What are We Reading When we Read the Bible?
Deuteronomy 4:1-9; Psalm 45; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23
Sunday, September 2, 2018 – The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
What are we reading when we read the Bible?
Or maybe another question — of all the places that we might look for insight, into our world, into our lives, into our selves, why look to the Bible?
And when we read the Bible, what do we expect to find there?
These are some of the things I’d like to invite us to ponder this morning, even if we only scratch the surface of them.
Now, to reassure anyone who finds these questions potentially troubling, and to show my hand from the get go, in asking why, I am not suggesting that we stop, or begin reading something else.
A mentor of mine, with whom I met monthly to discuss the work of ministry, recently introduced me to the exercise of the 5 Whys. Simply put one asks oneself a why question, and then reinterrogates the answer with another why.
Why read the Bible?
One answer might be, that We’re a Church. Maybe that’s an obvious one, so one keeps on asking…
Why should a church read the Bible?
Lots of directions one might take that question.
Because churches have been doing so for more than a thousand years.
Now we’re on to something quite interesting, with a number of angles to choose from…
Why has this text endured? How important is it to continue in a line of teaching and inquiry that is more than a thousand years old?
I wonder, if you were to try this practice, how deep you might go? I wonder if you could challenge yourself to continue past the spot where you instinctually feel you’ve reached the final answer?
I bring this up today in response to the two passages we’ve heard read to us this morning.
Our reading first reading came from the Hebrew Scriptures, which we often name as the Old Testament. In this we join the people of Israel who have been journeying through the dessert for almost 40 years after being freed from slavery in Egypt and are about to enter the land from which their ancestors came generations before, and Moses, their leader is about to leave them and is rallying the troops if you will — quite literally, because they are about to begin a war with the Canaanites who live in the land they intend to occupy.
In this part of the speech (which stretches over a daunting 30 chapters plus a 4 chapter closing blessing) Moses is exhorting the community to remember the commands given to them, to neither add nor take away, and to pass these things along to their children and their children and so on…
The second reading is set likely 15-16 hundred years later focusing on Jesus of Nazareth — whose people now live in the land that Moses and their ancestors would conquer after that speech — although incidentally that land has been since conquered by other groups and is currently under the rule of the Roman Empire. Jesus, who hails from the Northern, more rural part of the land of Israel, is in a conflict with a group called the Pharisees, religious elite who hail from the south.
The particular conflict is about ritual washing before meals, but it becomes much broader, about what it means to honour tradition and keep the commandments that this community sees as it’s core. Jesus accuses this group of being so focused on the particular commandments in their traditions, that they miss the broader point. He points out specifically their focus on temple offerings or Corban which are collected, ostensibly from God, but in so doing, an impoverished people are prevented from supporting their parents in their elderly years.
Both of these readings see a community pondering on some level, with what to do with that which they have been passed down from those who came before them, particularly commandments and teachings.
So what are we today reading when we read the Bible? Why do we read the Bible, and what do we expect to encounter therein when we do so? Three questions I would suggest are intertwined and to which we could add so many others.
Many parts of the Christian family will pick this question up in different ways, and their answers will be a spectrum of simplicity and complexity — and although there is not always an explicit answer given to these questions, there is often one assumed, one implied, and that answer matters.
The answer a particular tradition within Christianity holds about these questions affects whether women and female identifying individuals are allowed to be in leadership, or even speak in the context of public gatherings — and in case this happens to be your first time here and therefore I am the only person you’ve seen from the front, let me be explicit that the United Church of Canada and Knox-Metropolitan affirms the gifts of leadership and teaching in people of all genders!
The answer to these questions, is why certain preachers (usually in smaller cities and towns in the country to the South of us) hold venomous snakes during services, a practice I am deeply grateful we do not affirm!
The way hair is cut or not, to clothes that are worn, whether instruments are played in worship and which ones shall be, often are linked to these questions — whether or not they are explicitly asked.
But these questions can get deep and dangerous too. Who is allowed to attend, who is allowed to be married, who is allowed to see themselves affirmed, to know themselves as fully valued.
Because in some places, where the implied answer to the question to what we read when we read the Bible is a direct missive from a God who demands unquestioned obedience, any seeming mention of a prohibition of a particular way of being is taken to be directly applicable thousands of years after it was penned.
Answers to these questions have seen Christians give their lives for the cause of abolition of slavery or the civil rights movements, while at the same time seeing others draw from this same book justification to oppose the same.
So many atrocities for which the Christian family must ever answer for have roots in the answers to these questions.
Do we read a legal constitution, full of proof-texts ready to be cited?
Do we encounter a communal library compiled over generations of a community grappling with what it means to live in good ways?
The United Church Song of Faith offers these thoughts to this discussion…
Scripture is our song for the journey, the living word
passed on from generation to generation
to guide and inspire,
that we might wrestle a holy revelation for our time and place
from the human experiences
and cultural assumptions of another era.
God calls us to be doers of the word and not hearers only.
The Spirit breathes revelatory power into scripture,
bestowing upon it a unique and normative place
in the life of the community.
The Spirit judges us critically when we abuse scripture
by interpreting it narrow-mindedly,
using it as a tool of oppression, exclusion, or hatred.
The wholeness of scripture testifies
to the oneness and faithfulness of God.
The multiplicity of scripture testifies to its depth:
two testaments, four gospels,
contrasting points of view held in tension—
all a faithful witness to the One and Triune God,
the Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.
I think of our own prayer for Understanding which we share together many Sunday mornings before we hear readings:
Spirit of the Living God, turn on the light of truth and wake up our hearts by the words we now declare and ponder. In ancient stories let us find fresh life, fresh hope and fresh courage for witness in your world.
I think this all matters, in addition to the questions of justice (of which I alluded to only a handful) but also in questions of relevance. As we ponder the future of Knox-Metropolitan United Church, might we say that those who will find a spiritual home here, may herein find seeds of life, hope and courage to join in the ongoing emergence of greater love, greater compassion, deeper beauty, deeper connection, in our own lives, the lives of those we love and the communities we are part of, and indeed this whole world — something that perhaps the Ancients called the Kingdom (or kin-dom) of God.
I wonder what you expect to find in this text?
I wonder where a chain of “why” questions might take you?
I wonder what happens we seek all of this together?
And in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not Alone.
Thanks be to God.