham and his descendents: “You wil be my people, and I shall be your God.”
Genesis tells the story of Abraham’s direct descendents: Isaac and Jacob, and their children; Jacob’s name is changed to Israel; he has twelve sons who become the twelve tribes of Israel-Jacob’s new name.
The second book of the Bible, Exodus, is the freedom story. It tells the story of the Hebrews’ liberation from bondage in Egypt. The concept of God evolves to a nameless God who speaks to Moses from the burning bush-a bush that was ‘burning but was not consumed.’ When Moses asks his name, the voice says, “I Am That I Am.” A closer translation from the Hebrew is, “I am becoming.” This makes the concept of God a verb. God becomes ‘nameless, ‘ because ‘things’ (idols) have ‘names.’
This nameless God sends Moses to liberate the Hebrew people; God becomes the God of liberation-freedom. With God’s help they cross the Red Sea to begin their forty-year long march toward freedom.
It’s one thing to leave bondage to a Pharaoh, a taskmaster, a tyrant, and quite another thing to attain that thing we call ‘liberation’ in an inner, spiritual sense. This kind of liberation takes time, represented by the ‘forty years of wandering in the desert.’
Moses, with God’s help, convinces the Pharaoh to ‘let my people go.’ When the several plagues failed to convince the Pharaoh, God decides to kill the first-born son of all the Egyptians. (Here’s an instance of the abhorrent God, which so many have rightly rejected. But this myth is not historical fact-it is the reality of our human lives. It’s not about a distant God, it’s about us, here and now.)
In the story, God signals the angel of death to ‘pass over’ the homes of the Hebrew people by having them mark their doorposts with the blood of a sacrificial lamb.
The later Christian version of this story makes Jesus the ‘lamb of God who is sacrificed’ as vicarious atonement for the sins of the people. Christian theology, here, is a retelling of the Exodus story.
The Red Sea parts and off they go, into the wilderness for forty years of wandering.
The Rabbis point out that the story is not sequential-Exodus has Moses spend forty days on Mt. Sinai, then he comes down with the Ten Commandments.
Later, in the fourth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the Commandments again, but this time his people are worshiping a golden calf, fashioned by his brother Aaron. Moses, in a fit of rage, smashes the tablets.
In the Deuteronomy story, Moses grinds the golden calf into powder, puts it into water, making a lethal cocktail, and makes them drink it, killing many.
There are several versions of the Ten Commandments, including the Hebrew, the Catholic and Protestant versions.
Judge Roy Moore edited the Protestant version for the big rock he put in his courtroom in Montgomery. Judge Moore was told that ‘it is against the law’ to put the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, and he responds, “In these parts I am the law.” With enemies like him, those of us who would maintain the separation of church and state hardly needs friends. He reminds us how dangerous the religious fanatic can be. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the first statute of separation of church and state, is looking down from his high perch, pointing to Judge Roy Moore and he says, “This is exactly what I meant!”
In Part II of this sermon we’ll take a look at commandments and the cultural context in which they were written. We’ll see if we can discern their meaning for today’s culture and our own lives.
CARVED IN STONE
Part II October 19, 2003
1. I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
2. Thou shalt have no other gods before me (#1 in R.C. & Prot.) Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; Thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all they work. But the seventh day is the Sabbath in honour of the Lord they God; on it thou shalt not do any work, neither thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.
5. Honor thy father and thy mother; in order that thy days may be prolonged upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. Thou shalt not steal
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
The Catholic version is much more succinct.
The Unitarian version is usually referred to as the Ten Suggestions. The short Unitarian version is boiled down to one: be nice.
Next time we’ll take another look at the Decalogue; each of the ten, to put it in its historical and cultural context, and we’ll ask how each of them fits into our time and place.and you can ask how it fits into your own life.
We’ll conclude part I of ‘Carved in Stone’ simply by acknowledging that the idea of the commandments is paradoxical: in the story told in Exodus the commandments come after 40 years of aimless wandering in the wilderness. The commandments were the key to freedom. Without a set of rules to live by, both for the individual and the community, there can be no freedom. If the traffic light goes out then someone has to stand at the intersection to direct it.
For us as a nation it’s the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the constitution, that provide a basic structure; and a Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution for our time
There are 613 commandments in the Bible-rules for living; what happens if your ox gores my servant? There are commandments about circumcision and diet, and so forth.
Without order there is no freedom; that’s true for individual as well as communities. Jefferson’s Virginia Statute separating church and state is like Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with tablets carved in stone: that statute is carved in stone. Judge Roy Moore provided us with a wonderful, powerful reminder of just how important that statute is.
John Ashcroft is reminding us just how important our Bill of Rights is, because he’s threatening it. He doesn’t ‘get it.’ Homeland Security requires respect for the Constitution, including the first ten ammendments-the Bill of Rights.
I’m afraid that the current leadership in Washington is, like Aaron, fashioning a golden calf; it’s about money and power; it’s about control and force. I’m afraid that there is a disregard for justice, equality and the people’s rights.