Sunday, October 18, 2009

It takes a village to read the Bible

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21

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Here on the table is a wedding gift Irene and I received,
over 29 years ago.
My mother, who has always taken pictures of family events,
and filled dozens of fat photo albums over the years,
went through all her albums before our wedding,
and picked out pictures significant for me—
from birth to just a few months before our wedding—
made reprints,
and put them all in this album with detailed captions.
What she wrote made clear this was not just a gift for me,
but would help Irene discover a bit more about who I am.

In this album are snapshots of me as a newborn,
showing my facial deformities in early childhood,
and photos of my face all bandaged up
after a couple of the plastic surgeries.
There are pictures of me playing with some of my best friends
in my elementary school years,
camping in the Smoky Mountains as a family,
big extended family reunions.
There are pictures
of me as a pimply-faced and stringy-haired adolescent,
including the shot of my 15th birthday breakfast.
The picture shows an empty Wheaties box,
and the mixing bowl in which I ate the entire box full,
to make good on a boast.
They said I couldn’t do it. I said I could.
The proof is in the picture.

Flipping through this album,
is not just about being nostalgic.
It’s about remembering who I am.
Every one of these pictures
sheds light on who I am,
and who the people are that my life has depended on.
It tells me who I belong to,
and who I’m indebted to.
Each time I look at it,
I remember something or someone I had forgotten about,
and my life gets put into perspective.
I get grounded.

It’s kind of like reading the Bible.
As we flip the pages of the Bible, or a photo album,
we see ourselves in it.
We see our sisters and brothers.
We see the community from which we came,
and to which we still belong.
We see our ancestors.
We see God.

And sometimes we come across a picture that’s not very clear.
The old yellow snapshot’s a little wrinkled, out of focus,
the caption is obliterated.
We squint our eyes
look at it this way and that,
but we still aren’t sure what we’re seeing.
We need someone to help interpret it.
Maybe the one who took the picture,
or someone who was there at the time.

Not everything we read in the Bible is in sharp focus, either.
Sometimes the pictures are blurry.
We can’t always tell for sure what happened, and why.
We don’t always know precisely what truth
the author intended to communicate.

So we gather around the open Bible . . . as a community.
Just like a family gathers around a kitchen table
looking at old pictures.
Each one has a perspective to offer,
that helps someone else at the table
understand and identify with the picture,
helps them enter into that story,
and make it their own.

People say it takes a village to raise a child.
I say it takes a village to read the Bible.
Oh, we can read it alone, sure. We must.
But we should not read it
without regard to the community of faith
in which it is grounded, in which we are grounded.
The Bible is the book of the church.

Our confession of faith, Article 4, says,
“The Bible is the essential book of the church . . .
We commit ourselves to persist and delight
in reading, studying, and meditating on the Scriptures.
We participate in the church’s task of interpreting the Bible
and of discerning what God is saying in our time
by examining all things in the light of Scripture.
Insights . . . we bring are to be tested in the faith community.”

Reading and interpreting the Bible is the task of the church,
in which we all have an obligation to participate.
This is not a job we delegate to
the preachers
and professors
and theologians.

And this is certainly not a job we can just ignore,
if we want to call ourselves a church.
I have sometimes heard sincere church-attending professing Christians
essentially cop out on this task of wrestling with scripture.
Maybe they don’t understand it enough to appreciate it,
maybe they read things in it that don’t jive with what they believe,
maybe they just don’t feel this ancient book means much anymore,
or that it holds any authority in today’s complex world.
They would rather trust what they experience,
and believe what they can figure out using sound logic.
And the Bible gets pushed to the side,
as little more than a source of some inspirational stories,
some poetic beauty,
and some formal language that sounds great in public liturgy.

My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be.
We would not exist, as a community of God’s people,
without this formational book.
And we could never sustain our life without it.
To deny scripture its central place
in the living community of Christ today,
is like me trying to deny that the pictures in this photo album
are not really me,
and not my family,
and not the ones who gave me life.
This is the book of the living community of Christ.
This is the book of the church.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to understand and apply.
That’s why we need to work so hard at it.
That’s why we need to study its original
context, intent, and audience.
And even when we have a pretty good picture of what was said,
and what was meant,
we still have to figure out what it means for us.
And there is often more than one way to look at it.
More than one meaning might be arrived at.
So we need to get together and struggle through it.
With the Holy Spirit’s help,
we need to fight it out, in a healthy way,
to argue, to struggle, to ask, to probe, to listen,
until deeper understanding comes.

But we never have the luxury of pushing it aside,
and saying it’s a nice book, but it doesn’t really speak to us here.
This is the book that is read in community,
tested in community,
and given authority in the community.

And when I speak of community,
it most certainly includes the table-sized community.
In fact, when the people of God gather in mutual covenant,
when they know each other intimately,
when they share their lives with each other regularly,
when they have diverse perspectives, but deep unity,
through Christ, in the Spirit,
when they are committed to speak honestly and openly,
and stay in the struggle no matter what it takes,
then that is the place, I would argue,
that is best suited to do good biblical interpretation.

That is also the way of our Anabaptist tradition.
God’s word and will are not proclaimed to us from on high.
Truth is not handed down to individual believers
by an authority figure.
Discernment is the task of the community, at all levels.

So if we are a community of communities doing this discernment,
then the communities also need to stay connected to each other.
They need to be aware of, and listening to,
and testing the discernment happening at other communities,
and at other levels of our communal relationship.

Each little table group doesn’t do their work in isolation,
and then declare their version of the truth the final word.
One community’s interpretation is referenced with,
and accountable to,
the interpretive work of the larger community of communities.

We heard two stories from the Bible this morning.
And they were both stories about the Bible,
about how it functioned in midst of a community.

In Nehemiah 8,
there was a grand reading and celebration of the book of the law.
This was after the people had mostly returned from exile in Babylon,
and rebuilt the walls of the destroyed city.
Nearly 50,000 people were there,
most of whom had lived in Babylon for many generations,
and had completely forgotten who they were as a people.

So the newly rediscovered book of the law, the Torah, their scripture,
was brought out and returned to the people.
But they didn’t pass out 50,000 leather-bound pocket testaments,
and say, now go home, read it, and obey it.
They did not have the 50,000 people give their email addresses
so they could send out an inspirational verse-of-the-day,
every day for the rest of the year.
They did not even have the resident expert, Ezra,
just read it and preach to them about what it meant.

Ezra, and twelve other people, six on his right, and six on his left,
read the text out aloud to the people, for six hours.
Then those 12, and 14 additional helpers, Levites,
worked with the people in making sense out of what they heard.
All these interpretive assistants are listed in Nehemiah 8 by name,
all 26 unpronounceable names.
We skipped those verses as an act of mercy for our reader.

Exactly how the 26 did their work, we don’t know,
but the text implies that they fanned out among the people,
and worked in smaller groupings,
worked together at the task of interpreting and discerning.
In any case, it wasn’t a private reading for private inspiration.
It was the combined work of the whole people,
a people moved by the Spirit of God,
to seek the word and will of God together.
And the result was so powerful,
that 50,000 people spontaneously fell on their faces . . . and wept.
The emotion of remembering and reconnecting
with something deep within them that they had lost,
was simply overpowering.

And in today’s Gospel reading,
there was also a powerful and emotional moment
when the scripture was read aloud and interpreted,
in the midst of a local community.
This time it was Jesus reading, in his hometown synagogue.
He stood to read from Isaiah,
and then sat down, as was customary,
to give his commentary on the text.
It was a nine-word commentary,
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And they were all amazed at his gracious words.

But then he started to say other things,
started spelling out some implications of scripture,
that pushed the edges of the community,
namely, that God might care just as much about the Gentiles . . .
well, that was more interpretation than they wanted to hear,
and they turned against Jesus.

But Jesus was dealing with scripture according to their tradition,
that is, reading it amidst the community,
and then engaging the community with the meaning.
Like any good Jewish rabbi, stirring up a good argument,
as to what the sacred text means for us, today.
That’s just the way the Bible was read.

How different than the way a lot of us read it.
Reading one inspirational verse a day,
like a daily vitamin pill, for a spiritual energy boost.
Or reading it to reinforce what I already believe,
or to prove someone else wrong.

So . . . in light of this series of sermons,
the challenge I leave us with, should be obvious.
If the Bible is central to the life of the church,
then it ought to be at the center whenever the church gathers—
whether as one large community in Sunday morning worship,
or as church at the table.
We are a scripture-shaped community.
And we only come to see how it shapes us,
as we wrestle with it in community.

So if we take seriously our vision at Park View,
of being a community of communities engaged in God’s mission,
then every time these smaller communities gather
to collaborate with God in doing God’s work,
it seems to me the Bible ought to show up in some form.
Regularly, not only when we are explicitly engaged in a Bible study,
or when someone’s doing a devotional.
But whenever we gather.

Instead, it is often, if not usually, absent.
And we suffer from widespread biblical illiteracy, in the church!

We could make a modest start,
by just being more intentional about
letting the Bible show up in our gatherings,
letting it do its work of shaping our community life.

There are a couple Bibles in the church conference room,
that always sit in the middle of the table.
Right there with them is a daily lectionary,
that lists a morning psalm, an evening psalm,
and three other readings for each day.
We use them in our daily prayers, every morning at 9:00.
And I know the Church Council uses the readings
every time it meets to do business.
But that room gets used a lot to conduct other church business.

Is it just silly for me to imagine that it might actually have an impact,
if every time people gathered in that room
to do any kind of church business,
they took time to listen to one of the daily scriptures.

Is it just silly for me to imagine that something good might result,
if Sunday School classes never—ever—had a class session,
without at least once opening the scriptures and reading them,
or if small groups when they gathered,
would always include someone reading scripture aloud,
and others listening, and commenting as desired.
Is it just silly for me to imagine those things?
Or could it be that the Holy Spirit,
the one whose inspiration brought us the scripture,
could be putting those strange thoughts in my head?

God still speaks to us through scripture.
The least we should be doing is listening,
regularly, respectfully, and in conversation with each other.

There’s a John Bell song that says whenever we gather,
it is Jesus who calls us here, to meet him
in the Word . . . and in song, and prayer, and table.
Let’s sing it together, STJ #3.

—Phil Kniss, October 18, 2009

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