2 Tim 3:14-4:5
Proper 24C RCL
HE 2A 10:00
"THE HOLY SCRIPTURES ... MAKE YOU WISE UNTO SALVATION"
Credit: Pulpit Resource 10/21/01 Previous: 80,89,01 revised each time
This sermon takes a different direction from the last couple of weeks. For two weeks we have been wrestling with God in terms of our prayers, and we could easily do so again, in line with the first and especially the third reading (about the persistent widow before the judge). But we are in this for the long haul, and we need to sharpen the other tools of our faith. So today, I'm going to speak of the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, in an effort to help us all to use that tool as what it is: the message of God corning to us through the written words, to make us "wise unto salvation", as Paul tells Timothy in the second reading.
I. A cartoon in the New Yorker shows a man inquiring at the counter of a large bookstore. The clerk, looking at the computer screen, says, "The Bible? Let's see; that would be in the self-help section."
That response points to one of the problems we face as we try to read the Bible today. The Bible has become one mere consumer option; one more source of therapeutic advice, alongside books on dieting and dating, astrology and other strategies of "successful" people. But the Bible is not a self-help manual to nurture our private spirituality, but rather the story of God's work to re-create a world that, left on its own, has gone far astray. Just reflect on the last few months in this area, with murders and arsons in the Boston area, suicides here, and of course Sept.11, 2001. And surely those events show humankind as falling far short of what God would have us to be.
One major way that God plans to save the world is by the creation of a people - ancient Israel and the Church, to tell the story of Jesus to the world. The Bible wants to do more than merely speak to our contemporary experience. The Bible judges and re-forms and enriches our experience, and offers us experience of God that we would not have had if we had not submitted ourselves to the Bible.
So how can we form our reading practices in this congregation to recover the central place of the Biblical witness in the life of the world?
I offer a few points.
1) One step I am glad to see is the pew Bibles. By using them you can learn to find your way around in the Bible itself. It's a big book, and we need to become familiar with what is there, by handling the Book itself. And if you memorize the names of the books in order, you'll be able to find your way more easily than if you haven't done that memory work.
2) Then the Bible must be read in community. The Bible was not written only to be taken home and read by ourselves. You see, our brothers and sisters in the faith may challenge and enrich our individual readings; those same brothers and sisters will hold us accountable not only far faithful interpretation, but also for faithful embodiment, faithful living of what the Scriptures proclaim. So we find peculiar strength from reading and interpreting Scripture together in the Church.
3) We must be trained to read Scripture. The skills required do not come naturally. Because we believe that the original and definitive witnesses to God's saving action are preserved in the texts of the Bible, we must be a community that treasures and respects the written word; we are not free to give authority to other texts until we have submitted to the authority of the Bible. This means that we cultivate disciplines of attentive reading and listening - practices that are difficult to maintain in an age of manipulation by the news media. This means, on our part, conscious choices to protect time and space for reading and discussion of Scripture together. Memorizing key passages is a priority too, for we are formed by what we know by heart.
4) We need to work on the capacity to read imaginative texts with imagination! The Bible speaks so often in symbolic language because it speaks of realities that go beyond ordinary language. We have got to be willing to enter the world of the Bible and to have our world re-arranged. For instance, a debate over the question, "Did this really happen?" needs to be replaced by asking ourselves, "How is this Bible text asking me to change?" And: "How is my world making me blind to the message that this text is trying to get me to hear?"
5) Then we must read the Bible as a whole. The Bible is more than a collection of spiritual sound bites. In 66 books between two covers, there is a wholeness to the story it tells, a story that runs from Genesis through Revelation, from Creation through the final redemption of the world. On Sundays I worry that we read a bit from this book and a bit from that. But when we look for the longer narrative, we also become sensitive to the individual voices. For instance, this year with Gospel readings from Luke, we are learning that Luke's portrait of Jesus has distinctive features that make it different from John's portrait. Such reflection, on the whole story, leads to an appreciation for the underlying coherence and movement of the Scriptures.
6) We should also read the Bible as Israel's story. The old Testament and the New Testament together constitute the Christian Bible. We are not free, as Christians, to ignore the testimony of ancient Israel. The God Whom Jesus proclaimed is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Mk.12:26), and we understand who we are as God's people, only if we know ourselves as offspring of Abraham, heirs according to the promises made to him (Gal. 3: 29). We cannot really understand the New Testament without any reference to the Old Testament. The word Christ cannot be understood apart from the Old Testament, for one obvious example.
7) Lastly, we must read the Bible as the Church's story. The Bible is inspired by God, yes, but it did not just drop down upon us from on high. The Bible has been transmitted to us through the testimony of generations of wise and faithful readers. So the future of Bible-reading in the Church depends on our capacity to read the Bible in conversation with the past - with how these texts have been understood and interpreted in the Church. We don't read the Bible in our time and place alone. Conversation with the saints in the past stimulates our imagination and reminds us that we are accountable to a community of readers that stretches back in time. Participation in this conversation about the Bible saves us from the preoccupations of our own age and culture.
So think of these guidelines as you encounter the Bible. If you are not reading Scripture on a daily basis, I hope that you will begin to do so. Forward Day By Day or some other daily guide is a good place to begin. And if I could be here full time, there would be multiple Bible study groups, as a priority.
The Bible takes time and patience and perseverance, and courage to read. It is difficult to understand at times, not just because it comes from a culture different from ours, but also because it is God's word to us, a word that is sometimes against us in order to be for us in a deeper sense. As Paul says to Timothy, the Scriptures are given for our salvation, that is, to save us from ourselves, to save us from the limits of our modern point of view - to give us what we need in order to survive, in a world that does not always worship the true and living God.