Sermons That Work

A Young Man Throws…, Lent 5 (B) – 2003

April 06, 2003

A young man throws open the door and bounds across the church basement floor carrying a stack of books. He heads for the circle of chairs assembled for this Sunday morning’s Bible study group.

The books have all been well pored over. They are filled with nearly as much of his own note taking as there is print from the authors. These books are his sacred possessions that have borne for years the evidence of his engagement with the texts of other writers, ideas for which he felt there were never any ears.

Now he is coming out of wilderness. This Easter season things are about to change. Setting his books down, here, in this class, is for him a symbolic act.

A friend had told him that this local church was studying one of his favorite books on methods of reading the Bible. He could not believe this book was being considered, and he immediately contacted the minister, who welcomed him. He hadn’t seen the inside of a church in years, even the basement!

The book contrasted the ideas of two theologians. It represented their conflicting methods of reading Scripture. One author argued for the literal, historical approach and the other, the metaphorical/symbolic approach. To put it mildly, our friend had been rather attracted to the latter approach. In fact, every one of the books now forming a small tower at the foot of his chair argued the relevance, even the necessity, of adopting that perspective. He was thrilled to meet church people of what he took to be his own ilk. Why else would they be reading this book?

Curious to see what others thought of the book, and eager, before class began, to begin the discussion, he approached one of the members. “Oh yes,” the member began, “I just took a plane trip to Kansas. I read the entire book — half on the way out and half on the way back.” Excited, the young man asked what he had thought of the book. “Well,” he responded, “the book is divided between those that read the Bible historically and those that read it symbolically. I read it historically.” This was said with such finality that the young man suddenly — for a change — found himself with nothing to say. Wasn’t the member affected at all by having read about the symbolic approach? Were there any others in the group like this man, the young man wondered?

Were there ever! Within the first two minutes of introducing the book, the young man could feel the opposition. It was thick. To push it back a bit, the young man began to read from a list of alternative ideas he had amassed on how to read the Bible. It was meant to be suggestive but to most of the people in the group it felt more like Martin Luther had suddenly appeared and posted his 95 theses on their basement door.

Some of the members became slightly, but visibly, annoyed. One man pointed to a row of Bibles on the shelf. “Everything in them is real, the truth.” Try as the young man did to convince them that he was not trying to rock their faith, they saw him (this intruder) as a threat. What they seemed to want was something concrete that they could hold onto, something that would rescue them; something that would assure them that bodily life would go on forever. Everything had to be interpreted literally: even life after death.

As the weeks went by the group members began to call the young man “the wild man,” then, “John the Baptist.” And clearly, they wanted little to do with the Christ he was proclaiming. And maybe there was some truth in what they said, he thought. Maybe he was better off back in the desert. They clearly weren’t interested in any symbolism, any metaphor or myth, he told himself. They just wanted to see things historically, “the way they really happened.”

But he persisted in his attempt to reach them, putting out phrases, aphorisms, short spurts of ideas like sparks from a fireplace. He was still tolerated in the group. The minister would actually set up an occasional verbal bridge or two to connect the young man’s ideas with those of the others. “Every carpet needs its fringe,” the minister commented with a wry smile one week. But though the fire was sputtering, and the fringe had caught fire, the carpet refused to catch. Everything remained as it was.

One week the young man selected a Bible passage from John’s Gospel. Surely John wrote a Gospel that is full of things that are not meant to be taken literally. When Jesus spoke about this seed that must die, he could not have been talking about a literal seed. He wasn’t trying to benefit farmers, but was suggesting a means of spiritual transformation, the means by which one might enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And this ordeal that Jesus has to suffer, that he is not refusing, must we see this only in terms of “substitutionary atonement,” as the theologians might call it? What about seeing it as a metaphor for what everyone of us ought to suffer through in order to see in the Crucifixion our own taking up of a cross — not to help Jesus, but to assist dying to ourselves, transforming our selfhood, ridding us of our spectral selves, becoming more Christ-like. Perhaps something in our own selves must die and be broken before we can resurrect in Christ. We can view the Crucifixion metaphorically, symbolically — not only as a literal, historical event, but as a symbol of this transformation in our lives.

Just as Jesus was troubled, so, for us, letting go of the old way of looking at things is troubling. We all want to be rescued from the hour when we must let go of reading everything literally and grow to a symbolic understanding. Only in this way will the judgment of this world take place in our selves, a judgment devoutly to be wished for. Only in this way will the ruler of this world be seen for what he is, and driven out of our selves. Not only Jesus but we, too, must be lifted up. Jesus has shown us the Way, but what good is the Way if we do not take it?

One week the young man brought in a bag of reading glasses. He had been to the dollar store for new vision. He passed the glasses out, but members of the group see, far off in the distance, the dust of the approaching symbolism. Anticipating it, they headed him off at the pass. After he has put on his glasses, before he could begin the message, the teasing began. “Can’t seem to get things in focus with these glasses,” began the taunt. “Things look a little foggy to me.” “Seems a bit ghostly and gaseous when I look through these.” Everyone was laughing now — and the young man was delighted. Although the resistance was still there in the group the form of it had changed. “Ah, see; you are not talking about literal vision at all but you have made a metaphor of the literal idea of vision; you are seeing things symbolically after all.”

There was some slight acknowledgment from the group as he continued: “And after all, cannot the spirit appear as ghostly? Spiritual things are often hidden and can only be reached by symbols.” Now the sparks are moving again, the ice is melting. With the morning light a warm breeze was blowing softly through the basement window. The young man was joyful, nearly in tears. Something was happening there in the basement of the church. Something was moving.

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Christopher Sikkema


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