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innersanctum
the deepest recesses of the heart, the place where we seek solace
Sermon: Wrestling with God 20 October 2013 
22nd-Oct-2013 12:57 pm [sermons]
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
3:14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,
3:15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
3:16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
3:17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
4:1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you:
4:2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.
4:3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,
4:4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
4:5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

Genesis 32:22-31
32:22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
32:23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
32:25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
32:26 Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."
32:27 So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob."
32:28 Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."
32:29 Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him.
32:30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."
32:31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.


I want to start by inviting you to open your ears, and your hearts and your mind. Sometimes our worldview and our beliefs prevent us from being open to change. Sometimes we have a fixed idea of how things are that we filter out everything else - we hear what we want to hear.

I was invited to lecture in a class in SMU last Monday. This is a class of the brightest amongst the brightest - they are part of the University Scholars Programme. It was an engaging session - and many of them were pushed to reexamine some deeply held beliefs they had. Some of them believe that there is an absolute truth. Yet, that same absolute truth cannot be subject to critical examination. I asked - "if it is absolute, then it should be able to be subjected to critical examination."

Professor Farid Alatas, the Associate Professor of Sociology at National University of Singapore, in the International Interfaith UnConference held yesterday at SMU said that it is by being deeply rooted in one's tradition that one can appreciate and interact with other traditions. People who are fearful of being contaminated or tainted by other traditions are not secured in their tradition. I appreciate what I have to learn from other faiths because I know it will only enrich me - because I am grounded in my tradition. I do not fear that I will "lose my faith." How can I lose it?


It is interesting that the most fervent followers of any religion are usually the new converts. They are often the ones defending the faith, as though it needs to be defended. They also the ones most fearful of interacting with others. There are two main reasons for this - one is that they need to prove and cement their new identity; the second is that they are actually not very rooted in their tradition and their fear comes from their insecurity.

My encounter with my Muslim friends have taught me many things. Their commitment, faithfulness and devotion has helped me see and understand what loving God really means. Many Christian have an abstract idea of "loving God." The Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - all share the central tenet "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength." It does not say love God so you would be rewarded or blessed. It is not about what you will get out of loving God. It does not say love God so you would avoid punishment. It means love God because God is God. My Muslim friends' tradition has enriched me.

Half the students of the SMU class I spoke to were Christians, and they were most challenged about how to interpret the Bible. Some heard for the first time when I said, "The Bible is words about God, not words of God." I will borrow a saying from the Buddhists - "Do not mistake the finger that points to the moon for the moon."

You see, many of them have heard from their pastors, from their churches the same verses from the Paul's 2nd Letter to Timothy that is one of our lectionary reading this week. 2 Tim 3:16-17 " All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work."

Marcus Borg argues that this is the letter's best known verse. I agree. He writes "It affirms that "all scripture is inspired by God." It is one of the foundations of Christian controversy about the authority of the Bible. Especially in the last hundred years, many Protestants have thought, been taught, or have taken for granted that "inspired by God" means that the Bible has a divine guarantee to be true. It commonly leads to the claim that the Bible is "inerrant" and "infallible."

Tal Ilan in the Jewish Annotated New Testament writes,
"Most biblical scholars now doubt Pauline authorship... There are indications that Timothy is a "third generation" Christian combined with an emphasis on "right teaching" lead to the conclusion that the letter is responding to post-Pauline conditions. The Pastoral Epistles - 2 Timothy, 1 Timothy and Titus - were probably composed at the beginning of the second century in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Their attribution to Paul - a common practice in ancient writing in which "writings falsely ascribed," or "pseudepigrapha" are attributed to known authors - is intended to give them apostolic authority."
So the Paul's Second letter to Timothy is not written by Paul. And on top of that, this letter is written before the canonization of the Christian Bible. How does the author know what "all scripture" comprises of when the Christian Bible was not canonized yet?
What about the gospels and writings that were left out of the canon that Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, listed in his Easter letter of 367? 367 is more than 200 years after the Second letter to Timothy!

Borg also points out that, "Although the verse does say "all scripture is inspired by God," it does not say that "inspired" means "inerrant and infallible." Rather, because it is inspired, it is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. There is nothing controversial in that claim. Is scripture useful for teaching and so forth? Of course.

The challenge is this - what does inspire mean?

As Robert Gnuse writes in "Inspiration of Scripture" in The New Interpreter's Study Bible,
"Neo-Orthodox theologians (Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and others) and Rudolf Bultmann and his school.... would not equate the Word of God with the Bible, but rather would say that the Bible may contain the Word of God, which confronts there reader or listener. Thus the Word of God is found in the viva vox, or "living voice," of the church and not in a book; and the inspiration of God is located in a living encounter between God and the Christian, or at most the biblical text is inspired only when it speaks to an individual."
To put it another way, the words in the Bible is static. It is only when we encounter the words in the Bible - and we interact with the words in the Bible and we allow God to interact with us through the words that it becomes the Word of God. The inspiration is located not only at the moment of putting the words onto paper more than a thousand years ago, but also located in the moment you read the words and allow the words to interact with you.
There are times when you read the Bible, something jumps up at you, as though God is speaking to you. It may have nothing to do with what the text is actually saying, and it can be totally out of context of the verses you are reading. That is God working. God is still speaking.

" All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work."

Marcus Borg points out:
The Bible is the product of two historical communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement.
As such, it is a human product, not a divine product. This claim in no way denies the reality of God. Rather, it sees the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities to God.
Words about God, not Words of God.
The Bible is still sacred to us (me) because it is the foundation upon which Christianity is built. The Bible is our identity document - Its stories and vision are to shape our sense of who we are and of what our life with God is about. The Bible is our wisdom tradition - "wisdom" concerns the two most central questions - who are we, and how shall we live?
The Bible is our love story with God.

We must recognize how the Bible is relevant to us today. Those who need to defend the Bible as literally true may not have realized that the stories and narratives in the Bible has relevance to us today, and still has much to teach us. It is true, not because it is something that happened once - but because it holds metaphorical truths that continue to be valid to this very day.
Like I said last week - Karen Armstrong, in her book "The Case for God" writes - "A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time."
Or how German novelist Thomas Mann defined a myth - "a story about the way things never were, but always are."
Or how a Catholic priest puts it "The Bible is true, and some of it happened." The truth of the Bible is not dependent on its historical factuality.
Like the Native American storyteller begins telling a story - "Now I don't know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story to be true."


Genesis 32:24-30
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."

Who did Jacob wrestle with? A man? An angel? God? We don't know. Because of the ambiguity of this passage, there are many different interpretations and understanding of this passage.

Did Jacob really wrestle with God? Does it matter? Does it matter if this event really happened, or was it a story to explain the origin of the name "Israel" or the origin of the name of a place called "Peniel" (meaning the face of God)?

When we are too focused on the factuality of the event, we miss what this story means. Just like if we are too focused on whether there was really a woman who lost her coin, or the shepherd who went out to find that one lost sheep, or if there was really a son who returned home to the prodigal parent, we would have missed the meaning - the truth - of the story.

Have you ever wrestled with God? I have. And I think my story echoes the story of many LGBTQ Christians. Like Bryan's song "I'll live, I'll love" - http://youtu.be/lJXwCFFnkDg
"Struggling with choices that I've never made
Fighting my own feelings hating who I am,
I prayed for me to change, I prayed for life to end
If this is wrong, then punish me, I'll take the blame
Throughout all these years and through all circumstances
You never ceased to love, You kept your promises.
As long as you're with me, it matters not the rest,
I'll live my life, I'll live it to best,
I'll love with all my heart and strength."

It is wrestling with God. Wrestling with God about who we are, and who we are called to be. We emerge after that struggle transformed. We emerge with a new name. We come out claiming our identities as LGBTQ persons. We emerge blessed having seen the face of God. Many of us celebrate our sexuality as a gift - we are different, and we are blessed and it has enriched us on our journey with God.

My sexuality is a gift because it has help enrich me how I see the world - my experience being bullied, marginalized, oppressed, treated unequally has made me sensitive to other people's experiences of being bullied, marginalized, oppressed and treated unequally. And I have learned how God wants me to speak out and stand up against all forms of discrimination and injustice. If I am straight, I will probably be a misogynistic, chauvinistic guy with 3 kids, a big house, and probably more than 1 car, only concerned with my own wellbeing. My wrestling has brought me closer to God - my spiritual journey has brought me aware of the richness of our tradition, as well as its shortcomings. And I am now compelled to live out my life to the best - to love God with all my heart, my soul and my strength.

We must also remember - that this struggle does not leave us unscathed. Like Jacob, we too, will carry scars of our struggle. But that is the path of transformation. It is not easy. It is not painless. It is full of heartbreak, struggle, and yet God continues to be with us.

Some of you are still wrestling. Some of you are still struggling. And we continue to struggle and wrestle with God. And we say "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."

Yes, some LGBT people have let go of God - because of what the Church has taught and said about them. And we hear of God's faithfulness - that God will not let us go, like how the shepherd will go out of the way just to find that lost sheep, like how the woman looks for that one lost coin. But like Jacob, we need to be faithful too - and no matter how hard wrestling and struggling is, we must say "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."

For our transgender siblings, this passage holds even more significance. Because their transitioning process is a wrestling with people and with God. They, in their transitioning will "have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." And they will emerge with a new name.

We celebrated our tenth anniversary last week. We celebrated how we wrestled as a community with God - and emerged with a new name - we shall no longer be called Safehaven - a safe closet to hide in - we shall be called Free Community Church.

I did not pick "Free in Your Presence" http://vimeo.com/77126451 for worship this week. But Carrie did. And as I was writing the sermon, I realized that this song was inspired from Jacob's wrestling with God.

When You touched me on my side
When my eyes were opened to You
And so I saw that I was born free
Then I will remember
When You became real to me
When You would not turn away
When You would not turn away
I remember
I am an anchor of love
I am a beacon of hope for You
Comments 
22nd-Oct-2013 01:16 pm (UTC)
Oh, excellent!
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