EMBRACING THE BIBLE
Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent February 28, 2010
In their movie, The Meaning of Life, the Monty Python troupe has a skit set in a Church of England school chapel. John Cleese, as the school headmaster, is at the lectern reading from the Old Testament for the morning service. In his best serious, Cambridge-scholarly voice, Cleese reads thus: “… and spotteth they twice the camels before the third hour. And so the Midianites went forth to Ram-Gilead in Kadesh Bilgameth by Shor-eth Regalian to the house of Gash Bil-Bethuel Bazda; he who brought the butter-dish to Belshazzaar, and the tent peg to the house of Rashamon. And there slew they the goats; yea, and placed they the bits in little pots.” And then he says, in traditional Anglican fashion: “Here endeth the lesson.”
The school boys are all either nodding off or fooling around; the staff appear clueless. Only the chaplain appears engaged, but it’s soon apparent he is a complete lunatic. It’s a great skit because it is so true to the mark. The reading is typical of many in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, etc., with obscure names of places and people that no longer exist, and even stranger religious practices. It is a made-up piece, a send-up, but it is disturbingly similar to the Old Testament reading we had this morning! (Genesis 15: 1—19). But we go on reading them, almost in the hope that the very formality or antiquity of it all is of somehow edifying.
During Lent, we persuade people that to undertake a “holy Lent” must involve “reading and meditating on the word of God.” In other words, we are strongly advised to take up more scripture reading. But the Bible is a daunting and confusing book, which is why so many people own Bibles but few ever actually read them. It does contain a lot of obscure, seemingly irrelevant material that only a scholar could love. We know it’s an important book, and that most of the concepts that shaped our civilization come from this book, but it’s a bit like Pandora’s box, or perhaps a nuclear power plant – powerful stuff that you can’t just fool around with.
Because the Bible can be a very confusing book, many well-meaning religious people have ended up believing very strange things and doing even stranger things, because they read the Bible without much guidance. In the Middle Ages, the Church did not allow lay people to read the Bible, partly for that very reason: that without a lot of background and study, the Bible can create more problems than it solves.
The recent rise of fundamentalism (in which people take scripture literally and out of context) has caused numerous problems, not just in the Christian world but now most alarmingly among Muslims, Sikhs, orthodox Jews and others. You want people to read the Bible but you don’t necessarily want them to beat their wives and children, or develop a sense that the world is ending tomorrow, or take up a holy war against people in the neighbourhood, and you certainly don’t want little Johnny sacrificing the pet budgie and the cat, in juvenile attempts to appease an angry and vengeful God (“But Mommy, people in the Bible did it!”). Misguided people have committed some of the worst crimes and atrocities in history, believing that the Bible justified or condoned the behaviour.
The Bible is central to our Anglican way of worship and devotion. Preaching from scripture is central to our way of worship as Anglicans, so interpreting the scriptures (our sacred texts) is a significant part of my job as a priest. At ordination, all clergy are required to state that they “do believe that the holy scriptures of the Old and New testaments to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” And I do believe that the scriptures can indeed point people and guide people in the right direction, but I am also aware of the fact that there are many pitfalls.
We believe we are preaching the Word of God, expressing the idea that God speaks through the scriptures, and that these are not just any texts, or just great literature, but somehow they have a sacred, unique character and meaning. Ironically, compared to many of the evangelical churches, we read a lot of the Bible. The lectionary provides a structured way of moving through the entire scriptures and not just choosing those “bits” we like, so we end up not just with lovely passages like “God is love,” and “love your neighbour,” but sometimes with difficult passages about death and conflict and judgement. The Bible is about life, and life is like that.
To paraphrase Forrest Gump, the scriptures are like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get! Sunday worship is one place where we have an opportunity to hear a variety of scripture readings but also have it interpreted and explained. Unfortunately, by the time the preacher has explained all the weird place references and put the bizarre religious practices in context, there isn’t much time to do anything else – which can be frustrating. Today’s Old Testament lesson is a case in point. You could be like the preacher in the Beyond the Fringe comedy skit, Take a Pew, who simply quotes the biblical passage (“I am a smooth man, but my brother Esau is an hairy man . . .”), then completely ignores it, goes off on some weird tangent, ramblings mostly drawn from his trip to the church that evening. At the end of his silly discourse, he then quotes the biblical passage again at the end of the sermon.
We read lessons like we have today and many people could pretty quickly dismiss them as irrelevant to their experience. In today’s Epistle reading, St. Paul says, “Join in imitating me . . .” The honest response would be: NO THANKS! Paul by this time has been beaten up, flogged, stoned, and at the moment of writing, he is in jail. Who in his/her right mind would want that or seek it? And the clarion call of Lent is Jesus saying “Come, follow me!” Follow him? Into confrontation and conflict – into crucifixion? I don’t think so! Most sane people do not willingly do down that path.
Most of us don’t know a life of oppression or a life as a fugitive. So those scriptures may appear to be irrelevant to us. But for many people, that is their reality, and those scriptures take on new meaning when you are faced with similar circumstances.
I think of a radio talk show I heard a while back. A very angry-sounding man phoned in to assert that it was ridiculous for him to be paying education taxes because they didn’t apply to him, seeing as how he had no children around. The interviewer asked if he ever had children in the system, to which the man answered yes, but he didn’t have any in the system NOW, so in his mind, the tax shouldn’t apply to him. He only saw its relevance if it applied directly to him, and obviously didn’t care at all about the system (and other people’s children) once he was done with it.
The Bible helps us move beyond that kind of social abdication, helps us recognize our fixation with what is immediate to us, and summons us out of our own concerns into a larger perspective on life. One of the great values of this book, which spans thousands of years and deals with almost any conceivable human condition, is that it helps in maintaining perspective, so we don’t just get lost in our own.
For instance, as I agonize about being mistreated by the ACW, I read about St. Paul being beaten and shipwrecked and jailed, and suddenly my faith issue is put in perspective, and I stop sucking my thumb and gradually move out of the fetal position under my bed. This can apply in countless situations where we find ourselves in a dark and lonely place, feeling like the world is against us. The Bible puts things in grand perspective.
Maybe we’re not suffering at the moment, but the fact is that there are people suffering injustice and oppression, and it is helpful not only to know that, but to be aware of a way to respond both on a faith level, and in a practical way. The scriptures make us aware of other realities – that there are people right now suffering injustice, being hunted down, and jailed, as Jesus was. The Bible is never merely about individual salvation; it is about God’s reconciling and redeeming purpose for all of creation.
In terms of focus and priority, at present we may quite rightly feel that the main thing people need to hear about is the love of God, so we could focus almost exclusively on that aspect. But we don’t want to rule out the possibility that in very different circumstances, we may want to appeal to other aspects of God, like justice or judgement. When we are caught up in rage or despair, we don’t want to be unconscious of God as reconciliation and God as hope.
One of the ways that the Bible and the preaching of the Bible afflicts the comfortable is in this fact of the Bible’s mystery and strangeness. I agree that in certain biblical passages, God seems very bizarre and incomprehensible. I happen to think that is very appropriate. God is bizarre and incomprehensible to the human mind. The idea that God is somehow supposed to make perfect and obvious sense is at least as ridiculous as fundamentalism. That very weirdness can sometimes create alternative views and perspectives that can bring healing and balance to individuals and societies who have narrowed their thinking and their views.
The Bible is not just a story, either a fanciful story, or just a single story. It is thousands of stories of people’s struggles to be faithful, stories of failure and frustration, stories of amazing grace and faith, stories of persistent hope being vindicated, stories of relationships and disappointment and redemption. In reading it, we join our stories to theirs, and form a spiritual link as people of the Word – people of God. In faith, we believe that God speaks through its words, and that, ultimately, it can lead us into a deeper understanding of, and relationship with, the inspiration behind all the stories, who is God.
In an age when biblical literacy has declined drastically, Lent recalls us to a biblical spirituality. Unlike the Church of the Middle Ages, we do strongly encourage people to have Bibles and to read them, but we also recognize that people need some guidance, which is why we have Bible studies, Sunday worship and sermons, commentaries and concordances, etc., not to mention what you can find online or in the library or local bookstore.
I always find it amazing that, when people study the Bible together, there are so many differing viewpoints. That applies whether you are dealing with biblical scholars or people just getting acquainted with this great book. In a sense, that’s the beauty of it – that there is never just one authoritative interpretation or one way of interpreting the text. Also, the same text takes on new and different meanings for the same person, in subsequent readings.
I’ve heard people say they’ve attempted the Bible, but quickly bogged down in confusion. But if you drop in, uninformed and unguided, to any great work, whether spiritual or scientific or mathematical or musical, you would likely find it a very overwhelming and futile experience. The Bible may be daunting and confusing, but all great things are – at first. Yet as we persist, we find it is not that mystifying or impenetrable. We inherit the great tradition of the rabbis – a tradition of ongoing debate and interpretation of scripture, of asking questions, seeking advice, becoming informed. That kind of dialogue and exploration is welcome. We read so much scripture in church, it would be a helpful exercise to read and think about the scriptures for the coming Sunday, and above all, to pray for guidance. You might just find that the scriptures open up a whole new world for you, and help you see things in a new way.
May Christ, the living Word, guide us to a deeper appreciation and comprehension of the Bible, that, in humility and with gratitude, we may receive its wisdom and truth. So be it.
(The Rev.) Grant Rodgers