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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Our Fourth Source: Jewish and Christian Teachings

Presented by Rev. Rev. Diane Teichert, Minister and Bettie Young, Worship Associate

Our Fourth Source:  Jewish and Christian Teachings

A sermon by the Reverend Diane Teichert

December 2, 2012

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

In the Together Time, I told the children what the Bible is Not:  it’s not a science book and it’s not a history book.

There are a few other things the Bible is not.

The Bible looks like a book. But it’s NOT. It’s really two books:  one used to be called the Old and the other the New but that made it sound like the New was the “New and Improved” and therefore better, so we don’t call them the Old and the New anymore. We say the Hebrew Scriptures for the first part that are held dear by the Jewish people and the Christian Scriptures for those that are only held dear by Christians. But what’s a little confusing about that is that Christians also read the Hebrew Scriptures. That’s because they were the scriptures for Jesus.

So, when Christians read from the Bible, they read from both books, and so do we Unitarian Universalists. But the Bible read by Jews is just the Hebrew Scriptures, which is called the Tanakh after its three main divisions.  

But the Bible is REALLY actually a library, NOT two books. That’s because both parts of it are made up of separate “books” of the Bible. You’ve likely heard their names. The Hebrew Scriptures contain 39 and start with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers… The Christian Scriptures contain 27 and start with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John… There are also 19 other books that are included in some, but not all, versions of the Bible. And each book is divided into chapters and each chapter into verses.

Of course, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures didn’t start as books divided into chapter and verse. They started as verbal stories in the oral tradition, first written in ancient languages on papyrus, parchment or paper, the originals of which exist now mostly as tattered parts.  After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE (of the common era -formerly called AD for “after the death of Jesus” but that is a Christian-centric way of ordering the years), the leading rabbis realized that, without the central symbol of the Temple, the Hebrew people needed a common text and assembled from among the scrolls a “canon,” the Tanakh. Similarly, in the middle of the next century, a crisis in Christian unity produced the need to compile an official Christian canon, which resulted in the New Testament or Christian Scriptures.

You may have read or heard in the news in September about a recently translated fragment dated to the second century in which Jesus mentions “my wife.” Of course, her existence has long been postulated even from the accepted books of the Christian Scriptures, which is how Dan Brown got the idea for his best seller The Da Vinci Code! Who knows what other fragments or even entire manuscripts will turn up in the future that could re-shape the Christian story for this and future millennia?

If you are interested in knowing a bit more, but not too much more, about the Bible’s history, I commend to you a chapter in a book by John Buehrens - UU minister, now retired, and former UUA president - Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals. The chapter provides more detail than I have time to present here, and is in accord with what I was taught in my seminary classes and relayed to you today.

In the Together Time, I told the children what the Bible is NOT:  it’s not a science book and it’s not a history book. And I told them what it IS: a book about how to love everybody, no exceptions, including ourselves. 

So, where exactly can we find this reference to loving each other as ourselves in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures?

In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is found in the book called Leviticus chapter 19, verse 18:  “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but thou shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And in the Christian scriptures it is found in the first three gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke which quote Jesus answering a question asked to test him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

This pairing of verses illustrates a common occurrence in the scriptures: that the Christian scriptures stand upon and draw from the Hebrew scriptures.  We see this over and over again in the Bible. Jesus was a Jew, likely a rabbi; he quoted the Hebrew scriptures liberally; he stood squarely in that tradition; and he never left it. He was still a Jew when he was crucified, ridiculed by the Roman authorities as “King of the Jews.” Jesus was never a Christian, contrary to popular American opinion. From what we can read in the Bible, he didn’t even call himself “The Christ.” Or “Son of God.”

If we Unitarian Universalists read the Christian scriptures, we read them for the values of love and justice that Jesus promoted, which we can find in the first three gospels. If we read the Christian scriptures, we read them for an understanding of how his early followers created a movement to promote those values and the Good News of God’s love. It became a movement that crossed national borders (long before the internet!) and welcomed Gentiles as well as Jews into its communities, a story that begins in the fourth gospel and continues in the book called Acts of the Apostles and in the letters written between the Jesus Movement communities in places like Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and so on.  

If we read the Christian scriptures… but DO we? In preparing for this sermon, I reflected on how little I draw from them in sermons. I’m afraid I’m guilty of throwing out the baby with the bathwater in this regard. While my own earliest religious roots are Biblical, over time I’ve put down roots in the others of our Six Sources and am at risk of letting the Fourth grow dry and brittle. And so, with me as your minister, you are not often exposed to the Christian scriptures.

Recently, I was talking with a Jewish woman who attended a memorial service here. She questioned me about our beliefs as Unitarian Universalists. I said that in some ways Unitarian Universalism is more like Judaism than like Christianity, even though we have roots in Protestant Christianity. We believe as Jews do, and she concurred, that Jesus was a great teacher and leader, and we don’t join Christians, anymore than Jews do, in believing he was a redeemer or a savior in whose literal resurrection we must believe in order to be saved from doing evil in this life and ending up in Hell, not Heaven, in the next.

But, as I heard myself speak, I also thought:  yes, but we struggle with a lot of what’s in the Jewish scriptures, too.  One quick example: my husband, a life-long Unitarian Universalist, decided some twenty years ago that he didn’t want to be Biblically illiterate any longer. So he started reading the Bible. Beginning to end, the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, was his plan. He gave up before he even finished Genesis, though, when he got to the scene in which the enemy’s men, having agreed to be circumcised in exchange for becoming one with the people of God were then en-masse killed a few days afterwards when they were still immobilized by pain.  There ended his reading of the Bible!

And we haven’t even mentioned the Hebrew Bible verses quoted by the opponents of gay marriage, such as the one from the very same Book of Leviticus in which we found the commandment to love one another as ourselves.

Yes, drawing on the Bible has only become more difficult for us in the last twenty years, due to the so-called culture wars between conservatives and liberals over family values. But we let the conservatives own the Bible at our own peril, really.

A new book published, last year, by a Jewish scholar of the Christian scriptures, Amy-Jill Levine, could help us. I think we could learn from her. She’s a self-described Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Protestant divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt, and is said to combine historical-critical rigor, literary-critical sensitivity, and a frequent dash of humor with a commitment to eliminating anti-Semitic, sexist, and homophobic theologies, according to the website of Vanderbilt University where she is a Professor. She is also a member of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.

The book is The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Using the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which is a recent scholarly English translation with gender neutral language, this collection of essays by Jewish scholars provides commentary and background information on the Christian scriptures for the purpose of helping readers, both Jewish and Christian, to understand the context – first century Judaism – of the Christian story.

I think it’s a really radical idea, for which she and her co-editor, a professor at Brandeis University, have taken some grief, from both sides. Some Jews have worried that Jews will want to convert to Christianity as a result of reading it. And some Christians have resented that Jewish scholars think they know anything about Christianity.

But she says that working on the book made her a better Jew and taught her a lot about Jewish traditions and beliefs in the first century. And she thinks that Christians will be better Christians for knowing more about the Jewish context of Jesus and his followers. And I think everyone will be better off if the book helps both Christian and Jewish readers to see that the anti-Semitic parts of the Christian Bible are not the indefatigable Word of God!

As for us, I think that this book may offer UU’s a uniquely appropriate way to study the Christian scriptures.

The only trouble with the book is that it is 700 pages long! So, I emailed Dr. Levine at her university address to ask if there is a study guide or DVD version. I didn’t expect a reply – those email addresses on websites are notoriously black holes. However, she emailed me back immediately! She said there is no study guide or DVD version and made a couple suggestions from her other books, and, admitting she did not know where Adelphi is, she invited us to attend her talk at Towson State University this Thursday at 7 pm. She also offered to come here and do a study session with us!

But I don’t even know how many of you share Worship Associate Bettie Young’s interest in, as she said, “developing greater exposure to the parts of the Bible with which you are not familiar, to cultivate greater respect and appreciation for them.” Or, if you are interested, are you interested enough to make a commitment to a series of classes. IF you are, I could develop and lead an Adult Religious Exploration program drawing on Dr. Levine’s materials over the next year, and we could take her up on her offer when we are better prepared.

Is learning more about our Fourth Source, Jewish and Christian teachings, of interest to you? Enough interest to invest our time, mine and yours, in a study of it over some weeks or months? Please let me know.

In the meantime, and in closing, I want to share with you some of an essay co-authored by Amy-Jill Levine in which she illustrates a sensible way to understand the Bible. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amyjill-levine/the-bible-and-sexuality_b_1087405.html)

“People who read the Bible often find themselves on the opposite sides of many of [family values] issues. This does not mean that they are necessarily reading their texts incorrectly. Indeed, before we even ask, What does the Bible say? we need to ask, Whose Bible? Canons… differ among various Christian churches as well as between Jews and Christians, as do translations. Moreover, the Bible is open to multiple interpretations: we need to determine what is metaphor and what is to be taken literally, what is case specific and what is timeless, what is a matter of personal choice and what should be legislated.

How then do we read in a manner that is grounded and thoughtful rather than uninformed or soporific?

Here are five general guidelines.

One approach is to begin with the broad picture of what the Bible says about physical intimacy…

A second is to acknowledge that the Bible is often less a book of answers than a book that helps us ask the right questions…

Third, we must read carefully. This means not simply looking at what the text says: it requires seeking accurate translation, knowing to the best of our ability why the text was written and what it meant to its original audience, determining how it has been interpreted over time and what other passages say concerning the same subject…

Fourth, we do well to recognize that biblical standards are not always our standards, and nor should they be. The Bible makes adultery a capital crime; if that legislation were put into practice, wed knock out a third of our population. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines; we become apoplectic over bigamy.

Fifth, we should continually reassess our views. If we ignore tradition, experience, science, and the personal testimony of our neighbors and look only to Scripture, we become bibliolaters: we turn the Bible into an idol. And if we listen to those with whom we disagree rather than dismiss them…as [unenlightened] literalists or atheistic relativists, then at the very least we might be able to avoid the demonization that usually comes with the culture wars.”

There is not much chance that we will become people who idolize the Bible. But how much more do you want to understand about the Fourth Source of our faith tradition, Jewish and Christian teachings that call us to respond to Gods love by loving our neighbors as ourselves? Think about it. Let me know.

You can play an MP3 audio file of this sermon by clicking: HERE.

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