March 29, 2009
Grace Episcopal Church, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Reverend Lois Keen
Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Rob Bell is the 38-year-old evangelical pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. When he starts to preach during Sunday worship, he prepares the congregation by announcing that he will be teaching – notice, please, teaching, not preaching – for 80 minutes. (The Christian Century, March 24, 2009) So, what do you think? Will that fly here – give me 80 minutes every Sunday so I can really teach Bible instead of trying to jam a little bit of inspiration into 10 to 15 minutes? Will you go for it?
[LOL of course]
Of course if I could have that time, I’d be able to tell you what that strange little piece in the epistle means, about being a priest after the order of Melchizedek. And I’d be able to unpack the part in the gospel – the rather harsh part – about hating your life so you won’t lose eternal life.
And together we’d be able to sort out for each and every one of you how you might live into the imperatives of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ – about loving your neighbor, about loving God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, about selling everything and giving to the poor, and about taking up your cross – little things like that.
Instead, I have time this morning to teach you just one thing. The underlying assumption of what I want to teach you today is this: Jesus died so you can be free. He died so you would not have to be afraid of God anymore. He died so you would not have to be afraid to “get it wrong” anymore. God knows the disciples got it wrong most of the time, and so did the early church of the Epistles, and we call them saints!
Here’s what I want you to learn this morning – Please do not reduce the Bible to a self-help manual for life, a rule book to end all rule books. With well over 600 commandments in the Old Testament alone, who can stand up to this? Turning the Bible into a rule book assumes that you are not already safe in the arms of Jesus, in his heart and his wounded side. And you are. Safe, that is.
The Bible does contain plenty about how to live your life. A lot of it is contradictory. It will leave you frustrated. It will leave you feeling guilty, ashamed, like the young lawyer who went away from Jesus because it was too hard for him to get his mind around selling everything he had in order to follow Jesus.
Instead, approach the Bible like this: as a treasury of faithful peoples’ experiences with God, that provides an entrée into your own journey toward God. The Bible is there to incite you to seek out God for yourself, to find and be found by God, to discover that God has always been there, indeed is always with you, and then for you to “write” at least metaphorically your own chapters of your own experiences with God to add to the scriptures.
The Bible begs you to taste it, to chew it, to mull it over, to argue with it, to engage with it as though it were a living thing, not a dead book stuck in one time and place.
How are you to do this? Well, you can certainly do it alone, at home or at work or in the park or on the train. At the same time, not either/or but both/and, you can join a Bible study, not for the purpose of having some clergyperson tell you what the scriptures mean, but as one place to bounce off your own insights against other people’s insights, including the clergyperson’s. Bible study group is a place to be in community with others. It is a place to encounter God, who is the epitome of community – Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Inspiration; Source of all Being, Incarnate Word, Guide. One Holy and Undivided Trinity, one and yet community of persons.
If you would rather, I can restructure Sunday morning worship to allow for 80 minutes of teaching and Bible study in the middle of worship. That way you only have to come here once a week, bringing your Bibles with you, that would be very important, and ready to work together in study. The Orthodox Jews in Egypt do just that – the floor of their synagogue is filled with double desks instead of pews, so the worshippers can be in pairs, studying and arguing and discovering scripture together. What better way to use our Sunday time together?
If that does not appeal to you, than I strongly urge – indeed, I expect you to take advantage of the opportunities to study scripture that are already available – The Mission Congregation monthly Saturday afternoon gathering, the Wednesday Night study group which engages scripture through various themes, the monthly 8 a.m. Sunday “Service” Service which puts scripture into action, taking our lead from the youth group who engage scripture in this way.
Or, you can sign up for the Bible Study time and day of your choice.
Outside in the hallway along the wall of this nave, this worship space, there is a chart with the days of the week and time slots on it. You can choose the day of the week and the time slot that works for you, and enter your name and the frequency with which you would like to meet – weekly, every other week, monthly. The only day not available is Friday, and the only time slot not available is Sunday morning before 10:00 a.m. Otherwise, there should be some time there that works for you.
I am very serious about this. You cannot move forward as a congregation unless you come together for the purpose of taking the scriptures seriously and engaging God, face to face, through encountering each other in study.
It’s totally bogus to have your preacher tell you how to relate scripture to your life. She or he can give you some insights, some glimmers, but those must be only a part of the input. Your own life as you live it in the context in which you live it has to be the other part, and only you can provide that, as you wrestle with the scriptures yourself in group. And ten minutes on Sunday morning isn’t enough.
I’m asking you to make an ironclad commitment to do Bible study here, in this building, regularly. I in turn will commit to being with you for Bible study at every one of those times for which people have signed up, even if there is only one person, although if it is at 7 a.m. I will most likely be in my exercise clothes! We can take the Sunday lessons as our texts, to begin with.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this invitation comes from the prophet Jeremiah, in the reading from this morning, in which God promises to take the laws away and instead write his law of love in all hearts. The invitation to study scripture together is an invitation to open your hearts to that law of love, and learn from God what the implications for your life may be with that law written in your hearts rather than as words on paper.
As your priest, I am telling you, this is the single most important thing to which you will commit in the coming year. It is a commitment to our Lord; it is a commitment to the scriptures themselves; it is a commitment to yourself and your life as a Christian, and it is a commitment to the life of this congregation, whatever form that life may take in the coming year.
Now, about that “priest after the order of Melchizedek” bit in the epistle.
If you have your Bible with you, please turn to Genesis, chapter 14, verse 17-20, which reads, After Abraham’s return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet Abraham at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). 18 And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. 19 Melchizedek blessed Abraham and said, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!" And Abram gave Melchizedek one tenth of everything.
Now, here is how Melchizedek is understood. He came out of nowhere and he went nowhere. His biography is not in the Bible, and so he has no beginning and no ending. His blessing of Abram is the action of a priest. Abram confirms that priesthood by giving Melchizedek a tithe, one tenth of all he has, as an offering. Melchizedek, therefore, a priest who has no beginning and no ending, is, for the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, a prototype of Jesus, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, who has no beginning and no ending but was and is and ever shall be. Jesus earned this priesthood by offering prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who could have saved him from death, but he also went reverently and obediently to his death, and having been thereby made perfect, is now the source of salvation for all, “having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” I’m sure that is perfectly clear!
Martin Luther wrote, “If you could understand a single grain of wheat you would die of wonder.” So, too, with the scriptures. I invite you to come and understand together just what these ancient writings might have to say to you in your life, today, in this time, in this place.