Being an American is an immense privilege that provides us with many blessings and opportunities; but these blessings and opportunities come at a cost. Take free speech for example. If I am going to be afforded the constitutional right to express myself then I must defend the right of others to express themselves, even (and especially if) I am deeply offended by what they say. This reality hit home again recently when the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that members of the Westboro Baptist Church have a constitutional right to picket funerals of fallen soldiers.
The Kansas church, with its leader Fred Phelps and a small membership drawn largely from his family, has been picketing and protesting for some time. They where present at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming youth who was beaten to death because he was a homosexual. Westboro members sported sign that read “God Hates Fags.” They were present at the 2008 funeral of Gordon Hinckley, president of the Mormon Church where their signs proclaimed, among other things, “God Hates False Prophets.” They were present at the funeral of Michael Jackson and used the occasion to record a take-off on the song “We are the world”; their version… “God Hates the World.” Ever the opportunists, Westboro members showed up for the funeral of Christine Green, the 9-year-old girl killed in the Tucson shootings. They have demonstrated against Jews and Catholics and have disrupted several Episcopal services by throwing blood on worshipers as they entered the church.
In 2006 they picketed the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a U.S. marine killed in Iraq. “Thank God for Dead Marines” one sign read. Another “God Hates the Marines.” It is their view that God is killing our service men and women because God is angry with American’s lax view on issues like abortion, homosexuality, and tolerance of other religions. Matthew’s father, Albert Snyder, was deeply offended by the church’s actions and filed a law suit against them. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where freedom of speech was upheld. Thankfully, freedom of speech means that you and I can also gather at events targeted by Westboro Church and more and more hundreds of people do just that; forming a protective wall around grieving family members so that hate-filled signs and chants are obscured.
I know that we gathered here this morning hold to a wide variety of opinions on various social issues, but there is something very sobering about seeing photographs and videos of placard-carrying ‘Christians’ with signs that read “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates Marines,” “God Hates Jews,” “God Hates America,” and “God Hates the World.” Are you like me when you see this? Do you wonder how a person can read the bible and do such a thing?
Two of our readings this morning highlight the perils associated with understanding God’s word to us and communicating to others. In the passage from Genesis we hear again the very familiar Garden story. God charges the man to till and keep the garden and then says,
“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat it you shall surely die.”
So along comes the serpent who probes the woman’s understanding by asking,
“Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
Notice that God did not speak directly to the woman, but to the man. It follows then that the man passed on God’s command to the woman. The serpent’s testing has everything to do with the woman’s understanding of God’s word as she has received it from the man. And how does she respond?
“We may eat from the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”
Well, two things in her understanding are different from what God actually said to the man. What God called ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ the woman now calls ‘the tree in the middle of the garden’. And to the prohibition not to eat the fruit of this tree she has added “you shall not touch it.” Is this what the man told her God said, or has she made these changes on her own? Either way, through these small, but deeply symbolic details the garden story highlights the difficult nature of knowing God’s word and the disastrous effects of getting it wrong.
From today’s Gospel reading we hear again the familiar story of the temptation. After forty days of fasting in the wilderness the one who tests comes to Jesus with three temptations. Jesus resists all three by quoting Scripture. But notice how in the second temptation the devil also quotes God’s word:
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
The devil was not the first person to pick and choose from the bible, taking literally what suited his intentions, nor would he be the last.
The text is very interesting when it says that after Jesus was baptized he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted (or tested) by the devil. This is the first time Jesus is tested, but it won’t be the last. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus encounters various religious figures who ‘test’ Him, challenging His actions by throwing pieces and parts of the bible at Him. Time and time again Jesus refutes their narrow (and often times literal) understanding of the bible; saying in effect, “You can quote it, but you don’t understand it and you don’t seem to want to live it.”
I find it intriguing that God’s Spirit would lead Jesus into temptation. He knew first hand how difficult this experience is because when He taught His disciples how to pray, He included, “Led us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Well, I doubt it is God’s Spirit who leads us to those places where our flesh is tempted. We can do that well enough on our own, thank you. But God’s Spirit can and does lead us to the place of testing where we confront others and allow ourselves to be confronted with God’s word. Surely we are still trying to discern God’s unfolding dream for all people. Surely we are still trying to comprehend the magnitude of God’s love. How and when do we add addendums like “and you can not touch it” to what God has revealed? How and when do we take what God has said and make it out to be something else? How and when do we pick and choose from the bible what we will take literally at the exclusion of the totality of Scripture’s thrust and witness?
Thank God the Spirit has led the Church into temptation, otherwise Gentiles would be considered unworthy of the Gospel (with bible verses to back it up), Jews would be persecuted for killing Jesus (with bible verse to back it up), slavery would be an acceptable institution (with bible verses to back it up), women would be marginalized in society and in the Church (with bible verses to back it up), divorced people would be driven from the Church (with bible verses to back it up), women who give birth out of wedlock would be stoned (with bible verses to back it up), homosexuals and lesbians would be executed (with bible verses to back it up), and people of other faith traditions would be consigned to an eternity of hellfire and damnation (with bible verses to back it up). Thank God that the Spirit has led us to test our understanding of God’s word and will. Thank God that the kingdom of God is emerging in our midst.
The thing that is so sobering about the Westboro Baptist Church is that you can read a verse of the bible here and verse of the bible there and absolutely justify everything they say and do. But the reality is that you cannot read the whole of Scripture and come to the conclusion that they are doing God’s work. Sadly self-deceived, they employ the bible in much the same way the Tempter used it on Jesus.
If you read the bible with a small, narrow, and hate-filled heart your will surely find a god who conforms to your small, narrow, and hate-filled ways. If you read the bible with an open, generous, and loving heart you will find God to be even more open and generous and loving than you imagine. When I read the bible I hear the story of God’s unfolding dream as it has been lived out through a people who have struggled to understand God’ compassionate and merciful ways. Yes, we have struggled, but we are moving in the right direction; moving toward the Kingdom of God. If you are repulsed by the hateful signs and chants of the Westboro Church, then you too are on the right path. Let’s pray to God asking the Spirit to help us pick up the pace.