Sunday, January 18, 2015

What We Do With The Bible -- 2 Epiphany 2015

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Samuel, a foster child who hasn't a clue what his life is for. Corinthians, a congregation struggling with sexual ethics in a multicultural context. Nathaniel, a man who leaps from prejudice to gullibility in a single bound.  Why are we reading their stories?

The short answer - their stories are our stories. This book tells our story.

What do we do with this thing? I think opening the Bible is like peeling layers of onion. Of course, some people never bother to open it. They just wave it around to prove that somebody else is wrong. But if you do open it, then the more you read it, the more you peel off its surface layers, the more you start to experience it. Like peeling an onion, the deeper you go, the more you cry. but I'll get back to that.

In the Episcopal Church, we don't wave the Bible. We read it, at least on Sunday morning, when we read a lot of it, maybe more than we can digest at one sitting.

But then what?

Well, it depends on what kind of questions we ask. The difference between a "Bible-believing Christian" and a Bible-believing Christians is this: What kind of questions do we ask?

Do we go to the Bible searching for its opinions about he issues of the day? What about evolution? Do Muslims go to heaven? Should women preach?

Now, chances are, we already have our own opinions about these matters, and any number of others. And if you have read this book thoroughly, if you have studied it, you know that whatever opinion you already have, you will find support for it in here. That doesn't make you a Bible-believing Christian. This book has a thousand years' worth of opinions, including a lot of arguments over those opinions. Ruth argues with Ezra. Job argues with Psalms.

Truth be told, if those are the questions we are asking, we don't want to know if our opinions are right. We want to know if the Bible's opinions are right.

And that's okay, because, like I said, there are a lot of arguments recorded here among the people of God. And we, too, are the people of God. And we can enter into the ongoing discussion among the people of God.

But for many people, that puts the Bible in the So What category. If you agree, great. If you don't, that was then, this is now. Who cares? Fewer and fewer people care what the Bible says.

Peter Gomes wrote a book called The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. He claims that the Bible speaks best to deeper issues. Peel off another layer of this onion.

What am I worth? In a world where corporations are citizens and the final measure of all things, what am I worth?

What is my life for? Do I have any purpose on the planet past getting a job with health care and paying off my student loans?

Who do I trust? The garbage and blatant lies that pass for journalism and political discourse these days?

Do I belong? Families are scattered. The social network is in tatters. Am I finally on my own, or is there somewhere I still belong?

How shall I live? All those choices... And some of them make a difference.

Samuel asked these questions. The twelve-year-old foster kid, surrounded by corruption in the temple. What was his purpose?

The Corinthians asked these questions. All things are lawful. But not all things are a good idea. How do we figure that out?

And Nathaniel, who to trust. I think he made the right choice. Don't know how his mom felt about it, because he ended up, you know, dead. Beheaded or crucified, there is some dispute among the traditions.

But keep peeling that onion. If you want to get to the core, to the danger zone in this book, you read it until it starts asking you questions.

Let's talk about John Newton.

Newton was an Englishman who lived 200 years ago. He was a slave trader, and the most profitable one on the seas. He could squeeze more human beings into less space and deliver his cargo with fewer deaths on the way than anybody else in the trade. His crew was the best at terrorizing their kidnapped captives. And he was the best at terrorizing his crew.

Until one dark and stormy night, out in the middle of the Atlantic. He and everybody else expected the ship to go down. Newton lashed himself to the wheel, and everybody else cowered below. At the storm's height, at the moment before capsize, he cried out, Jesus, save me!

When he heard what he said, his first thought was, Where did that come from? And his second thought was wonder. Because suddenly, the storm outside and the storm within were calm.

He wrote, Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

Newton became a Christian, and be began reading the Bible. Now, he was still a slaver. And he found the passages that others found to support their business, the passages slave owners read to their slave, about the curse of Ham and obedience to masters.

You know, it was illegal to teach slaves to read, so that they could read the Bible themselves. Because there are some other opinions that can be supported by Scripture.

And this selective reading on the topic of peace did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Try this - go home and Google What does the Bible say about Segregation? You will want to clean your cache after. There are churches that teach that God commands separation of the races. And they will cite verses to prove. it.

In fact, they call it a Phineas action when a Christian terrorist commits murder to promote the separation of the races, a Phineas action, after the priest Phineas from the Book of Numbers, who thrust one spear into the two bodies of a Hebrew man and his Midianite wife.

So Newton had, if not good, at least plentiful company, and would still find co-religionists today. Except that Newton didn't ask, What does the Bible say about slavery? Newton did something else. He read the Bible, the whole thing. And he read it again. And again. Because that is what Christians do. Until, the Bible turned around and read Newton.

The Bible asked Newton Peter Gomes' questions...

Well, it didn't ask, What are you worth, John Newton? Because Jesus answered that one once for all. I once was lost, but now am found. John goes to that great courtroom in the sky, you go to that great courtroom in the sky, stand before the judge, and the devil presents the sorry case against you. But Jesus stands up and says, This one's mine.

What are you worth? That is settled. Price paid. Nothing takes that away.

Gomes' second question, What is my life for? Well, John, the Bible asks, is slaving what your life is for? Is that a life?

What do I trust? John, are you going to trust violence? Your way of life requires that you maintain the superior firepower. So does the American way of life. Is that what you trust?

Do I belong? To what kind of community do you want to belong? To what kind of community do you want to belong?

How shall I live? John's answer was to give up the slave trade. He spent the rest of his life making amends. He partnered with William Wilberforce to get slave trading made illegal in the British empire. And his past life proved a powerful gift to the movement. He could testify in Parliament in graphic detail what it was life. So that is how John lived.

Martin Luther King read his Bible, too, and found his marching orders in the Book of Amos, Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.

Even as we celebrate this weekend Martin's life lived and his life given to heal this deep wound in the soul of our nation, we do weep. Amos had a dream, Isaiah had a dream, Jesus had a dream. We weep for that dream yet to be fulfilled.

And how shall we live? Last week Jeff led us through our baptismal promises. They start us out right here, in this book. Will you continue in the apostles' teaching? Will you read it, study it, open your heart to its questions, so that you know what the apostles teach?

And the promises carry us through to the consequences of reading, studying, opening our hearts. They carry us through repentance, a life that proclaims the Gospel, service, and action to build the community in which we want to live, with justice, peace and dignity for all.

I don't know where this book will reach out and grab you, the way Samuel was grabbed, or Mary, or John or Martin. But I commend it to your reading. That's the challenge for this new year. Read it. Talk with me, if you would like some direction about how to do that.

When this book does grab you, the consequences may indeed include tears. But I promise, you will end up with a life worth living.


photo of Bible: Bibel aus dem Jahr 1866 *Fotograf: Walter J. Pilsak, Waldsassen *Copyright Status:  licensed under GNU
painting of ship: A ship in need in a raging storm by Willem van de Velde, 1707, in public domain
photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders at Washing March, 1963 by National Archives and Records Administration, in public domain

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