Readings for this Sunday: Isaiah 51:1-6 | Psalm 138 | Romans 12:1-8 | Matthew 16:13-20
I suspect that one of the great challenges to Christianity in this age has to do with the question of the Bible. And I mean this in a variety of ways. Here are just a few examples.
First we wonder if these ancient texts actually have anything to say to us. Are they relevant at all to what you and I experience some 2000 to 2500 years after they were written down? Or are they so antiquated that they are meaningless. Are they reliable? Are they inspired? If they meant something then, do they still mean something we can count on today?
Related to this question is a second: Are these scriptures, these texts redeemable? Even if you acknowledge there’s good stuff in here: remarkable wisdom, powerful stories, you’ve got to admit there are certainly some duds. You have to admit that we sometimes have to read against the text. The other day I was asking a friend who has committed to reading through the Bible, how Leviticus was. It’s not that its necessarily a bad book, but we certainly don’t look to it as much as others, like Matthew, for instance. For that matter the 16th century reformer Martin Luther wanted to get rid of James entirely. I happen to think its not bad. But my point is this: does the good outweigh all the weight and freight of centuries of assumptions that made no room for some of us in the room today—for women, for children, for gays and lesbians, for non-Jews?
There’s a third question, and it may be the biggest of all: do we really have access to these scriptures? Can we really get from them something of value with the resources we have available to us? I think that if many of us are honest, or let me be more precise, if many of you are honest, even if you still believe, as I do, that there is much to be mined here, you doubt that you are qualified to read the scriptures and interpret them for yourselves—the stories of the gospels, the poetry of Isaiah and the Psalms, the intricate, historically dependent, and let’s be honest, sometimes mind-numbing logic of Romans and other first and second century letters.
Just between you and me, I often think this is my most important, and most difficult task—to convince you that you actually have something to say about these texts, that you see something in them that a trained seminarian or biblical scholar might not, that you have a perspective and a voice that is important if these texts are going to be alive for this time and this place and this people.
Researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli put the problem this way: “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it.”[i]
That’s why we insist on encouraging you as often as we can to do this process that we call Lectio Divina that invites us all to read the Bible together closely and carefully and lovingly in small groups—to see what it says, to hear a word for us today from one another. We’re not the first to do this, of course. A teacher by the name of Paulo Friere tried this with a group of illiterate poor in Brazil. Because you had to be able to read in order to vote, he started teaching them to read, and the Bible was the text he used. He taught the poor how to read and they taught him that the scriptures were and are a document that cuts against all voices that seek to privilege some over others. They taught him about the way of salvation. They taught him, an educated Christian, how to read the Bible.
Sure it helps to know that the words “rock” and hewn” in Hebrew make harsh cutting sounds: kh and ts. As we speak the verse in its original language, we can hear God hewing out a cistern, boring through our hardened doubts. And as we reach the verse’s end, Hebrew r, m, and n sounds murmer like water to reinforce that sense that life effortlessly drenches us. God has tapped a font of joy for us, opened wide a cistern’s mouth in the midst of a fiery drout. Sure, it helps to be able to access this added nuance, but you know this is poetry. You know what it says, and even more importantly, what it evokes in you, the hope that it raises in you, regardless of your knowledge of the original language, if you simply give it time to work, give it the attention you are fully capable of, set aside the doubts that have been planted in you about the voice you have, the Spirit in you.
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.
2 Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many.
3 For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.
You know what that promises, don’t you? You know the hope it raises in you of something new, something better, something irrepressible that lives in you despite the moment.
And you live in a time where there is more information at your fingertips about the scriptures and the world around them, about the languages themselves, about the meaning other lands and cultures have given to them, about their power to resist evil and save what has been lost. If you want to sound out the original languages, I’ll show you a book that lets you do it right after church. But that’s less important than this:
You can be with people who have lost all hope with a sense of what is still possible because you’ve seen it—all of you, no matter how young or old. You can do that. You know who Jesus is. You know the power of life to overcome death. You know the power of love to overcome heartache and desolation and hopelessness. Because you’ve lived it. You are witnesses. And on this rock, on this solid ground, on this fierce hope God will build a church of life and love.
You are fully capable to speak of who Jesus is. You are fully capable of answering the question: who do you say I am? You are ready right now to live into that life of hope that this good news offers—of barriers being broken down by courageous people who offer a hand in kindness, of love overcoming hate and nonviolence defeating oppression, of generosity overpowering self-interest, of life breaking apart the hold death has on us. You have the power of speaking to the power of God.
Richard Rohr says it this way:[ii]
Remember, it is only transformed people who have the power to transform others, as if by osmosis. Usually you can lead others only as far as you yourself have gone. Too often we try to push, intimidate, threaten, cajole, and manipulate others. It seldom works, because that is not the way the soul works. In the presence of whole people, or any encounter with Holiness Itself, we simply find that, after a while, we are different—and much better! Then we wonder how we got there. If we are spiritually smart, we will look for Someone Else to thank.
You are a living sacrifice, transformed by the renewing of your mind, holy and pleasing to God. You are one with gifts, according to the grace given to you. Like Peter, you and I have the power to bind what is evil, and to loose on earth the joy and promise and peace that is loose in heaven. Because you’ve seen it. You know it. And you know that in loosing your life, not only is yours saved, but those around you who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
You know these scriptures. You know how to read them. In you, the Spirit of Christ has made them alive. Do not hold them back, but offer them with your whole heart and your whole self, and I suspect no one will question whether there is life in these stories. For they will be alive in you.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Quoted in, Albert Mohler’s article “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem” Christianity Today: http://www.christianity.com/1270946/.
[ii] Richard Rohr. The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Crossroad Publishing, 2009).
St. Andrew Sermons