A sermon on discernment and using the Bible to guide our lives

Scripture: Isaiah 58:9-14 and Luke 13:10-17

I get easily overwhelmed by an abundance of choices. If I’m having a hard day or I’m tired and I make an attempt to go to Target to get some toothpaste, I will get stuck in the toothpase aisle for a good 20 minutes just staring. I’m not even thinking about what is in each toothepaste, whether I want whitening or tartar control or total care, baking soda, peroxide, fluoride, mint, fresh mint, minty clean, sporty mint, cool mint or super ultra mega mint. I can’t even get that far. Just the awareness of all of the options stops me in my tracks. I zone out, get paralyzed. I don’t want to think about all of the options, I just want someone to come by and hand me a damn tube of toothpase. Seriously, I don’t care what kind. It could have the flavor of urinal cakes and I’d be cool with it. As long as I got out of the toothpaste aisle.

Just looking at this stresses me out. Too. Many. Choices.

Just looking at this stresses me out. Too. Many. Choices.

Does this happen to any of you? You go out for a simple errand and get totally overwhelmed by choices? An information and sensory overload?

Sometimes, we just want the decisions made for us. After a long day with lots of complicated decisions to be made in work and home life, with our friends, families and lovers, sometimes it sounds really nice to just have someone else pick out our toothpaste (or whichever product causes you to freeze in the aisle of your local giant store).  Sometimes, we don’t want to discern. We want discernment to be quick, clean and clear. But figuring shit out doesn’t usually happen that way. It’s messy and awkward and confusing and painful (sometimes). Sometimes, it’s just way easier to have someone tell us what decisions to make. For me, this is the appeal of theologies that keep people out of God’s kingdom, theologies that are so very certain and clear about what God wants and who God is. We just want clear directions on how to live life. Why is that so hard? 😉

But like life, the Bible is messy. Theology is messy.

Today’s gospel reading involves discernment: discernment of how to read and apply scripture in regards to the Sabbath. On one hand, we have the religious leader condemning Jesus for working on the Sabbath by committing an act of healing. On the other, Jesus condemning the religious leader (and the people) for all the work they do on the Sabbath that is not God’s work. The leader of the synagogue has a vision of Sabbath observation that is likely influenced by the story in numbers where a man is stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath or an overcomplication of the Levitical procolamation that no work is to be done on the Sabbath.  Jesus’ vision of the Sabbath and proper Sabbatical behavior seems to be influenced by our Isaiah reading today. Isaiah proclaims that the Sabbath is a day to live in the way God wants us to live. It’s not a day off, it’s a day on for God. The Sabbath is

“A day for removing the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, offering your food to the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted.”

Same day. Same law. Two different ideas of what the Sabbath is all about.

This is not the only time the Bible gives us different ideas on how to live out God’s commands.

I know, shocking.

The Bible is not absolute black and white, clear do this not that. It is more nuanced, more complex. Messier. In this light, how can we use it as a guide for our lives? How in the world can a book that seemingly contradicts itself so much be of any use?

First, we have to learn how to discern what the Bible means for us in our lives today without using it primarily to support the beliefs we already have.

This is freaking hard.

Especially because we all want the Bible to have our backs. We want it to say what we already believe.

Don’t like gays?  There’s a verse for that!

Think women should be silent but for when teaching children? There’s a verse for that!

Think that God has chosen a finite number of people to be saved and everyone else is screwed? There’s a verse for that!

Think women should preach? There’s a verse for that too! (yay!)

So, how do we figure it out?

How do we discern how we should behave on the Sabbath? How we should behave in matters of relationships, sex, social justice, business?

Have you ever seen someone stating that the Bible has all the answers to guide through life as though it were some map? Did you look at them like they were nuts? If only it were that easy.

If only we could pick up scripture and find immediate, quick and clean answers to life’s questions.

Should I drink tonight God? Let’s see… Habakuk says not to get you neigbor drunk in order to look on your neighbors nakedness but to get drunk yourselves and lie unclothed.  Sweet! Tonight I drink and lie naked!

Should I have sex? Well, Ecclesiasties asks “If two lie down together, they will keep warm, how can one keep warm alone?” That’s a yes, right? Warmth and all?

So, what do we do? How do we discern a) what the Bible is saying to us in our day and time and b) what God is calling us to do in our lives?

We need a guide, something to help us interpret the Bible.

Now, God wrote the word on our hearts, so it is tempting to rely on our hearts for interpretation. We can do that, but, um, has your heart ever told you what you want to hear instead of what you need to hear? Yeah. So, we need something else.

As Christians, we are to interpret scripture through Christ’s life, teachings, death and resurrection. Our Lutheran tradition provides us with lots of great theology and guidance when it comes to interpreting scripture. But this is not a lecture in Biblical interpretation. So, here’s something easier to keep in mind.

Christ gives us a great rule when he gives us the greatest commandment: love the lord your God with all your heart soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself…

If we combine our knowledge of God’s word written in our hearts, what we have been taught through our tradition and ask if it is loving to God and neighbor, we should be alright.

But still… we will get it wrong sometimes…

We will go to the Bible, go through the work out… reflect upon what Jesus would do, pray for guidance, interpret all of these things through our Lutheran lens of salvation by grace through faith and the greatest commandment and still we will fuck up.

Things will go wrong. Good intentions turn bad. Good ideas go wrong. We still manage to get what we want in front of what God wants. The world changes our understanding of basic tenants of the gospel and we end up in a bad place. We end up broken or breaking someone else.

We aren’t always going to get it right. Other’s aren’t always going to get it right.

Like, I know a dozen people who really, truly believe that telling gays that they are going to hell is a loving act because it may save them from damnation. I see no love in this act, I don’t see Christ, but they do. This is really hard to swallow. I also know people who believe that telling rich business men who are using up global resources that they are going to hell is a loving, salvific act for this world. Both groups of people are trying to bring about God’s kingdom, but creating boundaries of who is in and who is out, building a fence around God’s love. We’re never going to get it 100% right. We can (and should) try to live be God’s word, discerning God’s desires for us and our world as best we can with the tools available to us. But we are going to fail.

Deal with it.

This is where God’s love for us steps in. When we get it horrifyingly wrong, God’s love is still there. Waiting for us. When other’s get it wrong, God’s love is still there, waiting for them.

And, at the end of the day, isn’t that the rule for determining the course of our lives? Love? God’s love entering into us and overflowing out of us onto those around us so that God’s love can’t help but spread? Isn’t that how we do? Is it loving? Does the work we do engender love throughout the earth? Does the entertainment we consume lead us to love? Do the things we buy create more love on this planet? Or do they create pain, misery and degredation?

Love. That is what Christ lived and died for. That is why we are here. That is the center of our discernment practices. It’s all about love.

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About Elizabeth Rawlings

Lutheran. Feminist. Child of God. Thinking about how to be a leader in a church that is trying to rediscover itself and what it means to live simply so that others may simply live in tandem with what exactly is the fast God asks of us. Chronic alliterator. Generally silly person. View all posts by Elizabeth Rawlings

2 responses to “A sermon on discernment and using the Bible to guide our lives

  • meinwords

    Elizabeth, while I agree that there are a few things that we won’t understand this side of heaven, (God’s soverigenty vs. freewill, suffering, etc), for the most part I believe God’s Word is pretty straightforward. We have to take scripture in context with the chapter and book in which it was written. We need to understand to whom the passage is written and why, and to allow scripture to interpret scripture. There are some incredible resources out there for just this purpose, and I’ve written about them at

    http://ministryinwords.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/dont-take-my-word-for-it-part-3-the-toolbox/

    We can (and God meant for us to) understand His word. He is not the author of confusion. Confusion sets in when Christian abandon a sound and balanced study of His word and build a theology on selected verses, when there isn’t a high view of God, or interpret the Bible as they want it to say.

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