Sunday, July 10, 2011

Answer Key?

We just got a new dog this week. When you're first plunged into a new situation with profound responsibilities, whether a new pet, a baby, or a change in your own life, it would be great to have an instruction manual. A book with all the answers to help us navigate a scary and complex world. It would be a comforting and wonderful thing to have the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
And while Douglas Adams fans might tell you the answer is 42, others will look elsewhere.
The lesson from Matthew talks about "One who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, in another thirty." The lesson from Isaiah talks about "the word that goes out from my mouth" that shall not return to God empty, "but shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it."
So I'm here to talk to you today about the efficacy of what Matthew calls "the Word of the Kingdom." I'm here to talk to you about the power of the Bible.
Before you get alarmed, yes, you are still at the same church. This is an Episcopal Church, one whose website bills its as "one of the most progressive parishes in Michigan." Despite all the baggage The Bible brings with it, I'm here to talk to you today about the power of the Bible.
I just spent a week out in Iowa celebrating my wife's aunt and uncle's 50th wedding anniversary. On the way there and back, and while we were out there, we passed a lot of churches. A number of churches announced on their signs that they were "Bible Churches."
Now there are a lot of churches where you can spend most of the time gathered in church hearing about the bible. Maybe there will be a verse or two read up front, or maybe the preacher will talk about the bible and quote verses during the sermon, but the bulk of the service is hearing someone talk ABOUT the bible, or at least about what he -- it's usually a he -- thinks that the bible says, and how he thinks people ought to apply it to their lives.
But when you think of "Bible Churches," I want you to think of this one. Because for all the churches out there that call themselves "Bible Churches", I have a hard time coming up with a more bible-based church than the Episcopal Church.
Christopher Webber, in his book "Welcome to the Episcopal Church," points out just how much time we spend when we gather for worship not just hearing about the bible, but hearing the bible itself. Today, like almost every Sunday, we heard four different readings from the bible, from Isaiah, Psalms, Romans, and Matthew. We sang hymns, which largely draw their imagery from the bible. We pray prayers from our Book of Common Prayer, and many, many of these prayers take their language directly from the bible. At the peak of our liturgy, the celebration of Holy Eucharist, what do we say and do? We hear and recite words from the bible: Jesus' Words of Institution and the Lord's Prayer. Yes, there is some reflection that isn't directly from the bible (like this sermon), but the bulk of our gathering is spent not hearing second-hand about the bible, but hearing it.
Webber's book is a truly outstanding one; even if you've been an Episcopalian for years and years, I recommend it to read. He has a lot more to say about the role of the Bible in the Episcopal Church: how hearing it read in community is different than reading it alone. How much this repeated reading and singing and praying and listening to the word about the kingdom shapes our language and thoughts and prayers and the life of our church. If being Bible-based is about process: hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting before and while and after we take each of our actions as Church, it would be hard to find a more Bible-based church than the Episcopal Church. Our corporate action is strongly rooted in a tradition of reading and reflecting on the words in the bible.
But personal bible reading is a big piece of the story about the bible, too.
My relationship with this book is not an easy one. On the one hand, I read it. A lot. I got my first bible for Christmas when I was ten years old. Here it is. Now I was raised Roman Catholic, and traditionally, Catholics didn't read the bible much. But I was a voracious reader, and this thick book with thin pages was too fascinating to put down. You can see all the bookmarks I tucked into the pages when I found a fascinating passage. The proverbs, the law, the poetry, the Gospels, the epistles, the revelations.
When I was in English class my sophomore year in high school, I recognized many biblical allusions that came up in the poems and stories we read. My English teacher, a former Jesuit, guessed I must be a Protestant, because no Catholic would know the bible that well.
But the more I read it, the less comfortable I was with some of what it had to say.
The God described in some stories in the Bible didn't sound like a good God. Jesus said that all the law and the prophets hang on "Love the Lord your God with all your mind and all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself," but when you read the law and the prophets, killing off all the inhabitants of the land, and the various prophesies of vengeance against the enemies of the Lord, that doesn't sound like love of neighbor. And God is a God of justice and mercy, we're told, but Abraham seems to be praised for the binding of Isaac, while I can't tell you how many times I re-read Exodus to no avail trying to figure out just what awful thing Moses did at Meribah that got God so upset that Moses couldn't enter the Promised Land.
So on the one hand, there's not liking the answers that the bible gives. But then, there's a deeper problem: even if you decide to suck it up and obey the bible's answers, they aren't internally consistent. Are we supposed to beat swords into plowshares or plowshares into swords? Are we supposed to love our enemies or exterminate them from the earth? Was humankind created before or after plants and animals? Are followers of Jesus supposed to wear sandals or not wear sandals?
These moral quandaries and factual discrepancies seem to produce two strong reactions: people who suppress the conflicts, harmonize the texts, and cling to the Bible as the definitive Book of Answers, and those who emphasize the conflicts, mock the texts, and reject the bible as a failed Book of Answers that can explain much of the zealotry and mayhem in Western Civilization. Less strident members of each camp still fall on the same axis: those who affirm the bible as the Book of Answers about faith, but not about history or science; those who don't reject the bible, but are mostly embarrassed by its uglier parts, so they either ignore it, avoiding talking about it as much as possible, or just focus on the parts they like -- the "Good Parts Version".
For much of my adult life, I fell into this last camp: I didn't reject the bible, but I was pretty embarrassed by its uglier parts. I'd focus on the Gospels and selected poetry from Hebrew Scripture, and ignore Paul's pesky letters with their apparent misogyny and reactionary social tendencies and the Pentateuch with its bloodthirstiness for both minor transgressors and those who didn't happen to be born in the right tribe.
But I'd propose that judging the Bible on whether it's a good or bad book of answers might be missing the greatest richness it has to offer. Yes, the Bible contains answers. But even more, it's a journal of millennia of humankind wrestling with the questions. For me, this realization turned the Bible from an embarrassingly dysfunctional book of answers to the holiest of gifts from God: a treasury of the process of humanity wrestling with the questions of the hows and whys of living one's life.
For over four hundred years, the people of Judah believed that as the Lord’s chosen people, they would be ruled by the house of David forever. This was no small claim for a fairly minor kingdom nestled between the great empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Assyria. Then, in 586 BCE, the sky fell in. The Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem and forced many of its inhabitants to relocate to Babylon. This exile reduced to ruins not only their homes, their livelihoods, and their ordinary way of life, but also their very sense of identity relative to God and the rest of the world.
Years later, a miracle occurred: the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, and the new king saw that unlike any other conquered people that the Babylonians relocated, they had not been assimilated. They were still Jews, not Babylonians. And King Cyrus told them they could go home.
So they were back in The Land that God promised their ancestors. But they weren't a kingdom of their own. And the question they faced was: "Now what?"
Some folks thought that the lesson of the exile was that they hadn't been following the commandments closely enough, so they should double their zeal for the Law, and be extra-careful not to break any of the rules. Some thought that foreign ways had corrupted the people, leading to God's displeasure, and purging foreign blood and foreign influence from the Jewish people was the solution. Some thought the lesson of the exile was that the world is far bigger than just the Jewish people, and that they were to serve as an example to draw the whole world to God. Some saw the exile as a reason to focus not on the particulars of their own tradition, but on universal wisdom and good conduct. And some saw the chaos and tumult they endured as a sign that the world was inherently so evil and incomprehensible that all one could do was endure it and wait for God to one day step in and make it right. As the survivors of the Kingdom of Judah returned to the land, they wrote down and compiled the oral traditions of their relationship with their God, and collected the earlier writings they could find, and complied it into a giant reading list to help them sort out the great question: "now what?" But rather than searching for the one tradition that was "right," they included it all. Purify. No, embrace the rest of the world. No, just focus on the law. No, focus on universal wisdom. No, cling to God through the chaos. And in compiling what we now know as the Hebrew Scriptures, they included "all the wisdom that's fit to print." Which is a chaotic jumble that contradicts itself and tells the same stories multiple times, and yes, includes many, contradictory answers to some questions. It's a book about a process, a process of "Israel" -- which means wrestling with the Divine. They immersed themselves in their writings of past wrestling with the divine so that any decisions they made going forward would be informed by that past.
Which brings us back to our favorite Bible Church, the Episcopal Church. I would argue that our use of the Bible is in its most powerful tradition. We hear the bible, constantly, together. We read, we pay attention to particular parts that jump out at us, we learn. We inwardly digest it. And it becomes a part of us. And then, everything we do is done by the "we" that is formed by this hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting.
The Bible isn't an answer key. It's more of a guide to past questions and attempts at answers, and reflections on how those answers turned out. And therein lies its power and its beauty. Because we have the gift of the Bible, we are not, like Garrison Keillor's Guy Noir, alone trying to find the answers to life's persistent questions. In our search for how to live, we have the accounts of millennia before us. And that indeed bears fruit and yields, in on case a hundredfold, in another sixty, in another thirty.