Interpreting the Bible takes great care and prayer. It requires that we recognize its cultural context, and the way it has been used down through time -- the history of interpretation. Sometimes texts take on a life of their own, and they get used to justify actions that are truly ungodly and unwise. Consider the use of the Genesis 9 passage to envision persons of African descent as cursed and Titus 2 as justification of slavery. In Matthew we are reminded that while Jonah had little love for the Ninevites -- running away in fact rather than offer them an opportunity to change their lives -- they did repent. As we ponder these texts, may we ask what word God has for us -- how is our own reality infected by racist and prejudicial attitudes? This is an intriguing set of texts that David Ackerman has chosen for his Beyond the Lectionary. They aren't easy texts to hear, but they are part of the witness we need to receive.
“Forgive Us Our Racism”
Call to Worship: Psalm 39:4-8a NRSV
One: Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.
Many: You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
One: Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
Many: And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Gathering Prayer: As we come together today, God, we continue to be keenly aware of our mortality. As we look for your liberating hand at work in our lives, we pray that you would be with us now in this time of worship.
Confession: God, we have misused the Bible in order to enslave and oppress people. Our bigoted and hateful actions have grieved you deeply. Instead of allowing the diversity of your world to enrich us, we have looked on those who are different with fear and suspicion. Our fear has turned into racism, and we have allowed it to ruin our lives. Forgive us and change us. Help us to work for a world where all racial hatred and bigotry will become a thing of the past. May we be filled with passion for the cause of racial justice that you set before us this day!
Assurance: God knows that we have only a short time on this earth to work for the kind of justice that Jesus envisioned when he proclaimed the realm of God among us. So let us give thanks for the good news that God sets us free today to work for genuine justice and peace.
Scriptures: Genesis 9:18-27 – “The Curse of Canaan”
Titus 2:1-10 – “Household Code”
Matthew 12:38-42 – “The Sign of Jonah”
Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.
- In Genesis 9, why do you think Canaan gets cursed when Ham sees Noah naked? Why does Noah seem to be justified even though he was the one who was drunk? Why are Shem and Japheth blessed? Who are the descendants of Canaan, and how do you think they become associated with people of African descent? What do you think is really going on in this story?
- Beyond the Lectionary describes the different “household codes” in the New Testament and the reason for selecting Titus 2 here. What do you make of the authoritarian language in these verses? Do you think they should apply to us today or that they are culturally bound to a specific time and place? How do you refute someone who uses this text to biblically justify slavery?
- What is the “sign of Jonah” that Jesus talks about in Matthew 12? How was Jonah in bondage? How was he set free? How does Jesus’ ministry tell a similar story of liberation?
- How have Christians misused the Bible over the years to justify slavery? In what ways are people of color today still victims of a system that misuses scripture for oppressive purposes? How can a critical study of the Bible bring about liberation for people who are oppressed?
Prayer of Thanksgiving: Thank you, God, for setting us free from the racism of our past so that we may work for a world where the evil of racism is no more.
Benediction: God sets us free to go and work for a world where people everywhere might live together in true harmony, justice and peace. Let us be about this work today! Amen.