Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Genesis 28:10-19a AND Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24, Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 OR Isaiah 44:6-8 AND Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

It isn’t always easy for people of a progressive spirit to continue loving the Bible. It doesn’t seem to speak with one clear voice, and some of the voices offer images of God and human relationships that offend what we like to think of as “the enlightened mind.” Some readers simply give up and cease to struggle with scripture. Growing up with a deep love for the Bible as “the inspired Word of God,” I have continued to try to find ways to “explain” some of the “negative” images, to learn from them and experience spiritual growth as a result. I grow weary of the effort.

Most progressives are committed to a deeply academic, historical, approach to texts, seeking to understand how they fit into the structure of belief and practice in the time of their writing. We want to know what the writer was “really” trying to say. I doubt that I will ever completely abandon, much less renounce, such an approach, but I find a certain “fundamentalism” in it, not unlike that of the biblical literalists. I want to be able to acknowledge that different streams and traditions were in conversation with one another in the formation of the Bible as we know it, not unlike conversations and debates that continue into the present day. I want to be able to comfortably take sides in those conversations and debates without feeling like I am abandoning part of the “truth” of the Bible. Interpreting the Bible is more than a matter of the mind; it is an emotional and intuitive undertaking in which my heart and life are touched by words that come to life as I read.

Over 40 years ago, I had the privilege of working on a book of Bible studies with Dr. Phyllis Trible, Old Testament scholar who taught, among other places, at Andover-Newton Theological School (admired by our former pastor, Rick Skidmore, when he was a student there), Union Seminary, and Wake Forest University. I have ever since been influenced by something she said, “All scripture is a pilgrim, wandering through history, engaging in new settings, and ever refusing to be locked in the box of the past.”

Scripture is about more than what the original writers were trying to say. It is about more than what it meant in the community of believers at the time of its writing, or at various times as it was reinterpreted in the life of the community along the way. It lives when it takes on meaning in our lives and situations today.

In that ongoing clamor of voices in the Bible, there is one voice that seems to me, and a lot of readers, to sing out more clearly than the others. It is the voice that declares that “God is love.” In a tradition that emphasized memorization of biblical verses, those words from I John 1:8 were among the first learned. They were taught us not just as words on a page, but as an experience to be cherished. We were indeed loved by God.
The truth of God’s love is declared early in the Bible. It is a reason behind God’s choice to be in relationship with God’s people and the reason for continuing to be faithful in that relationship. In Deuteronomy 7:7-9, God says, “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.”
This love is celebrated as “steadfast love,” sometimes called “covenant-love,” “faithfulness,” or “loving-kindness” (chesed in Hebrew). “Grace” is the equivalent word in the New Testament. It’s there in the reading from Psalm 86---“You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (vs. 15. See also, vs. 13)
Despite all the issues we might have with the character of Jacob, this week’s reading in the continuing saga of the Abrahamic family line, renews the covenant (in Jacob’s dream) made with Abraham, promising, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, . . . for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15).
Other verses in this week’s readings emphasize the loving and benevolent character of the God who remains faithful in relationships. “Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us . . . Through such works you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind, and you have filled your children with good hope . . .” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:18-19)
Even the troublesome Gospel lesson, a parable of judgment, is part of a series of parables that speak of the message of Good News as something which grows against all odds. Not even weeds can wipe it out. The power of love endures to the end.
We are told not to fear or be afraid. (Isaiah 44:8---words that we encounter repeatedly in scripture.)
“Steadfast” is not a word we use very often in everyday conversation. Here are some definitions: “firm in belief, firmly fixed in place,” “immovable,” “not subject to change,” “firm in purpose,” and, my favorite, “unwavering.” An example of its use is shown in the words, “a steadfast friend.”
Whatever various voices may cry for attention in the Bible, I keep coming back to it as the place where a community of believers has helped me find and experience a God of steadfast love, one who wants to be “a steadfast friend” to us.

Some additional thoughts offered as footnotes:

1. The Genesis reading ends with Jacob building an altar to commemorate his dream encounter with this God of steadfast love, saying, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17) For more on such “meeting places” come to worship this Sunday, one of those rare Sundays when I will be preaching.

2. A couple of verses connect God and light. God is light as well as love. Sunday I’m going to be drawing on my experiences with the Society of Friends (Quakers) in which one of the most loving things one can do is to hold one another in the Light, to allow that of God which is in me to meet that of God which is in you. Psalm 139:11-12: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” If one can get beyond the fiery judgment in the parable from Matthew, we find the culmination of the life of faith in these words: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13:43)

3. The reading from Romans offers us more of Paul’s theology which begins with love and grace but seems to get complex when rendered into words. The essence here is that we are loved by God as if we were his very own children, and the Spirit bears witness to that. (Romans 8:14-16) God’s Spirit, continuing God’s work in us and in creation, is the basis for hope. (vss. 24-25)

Some suggest that young preachers use the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid). There are times to dig deep, but today let’s keep it simple: God is love! God loves each and every person and group on earth, even creation itself. God’s love is steadfast and faithful, enduring forever. Amen.

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