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Assuming and Expecting the Best

January 19, 2014

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 19, 2014 

1 Corinthians 1: 1-9

So a friend of mine has a new book out. It’s called The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less. The author, Jana Riess, and I were study buddies for a couple of classes back at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I have this distinct memory of sitting at her dining room table outlining the chapters of a book on Religion in America. After seminary I found my calling in the church while she became a successful writer and publisher and quickly established herself as an interpreter of religion and popular culture. I read Jana’s first book, What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide, with my first youth group on Long Island. It was a wide-ranging look at the themes of forgiveness, compassion, love, self-sacrifice and redemption in what I think of as one of the best television series ever, and one which all my students were watching at the time. More recently she published, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, a record of her attempt to incorporate twelve spiritual practices into her daily life. These included fasting, fixed-hour-prayer, gratitude, Sabbath keeping and generosity. It was, admittedly, a naïve attempt to “take up” a month at a time practices that the saints spend entire lifetimes perfecting. There is a reason they are traditionally called disciplines, as in one becomes a disciple of, student of the practices, learning from them. They cannot simply be “done” as part of a spiritual bucket-list, but must be performed over time and with others. In a more profound sense this book was a memoir of failure or failing, not just at some of the practices, but at every single one of them. Jana’s real gift is her ability to write with honesty and humor, and in ordinary language, about the struggles we all face as we seek to embody our faith in private and public ways.

Her most recent book, which came out just before Christmas, began as a social media experiment during a trip to Southern California in 2009. Flipping through the nightstand Bible in her hotel one evening, looking for a single piece of information, my friend was struck by how many parts of the Bible she had never read. Can you relate to that? How many of you have ever set out to read the entire Bible, only to get side-tracked and fall short, or simply quit in frustration? Or for those of you who did manage to finish, how many of you felt that you read large sections without understanding?  Well, that’s just how she felt, so she decided to try an experiment: she would work her way through the entire Bible, summarizing a chapter a day on Twitter in 140 characters or less with humorous commentary. And she would do this Twible (a twitter/bible) project in community, sharing her love of scripture (and her frustrations with it) with all of us who follow her tweets online.[1]


Now for those of you who are less familiar with Twitter, it is a way of sharing intentionally concise posts online. Tweets are short messages, no longer than one hundred and forty characters, that are shared on a social media platform called Twitter. What can you say with only 140 characters? Well my previous sentence, (Tweets are short messages, no longer than one hundred and forty characters long, that are shared on a social media platform called Twitter.) was exactly 140 characters long if you spell out the words one hundred and forty. There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible, so it took Jana 3½ years of daily reading and concisely summarizing each chapter to finish her Twible. That’s discipline!

And, to quote the National Catholic Reporter, “The results are often hilarious. The creation story from Genesis looks like this:

After 6 days of creation, G’s totally wiped. Day off tomorrow! Key point: human beings very good. M and F in G’s image.

The 10 Commandments come out like this:

G’s Top 10 List. No gods, idols, or blasphemy. Keep the Sabbath holy and love Mom. Don’t kill, cheat, steal, lie or look @ Xmas catalogs.

And the Annunciation in Luke:

Teen girl Mary chosen by G to bear the Savior! OK, the pregnancy raises some eyebrows, but a double thumbs up to Joseph for loyalty.

And the Christmas story:

Ma’am, the rooms are full at Bethlehem Inn, but there’s a rustic barn out back that is quite charming. And the hay is complimentary.

From Galatians:

Paul says that when Peter came to Antioch, they had a blowout fight. Theology throwdown, apostle-style! Wish they’d sold tickets!

And from Acts 4:

The earliest Christians share everything in common, redistributing their wealth and property according to need. Bloody socialists.

Obviously, her first purpose in writing was to get a laugh, which she did from me over and over as I read her each day. At other times I was frankly confused, and had to open my own Bible to see what she was getting at. Which was, of course, her second purpose in writing. As she puts it in her introduction to the book, “Gallup polls suggest that ‘basic Bible reading is at a record low,’ and … surveys show that although two-thirds of Americans think that the Bible has the answers to life’s most important questions they’re [we’re] not actually reading it. Most cannot name the first book of the Bible; only half can identify even one of the four Gospels; and ten percent think that Joan of Arc is Noah’s wife.”

Now, why am I telling you all this, apart from the fact that I’m proud of my friend and completely impressed with her dedication to not only read and share the entire Bible with others, but to find humor in even the most difficult pages? Well, last week she did an interview with Lauren Green of FOX News during which she answered questions like “Why tweet the Bible?” “What were her favorite chapters?” and “How did she find the humor?”

Almost immediately one of the listeners wrote in and left the following on Jana’s blog:

“You seem to have the same disrespect for God and His Word as that heretic Eugene Peterson and his ‘Message’ from hell does. Please, the Bible is easy to understand; open your heart to it, and you will understand it. True Christianity does not need a watered-down, airy-fairy, worldly, ungodly spin on the Bible such as your ‘Twible.’ Please, reconsider and stop this utter, disrespectful nonsense.”

OK. I admit, I shared the quote because Gene Peterson was an associate pastor at this church 50 years ago, and his devotional paraphrase of scripture, called The Message, is dear to many of you. It has helped you grasp meaning in scripture that was otherwise obscure, and has, I know, led many of you back to scripture to read it again. Friends, the Bible is not simple, or clear, to most of us. The New Revised Standard Version which we have in our pews is written with a 14th grade vocabulary, which means it can be comfortably read only by those with at least a few years of college. And good luck if English is not your first language. Add to that histories of interpretation, doctrinal disagreements, ethical arguments, and the radically different cultural situations not only among us, but also between us the biblical writers, and misunderstanding is inevitable. There is a reason we pray for God’s help when we read. This is also the reason we study.

Greece 1

Over the next couple of months we are going to read in worship two letters by the Apostle Paul – his letter to the Church in Corinth and his Epistle to the Church in Rome. Paul had spent eighteen months in Corinth, countering Rome’s vision of Imperial Order with Jesus’ vision of a Divine Kingdom, and organizing communities of faithful resistance. Small house churches, at least four of them, were spread out through the city, and each of them had questions for Paul: practical questions about sex, jealousy, love, divorce, prostitution, fancy dining, legal squabbles, life after death. The stuff Paul writes about in this letter would rival that of the wildest drama on television. But if we assume our own culture as the context, we will not only misunderstand but misapply what Paul has to say to the church. When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he had never been to the Imperial Capitol, but he hoped to visit soon. He writes to them about how to establish a just alternative to Roman practice, or as the Twible puts it: “When in Rome, do not do as the Romans do.”[2]

Let me return to the person who left the comment on my friend’s blog. Why do we do this? Why do we tear down one another rather than build one another up? I know it is supposedly easier to do online, where we have the luxury of anonymity and not having to address one another face to face. But it is nothing new. For millennia we’ve done it face to face as well.  Paul addresses the church in Corinth with a greeting of grace and peace because they were anything but gracious and peaceful. They bickered, they fought, and they tore one another down. We will hear much more about their divisiveness, sarcasm, and barbs, in the next few weeks.

That is the context – that is why Paul is writing to them.  But listen to how Paul begins.  He doesn’t begin by tearing down, but by building up.  He reminds them that they have been sanctified and that they are called to become saints.  He continues by giving thanks for the ways that the “testimony of Christ” has been strengthened among them.  And he insists that this community (which we know to be at odds with each other, bitter, fighting, and vindictive) is not lacking in any spiritual gift.  Finally he assures them that God is faithful and will strengthen them to the end.

How different is this post from Paul than the offended and offensive post from the person on Jana’s website.

Taking our cue from how Paul approaches the community of Christ-followers in Corinth, what if this week we pledged to remember other people – even those who are angry at us, even those with whom we’re angry – are beloved of God and together we can find a way forward.  And, whether face to face or in social media, we began by saying “help me understand” rather than assuming we understand not only the topic at hand, but also the motive and the goal of the person.

Paul is NOT buttering up the community.  He’s not laying it on thick so that he can wack them later with criticism.  He is helping them remember that they have the capacity, indeed that they have shown forth spiritual gifts that communicate Christ’s love.  He helps them remember the spiritual resources they already have as a community.

Paul begins by assuming the best of the community and then expecting the best from the community, all the while trusting God’s grace.  How might we embody that attitude within our families, within our workplaces, within this congregation, and within online communities like Facebook and Twitter?

As we continue to read our way through 1 Corinthians in the coming weeks, we’ll be reading with humor and intent, with curiosity and questions.  And Paul will be unsparing in pointing out problems that need correcting within the community.  But he begins with faith, not only in God, but also in them.  May we begin our encounters with others, especially difficult ones, with that same faith.

[2] Reta Halteman Finger and George D. McClain, Creating A Scene in Corinth: A Simulation. (Herlad Press, 2013).

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