Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Proper of the Day: Pentecost XXV

On this Second-to-Last Sunday After Pentecost we celebrate the good things God is doing and continue to look forward a little. Today’s lesson from Isaiah sets out God’s vision for the redeemed world. Some view it as only happening at the eschaton, that is, sometime (depending on what you believe about the Cecond Coming, the Parousia) in the future. I personally think it’s a vision of a world we can have right now if we really want it and allow the Spirit to transform us and the world around us. We also continue to read from II Thessalonians. Paul (or a disciple of Paul) tells his readers not to assume the End is coming soon,, but to get to work. Apparently, some folks had quit their jobs and were sponging off of others because they assumed that Jesus was to return very very soon and so there was no reason to do anything but wait. And in today’s Gospel, the disciples are told of what might happen in the future but that most of all to take courage and not doubt the Spirit, who in typical Lukan fashion will be with them when they are called to testify.

However, today I was particularly struck by the Collect, one of my favorites:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Here’s what I offered at Trinity Parish today:

May only God’s word be spoken, and only God’s word be heard. Amen.

“It is well with my soul.”

What a wonderful reminder. We all need that, I think, in this time. Strife and uncertainty are all around us. In my life, perhaps in your lives. In Bayonne. In New Jersey, and certainly our nation and the world. Even today’s Gospel seems to wonder whether it’s all going to come crashing down and what we can do about it.

I recently have gotten introduced to Facebook. Who knows what Facebook is? Maybe you or perhaps some of your kids or students have Facebook accounts. Facebook is an online networking site, where you can link into the Facebook accounts of all your friends and keep up to date with them on a very frequent basis. Hour by hour, even minute by minute if you want to. And there are all kinds of little gizmos and gadgets you can play with too. You can take political quizzes. You can send drinks to your friends – virtual drinks, of course. You can play various games with them. You can cast Harry Potter Spells on them. You can sign up for all kinds of causes and groups that interest or energize you. Of course you can send them email and messages in all different kinds of ways. You’re encouraged to get all your friends to do these things. And they can do them back to you, and literally hundreds of other things besides. It’s really an incredible thing. There are nearly 54 million Facebook accounts so far, and it might get to 200 million by the end of the year. A recent study found that the average Facebook user spends 18 minutes a day on Facebook, and I can report for a fact that it’s really easy to spend far more time than that!

Now I know that like lots of other things in my life, my fascination with Facebook will probably wane. It’s really cool right now, and it seems like most of my graduating class at seminary discovered it just about the same time I did. We’ll all keep up with it for a while, but at various times many of us will fall back and not sign on as often as we once did, and we won’t keep up with all the gadgets and gizmos and goings-on of our friends. It probably won’t get to be much of a habit.

I was reminded of Facebook recently when I was doing something else that I initially began and is now a habit, and that was reading the Bible. Some of you know that part of my own spiritual life is to recite Morning and Evening Prayer in the Anglican tradition every day. Part of the service includes one or two readings from the Bible, and there’s a regular schedule of readings that takes you through the entire New Testament in a year and much of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, over two years. It’s a habit I began many years ago, and one that has been a great source of joy and challenge in my spiritual life.

Our collect for today gets into the value of the Bible as part of our life in Christ Jesus, too. We pray, “Grant that we may hear the Scriptures, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” Those words aren’t just flowery language from the time of Archbishop Cranmer, who wrote this prayer for the first Book of Common Prayer. Each word has value and meaning, and it’s worth a little time, I think, to reflect on them:

Hear them. Most people for a long time couldn’t read, and so the only way they learned the Bible was by hearing it read to them, and by learning about Bible stories in sacred art, like statues, tapestries, and stained glass. Nowadays, even though nearly all of us can read, we still publicly read the Scriptures in the context of our worship. There is value in not just reading but hearing the Bible. Every worship service in the Book of Common Prayer contains at least one excerpt from the Bible, and in reality most of the entire Eucharist service is drawn from the words of the Bible itself. We Episcopalians are actually one of the most biblical of denominations. We include four Scripture readings every Sunday in a specific order, far more than many other denominations who claim to be biblically based.

Read Them. Our prayer begins to shift a bit from public worship to private devotion. Reading anything is what individuals do, and reading the Bible is no exception. Not only do we hear it read to us, but then we can, if we wish, read it for ourselves. There are all kinds of ways to pick out what to read. Forward Day by Day is based on the Daily Office cycle of readings I already mentioned, but you can just start at Genesis chapter 1 and go through to the last verse of Revelation if you want, or even simply follow the Sunday reading cycle. The point is to crack open the book – books really, because Bible means “books” plural – and do more than hear them once on Sundays.

Mark Them – Get our your pens and pencils and online markup tools, and dig right in. Write in your bible. Underline stuff. Write notes to yourself. Ask questions. Draw lines. Get into it. That’s what we’re encouraged to do, to really pay attention to what we’re reading. And remember, back in 1549 books were very very expensive, and few people had any at all. The Bible was the Word of God back then just as much as it is today. Write in a Bible? It was a radical suggestion back, then, and I’ll bet it’s a radical one for some folks now. Well, you should see Fr. Jerry’s Bible – I think there are more marks than printed text! And that’s as it should be.

Learn Them. Next we pray to learn the Scriptures. Get to know what’s in the Bible and where. I strongly suggest the use of one of the excellent Study Bibles that are available. They have introductory articles about each book of the bible, along with maps and notes for nearly every verse, all kinds of cross references, and useful indexes in the back to look up terms. Biblical scholarship has really taken off in the last several decades. If you really get into it, you can get a bible dictionary or a concordance, or go online to several very useful websites as well. Did you know, for example, that the book of Isaiah, from which we got our first reading for today, is actually two and possibly three different books that were edited together at a later date? There’s all kinds of stuff like that, that can really change the way you read the Bible if you let it.

Understanding the Scriptures means far more than simply reading what’s on the printed page and taking it at literal face value. We Episcopalians take Scripture very very seriously, but we’re careful not to take it all literally. At the ordination of every deacon, priest, and bishop takes, we say “I believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary for salvation.” We don’t say that every word is equally necessary for salvation, just that everything we need for salvation is already there.

I’m reminded of the story of the Ethiopian slave in the book of Acts. He’s riding along in his chariot, reading the Bible, and Phillip asks him if he understands what he’s reading. The slave replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” I am not saying, as some do, that there is only one official interpretation of the Bible. And I am not saying that you shouldn’t read the Bible unless you’ve gone to seminary first. But what I am saying is that the Bible has got some really hard passages in it. It has stories, myths, sacred history, songs, violence, sex, moral codes, you name it. It takes time and energy to sort it out, and it’s a lifelong thing. No one ever gets it completely. There’s always more. And it’s OK to read something and realize you don’t understand it right then. There’s a lot of hard or weird or just strange stuff in the Bible. Even St. Augustine, one of the Doctors of the Western Church, is reported to have confessed there were large parts of Scripture he read and just put aside for a while until he was ready to read them again.

Inwardly Digest Them. I always get a chuckle out of this line. I picture myself taking pages from my bible and chewing them one by one. It’s not a bad image, really. Deuteronomy says, “The word is very near you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” And of course the Word itself is Jesus, and in the Eucharist we take Jesus the Word in our mouths and in our hearts. It does no good to have the Scriptures in your head if there is no room for them in your heart. And so we need to make the effort, as individuals and in community, to really internalize what the Bible is saying. There is Good News there, but letting that Good News sink in and really change us, really transform us, takes time and takes practice. You can’t assume that reading the Bible once will do it. You’ve heard me say tell the story that when I began to read the Bible regularly, I was transformed. I stand before you now, ordained in this parish, as a direct result of beginning to seriously read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures in my own life. And who would have thought this is how I’d end up! But God’s grace is abundant, and I wouldn’t have known it and felt it except for beginning the Daily Office in Lent those years ago. If God can break through to me, the IT numbers and budgets guy, God can and will break through to anyone!

That’s an awful lot to digest about the Bible, if you’ll pardon the expression. Those five phrases are a great summary of how you can not only read the Bible, but let it help you transform your own life to the life that God wants for you. But I think there is a word in that collect that is even more important: the word “that.” We do those five things: hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, so that we might embrace and hold fast the Good News of Jesus Christ. We do those things because the Bible itself points to Jesus, who is the Word of God and who is the Good News. The Bible contains the Good News but it is not, of itself, the Good News. Remember the ordination oath? The Bible contains all things necessary for salvation. But it is not salvation by itself. Jesus is. The Good News is that Jesus reconnects us to God when we have become disconnected, and not only to God, but to each other and to ourselves and to the natural world. It’s just like how Facebook connects us to our friends. That’s the whole point of the Bible. That’s what happened to me. I got connected to God through the Bible and prayer. The Bible’s job is to remind us of the Good News and teach us about it and encourage us to live it out in our daily lives. Each of us is already reconciled to God and each other in Jesus. Our sins are already forgiven. God can’t love us any more than God already does. The Bible doesn’t do any of that. God does. Remember the song? Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so. The Bible doesn’t love me. Jesus does!

My sisters and brothers, you can tell I think regularly reading and meditating over the Word of God is a very good thing. It’s so easy to let the noise of the world drown out the still small voice of the Good News. The word of God is living and active, but the word of the world is even more active if you let it. I want to encourage each of you, in your own way, to regularly hear the Scriptures, read, mark, lean and inwardly digest them. I think it’s so important that if any of you don’t have a Bible, or want a study Bible, please don’t worry about the cost. Come see me personally and I will make sure you get a good bible to read. I think it’s that important. I want you to be reminded of the Good News not just on Sunday but every day if possible, and the Bible is a great way to do that.

But don’t forget, the Bible, for all its value, is only a tool. It can, if you let it, be like Facebook. Facebook can be a wonderful plaything, a time waster, a fun way to pass the time. But the true value of Facebook is the links to our friends. It’s those connections that gives Facebook its ultimate value. Facebook by itself is practically useless. But if you understand it and use it to its best purpose, to keep us connected with those who are close to us, it’s like the pearl of great price. The Bible is like that, only better. You can let the words go in your eyes and go back out again. You can turn it into an idol. But if you let it be what it is meant by God to be, to connect you to the Good News that is Jesus, than it’s not just a time waster or simply an intellectual exercise. When you connect to the Good News, it will change your life like it changed mine, and will begin to transform the lives of those around you. And that change, that transformation, is indeed powerful. Read again the vision of Isaiah in our first lesson. That’s what God promises us – a new heaven and a new earth, because of the power of the Good News in our lives and in the life of the world. We live in a society that so desperately needs that Good News, that transforming vision. We not only proclaim that there will be a time when there will be no weeping, no distress. We make it happen, each in our way, when we ourselves connect to the Good News through the Scriptures and the Sacraments and all the other ways we connect with God. And once we’re connected, just like Facebook only better, we can connect and reconnect with those around us, and with ourselves and even with the natural world, and by doing so transform it and us and everyone around us. The Bible has the Good News, it’s Facebook squared, because in it we see ourselves as God sees us and as we can be, and our friends, and the world around us. Most of all, we see the Face of God himself.

My friends, it is well, it is well, it is well with our souls!

May these words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.


PS - the explanation of the picture of The Four Evanglists is here.

1 comment:

Troglodyteus said...

Ultimately I have to face the book. Even with the BCP this is a problem for me. A voice like dripping water tries to keep me away. Often it succeeds. Strange that God keeps calling me back. Me.