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Archive for August, 2017

The Bible will not help you conjugate French verbs. It will not teach you why we fought the Civil War, nor will it help you build a sandbox for your next DIY project. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a self-help book.

What the Bible can be for you is the rule for a life of faith and practice founded upon the Reformed tradition of sola scriptura or scripture alone. This tradition has been a hallmark of Protestant Christian communities as the Westminster Confession of 1647 declares, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for God’s own glory, humanity’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of humanity. Some contemporary theologians give authority to Scripture because it reveals God’s Word, that is Christ, while others declare Scripture is the witness without parallel to God’s long, winding relationship journey with humankind and humanity’s long, winding on again-off again relationship journey with God.

As Paul wrote to Timothy, “how from infancy you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scriptures are God-breathed and are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

Scripture is, also, the authority for the way we have organized the polity of the Presbyterian Church because Calvin and other Swiss Reformers went back to Scripture to identify the structure of the early church as one way to reform the Western Christian Church. Indeed, as Jack Rodgers, a former Moderator of the PCUSA and theologian has described it, “Calvin’s way of reforming the church was akin to grabbing a bureau drawer, yanking it out of the bureau, dumping its contents on the bed, then putting the empty drawer back in bureau and only putting those things back in drawer you were absolutely certain you were going to use and had the biblical warrants for using them.” This why we call Elders Presbyters and why we have Deacons because both of those positions existed in the early church based on Scripture.

This more thorough going reform was because the hierarchy of the western Christian Church from the fourth century to the 14th century had begun to give equal weight to papal authority, traditions, and doctrines devised by various theologians and philosophers, including Aristotle and Plato, as they did to Scripture. This, of course, happened during the time that widespread corruption had infiltrated the whole of the Western Christian Church whether from power and greed, the sales of indulgences, the sale of offices of clergy, bishops, cardinals, abbots and abbesses or the many other failings of the church in the Middle Ages. In addition, worship was in Latin and the Latin translation of the Bible was the only one used in worship, which effectively only spoke to the educated elites and left out everybody else, who were also illiterate. It was the illiteracy of the common people and the desire to connect them to Scripture and a life of faith that for decades prior to Martin Luther and John Calvin there had been a movement to translate Scripture in the language of the people, so each person could read it in their own language. Of course, this would have made more people literate and would have taken away the power of the local priest to be the only authority for what Scripture said, which was certainly two aims of the reformers, particularly John Calvin and the Swiss Reformers who created public schools open to every child in the Geneva community and who advocated for every Christian to read and study Scripture. BY the way, this is one reason pastors are Teaching Elders as well as worship leaders of Word and Sacrament.

Scripture is also a community forming narrative as Rev. William Willimon insists, “A congregation is Christian to the degree that it is confronted by and attempts to form its life in response to the Word of God.” Each week as Scripture is read and used as the basis for the entire worship we are confronted by God’s Word and invited, sometimes explicitly and other times not as explicitly, to form our personal identity and our community identity in response to what we have heard, read, prayed and sung in worship. Over the course of a life time of such experiences and our incorporating all of our life experiences into the story of our lives, our personal identity and the community’s identity as followers of Christ are formed and shaped.

Integral to this forming and shaping is discovering where our personal life stories and our community life stories are connected to Scripture. What biblical stories, psalms, history, epistles contain our life story, individually and as a congregation. What lessons can we learn from this connection? How does this connection help us create or re-write and tell our life story as a coherent whole with a beginning, middle and a present?

Clearly for Scripture to be the rule of our faith and our life, as way for teaching, correcting, training and, yes, even rebuking us towards God way, to be forming and shaping our identity and connecting us within Scripture, we are going to have read Scripture because as Professor George Stroup has pointed out, “if the community no longer turns to biblical narratives and their depiction of reality as the basis for the interpretation of personal and communal identity, then Scripture can no longer be described as ‘authoritative’ for that community. At the same time, if Christian identity is as dependent on biblical narrative as we have argued, then it is not clear how a community which no longer listens to or uses Scripture can be said to be ‘Christian.”

So we read Scripture, but how do we read it and study it when often we find ourselves confused or frustrated with it, especially if we read Leviticus.

Well, first, read Scripture daily or weekly as a devotional and allow Scripture to sink deeply into us through meditation and allowing the questions arising from our reading to bubble up to the surface, and then gather together with other people in a group study of Scripture paying careful attention to its context and form. You see, each of the Bible’s books was written in a particular genre by a particular person inspired by the Holy Spirit at a particular time for particular readers that addresses a particular concern. Discerning what all of these particulars are becomes important, especially genre because Scripture is written as histories, poetry, sermons, or letters. Some include parables and healing stories, but all need to be read differently in the same way a newspaper’s editorial page is read differently than the sports page or the comics.

Second, understand the culture and the way different cultures think about history, geography and time. John Calvin has noted, The Gospels “were not written in such a manner as to preserve on all occasions, the exact order of time, nor do they detail minutely everything Jesus said or did.” This is where a good study bible comes in handy because of the notes included on each page as well as the maps and definitions of ancient measurements.

Third, interpret one passage of Scripture using other passages that seem to talk about the same subject while never isolating one sentence or passage of scripture as though it contains the whole truth because often what we think it says or wish it said isn’t what it says at all. This why when someone quotes a verse of Scripture at me as though proving their point, I am very willing to suggest we read the entire book, then read other passages referenced by that one book to get at the real meaning. The other thing to remember is that nobody reads Scripture literally. Everyone interprets it in one or another. Also, we need to stop using Scripture as clubs to beat each other up with as though my Scripture is bigger than yours. Also, we need to be willing to let Scripture read out its meaning to us, rather than trying to make Scripture say what we want it to say, since very often we discover something new we hadn’t thought about before or maybe we just become transformed by the Holy Spirit in the act of reading and study.

Finally, read Scripture mindful of the rule of love-Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself-because as one rabbi taught, those two commands are the whole of Scripture and “everything else is commentary.”

Scripture alone is our rule for faith and practice, identity and life, so happy reading.

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In many fragments and in many fashions in former times, God’s Word goes out, arguing, pleading, wooing, commanding, telling stories, conversing, spinning words across the lines between heaven and earth. God’s Word is an active interruption of silence creating life as a disturbance of the stillness of swirling waters in a deep dark void incapable of creating life. God’s Word intrudes into life, moving trees and shaking the powers that be, causing the sun to rise, shaking foundations whether of volcanoes, temple or churches, and breaking chains of oppression and molecular structure.[i] Everything in creation reveals the character of God, one theologian writes, and is gathered up in God’s life giving Word.

A Word making holy summons, calling humanity to an awareness of God’s presence that as theologian Tom Long writes, we would not know on our own and that flowers, stars, clouds, indeed the whole universe as well as the entire history of humans are telling a story of God’s glory beyond our imagining. God’s Word is not speaking of a grand design concealed in the complex patterns of nature awaiting, a science sophisticated enough to find it, rather it is a shout in the street crying news we could not have anticipated news that God is at work in creation, providing, saving, reconciling, teaching, nurturing and healing. This Word God speaks is the one Abraham and Sarah heard, the one Samuel heard in the temple as child sleeping, the one Moses heard in a burning bush, the one the Canaanite woman heard when she was pleading for Jesus to heal her daughter. This Word God speaks is the one heard in a vision as a flash of insight, in pillars of fire, in a waterfall, in a still small voice, and in powerful moments of insight at a church committee meeting, in the voice of hungry and homeless, the voice of the sick crying for for healing “ and in the hope of those bent over by oppression, hatred and bigotry.

This Word God speaks is the one who was in the beginning with God, and is God through whom all creation was given life, a life that is the light of God breaking through and breaking down all the darkness humanity creates whether through ignorance or the violence of racial hatred, bigotry of any kind, or oppression or exclusions seeking to divide people into those who are superior and those who are inferior, those who are truly human and those considered to be only 3/5 human, those who are in and those who are out, those who have more than enough for life and those who don’t.

This Word is one who comes in the flesh and bone of Jesus the Christ to be the last plank in a long rope and wood bridge stretching across the chasm separating humanity from God and God’s life of joy, hope and peace; completing the bridge begun by Abraham and Sarah leaving their ancestral home, then the Egyptian midwives Shiphrah and Puah refusing to kill newborn Hebrew babies by acts of civil disobedience, then Moses is summoned to liberating leadership, then Isaiah called in the midst of worship, then Jeremiah a boy opening his mouth to speak to adults he fears won’t listen, then in many other divine actions forging saving planks in the long bridge of redemption until coming at last to final plank, which is the ultimate plank completing and making the bridge fit for humanity to cross over into the new life God intends and has intended for all humanity.[ii] Christ alone is that last and ultimate plank. Christ is the ultimate Word that was with God, whom is God.

Christ alone is the Word becoming flesh and blood coming to live with humanity in the fullness of everyday life knowing all of our joys, all of our wonder at the mysteries of creation, knowing how we often cannot see what is right in front of us, knowing love in the giving and receiving, knowing rejection and the violence of a hometown crowd wanting to throw him off a cliff preaching a word from God they didn’t like, knowing the suffering of disease, wounds, betrayals, oppression whether political or institutional, and all the suffering human beings are subject to because we are part of the earth, sky and waters of creation-and what happens to the earth, sky and waters also happens to us. Christ alone brought all of this-all humanity’s life with him to the cross, bearing it in his body broken by nails, spears in the side, beatings, and carrying his cross until, finally at his death he brings all humanity’s life into God’s very being where it is healed and made new in the grace laden resurrection witnessed by the men and women he gathered together, then sent out to be his body-hands, feet, mouth, mind, and witnesses to his pioneering teaching, healing and radical love for all peoples.

Christ alone is head of the church because he alone is the one who gathers all people together to create the church not as an institution to be saved, not as a commodity to be consumed, but as a community of followers living their lives following the model for being truly human that Jesus created with his life, his teaching, his story telling and his acts of kindness, empathy, and his self-offering love for neighbor serving not himself, seeking no reward or celebrity, but willingly obeying God’s love. Christ alone is the head of the church and we claiming to be his followers are his hands, feet, mind, mouth and heart called by Christ to live as he lived and by doing so-teaching others that a life of health, joy, hope, and peace is possible. A life where every person has all they need for life and need not fear their neighbor, but can live in mutuality with all their neighbors, knowing all humanity is created in the image and likeness of God and all humanity is God’s children and are to be treated just that way.

Christ alone is the one Word of life encouraging us to persevere and run the journey of faith as a marathon not a sprint.  Christ alone is praying for us, reassuring us we are not alone, but as the great preacher and theologian Howard Thurman writes, “God is present with me this day. God is present with me in the midst of my anxieties. I affirm in my own heart and mind the reality of his presence. He makes immediately available to me the strength of his goodness, the reassurance of his wisdom and the heartiness of his courage. My anxieties are real; they are the result of a wide variety of experiences, some of which I understand, some of which I do not understand. One thing I know concerning my anxieties: they are real to me. Sometimes they seem more real than the presence of God. When this happens, they dominate my mood and possess my thoughts. The presence of God does not always deliver me from anxiety but it always delivers me from anxieties. Little by little, I am beginning to understand that deliverance from anxiety means fundamental growth in spiritual character and awareness. It becomes a quality of being, emerging from deep within, giving to all the dimensions of experience a vast immunity against being anxious. A ground of calm underlies experiences whatever may be the tempestuous character of events. This calm is the manifestation in life of the active, dynamic Presence of God. God is present with me this day.”

Christ alone is present with us this day and all days, which makes the words we heard this morning from the letter to the Hebrews, “good news.”  For it affirms that the relationship we have with God in Christ is a living reality. It is a renewing and empowering relationship that we depend on in good times and in bad. We know that we can draw from God’s deep waters of mercy and grace[iii] as the psalmist sings “O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”

For Christ alone is the Word of life we must hear and obey in the beginning with God, in the end with God, bringing us into God’s very being today, tomorrow and eternity because Christ is God, who is with us always. Christ is God who loves us all. Amen.

[i] Thomas G. Long, Hebrews in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching pp 4-8

[ii] ibid

[iii] Gloria J. Tate, Presbyterian Church of Teaneck, NJ. In the African American Lectionary, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Thomas G. Long, Hebrews in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching pp 4-8

[ii] ibid

[iii] Gloria J. Tate, Presbyterian Church of Teaneck, NJ. In the African American Lectionary, 2008

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“You all have an A for this course,” said Barbara Brown Taylor at the beginning of our doctorate course ‘Practical Mysticism.’ Now, as I think about what she said, it is in a small way like grace.  You see, no one had done any work for the course, no papers or projects or presentations had been done for the course at all. We had done nothing to merit or deserve such a grade. We had just shown up. And, I think that is one small way to think about grace.

We just show up as a living being and God’s love is given to us. No questions asked. No tests to see if we measure up to receive this love. No creeds to recite or perfect behaviors to track. God’s love is simply given to us, reaching out to welcome us home, telling us we belong. Telling us we are valuable, that we are wanted. God’s love is ours from the moment we show up through the entirety of our lives into eternity, calling us to live within God’s being. This is, also, why I think infant baptism is such a joyful experience of grace because in that sacrament we affirm God’s unconditional, unbreakable, unfathomable love is for us, with us and encompassing us always, long before we have done anything to earn, merit, deserve or can respond to such a love.

But, there was more to that moment of grace when Barbara Brown Taylor said we all had “A’s” that was, also, important and truly wonderful, which was when she said, “Now, let’s focus on the work.”  Focus on the substance of why we were in that course. Focus on the readings and the presentations. Focus on learning new ideas, concepts, history and stories, so we might learn something about Christian mystics and comprehend why they are important for us to know about, but more importantly discover the practical and usefulness of the mystics’ teachings for Christian daily living. We were liberated from worry about passing the course, so we might focus on living as followers of Christ.

That is what faith is. It is the liberated, grateful response to a grace that frees us from having to worry about whether we are loved, accepted, valuable, wanted or belong, so we are free to do the work of living the way God teaches us to live through the creation stories, the man and woman in the garden story, the ten commandments, the prophets calling the people Israel to change the direction they are going in their lives, the sermon on the mount, all the healing stories and feeding stories, Lazarus rising from the dead, the walk toward Jerusalem, the prayer in Gethsemane, the cross, the resurrection, the post resurrection stories and the stories of the apostles and early Christian communities.

While the simple definition of faith is trust, faith as defined throughout scripture is also confidence in God, steadfastness, unswerving loyalty to God even in face of what appears insurmountable obstacles, perseverance, patience, holding God’s promises to be true and reliable, holding  fast to a promised hope, endurance, being firmly set on God, fidelity to God and God’s way of life, believing that is deeply connected to doing or living a way of life consistent with the claims of God upon the community based upon the remembrance of what God has done to create life and sustain life and a response of gratitude for all God has done and promises to do. Taking all of these definitions as a whole we discover faith is not mere intellectual assent to a set of propositions, but is much richer and deeper allowing us to change the translation of Hebrews 11:1 to “faith is the substance of these hoped for and the proving of things not seen” because God is the substance of our hope and Christ has revealed God and God’s love for us in visible and tangible acts of healing and teaching, which lead us to thanksgiving.

You see, gratitude is at the heart of faith, especially in the song of psalmist in psalm 145, “I will exalt you, my God and King, I will praise your name forever and ever,” since praise cannot be given without some reason and the psalmist cites those reasons as compassion, patience, forgiveness, love as well as trustworthiness, able to be counted upon to do what God has promised to do and to be near and loving in giving life and sustaining life. These reasons are acts of remembrance by the psalmist, who calls the community to sing the praises of God. Engaging in this gratitude engendered praise, the community as a whole recalls these events and other events in their own lives where God has invited them to be co-creators of life, reached out to change their situation, or let them know they have been heard and are not alone.

In many ways, the psalmist is telling a narrative in much the same way that the gospels, the prophets and the epistle writers are telling stories, which is why the biblical stories are vitally important for Christian communities. “We are a storied people, “writes theologian and professor Stanley Hauerwas, “because the God that sustains us is a ‘storied God.”

Through the biblical stories we learn how God both has saved God’s people by grace across time and geography, but we also learn the consistent way God desires people to live in response to God’s grace, so the people’s life may be full, healthy and life sustaining through relationships of mutuality and loving kindness, then using what we have learned from those stories, we live our lives as a grateful and free response to grace.

What is particularly freeing is that we do not need to be focused on the myths the culture tells us should be our stories, should be our values and ethical norms, or should be our way of living in the world because they are meaningless, telling us nothing about who we are as followers of Christ. The same can be said for those Christians who want to make Christian living about duty or guilt trips because in some way we failed to measure up to some particular theology of works righteousness. This is also why lists of the “five things to do to be a better Christian” or “the ten ways to pray for a more fulfilled life” are a waste of time. It may feel good to have an assignment for the week or a list to check off each day or week, but they are the very things Jesus preached and taught weren’t useful in living God’s way. Neither is the flipside to closet legalism that is a “moral therapeutic deism” that professor Scott Hoezee describes as, “the idea is not that we have to please God by living moral lives, but rather that God  is pleased with us even if we don’t do very well in the moral arena,” because “God isn’t paying that close of attention to us anyway and is mostly interested in seeing if we are a pretty okay people who stay slightly ahead of the moral curve vis-à-vis” those other” immoral people down the street.

Faith liberates followers of Christ to focus our energy, imagination, gratitude and love on living God’s way as we become part of the biblical stories of grace, gratitude, praise and faith and they become part of who we are as followers of Christ. Amen.

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