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Inward Digestion or Just Indigestion?

A sermon delivered to the clergy of the Anglican Deanery of Waterloo at our November meeting. We had two particularly ‘difficult’ texts…

Titus 2:1-14
Psalm 37:1-6, 28-29
Luke 17:7-10

Today, after hearing those two rather nasty readings, I’m tempted to begin a preaching series on the Psalms, or instead, perhaps we could have five minutes for silent reflection…

Or maybe that would be too easy. In case you’re wondering, no, no one here specially chose those readings for today. I’m just stubborn enough to stick with the weekday Eucharistic lectionary as found in the BAS, because it’s something that most of us don’t get to use very often. (I’m starting to understand why.) So imagine me, early last week, coming across these readings — the guidelines set out in Titus, and that lovely parable in Luke (something you’ll never find on an inspirational desk calendar) — and then add to that, later in the week seeing our Collect for Sunday, and today:

Eternal God,
who caused all holy scriptures
to be written for our learning,
grant us so to hear them,
read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them…

So, we’ve heard them. And now, I guess, we do some digesting.

Though I’ll warn you that I haven’t figured these two readings out. I haven’t unlocked some secret key that will miraculously make them universally applicable and/or palatable. What I really want to do is simply think out loud and reflect a bit on what it means to live with scriptures that we might not like, or might not agree on. Every Sunday at our early service I pray these words: Grant that all they that do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love. So what does it mean to “agree in the truth of thy holy Word?” What does it mean to call the Bible “God’s Word” or “The word of God” or “of the Lord?” Or, as clergy we might ask, not just what does it mean, but what does it mean to the people sitting in the pews? And can we live in unity and godly love while not being in complete agreement with the first part, about the truth of God’s holy Word? (I think so, and I hope so. But will we, is the question.) And Article 6 says that the Bible “containeth all things necessary to salvation.” But are all things in scripture necessary for salvation? Joseph Fitzmyer, one of the big Biblical scholars of the Roman Catholic Church, he writes of the Bible as “the written Word of God couched in ancient human language, with a message not only for the people of old, but also for Christians of today.” And as a proponent of the historical critical method he thinks it important to first figure out what the scripture really meant to the people of old. (Like, what was Paul referring to in his letter to Titus? What were the issues? What was his motivation? And then after that, we can start to talk about what the meaning is for us, in our own day.)

This talk of agreement and unity, that brings to mind the marriage canon. And that’s something that I think, largely, has to do with Biblical interpretation: what is the Bible? What are our sources of authority? How do we read and apply the Bible? What did it mean then? What does it mean to us today? I think that these are the questions that we need to help people grapple with. But the message from the wider world doesn’t allow for such nuance; people tend to hear the louder voices from the extremes: the voices of the literalists that talk about the infallible Word of God (as if dictated into the ears of the writers), or, the rationalists who want to dismiss it entirely. Or sometimes there are some more nuanced views, like the catchy “we take the Bible seriously but not literally.” Which isn’t bad, but, it kind of is. Because there are some parts of the Bible that we should take literally. And there are some parts that probably were not meant to be taken seriously.

So is there a difference between “the Word of God” and “the words of God?” Literalists seem to conflate the two, that idea of scripture being directly dictated. But the more mainstream Christian view is that scripture wasn’t dictated, but inspired. Whatever that means. Is the inspiration in the original events that are recalled in scripture? (Whether the exodus from Egypt, or the Crucifixion?) Or is the inspiration in the original Greek or Hebrew text, and we’re now a few steps removed? Or in the Septuagint? Or the King James Bible? Or is it in our hearing of scripture? As individuals, or as a community? As the Church? Is the locus of inspiration “up there” or “down here?” Is the Bible God’s communication down to us? Or does the Bible reflect our attempts to grasp at God? Or is it somewhere in between? When you read the Bible, do you read it as God addressing you directly? Are you the primary audience? Or do you read it as addressed, primarily, to the ancient, or continuing, community of faith? (Of which you are a part.)

Those are but a few of the questions and the issues. I wonder if there might be more opportunities, maybe together, where we might offer educational experiences to help our parishioners (and ourselves) grow in our capacity to grapple with the Bible, and learn to apply it responsibly.

For myself, I’ve come more and more to see the Bible as the scriptures of the Church. Where the line between ‘scripture’ and ‘tradition’ is not totally black and white, because there is evolution within the Bible itself, and there is tradition in the Church’s process of discerning what and what is not canonical scripture. I see the scriptures reflecting the Christian and Jewish communities’ experience of God in the world — in their history, their tradition. In good times, and in bad. And this God is a God interested in bringing about renewal and liberation and conversion of hearts. But in this long journey toward liberation, there are going to be some roadblocks that are encountered. Some dead ends. Some rocky roads. Maybe some u-turns. (I think the ancient Hebrews would understand this, based on their 40 years in the desert.) And our Bible reflects all of those roads: the big highway through the desert, and the road blocks and dead ends.

My favourite Anglican, William Stringfellow describes it like this: “in the Bible, [we] find a holy history which is human history transfigured and since, in turn, [we] realize that human history is holy history… [we] dwell in the continuity of the biblical word and the present moment.”

And so, he argues, we are living Biblically not in making the Bible into an idol. But by becoming attuned to God’s presence in the scriptures, so that we can recognize God in our world. Because the same God is still at work. And because scripture shows is that God moves in free and surprising ways, we should not be surprised when, from time to time, our properly “Biblical” response today might mean stepping out in faith, and acting differently than the literal words of scripture.

At Trinity College I had the honour of learning from Paul Gibson, one of the chief architects of the BAS. In his book Discerning the Word he puts it better than I could:

If we think of the Jewish-Christian faith tradition as a great river, then the Bible is its chart. It moves sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly through the varying landscapes of history, with backwaters, undertows, eddies, even swamps along the shoreline, but always with a strong central current that carries it along. (The story of liberation and justice and self-giving love.) The Bible is the map of this river. All the backwaters and swamps are there on the chart because they are part of the story. But the central current, “the main drift,” [of liberation] is what really matters.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter