Sermon November 14, 2010
The Reverend Lois Keen
Grace Episcopal Church
Canticle 9: Isaiah 12:2-6
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
A number of people asked that I post my sermon from today. It's on my sermon blog, but just in case you don't know how to get to my sermon blog, here it is, on Ramblings. Enjoy. The first line is from the Collect for the day:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning…”
A friend of mine once said that the scriptures are meant to be chewed, like a good meal. And once you have chewed over and tasted and savored a piece of scripture, you return to it again and again, finding different flavors. All holy Scriptures are written so that they never lose their savor. The hard news is that scripture is not for a light read. Like a good meal, it asks for attention, time, discernment.
My grandmother was a fundamentalist Baptist. I grew up thinking the Bible was a rule book, a rule book that I could never measure up to. When I became a preacher I learned that people wanted me to be able to tell them how a particular reading from the gospel relates to their everyday lives.
I stopped reading the Bible as a rule book when I first read St. Paul writing that the Law cannot save anyone; all it can do is point out our faults. Only Jesus can save us from ourselves.
As to scripture relating to our everyday lives, I’ve discovered that some scriptures might related to my life today and others don’t, and on another day, entirely different scriptures will relate and those others no longer relate. Eventually, I realized this thing of scripture “relating to my life” was just another way of seeing scripture as a rule book. If I can only crack its code, I’ll know how to live so that I will be lovable in God’s eyes and get to heaven when I die.
But even so, reading the scriptures are my joy and delight. And I have learned some important things from reading scripture, from chewing them slowly, over and over again.
The first thing I learned is from reading the Psalms. Some of the Psalms are hard to take. There’s a lot of desire for revenge, anger at God, anger and hatred of enemies. I think maybe the worst example comes from Psalm 137: “Remember the day of Jerusalem, O LORD, against the people of Edom, who said, ‘Down with it! down with it! even to the ground! O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock!”
I bet you're glad we never read those last three verses in Church on a Sunday. What in the Name of God are we supposed to learn from that?! If all scripture is meant for our learning, what can we learn from such a scripture as this?
And yet, from Psalms like 137 I learned the most important thing I was ever to learn from scripture, the thing that has become the core of my reading of scripture: If the Psalmists can say anything – anything – to God, so can I.
There’s nothing so horrific in my thoughts or desires that God hasn’t heard before. There’s nothing God can’t take that we hand out. Even if I’m angry with God, the one totally safe place in all the world where I can take those feelings is to God. The scriptures teach me that: The one true safe place in the world is God.
This is huge. All my reading of scripture happens from within this place of safety.
Following that revelation, I learned from the scriptures as a whole, starting with Genesis all the way through the Revelation to John that the people of God have been on a spiritual journey for thousands of years, and we still are. The writers in the Bible tell the story of that journey through their understanding that God is working in their lives. They tell the story by remembering how they have responded to God – obeying, disobeying, following, ignoring, taking God for granted, returning to God. They tell their God stories: One day I was here, and God spoke, and I either obeyed and found abundance or I turned away and was sent into exile until I learned to return to God.
These stories are not dead stories. Yes, they take place in a time long, long ago. Some of them go back to before written history. But the story of the Jewish people, and later the story of the early Christians, is our story, too.
The books of the Bible are not the last word, they are the first word; the beginning of a story that keeps on being told. New chapters are added with each life that is lived. Your story, my story are each chapters in this ongoing story of humankind’s spiritual journey with God.
And we are all headed to the same place. Our stories are each different but we are all headed for the heart of God, where we already live but will not fully know it until all the stories are told.
I learned one more thing from reading and chewing and savoring scripture. When I was growing up, my mother, who had a prejudice against Jews, taught me that the Old Testament God was a god of vengeance and the New Testament God was a god of love. I believed this because she told me it was so.
In my thirties I read the scriptures for myself and I learned that this was not only not a helpful way of understanding the scriptures; it is also not true.
The God who speaks today’s words through Isaiah in the first reading and the canticle is the same God who Paul credits with his unhelpful and judgmental declaration that those who do not work are not to be allowed to eat. The God who Jesus declares will bring destructive signs for us to watch for, including betrayal, hatred and death, is the same God who promises restoration and reconciliation to everyone:
“For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…no more shall the wound of weeping be heard…or the cry of distress…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…”
Surely it is God who saves us. God is our stronghold, our defense, and our Savior.
The collection of stories we call The Bible, and the collective stories of our lives reveal this promise. No matter how dire, these stories, taken all together, reveal the promise of hope to which we cling, the hope we hold out to others without hope, the blessed hope of God’s eternal, unconditional love in which we already live, though we may not yet know it fully, now and for all eternity.
Give thanks to God. Make God’s deeds known among all peoples, by word and actions and love. Sing God’s praises. Cry aloud, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel, and his steadfast love will never fail.