November 6, 2016 Sermon
Seeing the Forest
I’m not sure if you know Tim Burton, but he’s one of my favorite movie directors. The opening scene of one of his earliest work Beetlejuice was very whimsical. With a falsely ominous music playing, the camera starts from a forest and taking us to the village, showing us the streets and buildings, until we get to the house at the top of the hill. Then suddenly we see a giant spider crawling at the back of the house and it startles us. Then giant hands appear and pick up the spider. When the camera backs away showing us the whole scene, it is revealed that the forest and the village were just a model and the spider and hands were regular sized ones. The camera work was designed to fool the audience and make us feel like idiots, like an April Fool’s Day joke.
When we see things too closely, we tend to miss the big picture; that’s why we have the proverb about seeing the trees and not the forest. Do you remember the story of blind people touching different parts of an elephant and describe to each other what an elephant looks like? Each of them only touched one body part, so they can’t see the whole picture. Sometimes, or more often than not, this is us. Sometimes we are so hung up on small details that we can’t see the big picture. For me, this represents the whole of Christian history and how Christians have been using the Bible to push their own agenda.
In today’s gospel story, we can meet one such group. Kimberley, meet the Sadducees; Sadducees, meet Kimberley. The Sadducees were a Jewish sect during Jesus’ time. From today’s gospel text, they are famous for not believing in resurrection. But more than that, they didn’t believe in afterlife or the reward and punishment after death. They also rejected the teachings they received from oral traditions; they were only about the written law Torah (the Jewish Law/ the Law of Moses). They were upper class elites, so it’s not difficult to imagine their arrogant attitude and hatred toward Jesus, the leader of the populace declaring good news for the marginalized.
In today’s gospel text, they try to trip Jesus up with small details concerning the afterlife and resurrection that they don’t even believe. You know how some petty and spiteful people try to hang unto small and insignificant details to try to accuse others; the Sadducees were like that in today’s story. It was an ancient custom that if a husband dies without offspring, his wife should marry his brother (or brothers) so the dead man can have offspring through them. So the Sadducees asked Jesus, “A woman who had to marry different brothers because they all died without offspring, whose wife would she be in the afterlife?” What do they care? They don’t even believe in afterlife and resurrection, right? Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t fall into their trap and points out that things are different in the afterlife. While the Sadducees are hung up on details insignificant for the believers, Jesus turns their attention to what is actually important. “Instead of obsessing over what’s to come after death, think of how you are going to live as God’s people here in the mortal world since God is the God of the living, not of the dead”; this is what Jesus is trying to say.
When it comes to the kingdom of God and other teachings of Jesus, we Christians can easily become far-sighted. We can see the individual verses but not the big picture, the essence of the gospel of Jesus. The 66 books of the Bible are full of different and often contradicting theologies and commandments, and we tend to pick out individual Bible verses and claim, “this is God’s will”. “Why”? “Because it’s written in the Bible”. Let’s take homophobic Christians as an example. They believe that it is sinful to be homosexual because of the six or seven verses that seem to be condemning homosexuality. Among this huge collection, only six or seven verses “seem to” condemn homosexuality, and that’s what they hang onto them. I put quotation marks around “seem to” because even those six or seven verses might not mean what they think they mean. These verses that are nicknamed “clobber passages” are from the Old Testament and some of the epistles (letters) in the New Testament. What I am trying to say is, none of them is from the gospel texts. We are Christians because we follow Jesus. We learn the teachings of Jesus from the gospel texts. Can you see a problem here? People who claim to follow Jesus doesn’t consult the gospel texts in deciding what Jesus would do and say about something.
As I mentioned, the Bible is full of different theologies and commandments. How can we find God’s will in this turbulent book? We use the teachings of Jesus as the barometer in deciding God’s will. Yes, a verse in Leviticus said if a man lies with another man as with a woman, it’s an abomination and he should be killed. But do you know what Jesus taught? We have been hearing Sunday after Sunday that for him, love and compassion supersede following the old commandments. His new commandment is love; we are to love one another, even our enemies. We are to forgive over and over again and welcome those who are different than us. I mean, even the Jewish Law notorious for being sexist and homophobic teaches to welcome foreigners and be kind to them.
Individual verses in the Bible are like trees; the essence of the gospel is the forest that contains all those trees. When we are faced with contradicting theologies and commandments in these very ancient books, we should use the gospel teachings of Jesus to decide whether something is according to God’s will or not, because we believe that Jesus is God in human form. Because we are reading very ancient texts written for people who lived in completely different cultures than we do, we should not take everything we read as the truth for us. When we read troubling texts in the Bible and are shocked, we should remember that these words are truth because we can relate to the ancient people’s struggles to remain faithful people of God, not because what we read is the literal truth for us today.
Everything we read is individual trees, and we need eyes to see the whole forest to which the trees belong. It is the teachings of Jesus that provide us with those eyes. The standard with which we should judge any Bible verses or life issues we encounter is the essence of the gospel of Jesus, which is love, compassion, and justice for the marginalized. I pray that in everything in our lives, we will be guided by the Spirit of the gospel, of love, compassion, and justice.
Rev. Sunny Kim