Scripture: Mark 3:1-6
How we understand scripture, how we interpret scripture matters.
I have not always thought Scripture was wonderful words of life. In fact, there was a time when I thought, ehh do we really need Paul? I thought, I’m not sure the positives outweigh the negatives of Paul. Especially when I read scripture like this from 1 Timothy chapter 2: Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Because of that passage, along with a couple other from Paul, a female clergy friend in East Texas was prevented from participating in her town’s ministerial association.
Because of that passage I have had, and probably will have for the rest of my life, encounters like this at farmers markets and local businesses:
Hi, your product looks so great, I’m new to town.
Thank you, what brought you here.
Oh, I’m the pastor at that United Methodist church over there.
Oh awesome, your husband is the pastor?
No, I’m the pastor.
Your husband is the pastor?
No, I’m the pastor.
Oh, well, have a good day!
Before I started seminary, I played a couple of recording gigs at a non-denominational mega-church in suburban Dallas. I knew someone connected to their music ministry and had shared with him that I was excited to be going to seminary to become a pastor. He paused, and said, I didn’t know Methodist’s ordained women. And I laughed and was like, oh we do. Afterwards, I looked at my friend and was like, we’re not Catholic, we’re not southern Baptist, why wouldn’t we ordain women? Once I started seminary and discovered passage like the one above, I learned there are quite a few denominations that don’t ordain women, and I began having a lot of feelings about the apostle Paul.
I think back in seminary, I may have called him a stupid, antiquated, misogynist. I wanted to ignore, rip it apart, and obliterate certain passages from existence. And there are people and pastors that do just basically take Paul out of their cannon, out of the scripture they turn to. And if that works for them, that is fine. But that didn’t work for me. In seminary, as I fell more and more in love with scripture, I realized that if I took scripture as seriously as I said I did, I couldn’t just toss certain parts out of the window. I had to lean into my struggle. I knew I was called into ministry. I had felt it in small nudgings, in little things, and in a tangible encounter with the Holy Spirit. I knew that Paul had written in Ephesians, it is by grace you are saved through faith, which didn’t seem to align with women being saved through childbirth. I also knew that Paul in several other letters, thanked women leaders, called a woman an apostle, and praised specific women for their work spreading the gospel and encouraged them to continue. So I had to ask, if this passage isn’t consistent with major themes in other of Paul’s writing, if this passage isn’t consistent with my personal experience of the Holy Spirit, what is going on?
Remember, that this book is actually a library filled with different genres and written to different communities. The letters in particular are filled with both timeless overarching truths and very specific timely advice to individual towns and situations. As it turns out, this passage is probably an instance of a letter giving timely, situational, advice. The letter of 1st Timothy was written to the church in Ephesus which was not only a major hub of commerce and trade but also a major center for worship of the goddess Diana. It is 100% possible that Paul was giving advice on how to counter materialism, “keeping up with the Jones’” and needing to look good in front of your fancy neighbors, and counter the worship of a specific goddess.
I believe scripture is inspired by God.
I believe God worked through the early church councils as they discerned what books would make up our Christian scripture.
I believe that God continues to work through scripture today, guiding, loving, challenging, comforting, and teaching.
I also believe that we have to take into account the original contexts of those scriptures and their genres as we interpret and understand them here in 2022.
I also believe that it is important for us to always interpret and understand any scripture through the lens of love, life, and grace. Because even Christ taught that some imperatives in Scripture are greater than others. That some Scripture offers us deeper and more timeless truths than others.
In our scripture today Jesus performs a miracle on the sabbath. But it was unlawful, super unlawful, to work on the sabbath. It is literally one of the 10 commandments, “remember the sabbath day by keeping it only…on it you shall not do any work.” Even today, Jewish communities take the command to rest on the sabbath very seriously. There are Shabbat, sabbath, elevators in hotels that, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, stop at every single floor. That way you don’t have to walk up stairs, which would be work, and you don’t have to press a button, which would be operating machinery and therefore work. However, as important as the commandment is to keep the Sabbath, there is a deeper teaching in scripture that overrides even the Sabbath. In Judaism it is called Pikuach Nefesh, which literally means ‘watching over a soul.’ The principle comes from Leviticus 18:5, “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord.” The purpose of the laws is life itself, so keeping a law cannot endanger a life. Which is why Christ looks at the Pharisees, angry and sorrowful, and reminds them of what they already know, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”
The deepest truth, the most timeless truth, the core of all of scripture is that these words are meant to be life-giving. God breathed life into them so they might give life when they were written and give life to us today.
Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
John 10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
These words are words of life and how we understand them, how we interpret them matters. Because how we interpret them either works with God or works against God. How we interpret them either respects their deepest truths, or distorts them into something unintended and unrecognizable, harm and destruction instead of life, hope, and restoration.
For women in ministry, I gave some difficult but lighthearted examples from my own life but countless women have experienced far worse. Little girls have been told to know their place, been prevented from taking leadership positions, and the church has actively denied how God was calling them and moving in their lives.
October is domestic violence awareness month, and pastors to this day, pastors I know, will tell people to stay in toxic and harmful relationships and marriages. They base their advice on cherry picked passages about submission or divorce and completely ignore other passages. They ignore the passages that describe the mutual love and care that, in situations of domestic violence, one partner has completely betrayed and destroyed.
For queer and trans folks, based on harmful interpretations of scripture, the church has actively participated in and perpetuated in the destruction of lives. Interpretations that do not take into account the original Hebrew and Greek, that do not take into account those passages in their 1st century context, and that do not even take into account surrounding verses and what the point of those passages are.
Christians have also used various passages, several from Paul, to legitimize slavery. They did so without taking into consideration why Paul wrote those passages, without taking into consideration that Paul wrote an entire letter Philemon appealing for the release of a slave, and without taking into consideration that 1st century slavery cannot be compared to dehumanizing people, ripping people from their homes and countries, putting them in cages, and treating them worse than livestock.
How we interpret scripture matters because in our human ability to miss the mark, we too easily turn words of life into words of harm. And when words of life become words of harm, the church, meant to bear love, grace, and transformation, becomes a vehicle of abuse. When words of life become words of harm, we harm not just our fellow humans but God and scripture itself. Now, God can work good out of all sorts of situations and love is on the move in spite of us, thanks be to God. But our actions, our choices, how we live based on how we understand scripture, our witness is powerful.
Today is the last day of our sermon series diving into the nature of Scripture itself. Scripture, this beautiful, difficult, library, is designed for us to abide in its comfort and hope, and even it’s messiness and discomfort. I can’t promise you that this life-long journey with scripture is easy but I can promise you that the messiness and critical thinking is worth it. Because through that wrestling, we get down to the heart of it all, what really mattes, the deepest truths. We get down to God’s presence within it all. A presence of hope, grace, and life. Supported by these words of life, may we journey into God’s love together.