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Not Your Mother’s Baptist Church: Bible Freedom

2 Timothy 3.10-17

The 1984 drama Footloose tells the story of a young man, Ren, who moves from the city into a small town that has a city ordinance against dancing.  It seems that the local pastor, Reverend Moore, has interpreted Scripture to suggest that dancing is sinful and therefore should be outlawed.  Ren is mortified.  He turns to dancing in the barn by himself in order to survive.  And, of course since it is Hollywood, he falls in love with the pastor’s daughter, and there is a jerk boyfriend and a Ren has a best friend sidekick and the daughter has a best friend sidekick, and there is all kinds of teen drama that happens between all of them.

But I am fascinated by the character of Reverend Moore.  Later in the film, we find that there was a car accident several years earlier, killing four young people.  The accident happened after a school dance, and one of the boys who was killed was Rev. Moore’s son.  So, he took that pain, that vulnerability, and that brokenness, and he buried it deep.  He didn’t ever deal with the pain, but instead doubled down on clarity and certainty.  He didn’t know what to do with his grief, but he knew that dancing was somehow connected.  So, he persuaded the town council to outlaw school dances, or dancing of any kind, and rock and roll music.  In one scene, Reverend Moore stands in the pulpit and rails against the sin of dancing, paraphrasing Hebrews or Psalms: God is testing us!  We have to reject this evil if we are pass the test!

 

His is a fascinating character because it is pretty true to form.  I think a lot of Christians are not quite sure what to do with the pain in their lives.  The grief in their lives.  The vulnerability or brokenness in their lives.  The ambiguity or uncertainty.

So, they bury that deep and cover it up with a façade of certainty and clarity.  It is interesting how Rev. Moore turns to Scripture to prove his certainty, because I think a lot of us do the same thing.  Pastor or Sunday school teacher or youth leader or Jane the pew-sitter, how many of us have struggled with the profound questions of the faith?  Why do innocent people die? Why do the corrupt and power-hungry flourish?  A lot of us as Christians look to the Bible for answers, but the answers aren’t very simple.

And yet, there are some who make it out to be.  They use the Bible as a simplistic façade of certainty.  Have you ever had someone tell you they just read the Bible and take it literally?  Next time someone tells you that, ask them if they take literally the passage where Jesus tells believers to tear their eye out if it causes them to sin.  Or the passage that tells believers to stone their children if they talk back to them.  Or the passage where Jesus says to sell all your possessions and give them to the poor.  Or one of a hundred passages about obscure and confusing laws or regulations.  These are all in the Bible, so those who claim to just read it and take it literally…have some work to do.

The answers of faith aren’t that simple.  And we yearn for a reading of the Bible that is simple and quick and when it gets more complicated than that, we start to feel like we are out of our league.  We don’t know what to do with these passages that I mentioned above…we feel like hypocrites or imposters.  So we double down on what seems easy and simple.  On sins that we can blame others for, without feeling the burden of our own sin.  It is a vicious cycle of confusion…to false certainty…to more confusion.  And to hide it, we use the Bible as a club and beat people over the head with it, all the while hoping people don’t call us on our own ambiguity.

What’s a good Baptist to do?  We have been called a people of the book, but what does that mean?

I wonder if Timothy found himself at a similar place in his church.  I read this morning from 2 Timothy, a book with a lot of unknowns.  Scholars disagree on when it was written, where it was written, or even who wrote it.  While it is attributed to Paul, some see textual reasons why it might be later than Paul.  Regardless, I think there is something that we can settle on this morning.  The book seems to be written by a seasoned, older pastor – we’ll call him Paul – to a younger, greener pastor – Timothy – as a way to encourage, support, and mentor him.  In some ways, it matters who that was.  In a lot of ways, it doesn’t.  After all, there is a lot that is pretty universal about the struggles of church life.  While we don’t know exactly what struggles Timothy faced, we can guess.  Internal disagreements within the congregation.  External suspicion and persecution from outsiders.  Personal doubt and confusion and a deep suspicion on Timothy’s part that he has no idea what he is doing and maybe shouldn’t be in this business after all.  The book as a whole seems to suggest that Timothy was in a place of deep doubt and confusion.  It seems he was struggling with how he could know what to count on and what mattered.

And wise old Paul, remembering back to his own early days, smiled and told Timothy it was going to be okay.  “Don’t be afraid that persecution means you are doing something wrong.  In fact,” he writes, “if you aren’t being persecuted, you probably aren’t doing it the right way!”  So what is the right way?  Paul gives Timothy three words of advice and support.

First, trust your relationships.   Look how Paul begins this passage.  Look how many times that Paul mentions the word “my.”  I don’t think that this is because Paul is arrogant.  Instead, I think he was trying to teach Timothy out of his life.  Out of his own experience that Timothy knew well.  Teaching him to trust what he knows.  He has seen Paul, worked beside Paul, observed Paul at work and in ministry.  “Pay attention to that relationship,” says Paul.   In other places in the book, he goes on and on about Timothy’s mother and grandmother and how important they are to his faith.  Those relationships make a difference.  Understanding the faith, living the faith is not simply a matter of memorizing a list of bullet points about Jesus in order to pass a test someday.  We learn the faith in relationship, we pass on the faith in relationship, and when we are in relationship, we are participating in the work of God.  Paul tells Timothy “rely on those relationships.  They make a difference.”

Second, trust the God of the Bible.  Paul leads in to what is probably his most famous line in this passage.  “All Scripture is inspired by God.”  “God-breathed” in some translations.  Paul tells Timothy to trust the God who has breathed into the Scriptures words of hope and power and love.  When you are teaching, trust the God of the Bible.  When you are working to live a better life, trust the God of the Bible.  When you are challenging that which is broken in the world and in your own sinfulness, trust the God of the Bible.  Immerse yourself in its words and trust that it has some to teach you.  Trust that this is one big story of God’s love that has been going on since the beginning of time and continues through Christ into your life.  Trust that God has breathed into these words and these stories and these commandments something that God wants to breathe into you.  Life.  Love.  Hope.

Finally, trust your voice.  Perhaps the most important point in the passage is the one directly after the one I read.  Chapter Four begins with words of powerful encouragement: “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: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”  Paul tells Timothy “trust your voice.  God gave it to you for a reason. Even when you feel like you don’t know all the answers and you are confused and life is not quite simple, don’t despair, God is with you.”

 

And the same words of advice are true for us, aren’t they?  When we find ourselves wandering and wondering?  When the unanswered questions of life seek to overwhelm us?

First, trust your relationships.  We don’t have to figure this out by ourselves.  In times of uncertainty, some reach for the Bible to use as a club, to beat up and overwhelm others.  But what if we began with a place of trust instead of attack?  Steven Fowl and L. Gregory Jones end up sounding pretty Baptist when they suggest this in their book, Reading in Communion: “Because no one interpretive strategy can deliver the meaning of a text, there is no hard and fast method that will ensure faithful interpretation.  No particular community of believers can be sure of what a faithful interpretation of Scripture will entail in any specific situation until it actually engages in the hard process of conversation, argument, discussion, prayer, and practice.”  Over the course of the last week, I count no fewer than sixteen events in our church in which the Bible was studied, if you include Sunday school classes, worship, ABY, and Tuesday noon.  We are a people of the book – the Bible matters here, and we take it seriously.

Second, trust the God of the Bible.  This is a big deal for Baptists.  We have always been a people of the book.  Fisher Humphreys, a Baptist scholar and pastor, suggests that when we say that, we mean two things: The Bible is a window and a mirror.  First, it is a window.  It gives us a framework through which to see.  The Bible helps us see God and see who God is…and it helps us see the world and see how God is at work in the world.  It gives us a framework of purpose and stewardship, of love and peace, of justice and kindness.  We look through the lens of Scripture to see the world around us and see who God is in that world.  Second, the Bible is not only a window, but a mirror.  It helps us to see ourselves.  We see ourselves as individuals: created in God’s image, willfully participating in the brokenness of the world, saved through God’s love and grace to healing and wholeness.  Whether it is the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, the Bible reflects back to us who we are and who we ought to be.  But it also reflects our image communally.  Who are we as a church, as a body of believers?  What ought we to be separately as well as together?  It is our window and our mirror.

Finally, trust your voice.  This is critical to the way that we as Baptists understand Bible freedom.  You might say that this is all well and good for you, preacher, or Timothy.  But I am not a preacher…I’m just a Christian.  O. Wesley Allen disagrees.  He refers to the protestant phrase, “Priesthood of all believers,” which suggests that instead of a few special voices who are supposed to speak for God, we are all priests to each other, and all have the ability to hear God and connect others to God.  It is a phrase that Baptists have long quoted and taken to a radical point beyond where even the early Protestants felt comfortable.  Allen suggests that this model must be applied to even the preaching moment.  In his book, titled The Homiletic of All Believers, he suggests that homiletics, or preaching, should be a shared event.  This doesn’t mean that everyone literally preaches the sermon together.  But that everyone has access to the Holy Spirit and the preacher should not run away and sequester herself until she hears a word from God, but instead write the sermon out of a shared conversation with the congregation.  This is the ideological basis behind the Two-Way, which suggests that we all have a voice in what God is saying in a certain passage of Scripture.

 

 

And what does all of this lead to?  The message that it led Paul to tell Timothy.  Trust your voice.  Listen to the Spirit.  Pray in community.  Read the book.  And then trust your voice.  We all have inside of us the ability to know and to speak the power of God in our lives.  Even in our vulnerability or our pain or our grief, trust God’s story in your story.

Of course, the ending of Footloose is a happy one.  Ren and Rev. Moore have a “come to Jesus” moment.  Powerfully, they realize how much they have in common.  Ren lost his father to abandonment.  Rev. Moore lost his son to the accident.  Both lost in grief, but too stubborn to name their vulnerability.  But in the end, Ren opens the Scripture and highlights the passage that celebrate and encourage…dancing.  Two hurting men come together and find common ground, around common experience and the Bible.  The pastor reconsiders his position and encourages the high school dance.  Instead of judging, he prays for the young people.  And then everyone dances a perfectly choreographed dance with electronic music and lots of confetti.  It is the 80’s after all.

And likewise we, even in the midst of our struggle or confusion or lack of confidence find the strength that Paul speaks of.  We find ourselves “equipped for every good work.”  We find ourselves empowered to be the family of God.

 

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