If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Word in Worship: Nehemiah 8:1-12; Luke 24:13-35

*This sermon was presented at Albany Mennonite Church on Sunday, September 28, 2014
Have you ever cried when scripture was read? I have….and on more than one occasion. I remember as a pastor going through some deep struggles with family and congregation. The strain was taking a deep toll on my spirit.  A friend had come to my congregation to preach. Revelation 21 was read. The text spoke of a coming day when there would be no more mourning and every tear would be dried. The scripture caused my eyes to flow! I was deeply moved by the promise of scripture.

When Ezra read the words from the law, the people wept. But, then again, they also wept when they saw the foundation of the second temple laid. Maybe they were just a bunch of crybabies! Hardly. They were deeply moved by these events. Anyway, this is how the story goes. After Judah had returned home from exile in Babylon following a decree from Persian Emperor Cyrus, they set out to rebuild the temple and to restore the community around the Law of Moses.  Ezra brought back from Babylon a copy of the Torah or Law of Moses. As a priest and scribe of the Law Ezra was intent on forming the identity of God’s people around the Torah.

It was the month of the autumn festival, known as the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, also known as Sukkot. It was originally an agricultural festival. During Sukkot the people would live in booths made of palm branches to remember their temporary dwelling places after their liberation from Egypt. The people gathered at the Water Gate of Jerusalem. Ezra opened the book and the people stood up. He blessed the Lord and they responded, “Amen! Amen!” and raised their hands (It must have been a charismatic church!). Then, Ezra began reading from the Torah. The people bowed their heads and worshipped. The Levites present interpreted the meaning of the law, like preachers interpret meaning of the biblical text so people today can understand it.

Now, when we read scripture it usually takes a minute or two at most. Ezra came to a specially constructed wooden pulpit and read from the Torah from early morning to midday. Even for such a long period, the people remained attentive.  And when the people heard the words of the law they wept. Not because Ezra read scripture and interpreted it for around 5-6 hours!  Neither did they weep because they had to stand the whole time. The people of Judah wept because they understood the Law and realized they had neglected it. To realize they had neglected the law cut to their heart and caused them to weep. The next day their leaders came together to study the words of the law. They discovered the feast of booths and set out to practice it.

They had left aside their sacred texts and ritual celebrations that formed them as a people. That’s something worth crying about! Similarly, two centuries earlier King Josiah read from the book of the law that the priest Hilkiah had discovered in the house of the Lord. Again, they discovered that they had neglected the law and had not celebrated the Passover, which they reinstated into practice. In both these cases from the times of Ezra and King Josiah we see how the Word and worship were tied together.

Word and worship also come together in the story of the two disciples who encounter Jesus while walking on the Emmaus road. It is a story reflecting Bread and Bible, Communion and Scripture in worship. New Testament scholars have noted how Luke’s story of the Emmaus Road is more than a simple historical account of two disciples’ post-resurrection encounter with the risen Christ. The story is shaped by Luke to reflect two arenas in the early church’s worship life where they encountered the risen Christ: in Bread and Bible or Communion and Scripture.  

Two disciples, one identified as Cleopas, met Jesus incognito on the road to Emmaus. Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  When are our eyes kept from recognizing the risen Christ in our midst when we go about our life journeys or worship together? They talked with the stranger about what happened to Jesus, how he was a prophet who was condemned to be crucified. And they had expected him to be the one to redeem Israel. They told the stranger that a group of women went to Jesus’ tomb, saw the body was missing, and had a vision of angels.  And besides….. (a dramatic pause should be inserted here)….besides, it is now the third day since these things took place! The third day, the day of Christ’s resurrection, Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day when the church gathers for worship. Symbolically, the two disciples are the church retelling the Jesus story.  Isn’t this a significant part of what the church does at worship….retell the story of Jesus?  And notice Jesus’ response….how foolish not to see all of this within the Hebrew Scriptures. And beginning with Moses and the prophets, Jesus interpreted how he is related to the Torah and the Prophets. Isn’t this a symbol of the church at worship proclaiming and interpreting the Scriptures? And didn’t the two disciples say later, when their eyes were opened to the presence of Christ, “Were not our hearts burning within us…while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Here is a symbol of the church encountering the living Christ in the reading and proclamation of the Word. The scriptures were not dead history or dry recitation to the early church, but rather a living testimony to the risen Christ that burned in their hearts.

The sun began to set behind the purple hills. The two disciples invite Jesus to their home, the place where the early church would first meet for worship. Together they sat at table. Is this a common meal? Who is the host of their table? You would think it was Cleopas or his friend. No. Jesus is the host at this table, as he is at the church’s communion table. Note Luke’s wording of Jesus actions at the table meal. It sounds like a liturgical script. He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Isn’t this the same wording used of Jesus’ Last Supper and in Paul’s description of the early church’s communion (1 Corinthians 11)? And when the bread was broken and shared….their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Isn’t this a description of the early church’s recognition of Jesus’ presence at Communion? Bread and Bible, Communion and Scripture, the primary places the church encounters the living Christ in worship.

Scripture-shaped worship can enhance the potential for encountering God and Christ in worship.  Since scripture is a medium for encountering God, shaping our liturgy around the scripture is essential for worship.  Let’s survey some ways in which we can shape our worship through Scripture.

·        The Christian year and the Lectionary cycle. I grew up in a church tradition that did not celebrate the entire Christian year or utilize a lectionary of scripture readings in its worship planning. We celebrated Easter and Christmas, as did the society around us, and the preacher chose his own favorite texts throughout the year.

Over my years as a pastor I have come to truly appreciate the Christian Year that begins with Advent and culminates with the season after Pentecost and the Reign of Christ Sunday. It serves not only as an alternative to the secular calendar, but is a profound practice for shaping the worship life of a congregation.  The Christian Year sets our lives within liturgical time, the seasons of the life of Christ.

I didn’t notice how much the Christian Year had shaped my life until I was no longer in a pastorate.  Working for our denomination for 7 years I travelled a lot and missed out on participating in the liturgical cycle of the Christian Year.  There were times when I would come upon Easter and feel unprepared or Pentecost would come and go and I had done nothing to celebrate it. And I felt a bit disoriented, out of time, off beat, missing an important rhythm of my life. The Christian Year is one way we can shape our lives around scripture within worship.

The Christian Year fits into the wider framework of a three year liturgical cycle of scripture readings, known as the lectionary.  Years A, B, and C include readings from the four gospels, the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the Epistles.  By following the three year cycle and reading each of the assigned scripture texts a congregation will have heard a good portion of the Bible.  Relying on the preacher’s arbitrary choice of favorite texts is far less helpful than following the lectionary as a practice that covers a wide range of scripture. The lectionary is a significant liturgical tool for shaping the church’s worship life around scripture.

·        The Liturgy. Scripture can be used in the diverse elements of worship; prayer, praise, preaching, and blessing. Appropriate biblical texts can be used to call the people to worship, introduce the offering, or as a benediction.  The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you. The various elements of the Sunday order of worship itself can be shaped by scriptural language. As we share these first fruits of our offerings, Lord, we seek to be cheerful givers. Prayers can reflect biblical language or allude to specific scriptures. 

In a post-Christian culture that is becoming more and more biblically illiterate, the need to share in the stories, language, and images of the Bible becomes even greater. An important part of being a Christian is to know and understand the language of our Christian faith, which is drawn from the Bible. The world around us speaks a different language. We spend most of our time bombarded in the magazines, on TV, on the internet by the world’s language of success, power, happiness, self-help, individual rights, cyberspace, networking, and bootstrap philosophy. If the church doesn’t practice speaking its own language, it can lose or fail to understand its rhetoric of creation, redemption, sin, salvation, forgiveness, reconciliation, faith, the body of Christ, and judgment. The church needs to immerse itself in its own language not only to understand its own faith, but to understand the world around it.

There is a real sense in which if the church loses its language to some degree it loses its faith. I say this knowing that we can to some extent translate Christian language into the language of the world and knowing that translation of biblical and Christian language is an important task of the church, particularly in mission and evangelism. And yet, understanding the language of our faith from scripture is key to shaping our identity within the world. The liturgy of worship is one place where we can hear, learn, speak, and practice our own language; the language of scripture.

·       Scripture reading.  It made me sigh when I recently read this statement: More time is spent in most congregational worship services making announcements than in reading scripture. What does that say about the role of scripture in worship? I’m afraid that within the Free Church or non-liturgical traditions scripture reading has not played a significant role in the church’s worship life. In the congregation I grew up in, I don’t remember scripture ever being read aloud in the service. Oh, there were references and allusions to scripture throughout the service and occasionally read during the sermon, but the public reading of scripture on its own was not a part of our worship practices. Was the public reading of scripture part of your church background?

Scripture reading is a most important liturgical practice. 1 Timothy advises: Until I come devote yourself to the public reading of scripture. The early church did not have printed Bibles or personal scrolls to read in private. Christianity emerged in an oral culture. Sacred stories, texts and traditions were passed down orally. Most Christians were illiterate. What we have as books and epistles of the Bible were read aloud in the house churches by the few literate members. Reading sacred texts in worship gatherings was a most significant practice in forming the church’s identity within the world.

The public reading of scripture is a sacred task to be soaked in prayer and practice. Remember, this is a major channel through which the church encounters God; public reading of scripture in worship.

·        Proclamation of the Word. Preaching is an essential practice of the church’s worship life, particularly among Protestants and Mennonites. I am convinced that since preaching is a ministry of the church and not just the pastor, preaching needs to become more of a communal and conversational practice.

Preaching occupies a central place in our worship services. There are different and legitimate approaches to preaching; topical, pastoral, doctrinal, ethical, and biblical. I want to focus on biblical preaching, since it clearly reflects one of the different roles of Scripture in worship.

Biblical preaching takes the ancient Word and makes it the modern Word. It translates then to now with a focus upon applying God’s Word to our own context today.  When Ezra read for 5 or 6 hours from the Torah, there was interpretation. They explained the meaning of the words that were read from the Torah “so that the people understood the reading.” Preaching is an act of interpretation, so that we can understand the meaning of our sacred texts.  When the people of Judah heard the words and their interpretation, “all the people wept.” There was an inner experience, a touching of the heart, and encounter with God through the written Word.  Preaching strives to become that kind of channel through which the people hear the voice of God speaking to them, they encounter the Spirit of the risen Christ, and their hearts are touched.

Shaping our worship through scripture is not an end in itself. We don’t do it simply so we   can say “we are a people of the Bible.” Rather, we shape worship by scripture because scripture is a primary means of God’s self-revelation to us.  When Ezra read the Torah and the people wept, they were encountering God. When the two disciples on the road to Emmaus had the Scriptures opened to them and their hearts burned within them, they encountered the risen Christ. We seek to shape our worship through Scripture because it is a most significant means for encountering God.

And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen.”

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Wasteful Sower: Mark 4:1-9

*This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 21, 2014 at a retreat for Salem and Albany Mennonite Churches at Drift Creek Camp
The Parable of the Sower brings to mind the musical Godspell, a frolicking, hippie version of Matthew's gospel. When I was in seminary a group of us students and church members put on the play at a coffee house Iris and I started in San Francisco back in the '70's.  Dressed up like clowns we acted out, or should I say ad libbed, the parts of the different seeds in the parable of sower. The seed that fell along the pathway was eaten up by a bunch of clucking and arm flapping chickens. The seed that fell on the rocky soil leaped up to life with a smile, but then going limp she withered and dropped to the floor from the sun's heat. The seed that fell among the thorns was grabbed by the neck and choked by a devilish character with a lot of overacting. The seed that fell on good soil bounced up, flexed her muscles, and beamed with joy at the applause of everyone. In this goofy version of the parable the focus was upon the obviously different responses of the seeds.

There are different angles from which to view the parable of the sower. Like a camera scanning the parable, we can zoom in close on the seeds lying scattered on the ground. We can pull back our shot and capture a view of the different types of soil. Or with time-lapsed photography we could watch the different reactions of the seeds. If we were to focus our lens on the different kinds of soil, which is the way Mark's gospel interprets the parable, we might think this parable is about us. As the parable unfolds we might begin to ask ourselves: What kind of soil am I? Am I rocky ground? Do I need to smooth out some rough places in my character? What are the weeds in my life? What chokes the life out of me? Am I a shallow person? Do I get all worked up and enthusiastic only to give up when the thrill is gone or things get tough? How can I be weedless, fertile soil? If we focus on the different kinds of soil, we probably end up either feeling guilty or determined to see how we can beat the three-to-one odds of being poor soil for God's word. By focusing on the soils we may find ourselves working hard to shape up our lives, so we can be a fertile field for God.

But, what if the parable of the sower isn't about us at all? What if this parable was not about our own personal successes and failures, our flaws of character, or about birds and rocks and thorns? What if, instead of focusing upon the soil, we zoomed in on the sower? What if, by chance, it is a parable about a sower? It is called the parable of the sower, isn't it? The parable would look a bit different from how we have traditionally viewed it. If the sower is the main character of the parable, what might it say about life and God?

One thing we would immediately notice is the sower flings his seed around rather wastefully. It falls on good and bad soil alike. According to the ancient practice of the peasant farmer, the sower's method is not so unusual. Most often seed was first scattered, then it was plowed under. It seems wasteful of the sower to scatter the seeds willy nilly across the land so it falls along the road, on rocky ground, among the weeds and thorns, as well as on the fertile soil. What might seem wasteful to us was the typical method of sowing for the peasant farmer, who scratched out a living from the dry, rocky Palestinian soil. In order to produce a harvest a lot of seed had to be recklessly, or should I say, graciously wasted. In the parable it appears as if 75% of the seed was wasted in order to produce an adequate harvest. In that case, the odds of failure with that kind of sowing are three-to-one. There should have been a more efficient and productive way of sowing, don't you think?

If I were sowing the seeds, I would want greater odds of success. I would want to make sure the seed landed on fertile soil. This wasteful scattering of seeds hither and thither would have to stop.  With this kind of wasteful sowing the odds of crop failure would be far greater than a fruitful harvest. In my estimation this is bad farming. Don't we all want to be thrifty and productive? We have all been told as children, "Don't be wasteful." Our bosses have encouraged us to be efficient. Those in business try to concentrate their efforts on what is most productive. Don't we all want to decrease the odds of failure in whatever we do? This is not only sound business advice, but good policy for living. Isn't it?

This is the kind of business advice churches are being given from the marketing world. If you want to be a growing, productive church, then being efficient, concentrating on what is productive, and decreasing the odds of failure will keep the church from being wasteful of God's resources. And how does the church increase its growth and productivity? First, by being "market-driven" rather than "product-driven." That is, our focus should be on the needs of the customers, more than upon the product we offer. The soil takes priority over the seed. Second, marketing techniques can help the church be more efficient and productive. Don't spend a lot of time and energy on ministries or activities that do not produce. Increase your odds of success through efficient marketing techniques. One of those marketing techniques is to focus your outreach on a target group, a certain kind of people, who will be more likely to join your church.

One proponent of such methods of church growth reads the parables as marketing strategies and tactics. He sees the parable of the sower as portraying a marketing process "in which there are hot prospects and not-so-hot prospects." In other words, there are certain kinds of people your church should target for the best results. Plant your seeds only in the most productive soil. Finally, according to the market-driven approach to church growth, success is measured primarily in numerical growth. A hundredfold harvest is better than a thirtyfold harvest. There you have it all. No wastefulness, greater efficiency, concentration on what is productive, and increasing the odds of success. The problem is we end up with a racially, socially, and economically homogeneous church which is conformed to the world and more concerned about growth than faithfulness. Contrary to what Henry Ford once said, what is good for business is not always good for religion. Success may not be the name of the church's game.

Come to think about it, in real life it seems like there are more failures than successes, more waste than growth. Doesn't life reflect the odds of this parable? The odds are against us. Odds are against all those people who grew up in angry, abusive, distant, or neglectful families that they will avoid bringing those issues into their new relationships. Why waste energy and invest time on people with a lot of personal problems? There are some people out there who are just not worth our efforts. Haven't you heard we shouldn't cast our pearls before swine? How many people have you seen who really changed their lives in a positive way from something you said or did compared to those who went on producing the same old negative garbage from their lives? Don't waste good seed on unproductive soil.

There is more unproductive soil than productive and a lot of good seed gets wasted, even in our own lives. We all throw away more time than we spend on nourishing personal growth. We waste more energy on trivial pursuits than on productive, meaningful activities.  There is a lot of unproductive ground in our lives.  Someone right now is probably thinking, "Yeah, you're right. A lot of my life seems to have been wasted. After all these years, what have I really accomplished?" Another listener could be thinking, "I know what you mean. I've been a Christian for a number of years, but my life is still rocky and full of weeds." What a waste!

Consider our society. It is bad soil which produces more problems than solutions. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, consumerism, and violence choke the life out of our communities. These are perennial problems that never seem to go away. It's a waste trying to produce good fruit from the bad soil of our society. So, why waste good seed on unproductive soil? This seems to be the way life is. More seeds land on rocky, thorny, weed-infested soil than on fertile ground. The odds are against us.  So, why waste good seeds by tossing them to the wind?

Waste seems to be sewn into the fabric of life from the wide expanse of the universe to the tiniest of seeds. Just look out in space through the lens of the Hubble telescope. There appears to be a lot of waste. The universe is filled with billions upon billions of stars, but there’s only one we know of which is suitable for human life. Looks like an awful waste of space to me! Or bend down and pick a dandelion puff. It is filled with hundreds of seeds with perfect little parachutes designed within them that take the seeds on streams of wind to reproduce their kind. And yet, only a few seeds perchance find soil to grow. Seems like such an amazing design to waste so much seed. Whoever created this universe should have been more efficient when flinging the stars. And a designer that uses the wind and chance to reproduce a plant seems wasteful, doesn’t it! It often appears that it takes a lot of wasted seed in order to be productive.

If we focus on the seed or the soil in Jesus’ parable things do look pretty grim. Productivity has a slim chance. The odds seem to be against us. But, before things start to look too hopeless, let's turn our lens back on the sower in our parable. The sower pays little attention to the condition of soil, or the pathway with human footprints. He seems to ignore the weeds, the thorns, and the hungry birds. He doesn’t seem to be worrying about the odds of success or failure. The sower tosses the seeds everywhere on good soil and bad soil alike. He appears to be oblivious to the types of soil on which the seeds land. And the sower isn't stingy with the seed. With wild abandon he throws handfuls of seed across the field like stars flung across the sky. To us the sower appears to be recklessly inefficient and extravagantly wasteful.

Well folks, God is the sower. God is reckless with goodness and wondrously wasteful with grace. God tosses the life giving Word upon the fields of our lives, landing on saint and sinner alike. God sends the rain on the just and unjust alike. God wildly sows the seeds of the kingdom without an eye to the nature of the soil. God is recklessly, extravagantly, graciously wasteful with good news, scattering it upon productive and unproductive soil. And odds are God can turn the odds around. God isn't worried about success or failure. God sows the seeds knowing that even though the patches of good earth may be small the harvest will be plentiful. The sowing will bear fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold!

Once upon a time a certain farmer went out into his field to sow seeds. A servant had previously plowed neat rows in which to plant the seeds. As he tossed the seeds into the furrows, some of the seeds fell outside the lines. This didn't seem to bother the farmer. As a matter of fact, the farmer rather enjoyed throwing the seeds willy nilly across the straight furrows. The farmer got so caught up in the sheer joy of tossing the seeds hither and yon he hadn't noticed that he had walked right off the boundaries of the field. The farmer walked out onto the roadway leading to the city, grabbing handfuls of seeds from his burlap sack, flinging them here and there and everywhere, laughing as he walked along. Some of the seeds landed on the asphalt and were run over by passing cars or were eaten by crows. Other seeds fell among the weeds or onto the chip bags, cans, and other garbage strewn along the roadside. But, the farmer paid no mind to where the seeds landed. He just kept on tossing his seeds across the wide landscape.

Even when the farmer entered the city streets, it didn't stop him from sowing his seeds. Cars late for work would honk at him. Drivers with their ear to cell phones would yell out their windows, "Get outta the street you crazy old farmer!" But, the farmer kept on gleefully sowing his seeds. Some seeds fell on the drug dealers on the corner and they tried to smoke them. Others fell on the steps of the church and the minister came out and swept them off. A few seeds fell on a homeless man sleeping on a park bench and he picked them off his worn clothes and ate them for lunch. Still other seeds fell between the thin cracks in the sidewalk and they sprouted into flowers. Others fell in a community garden and sprang up a hundredfold. The farmer sowed his seeds wherever his feet took him until the sun finally set behind the rolling hills. Throughout the season the farmer's bag was never empty of seeds right up until the time of the harvest. Whoever has two ears on their head, listen to this parable.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On the Inspiration and Authority of the Bible: 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Luke 20:1-7

*This sermon was delivered at Albany Mennonite Church, September 14, 2014

When I say the word “authority,” what images come to mind? A cop with a night stick? A judge with a gavel? A teacher with a ruler? For many people authority means “authoritarian,” ruling with an iron fist. Authority has gotten a bad rap. In our age and culture we no longer respect someone who simply asserts their authority. We have recently seen in the news the abuse of judicial, educational, police, and male authority from African-American men being killed by the police to abusive husbands violently asserting their will upon their wives.

The same could be said of the term “authority” when used in reference to the Bible. It has gotten a bad name. We have seen the “authority” of the Bible used to justify slavery, submission of women, homophobia, violence, and war. NT scholar William Countryman calls this abuse of scriptural authority “biblical tyranny.” In such a context, is there any sense in which we can still speak of the “authority” of the Bible?
Some would say that the Bible is authoritative because it is inspired. The Bible is authoritative because its words are inspired by the Supreme authority of the universe, God. This view comes from a particular, or should I say “peculiar,” reading of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. The biblical text begins: All scripture is inspired by God. There it is in black and white. Every single scripture comes directly from God, as some might say. This text is the centerpiece of the doctrine known as “biblical inerrancy.” This teaching proposes that the Bible is infallible and without error because it is literally the words of God. And since God does not make errors, neither does the Bible. But, to use this text from Timothy to prove the Bible contains the infallible words of God raises numerous questions.

Let’s take a closer look at this brief text. First, focus your mental lens on the words “all scripture.” What is the scripture to which the author of Second Timothy is referring? Does it refer to our modern Protestant Bible with its 66 books divided into Old and New Testaments? Well, then what about the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon of scripture? They include the books of the Apocrypha. Are Sirach and Bel and the Dragon also the very words of God?
The fact is, our contemporary Bible didn’t exist at the time of the writing of this pastoral letter in the 1st century. The full canon of the Bible was not officially finalized until the 4th century or some would even say the 16th century. So, what books are included in “all scripture”? We know that the New Testament was not yet complete at the time 2 Timothy was written and at that time it was simply a letter, not scripture. Is 2 Timothy itself therefore excluded from “all scripture is inspired”?

The reference “all scripture” is no clearer even if it only includes the Hebrew Scriptures. Does “all scripture” mean the Torah, the Five Books of Moses?  Or is it the Tanakh, which includes the psalms, prophets and wisdom literature? Could Timothy be referring to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used by early Gentile Christians, which is somewhat different from the Tanakh? The Hebrew Bible canon was probably not fixed until the 2nd century or much later. So then, what is “all scripture”? It would seem to be important to know exactly which scriptures were included and which were excluded if inspiration only applies to particular books.
Before it gets too complicated, maybe it’s time to turn to the word “inspired.” But, understanding what we mean by “inspiration” becomes just as complicated an issue as figuring out what “all scripture” means! Does inspiration refer to the Spirit’s influence on the writer, the product of that influence, that is, the book itself, or the reader and their reading of the scripture? What inspiration exactly means in 2 Timothy is not clear upon first reading.

What is the breadth of inspiration? Is it only about the final product of the written text? Modern biblical scholarship recognizes that stories and sayings of the Bible first circulated as oral tradition. Did God inspire and safeguard his words in this process of oral transmission? It may be new to many of us, but for over 150 years it has been recognized that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are similar (synoptic=see alike) and quite different from John. Matthew and Luke are dependent upon Mark, the earliest gospel, and also rely upon another source identified as Q (Quelle=source). If this is true, then the question is: Was this process of selecting, editing, and shaping these sources for their own audiences also inspired and safeguarded by God?

And in the end, wouldn’t it also be necessary to speak of the inspiration of the people involved and the long, contested process of collecting and canonizing the books finally considered scripture? Or how about the process of painstakingly hand copying the early manuscripts of the Bible, as well as the process of translating them into modern languages? Then, which interpretation of these texts should be considered inspired, because having inspired words without a particular meaning is pointless? And finally, we don’t approach interpretation with a blank slate. Every interpretation is couched in some church tradition or theology. Is this also an element to consider when searching for the meaning of the Bible as inspired? These are all questions I think one must seriously ponder as they consider what 2 Timothy means by saying that all scripture is inspired.

For many fundamentalists and some evangelicals inspiration means God dictated his very words to the writers, overriding their human inadequacies and cultural limitations.  For them God’s error-free words are in the original manuscripts of the Bible. The claim of inerrancy for the original manuscripts is problematic in that we have no original manuscripts of the Bible, only copies. Realizing that there are some errors present in the manuscripts we do have, some other Christians have proposed a modified form of inspiration that claims that there are no errors of substance or no errors of doctrine or no errors related to our salvation. 
Still other Christians understand inspiration to mean God inspired the ideas or theology of the Bible, while it is historically and culturally conditioned.  Others would say that the broad salvation history of the Bible is what is inspired. There are even those who would say the Bible is inspired in the same way all great literature is inspired. Some would go so far as to say that parts of the Bible are inspired by God, while other parts are not. Figuring out just how inspiration operates with the Bible is a difficult issue.

So, rather than trying to figure out how inspiration works, it might be helpful to look at the meaning of the word “inspiration.” In Greek the word is theopneustos, a combination of God and spirit or breath. It literally means “God-breathed.” Where do we find the image of God’s breath? Two prominent places are the creation of Adam and Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones. In Genesis God breathed into Adam and he became a living being. God gives life to humans. In Ezekiel’s vision God breathed life on a valley of bones, representing the gift of new life for the despondent and dying people of Israel. God breathes life on the dead.
In light of this meaning, let me suggest that rather than trying to figure out just how inspiration worked between God and the original writers, let us focus more on the impact of scripture as being God-breathed, that is, as God’s life-giving and life-renewing Word to God’s people. In this sense, those texts we recognize as bearing God’s Word to us, are those we consider scripture, as “inspired.” It is through the sacred texts of the church that God breathes life into and renews the people of God. It is the same breath that God breathed upon the original writers. Exactly how God was involved in the original writing is not fully clear.

But, what it means for us is much clearer. Through the words of scripture God breathes life upon those who inhale the Word of God. Scripture gives life to the Christian community. They fire our imaginations and inspire us to boldly follow Jesus in our world. Through scripture God breathes new life upon the dry bones of God’s people.
We can better see the inspiration of scripture in its function or its use. As your pastor Meghan has said "Scripture is known, by its own account, not so much by what it is as by what it does. We trust it first not because we've untangled its essense but because we've encountered its accomplishments." That is the point of the conclusion of our text. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. Scripture is a companion for learning how to live a godly life. It shapes the believing community through teaching, correction, training for righteous living, so that the church may be prepared to live ethically, justly, and to do good works of kindness and compassion. Understood as how the Bible functions, inspiration has to do with God breathing resurrection life upon God’s people through these sacred texts.

If you thought the idea of inspiration of scripture was problematic, so is the idea of biblical authority. For some Christians the Bible carries an unquestioned, absolute, final authority. Recently I was approaching Albany in my car when I spotted a billboard that advertised this view of the Bible. It read: The Holy Bible, inspired, absolute, final. Those who produced the billboard further commented on this sign on their website:

This book reveals the mind of God…Its doctrines are holy, its precepts are binding, its histories are true, and its decisions are immutable.

In this view “authority” is similar to “authoritarian.” The Bible has a coercive authority and is to be obeyed without question. It is to be believed and obeyed absolutely in everything it says. We see evidence of this perspective of biblical authority in the daily news: Creation scientist claims the earth is 6,000 years old/ Conservative conference refuses to ordain women as pastors/ Spiritual advisor to this political party believes that everything in our society---the government, the judiciary, the economy, the family---should be governed by the Bible.
Daily we see the Bible being used and abused as the infallible, absolute, final authority. And some of the things that the Bible supposedly “authorizes” some Christians to do, like protest at funerals, practice racism, and spout homophobic nonsense, is not an authority I want to obey!

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 60’s. Our generation’s motto was “Question authority!” But today, questioning authority is not just a part of the younger generation. It’s part of our culture. Recognition of the authority of parents, teachers, police, politicians, Supreme Court judges is no longer assumed, even though that authority may be forced upon people. In the same way, people will not recognize the authority of the Bible simply by declaring it to be so, even when it is announced in big, bold letters on a public billboard!  To recognize something as authoritative requires a certain kind of respect for the author behind the authority.

The Bible is not an authority in and of itself. Its authority is derivative or secondary. The Bible does not bear the same authority as God. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright puts it this way: “The authority of scripture is shorthand for God’s authority exercised through scripture.” God is the ultimate authority. God transcends the Bible. God is not limited to the story of God. The Bible testifies to the God who is beyond the Bible. Theologian Karl Barth once remarked about this view of the Bible as a witness to God, "A real witness is not identical with that to which it witnesses, but it sets it before us." The scripture is not itself God, that would make it an idol, a golden calf. That’s bibliolatry. Rather, scripture witnesses to God through the limitations of human words and culture. And through scripture we recognize the authority of God.  

When Jesus taught in the temple, the chief priests and elders wanted to know by what authority he did these things. Was his authority from God? As was often the case with these religious leaders, they probably were trying to spring a trap for him. Rather than answer directly, Jesus sets his own trap with a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Snap! If they say John’s baptism is from heaven, then Jesus could say, “Then, why didn’t you believe him?” If they say his authority is of human origin, the people might stone them because they recognized God’s voice in John. So, the chief priests played it safe by saying “We do not know.” Jesus said, “Well then, I won’t tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

The chief priests did not recognize the authority of God in the words and acts of Jesus, nor in those of John the Baptist. Their words did not bear authority for the chief priests because their words were not recognized and accepted as being from God. In the same way, for the Bible to be authoritative, it is first required that it be recognized and accepted as God’s Word to us.

For Christians God’s Word and authority are ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The scriptures witness to Jesus the Christ and thus their authority is centered in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. We recognize in Jesus the authority of God. For this reason Christ becomes the standard of biblical authority.  All scripture does not bear equal authority for Christians. Christ is the plumb line for the authority of particular biblical texts.

The Bible is authoritative to those who hear the voice of God through these texts and recognize the authority of God in their lives. In other words, Christian scripture is authoritative for the church, those who recognize the authority of Jesus Christ.

The very act of calling the Bible “scripture” is to recognize it as authoritative for the church. In and of itself the Bible is simply religious literature. To call the Bible scripture is to recognize that it is more than classic literature. To call the Bible scripture is to recognize its authority, not simply as individuals, but as the church. The church recognizes the authority of scripture because we recognize the authority of God. This may sound strange, but hear me out: There is no biblical authority outside the believing community.

Within his tribe an African tribal chief is well respected and considered an absolute authority. His word is truth and is to be followed. His word can mean life or death, inclusion or exclusion from the community. Take him out of his tribe and place him smack dab in the middle of New York City and his authority means nothing.  What he says will have no weight with passersby on the street. His authority is defined and understood within the context of his community. So, in like manner, the authority of scripture is defined and understood within the context of the believing community. It holds no authority for those who have not heard the voice of God within the church’s book.
You can’t mean that, pastor! The authority of the Bible, because it is God’s authority, is over everyone, regardless of whether or not it is acknowledged. But, does that really make any sense in the real world? How can the Bible be an authority to someone who does not acknowledge it and live by it? If that were the case, it would be a coercive authority. As we see in Jesus encounter with those who questioned his authority, he did not force his authority upon them. They had to recognize it on their own.

I believe it is more helpful to understand the authority of scripture in functional terms, by what they do. Scripture is authoritative for the church because it functions to shape the life and identity of the church. The texts that we call “scripture” are authoritative because in them we hear God’s Word and find them useful for teaching and instruction in order to shape our identity into the likeness of Christ.
So, recognizing the inspiration of scripture is not simply a matter of knowing exactly how God and the writers collaborated in the writing of our sacred texts. It may be more helpful to consider inspiration in terms of the impact of our sacred texts being God-breathed, life-giving, life-renewing to God’s people. And maybe we should think of the authority of scripture not so much as commanding obedience because it contains the exact words of God. Scripture’s authority is in their being the essential texts that tell us who we are and shape us into God’s people for our day and time. Their authority is in being the essential writings through which we hear the voice of God and the Word made flesh in Jesus.

To recognize the inspiration and authority of scripture is not simply a matter of what we believe, but how we let scripture inspire us and shape our lives as a community of faith. So, read it, study it, memorize it, wrestle with it, question it, argue with it, but make sure to allow its life-giving, life-renewing words to transform you and make you into God’s people. Only then will we write a new chapter in God’s story in our day and time; a continuing story that was first written down long ago by those inspired by God.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Word of God: Written, Spoken, Cosmic, Inner, Incarnate: Acts 4:31; John 5:39-40; Psalm 19:1-4; 1 Cor. 2:9-16; Hebrews 1:1-3

I grew up in a southern fundamentalist church tradition that believed that the Bible is the very Word of Gaawd, in capital letters. That was understood to mean that the Bible, preferably in the King James version, came to us unencumbered by human error, dictated by God into the minds of those who first penned its words. The “Word of God” was shorthand for the Bible. This idea was made visible when the preacher held up his large floppy, leather-bound Bible and said, “The Word of God says...” And those of us who listened knew he meant we must believe every word jot and tittle.

But, this notion of the Bible being the Word of God is not exclusive to fundamentalists. In liberal, mainline liturgical traditions you will hear the Bible read on a Sunday morning followed by the congregation antiphonally responding with this traditional litany: This is the Word of the Lord/Thanks be to God. Admittedly, the texts that are read are from a three year lectionary cycle, which does a bit of censoring, or should I say “editing,” of some of the more problematic biblical texts. That part of Psalm 137 about dashing babies’ heads against the rocks doesn’t seem to “cut the mustard.” Ironically, the lectionary also excludes these words from Revelation: “if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life”? Holy Shibboleth, Batman! And an old voice echoes in my head, “You cain’t take anything away from the Word o’ Gaaawd!” But, is the Bible all we mean by the “Word of God”?
Understanding the meaning of the “Word of God” is key to placing the Bible in its broader context of God’s diverse and delightful forms of communication with humanity.

One of the primary forms by which God communicates with us is through the written Word. When we refer to the Bible as “the Word of God,” we mean something other than its words come directly from the mouth of God. The old self-assured saying, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” reflects this understanding of the Bible as the literal words of God. Everything in the Book, God said it. In this view the Word of God and the words of the Bible are equated.

Truthfully, the Word of God is a metaphor that refers to something much broader and deeper than the Bible. Like every statement about God the phrase, “Word of God,” is metaphorical and not literal language. As a metaphor, the “Word of God” has within it a creative tension by being both like and unlike that which it seeks to describe. God’s Word is both like and unlike human words. The metaphor “God’s Word” attempts to depict God’s communication with us as being like the way in which we communicate with one another. At the same time it is unlike human communication. Words are part of human speech that is created through our physicality; brain, breath, mouth, tongue, lips, and body. Words are audible. They are human creations used to communicate our inner thoughts with one another. Speech, voice, words, language are terms that represent this unique form of communication between humans. Words represent human interaction.
Since God is Spirit, metaphors like Word of God, God’s voice, God speaking, cannot be taken literally. God has no mouth or tongue with which to speak. God’s voice is not audible, though it may be depicted as such in scripture. And yet, we believe God communicates with humanity. The “Word of God” is a rich metaphor that points to the diverse forms of communication by which the unseen God reveals or communicates God’s self to us.

Scripture is one of those mediums of communication. God speaks through the scriptures. Again, this is a metaphor. As NT Scholar Marcus Borg says, “The Bible is the Word of God, not the words of God.” By that I think he means that the Bible is a conduit of God’s self-revelation, not the literal words of God. To understand the Bible as the literal Word of God is to destroy the metaphor and its creative tension between “like and unlike.” It also tends to destroy sound theology! The real danger with religious metaphors is to literalize them by forgetting the “unlike” part of the metaphor. This happens with such a metaphor as “God, our Father.” The very shock when hearing the metaphor “God, our Mother” indicates we have thought of “God, our Father” much too literally. Remember, God is not a male with a human body and…and…all those “things” that make a male and a father. God is like and unlike a human male and father. As well, God is like and unlike a human female and mother. The Bible as the Word of God is like and unlike the human Word.
To say that God speaks through scriptures means that God, the sacred Mystery of Being, communicates to us through the broken and beautiful stories, parables, texts, images and words in that collection of books we call “the Bible.” The Word of God rides upon the frail human words of the biblical texts. The divine Word is within and yet distinct from the human words. It is a transcendent Word alongside, beneath, and emerging through our common words. A Word different from and yet like our words.

In one sense, we might understand the Bible as Roman Catholics understand the sacraments. A sacrament is a symbol or ritual which mediates the divine presence to us. As a sacrament the holy Eucharist mediates the grace of God. Sacraments are not in and of themselves that grace, but its channel. Understood sacramentally, the Bible mediates to us the Word of God. Through partaking of the scriptures we receive the grace-full Word of God. Or we might think of the Bible as the finger in the story of Buddha pointing to the moon. The Buddha wanted his disciples to see the moon, not his finger. In the same way, the Buddha’s teachings pointed to the truth, but were not to be equated with it. So, the Bible is the finger that points to God. As the Word of God the Bible becomes a channel of God’s voice.
An elderly woman sits in her rocking chair wearing her blue apron. As she knits she looks out the window as the morning sun shines off the hood of the old Chevy her late husband used to work on, then stares off in space. He’s been gone only four months. The pain of her loss is palpable. She misses him fiercely and wishes she could join him. Family and friends come by less often. Her days are spent alone, lost in memories. How she longs to hear his voice, to be reassured by his presence. Depression often sets in like a cold morning fog. She picks up her husband’s worn leather Bible. It falls open to a passage he had underlined. Behold, I am with you always, even unto the end of the earth. The human words become a divine Word, a finger pointing to a deeper truth. An inner sun breaks through the fog in her heart.

Another form through which God communicates to us is the spoken Word. Before the Word was written, it was spoken. The written word of the Bible was produced within oral cultures. The greater majority of the populations within these biblical cultures were illiterate. Writing and reading were the privilege of a few of the upper class. The primary means of communication of the general population was by word of mouth. Even the written words of the Old Testament and Gospels were first circulated as oral tradition.
So, the Word of God, that is God’s self-revelation, came first through the spoken word. God speaks through the human voice.  The Bible itself witnesses to us that God’s Word came though the voices and words of prophets, sages, teachers, preachers, evangelists, and believers moved by the Holy Spirit. A familiar formula pronounced by the prophets was, “Thus says the Lord.” They spoke as if a mouthpiece of God. Through the human words of these messengers God’s voice was heard, while remaining human words.

Did not the prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr. sound like the voice of God for our day and time? In the midst of Jim Crow segregation and rampant racism he spoke a word that cut like a two edged sword to the heart and soul of our society. In King’s I Have a Dream speech he quotes the very words of the prophet Isaiah:  one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. He intoned the hopes of an oppressed people longing for the day when the crooked road of racism would be straightened; the rough places of discrimination would be made smooth. A word from another time and context and from another human voice became the Word of God for us, here and now. Was it not God who was calling our nation to equality for all through Martin’s voice?
On a more common level, on a weekly basis preachers dare to take on the role of allowing their words to become the vehicle by which God communicates to the people. Their words may not have the power or tone of a Martin King, but they seek to speak the Word of God for our time and place. And preachers are not the only voices God uses to speak the Word. God can speak through  our own common voices as we each proclaim the good news of Christ, liberty to the captive, call for justice and equity, comfort the bereaved, teach the faithful, or share our faith. God’s voice rides upon our words.

Harold hadn’t been to church since he was a kid. After he left home for college, church was the last thing on his mind. He got married, settled into a small home in the suburbs with his new bride, and they had their first child, a son. When their son was about a year old they started thinking about his moral instruction.  Harold’s own childhood in the church came flooding back to him; weekly worship, Sunday School, church camps, Vacation Bible School. He remembered it as a good childhood experience. The orange and brown leaves were falling on the driveway as he pulled out to go to the local church that Sunday with his wife and son. After so many years away, Harold didn’t know what to expect.
They were warmly greeted by members as they were ushered to a pew. He fumbled with the bulletin and rubbed his son’s head as he lay on his lap. Some of the hymns were familiar from his youthful days. The robed preacher made his way to the pulpit for the sermon. He opened his Bible and stood there silent for a moment. For Harold it seemed an eternity. When the preacher spoke there was something about his voice, his tone, or was it his words that seemed to penetrate deep inside Harold? And when the preacher invited the listeners to renew their faith in God, Harold knew someone else was speaking through the preacher’s words. God speaks through the human voice.

God also communicates to us through the cosmic Word. No, I’m not talking about some hippie-dippie, New Age cosmic consciousness, man. Cosmic is that which pertains to the cosmos, the Greek word for world. We have all experienced the wonder and majesty of creation. The sunset paints the sky with a palette that pales Picasso. A lonely wolf cries on a moonlit desert night that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. A waterfall sprays the rock mountain like a white bridal veil at spring’s wedding. Bluebonnets babble on the hills as if bragging of their beauty. The scent of pine in the air makes you drunk on nature. The glimmering stars spangle the heavens with the jewelry of angels.

But, nature has no voice, or does it? The written Word has no tongue or mouth, but its voice can be heard in reading. Can we read nature? Some would say creation can be read and that it even has its own voice. The psalmist (19:1-3) believed that creation has a voice and words which witness to the glory of God:
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes through all the earth, and their words to the end of the cosmos or world.

The psalmist goes on to talk about the law, or Torah, the central scriptures of the Hebrew people. Creation and scripture are voices through which God speaks.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed the language of creation as God’s revelation in his poem God’s Grandeur. Creation is like an electrical current that flashes forth the power of God.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out like shining from shook foil.

And in spite of human trampling and the stain of toil and trade, God, like a mother hen, incubates the world with the promise of rebirth.
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs---
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods
With warm breath and ah! Bright wings.

But, it doesn’t take a poet to recognize that God speaks through creation. In theology it is referred to as natural revelation. It is the common and natural revealing of God in all that surrounds us. In liturgy we sing it, as in one of our hymns: This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ear, All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.
Then again, God communicates to us an inner Word.  As one who grew out of a context where the Bible was understood to be the very Word of God, I was delighted when I came upon this quote from Anabaptist Hans Denck: 

I value the Scriptures above all human treasures, but not as highly as the Word of God which is alive, strong (Heb. 4:12), eternal, and free. The Word of God is free from the elements of the world. It is God himself. It is Spirit and not letter, written with pen and paper, so that it can never be erased.
Denck makes a clear distinction between the scriptures and the Word of God. Scripture is written with pen and paper. The Word of God is free of those material elements. For Denck, and other spiritualist Anabaptists, the Word of God was both an inner Word and an outer Word. But, the scriptures were considered secondary to the inner Word, the living and active Word, the Word of the Spirit, the voice of God within.

Another Anabaptist in Bavaria wrote:

The Scriptures are merely the witness of the inner Word of God. A man can well be saved without the preaching or the reading of the Scriptures. (Otherwise, what should happen with those who are deaf or cannot read?) We understand God our Redeemer, not through the lifeless letter, but through the indwelling of Christ.
The Word of scripture is inanimate until it is given life through the voice of the Spirit within. God must speak to the heart for the Word to be a living Word. God speaks to the heart.

In the end, the ultimate Word of God is Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. The prologue of John’s gospel begins:

In the beginning was the Word (logos). And the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word became flesh (incarnate) and dwelled among us.

The language, speech, voice, word, God’s self-communication became human in the person of Yeshua ben Yoseph, Jesus of Nazareth. For the Christian the Word of God proclaimed in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is unparalleled. It is a Word that is clearer and more central to hearing God than the Bible, human speech, creation, and the inner voice. Christ is the measuring rod for the truthfulness and authenticity of the Word that comes through all of these channels. Jesus is the lens through which we read and understand the Bible. We do not preach our own wisdom, but proclaim with our voices the living and liberating Christ. Creation is subservient to the cosmic Christ, The Word through whom all things were made. The inner voice is judged by the Spirit of Christ. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word of God to humanity.
As the author of Hebrews puts it:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways…but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…
Conclusion- So, the Word of God is not to be equated with the Bible. It is much broader than that. God communicates to us through the Bible, but also through the human voice, creation, the inner Word, and most essentially and definitively through Jesus Christ. That is not to say some of these channels of God’s self-communication are totally flawless and unobstructed. The Bible has its errors in transmission and ethically problematic texts. The human tongue is tangled and tainted and cannot be equated with God. Creation brings death and destruction as well as beauty and wonder. The inner voice can be self-centered or silent. Jesus Christ was a 1st century Mediterranean Jew separated from us by time, culture, religion, and worldview. Through the racket of human ego and error, class and culture, time and distance, it’s any wonder that we can hear God’s voice at all. And yet….

The trademark image of RCA Victor Records is of a dog sitting near a gramophone record player with his ear cocked to the side as if listening carefully. It was taken from a painting by English artist Francis Barraud. The fox terrier in the painting, named Nipper, was originally owned by the artist’s brother Mark. Mark died and his brother Frank inherited the dog, along with a belled phonograph and some recordings of Mark’s voice. When Frank would play the recordings of his brother’s voice, Nipper would come close, listen carefully, and recognize his master’s voice. Frank put the image to canvas, which eventually became RCA’s logo with the title His Master’s Voice.
God speaks to us across the pops and hisses, the warp and wobble, the distance and distractions that might distort or drown out the divine voice. And yet…. through written Bible, spoken language, wondrous creation, inner voice, and  most definitively through the earthly life of Jesus the Christ, the Master’s voice can still be heard.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.