By the Book

How the Scripture is alive... in us, and for us.

SJF • Easter 7b • Tobias S Haller BSG

In those days Peter stood up among the believers and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled...

A few weeks ago you heard a Scripture reading from the book of Acts about the role of the Bible in the Christian life. I’m don’t know if Fr Farrell preached on that text the Sunday I was away, but I’m sure you recall the story of that Ethiopian who was reading Isaiah on his way back home, but couldn’t, on his own, understand what the prophet meant. The Holy Spirit put Philip in the right place at the right time to open the scripture for him, and to achieve God’s goal for him: his baptism.

Through wise teachers guided by the Holy Spirit, the scripture performs this task, the task for which it is intended and sufficient: to bring us to Christ. We might call this the proactive side of scripture. It is a map that leads us to the goal we seek, a lamp that lights our way through the dark wood of this world, the cookbook with the recipe for the food that nourishes us unto life. The scripture is our guide, our map, and our recipe. But we need to be careful how we do things “by the book” — and the story of Philip and the Ethiopian reveals that this is best not a solitary task. To understand the scriptures best we need each other, just as the Ethiopian needed Philip.

Taking the scripture in one’s own hand without a guide can be dangerous. You may have heard of the man who, whenever he needed to make a decision, would take his floppy Bible off the shelf, close his eyes, let the book fall open and then plant his finger on a passage — which he would then take as God’s guidance for him in his life. One day he was feeling a little low, and so he went through this exercise to see what God wanted him to do. Well, he lighted on — appropriate given our reading from Acts — was, “Judas went and hanged himself.” Somewhat taken aback he decided to try again. This time he landed in the gospel of Luke: “Go and do likewise.”

Doing things by chance — as in casting lots for a new apostle — is best done as a group, not on your own. One of the many things for which I am grateful is Deacon Bill’s ministry here among us in the Bible Study group that continues to meet week by week. It is in that group that the Spirit speaks, and I know those who have taken part in it are as grateful for it as I am. This is the best way to engage with the Scripture, as the Spirit brings light to the group — through each other as the body of believers. God be praised!

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Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows us another side of how the church makes use of the scripture, and this is what I’m calling the retroactive or reflective side. This is when we take up the scripture not so much to tell us what to do, but so as to tell us the true meaning of what we have done. In addition to being a map showing us where to go, it’s like one of those maps in a shopping mall, with that crucial highlighted spot, clearly marked, “You are here.” As well as a headlight down the road ahead of us, the Scripture is like a streetlight that illuminates where we are. More than a recipe to prepare a dish, it is also the cookbook we go to to find out what ingredient it was in that dish that someone else prepared for us, that we so enjoyed.

In the time prior to our reading from the passage from Acts, the Apostles have gone through a very difficult time. Their Lord was arrested and they were scattered; Peter denied he knew his Lord — and wept; they heard that Judas suffered a terrible fate; they received the good but hard to believe news that the Lord is risen, and finally they have seen him with their own eyes, and then watched as he was taken up into heaven. And for each of these things they have looked to the Scripture retroactively, reflectively — to understand that the things written there have been fulfilled. The Apostles have been, as our Lord himself gently chided them, slow of heart to believe all that had been promised in God’s word — until it happened. Once it happened, then, retroactively, they were able to take up the Scriptures and recognize those Scriptures that had been speaking to them all along but they didn’t understand. Suddenly the light goes on and they understand where they are.

So where do they go from here? They know where they are now: The number of the Apostles is short by one — yet Jesus had promised that the Apostles would sit on thrones to judge the Twelve Tribes of Israel on the last day. Suddenly Peter recognizes that this too has been addressed prophetically in the Psalms: Judas is the one whose homestead has been abandoned, and to which another will succeed as overseer. So the Apostles conduct the first episcopal election, illuminated by Scriptures that before that day none of them thought had a special meaning for them.

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So it is that the Scripture can not only tell us what to do, but show us the true meaning of what has been done: for us, for the world. It tells us where we are so that we can better be prepared to go where we are sent.

As part of my own discipline of Scripture reading, as part of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, I have been reading the Scripture, especially the Psalms, every day for about forty years now. You may have noticed in the Book of Common Prayer how the Psalms are divided up with headings that begin with, “First Day: Morning Prayer” and so on through all 150 right up to “Thirtieth Day: Evening Prayer.” That was a way of reading the Psalms over the course of a month that goes back to the very first Book of Common Prayer. Archbishop Cranmer came up with it back in the 1540s. It is far easier way to follow than the complicated systems that the monks had used for many centuries, with the Psalms spread out all over the course of a week. (As Archbishop Cranmer observed, it would take you longer to find what page to use than to read what was there once you found it!) And so he came up with this idea of a monthly system of reading the Psalms, spread out over thirty days. On the first day of each month, and on each day (repeating the 30th in months with 31 days!)

I read the Psalms — together with tens of thousands of others, who have been reading the Psalms this way since 1549.

I commend you do the same, and I think you will find, as I do, that reading these ancient poems — three thousand years old — reading them through, day by day, through the course of a month will illuminate your life as they have illuminated my life. I know by this that the Scripture is a alive: it is constantly renewed in ways I might never understand until some situation or circumstance in my life is suddenly illuminated by one of those Psalms.

I will close with a personal example that happened in a particularly striking way. On 9/11, Saint Paul’s Chapel, the Episcopal church that’s just two blocks from the World Trade Center, survived the devastation with minimal damage. It became in the weeks and months following a refuge of hope and restoration. It was a place where food was distributed, and those doing the horrible work down in the pit of destruction would come up for rest and counseling — to help them deal with the horrors they handled literally day by day emerging from the dust and the rubble. The clergy of New York and New Jersey were called upon to assist as counselors.

My first shift at Saint Paul’s was on the morning on the 16th of October, and I decided to wait to read Morning Prayer until I got to the church. As I came up out of subway and headed down the street towards the St Paul’s Chapel, I was shocked. What I had seen on TV had not prepared me. The whole neighborhood was transformed. The smell of damp concrete was in the air, heavy and thick, masking the scent of corruption and chlorine. Everything was dusted with gray powder. There were piles of rubble swept off the sidewalk in the doorways

of still unopened shops. Then looking ahead down the street, just two short blocks away, just behind St Paul’s Chapel, was the twisted wreckage of one of those two proud towers. Only about two stories were left, a stump rising from the rubble at its base; no longer the gleaming silver columns side-by-side, but only a twisted, rusted remnant the color of dried blood. I passed through the gate in the Chapel’s wrought-iron fence, covered with the images of those still missing, still hoped for, though by that point with hope fading as fast as the photographs; the flowers, dying, were taped to the wrought iron of that fence and that gate, the candles flickering in the cool, damp breeze that carried the odor of the dust to which one day all of us will return.

Inside the church it was dark and quiet. People were sleeping in most of the pews, bundled in blankets. They sought a little rest before heading back into the pit for another shift looking for the bodies, and the parts of bodies, of the victims of this horror. I found a quiet spot, and sat down, and took a red prayer book from the rack and opened it to the Psalms appointed for Morning Prayer on the 16th day. And this is what I read:

O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance;
they have profaned your holy temple;
and have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble.

They have given the bodies of your servants
as food for the birds of the air,
and the flesh of your faithful ones
to the beasts of the field.

They have shed their blood like water
on every side of Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.

Were those words written for me that day? Well, of course not; but yes, they were. God spoke to me that morning. These were words I needed to hear and see. Not to make a foolish equivalence of who the “heathen” might be, and who the servants, and what Jerusalem, but to bind me up in solidarity with all the suffering that has ever been suffered upon this warring earth, all the ancient world of wrong and anger and unrighteousness and injustice; the guilty rage and its innocent victims; and to let me know that I was not alone, either in my grief or in my service that I might do that day, or any other day, to comfort the seekers after the dead. The light went on for me to tell me where I was — words from the Psalmist of 3,000 years ago, resounding down the halls of time into my present through my past, to give me hope for the future.

This is what the Scripture can do for us, my friends. It tells us who, and whose we are; it will comfort us in our terrors, and encourage us in our fears, and strengthen us in our weakness — if we will open those pages and let them do their healing work, in the solitude of personal devotion, but even more when we gather in God’s name. The Scripture not only saves but helps us to make sense of a world gone senseless, to show us that love prevails when all else fails, and that God who created and redeemed us will also send us his Holy Spirit to comfort and to guide. Even so, Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to your people — by your word, and as you promised — that they may know you and themselves, and serve you in this life until they come to rest with you for ever in the new Jerusalem above.+

Swearing Words

We cannot do good on our own, but God's credit can be applied to our expenses...

6th Epiphany A 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
It is written in the Book Ecclesiasticus: If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of you own choice.
There is some significant tension between the language of today’s opening collect and that of the author of Ecclesiasticus, Joshua the son of Sira. For while that wise man, who wrote about two hundred years before the birth of Christ, portrays being good or bad as a simple matter of choice — in which one can always choose the good, and keep the commandments and act faithfully simply by choosing to do so — the collect today with which we began our worship acknowledges, a bit more humbly, and realistically, that “in our weakness we can do nothing good without” God’s help and grace.

In a case like this I am very glad to endorse the official Anglican position that the writings of Joshua ben Sira, the book of Ecclesiasticus, like all of the apocryphal or deuterocanonical books — which are part of the Bible for Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, but are treated separately by Anglicans and Lutherans, and completely ignored by most Protestants — that these apocryphal or deuterocanonical books can be read for instruction but not to “establish...doctrine” as the Sixth Article of Religion puts it. And if you’d like to look it up, it is on page 868 of the Book of Common Prayer.

It is helpful to have the church’s authority for this point of view. For even if it weren’t our own experience, even if it weren’t just common sense, you know that what Joshua ben Sira said is just not true. The idea that one can simply choose to be good, and always act faithfully as a matter of one’s own choice, conflicts with the teachings of Jesus and of Saint Paul, and those teachings form a part of our canonical and authoritative Scripture, not just for instruction, but for doctrine!

Towards the end of today’s Gospel reading Jesus takes on those who, like Joshua the son of Sira, put all the stress on us: ben Sira says, “Do not swear falsely, but carry out your vows” — as if vows could simply be carried out by the force of our own will alone, unaided by grace; as if you could just choose to be good and the action would follow the choice as the night the day. Jesus teaches in contrast (and in contradiction) that it is folly to swear in such a way. It is beyond our strength to rely on our own strength unaided, to take it into our head that we could do such a thing when we cannot even control a single hair on that head, to make it change from white to black!

Saint Paul even more readily admits his own weakness when he writes to the Romans, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (7:18b-19) And in the epistle before us today he calls out the quibbles and quarrels of those Corinthians, accusing them of acting like infants — and anyone who has had to care for an infant knows that infants cannot always choose to do the good! It is said that Saint Augustine once pointed out that anyone who doubted the existence of original sin only needed to spend an hour or two with an infant to be convinced otherwise!

The sad truth, though, is that adults often act no better than spoiled, whining children; as Saint Paul says to the Corinthians, not ready for solid food, still on milk. If you don’t believe me, or Saint Paul, just turn the TV on to any of the 24-hour news stations; it’s like turning on a faucet that will pour forth a steady stream of infantile behavior, by supposedly grown people.

Saint Paul also points out — and here we return to the collect of the day — that the ultimate victory over such petty and infantile quarrels and quibbles and fleshly temptations of human inclination, infant or adult, do notcome from Paul, or Apollos, or from the Corinthians’ own inner virtue. They are God’s servants, working God’s field. Paul echoes the beautiful language of the 100th Psalm, though translating it a bit from sheep to agriculture: “Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” Just so the collect of the day appeals to God for the help of God’s grace, so that God can supply what is lacking to give us the strength — not our own strength but God’s strength at work in us — to keep God’s commandments.

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Now, you might well say, if it’s all about God and we can’t do any good on our own, and that any good we do is just God working in us and through us, is this trip really necessary? Let me say that’s a cynical thought, but it’s one I can understand — as I’m sure Joshua ben Sira would have understood too, and it’s a sentiment he would have stood by: God has given commandments and we are expected to do them under our own steam and by our own power, and if you do, in the end you will receive the reward for having done well.

There are whole religions built on this principle — but thankfully Christianity is not one of them, at least not in the way we Anglicans and Episcopalians understand it. We understand, on the contrary, and as the collect of the day says, echoing Saint Paul, that “in our weakness we can do nothing good without” God.

Still, you might say, Then if it is just God acting through us when we manage to do good, is God just pleasing himself through us? Are we just puppets? Let’s look at it another way; not as puppets, but as children. There is a charming TV commercial that shows a little boy standing with his chin just reaching the top of the jewelry counter in a fashionable store, pointing to an item he wants to get hismother for her birthday. The sales clerk nods and the little boy proudly empties his hand on the counter, revealing a crumpled dollar bill and a few coins. The clerk raises her eyebrows sympathetically and looks over the head of the child to see the boy’s father standing there behind him, discreetly waving his credit card. He and the clerk almost wink at each other — though no wink is needed.

This is what we are like and God is like when we do good. Our inclination is in the right direction, but our handful of change could never actually accomplish what God has willed for us — or what we have willed for ourselves or for each other. It is nowhere near enough to make the purchase we desire and need.

Yet God is with us, and the credit of God’s grace can cover any good towards which we set our minds and our hearts and our wills. On our own we could never accomplish the good intent that warms our hearts, but with God’s grace and support we can accomplish this — and anything good, to which we set our hearts. And God is pleased with our intent even though it is God who supplies us with the means to put that good intent into action — just as that little boy’s father and mother are and will be pleased even though he didn’t actually buy that bracelet with his own money.

There is an old saying, “It’s the thought that counts,” and in this case it is true, for it is the thought and choice to do good, when undertaken in prayer and in confidence in God’s grace, not our own strength, that we will receive timely help in putting that good will into good action, that, as the collects says, we may please God “both in will and deed.” God is pleased when we will to do good, and will give us the grace to do it.

After all, he paid a debt for us far greater than the cost of a bracelet, far more costly than the most precious jewel. Godin Christ paid for all our lives with his own life, and bought salvation for us at the cost of his own blood. If we swear by anything at all let it be this: Not to us, not to us, O Lord, but to your Name alone, be glory given, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.+

Interpretation of Scripture

Jesus as the perfect interpretation of Scripture...

Epiphany 3c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It should come as no surprise to you that reading Holy Scripture has for a long time formed a central part of worship. Every Sunday morning we read passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (or during Easter season, from the Acts of the Apostles), and then also from the Epistles or the Revelation to John, and always from one of the four Gospels. Sometimes we also read — or sing — from the book of Psalms, or from our own Hymnal (the book Psalms being the hymnal of the Jewish people.)

It was also traditional — and still is — for Jewish worshipers to read from the Law and the Prophets and sing the Psalms in the synagogue. The privilege and responsibility to be a reader of the Holy Scripture belonged until recent times to every Jewish man — I add that proviso because women can now take on that role, at least in some Jewish congregations. So important was this responsibility to read the Scripture as a part of worship, that it formed a central part of the Jewish bar mitzvah ceremony, by which a boy entered into manhood as a “son of the commandment” by fulfilling that commandment to read the Holy Scriptures aloud — and an equivalent bat mitzvah has been added for girls becoming women in some congregations.

This reading of the text of Scripture in worship has an ancient pedigree. We see Jesus exercising this responsibility in our gospel passage today. The hometown boy — about whose doings in the neighboring towns so much has been heard — returns home and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and is honored by the people there by being given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah from which to read. And he reads that beautiful passage about God’s promises.

I will get back to those promises in a moment, but I first want to note something else about reading and interpreting Scripture. And that is brought to mind by our reading from the Book of Nehemiah. This passage describes an extremely important event in the history of the Jewish people — with Ezra and Nehemiah, they have returned from their exile in Babylon, and have set to the task of rebuilding their ruined city and temple. Because they have been exiled from the temple they have been unable to carry out any of the commandments of the Law of Moses having to do with the temple — none of the sacrifices, none of the thanksgivings or offerings, none of the feast days — perhaps most importantly no way to observe the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

All of these observances have been impossible for them in their weary exile by the waters of Babylon, where they wept and hung up their harps on the branches of the trees. There in Babylon they even objected to singing the songs of Zion when those who led them away captive asked for a song — “How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?” they cried out. And ironically, their objection to singing itself became one of their best songs, and ended up in their hymnal as Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept.”

More importantly, because of their long exile most of them have probably never even heard the words of the Law of Moses, much less read it. And so this gathering, back in Jerusalem by the Water Gate, is the first time in several generations, after the 70 years of captivity, that the people would hear all that they have missed — and missed doing.

But something else has changed in the course of time — most of the people no longer speak Hebrew; in their exile in Babylon they have picked up the local language, Aramaic. The two languages are related but not enough for easy understanding. That would be like thinking I could speak Spanish because I studied Italian — I did study Italian in college but I actually discovered that when it came time for me to study Spanish, knowing Italian actually made it harder; because it was close, but not close enough: as the old saying goes, “Close, but no cigar” — just close enough as to cause confusion, as the Italian word would pop into my head instead of the Spanish word.

So it was for the people gathered there at the Water Gate. The Scripture was read in Hebrew, the language in which the Law of Moses was written — and so, as Nehemiah reports, those who read gave an interpretation — giving the sense in Aramaic line by line, in that common language that everyone spoke by then. These Aramaic interpretations, originally given on the fly, were eventually written down, so that people unable to study the Scripture in its original Hebrew could make some sense of it in the synagogue — just as we all read the Scriptures in English, rather than in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. It would not do any of us much good if I stood up here reading the New Testament in the language in which it was written — Greek.

This use of one language rather than another, a language one understands — translation — is the most basic kind of interpretation. Because when you translate you must also interpret; there is more to translation than just plugging one word in place of another, because any given word in almost every language can have more than one meaning.

Which brings me back to Jesus and that reading of Isaiah in the synagogue. He may have read from the Hebrew text and given the Aramaic himself line by line, or he may even have been reading from one of those Aramaic translations itself. But whatever he did as a matter of interpretation, he did something much more significant. He did not just interpret, he fulfilled the Scripture. He presented himself as the fulfillment of the promises in that holy text.

It wasn’t just about words of God, words spoken through the prophet; it was about the Word of God, the Word made Flesh, the Word Incarnate — Jesus himself. For we believe that Jesus himself is the living Word of God, just as we believe the Scripture is the written Word of God. You see, even the word word can mean more than one thing! Jesus is himself the interpretation, the incarnation — and in keeping with this season of Epiphany — the showing forth, the revelation, the manifestation of God’s eternal presence, word and wisdom. As a line from a famous poem attributed to Queen Elizabeth I says, “He was the word that spake it.”

Jesus, the Word, takes that written word in his hand, and then speaks it out in application to himself, saying, “Today this is fulfilled in your presence” — and now we too have this testimony coming to us in the written words of the Gospel that I read just a few moments ago, proclaimed anew today; — and today it also is fulfilled in your hearing. For Jesus is, always, everywhere, the Word of God — today and every day.

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Now I realize as I say this that our old friend Saint Augustine is watching me, from the stained glass window over there, looking past his mother Monica over my shoulder and keeping an eye on me — a good reminder for any preacher. Saint Augustine once said something very wise about interpreting Scripture, and it is in keeping with the relationship between the Written Word of Scripture and the Living Word, Jesus. Relying on the commandment Jesus emphasized, the commandment to love God and your neighbor, Augustine said,

If you think that you understand the scriptures, in such a way that your understanding does not build up the twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them... If on the other hand you interpret the scripture in ways that are helpful for building up this love of God and neighbor, but have not said what the original author actually intended, then your mistake is not damaging, and you cannot be accused of lying.

In other words, an interpretation that tears down loving relationships is always inferior to one that builds up the love of God and neighbor, even if it is not the “correct” interpretation or the author’s original intent.

Jesus shows himself at work in this, for he is the both the only completely correct interpretation of Scripture, and in a very real sense its author, since he is the living Word of God. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and he is there — and here, and everywhere, at all times and in all places — to preach good news, of release from captivity, of freedom and favor — to build up in love, not to tear down in condemnation. For as the evangelist John would later say, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.” It is about building up.

True preaching of the gospel will always point us back to those eternal truths: that Jesus is the Son of God, the word spoken through the prophets, the Word of God made flesh, fulfilled in every gracious moment, and all for the love of God. May all of our preaching and teaching and learning and hearing keep us ever mindful of that eternal Word.+

Not Alone In This

SJF • Last Epiphany 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
No prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.+

One of the most interesting characters in the legends of ancient Greece is Cassandra. She was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba — the king and queen of Troy, that ancient city that got into trouble when Cassandra’s brother Paris abducted Helen of Sparta. Sparta and its Greek allies launched a thousand ships to start a war that lasted ten years, just to win her back. I’ll tell you, sometimes the legends of ancient Greece sound like a cross between “Days of Our Lives” and “The World at War”!

But back to Cassandra, daughter of the Trojan royal family: she was so beautiful that, according to the myth, even the god Apollo fell for her. Instead of a box of chocolates and some flowers, he gave her the gift of prophecy. Oracles were his specialty, after all. However, Cassandra didn’t reciprocate Apollo’s love. I guess that’s natural — I mean, after all, he gave her the gift to see right through him, and know what he was after — a dangerous gift it seems to me for a man to give to the object of his affection! (I think we’re getting back into “Days of Our Lives” territory here.) Well, Apollo didn’t take kindly to this. Cassandra forgot it’s not a good idea to get on the wrong side of a Greek god. Apollo didn’t take away the gift of prophecy, but he added a curse to it: Cassandra would remain a prophet, able to proclaim what was going to happen, but with the added curse that no one would ever believe her.

And it was this curse that finally brought an end to the Trojan War. For when the Greeks seemed finally to give up and go back home, they left that gigantic wooden horse outside the gates of the city that had withstood the siege for ten years. And the Trojans didn’t believe poor Cassandra when she shouted from the top of the tower: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!” True to the curse, the Trojans didn’t believe her; they hauled in the wooden horse, and that night the Greek SWAT team crept out of hiding in the horse’s belly, opened the gates, and let in the army to enter and take the city. And ever since, the name Cassandra has been attached to someone whose warnings go unheeded.

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Have you ever experienced that in your own life? Perhaps you’ve given someone some sage advice that they ignored, and ended up paying for it. You’re left either to commiserate or say, “I told you so” — and neither one of those is very satisfactory, is it? I’m sure there must have been more than a few financial advisors who said, “You really need to diversify your portfolio. I know Bernie Madoff’s offering a great return — an almost unbelievable return — but it’s better to play it safe and spread your investments around.” Scientists have been warning about global climate change for decades — but it’s taken huge chunks of the Antarctic ice-shelf collapsing, and glaciers thousands of years old disappearing for people finally to take notice — and there are still people out there who deny it is even happening!

Prophets often go unheeded — even when the prophecy is no more than common sense; and that can be, let me tell you, a very discouraging experience — when you see something, a danger that you try to warn people of, but they pay you no mind, or take you seriously.

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Clearly that is how Elijah felt, in that powerful episode from the First Book of Kings. He’s ready to call it quits — earlier in the chapter he says he’s ready to die, but when God’s angel offers encouragement he continues on the run for his life. His zeal for God has not won him any friends, and it seems that all Israel is against him. He’s spoken the truth to confront their idolatry, and what has it gotten him? So he high-tails it to the mountains and hides in a cave. God speaks to him, asking him, “What are you doing here?” And Elijah offers his excuse — everybody’s against him; he’s the only prophet left. And God tells him to “step into his office” — to come out of the cave, for the Lord is about to pass by.

And what a passing by it is! God puts on a spectacular show of power: wind so strong it splits rocks, an earthquake that shakes the mountain, and a powerful fire. And yet God is not in these powerful, noisy forces — but rather in that sound of silence (a more accurate translation than“still, small voice” we are accustomed to). And out of that silence, God repeats the question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Interesting how asking the same question twice forces the one you ask to think hard about his answer! Even though he says the same thing, I’m sure you can detect a little bit of doubt begin to creep into Elijah’s voice when he answers the second time, talking about how zealous he’s been, how solitary and alone, the only one who hasn’t forsaken the true God.

And that is when God drops the full truth on him, and the full depth of what God is about to do. God tells Elijah to get back to work, to anoint new kings, and a new prophet to succeed him — and they will tramp out the vintage of the grapes of wrath, slaughtering up and down the country all of those who have turned away from God to worship idols. And that is where the full truth comes in: Elijah’s mission has not been a failure. He is not the only one left. He has not been alone in the task. In fact, there are seven thousand others who have not been deceived, seven thousand others who have believed his prophecy, remained loyal to the Lord, not bowed the knee to the false Syrian thunder-god Baal, nor kissed his bovine statue. To put it in contemporary language, “They haven’t taken any bull.”

Elijah has not been a Cassandra after all — he has not been a solitary voice, ignored by all. In fact, a good number have heard and believed him — it is not “Elijah against the world.” His prophecy was understood and received by others, even when it seemed to him that no one cared.

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This is in part the point that the Apostle Peter is making when he says that prophecy isn’t a matter of speaking, and not listening as well. The prophetic message is confirmed by the believers who accept it — and by their own experience showing them the prophecy is true. Peter himself had heard Jesus promise that some of the disciples would see him revealed in glory — and Peter assures those to whom he wrote that it actually happened. He’s not making this up, people! He was there, on the mountain, and the promise was fulfilled, when he saw Jesus transfigured, robed in dazzling whiteness, and joined by Moses and Elijah. And so it was that the prophetic message was more fully confirmed. It wasn’t just his own individual experience, but that of James and John as well. It wasn’t a matter of personal interpretation — rather it was a confirmation of his actual experience, in that small company of apostles on the mountain, when God spoke through the cloud, out of the silence, to announce the presence of his Son, the Beloved.

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And so it is that the church has preached and prophesied ever since. It isn’t just me speaking to you, but you listening to me; it isn’t just me speaking at all, but also my listening to you, and to my teachers in the faith, and the many teachers in the faith that all of us have had, as we listen together to the words of God — not in a whirlwind, or an earthquake, or a fire: but speaking to us out of the silence of our own attentive listening, listening as we always do for the voice of God’s Son, the Beloved. We are not alone in this: we are together. And we find the words to be true because they accord with what we have been shown and know.

And just as God did not leave Elijah on the mountain, or the Lord Jesus leave the apostles on the mount of Transfiguration, so too we are sent forth, sent out on a mission with the message more fully confirmed, and the dawning of the morning star rising in our hearts — forth from this place where we gather to hear God’s word and find ourselves transfigured, commissioned by God’s power to go forth and spread that message to others, so that they too may become disciples of our Lord and God.

And as we go we will find that we are not alone in this missionary task either — others have planted seeds which we may water in the work of evangelism; we are not the only church in town, and thanks be to God there are many thousands who have not bowed the knee to the idols of our age — to easy wealth and scornful greed, of selfishness and scant care for others. No, we will find that the message has gone before us, and our main task will be to confirm — to remind those who received God’s word but have perhaps not yet acted upon it, that now is the time, the acceptable time, the year of the Lord’s favor, to do his work and will.

May we, my sisters and brothers in Christ, be strengthened in this confidence, not relying simply on our own personal interpretation, but in our communal discernment; encouraged as Elijah was, as were Peter, James and John— confirmed in the knowledge that God sends us out to do his work for the spread of his kingdom; through the coming Lenten season and beyond, to the eternal and never-ending Eastertide, to the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.+

The Scattered Word

SJF • Proper 10a • Tobias Haller BSG

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path... other seeds fell on rocky ground... other seeds fell among thorns... other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain.

This Sunday we hear the first in a series of gospel lessons about seeds, parables in which Jesus uses agricultural imagery. Jesus, though a carpenter, must have been well familiar with the farming and gardening that went on in the lands in which he lived and traveled — as were the people of those lands. So he often made use of these images in his teaching.

Today’s parable shows someone sowing seed by the method that goes by the name “broadcasting” — and it may come as a surprise to hear that this term has been around a lot longer than radio or television. It consists of walking through the field and tossing the seed every which way, scattering and casting it abroad. You may have seen the logo of the book publisher Simon and Shuster, that shows a little man walking along with a sack of seed, his head tilted up, not even particularly looking where he’s going, just tossing the seed behind and around him. That’s the original “broadcasting.”

Jesus tells his disciples that the seed in his parable stands for the word, so it is not at all strange that a book publisher should use this same symbol as a logo. After all, a publisher’s business is to spread the word too, in the form of books — the written word printed on paper and distributed abroad. And this is true as surely as Jesus intended it to refer to the Word we know as the Gospel, the written word of God, the word of the kingdom scattered and spread to the four corners of the earth.

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Now, it may seem at first that broadcasting the seed is wasteful and extravagant. Why not just choose where the seed is to go, choose only the most fertile soil, prepare it, plow it and till it, and only plant the seed in the furrows. Well, to pick up our publishing analogy, you might just as well say, why publish a book? Why not find out just who wants to know what is in the book and send it directly to them. But, of course, that’s not a book — it’s a letter! That’s not publishing, but correspondence.

Publishing requires a wider reach, a greater spread, a more adventuresome approach. There is a risk of some loss in publishing just as there is in scattering your seed by broadcasting it. You may think you understand your audience, and do a lot of research about targeting a particular group for your publication, but once a book is printed and distributed, you never know for certain what will become of it. It might be a best-seller, or instead languish on the shelves only to be “remaindered” and sold at a huge discount so as not to be a total loss.

But on the plus side, you never know how many hands a book may pass through in its lifetime; one book can have many, many readers: the public library is a testimony to that fact. But the same is true of our own personal libraries. As you know, Father Forsyth, who in his retirement was a member of this parish, had served as a priest for well over half a century — and accumulated many books along the way. At his death, those books came to the rectory, where they still are. And every time I consult one of them when I’m working on a sermon or an essay, I’m reminded of Father Forsyth, because his name is written in neat little letters on the inside cover of each of them. So I benefit from them, and learn from them, as he did — and who knows how many others will do the same in the years and decades to come, and gain from what they read, and bring forth fruit, thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold?

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The thing about books is that the message they contain is for people who may not even know they need to hear it. And so it is with the Scripture itself, the written Word of God, that “book of books” we call the Bible. The message of salvation it conveys is most needed by the people who have yet to hear it, the people who don’t even know about it. Now, that doesn’t mean it will bear fruit in all of them — there are some who receive it eagerly but will not profit from it: like rocky soil where the seed can’t put down roots. Some may well receive the word, and have it taken from them by others, like birds who snatch up the seed from the path. Some may embrace the word but find that other cares and concerns stifle it out, like thorns that choke the seed.

But others, ah those others, who are like good soil, not only receive the word but do something with it, understanding it and bringing forth — what? Why, more seed! They bear fruit and multiply the seed and become broadcasters themselves, eager to share the Word they have understood and put into practice.

And this is what God desires, that the word that goes forth from his mouth shall not return to him empty, but accomplish that which God has purposed, and succeed in the thing for which God sent it. God, who broadcasts the Word, does so in order to maximize the opportunities for growth and productivity — and even unlikely soil gets the chance to be productive. Who knows, maybe that crack in the sidewalk holds enough soil to sprout at least a little. Who knows, maybe the rocky soil will give a bit when the rains come and water the earth, so that the seed might have a chance; or the thorns not be so tenacious and obstructive; or the birds might even find a tasty worm to add variety to their diet, and choose it instead of the seed!

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We are, of course, called to be the good soil — receptive to the word but also productive: to bring forth a harvest of the word, and to take up the task as sowers who continue to spread it. As our collect today puts it, we are called not only to know and understand what things we ought to do, but to pray to have the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. We are, in short, to be fruitful and multiply the word of God.

And there is none so weak or small but may find service here. The word that a Christian proclaims need not be as eloquent as a sermon or a testimony. As the old song says, even those of us who cannot preach like Peter, or cannot preach like Paul, can still “tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all.” Even a young child, filled with the love of God and the Spirit of God, can cry out, “Abba! Father!” That Spirit is planted in our hearts through the grace and gift of God, and dwells within us, taking root and bringing forth fruit, as we — all of us adopted children — join our voices together and cry out to our Abba, our Father, our God.

And others, hearing that word, will take it in as well, as it takes root within them. The word shall go forth and shall not return empty, but accomplish that which God purposes, and succeed in the thing for which God sent it: the word of salvation, broadcast and published to the furthest extent of the world. So let us join in the task, dear friends, let us bring forth abundantly, and equipped with the word to spread, and the spirit to spread it, “publish glad tidings, tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption and release!”+

Dry Bones

SJF • Lent 5a • Tobias Haller BSG

The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Well, here it is the Fifth Sunday in Lent and already we are beginning to get hints of what is to come on Easter — the resurrection of the dead. We hear Saint Paul’s reminder to the Romans, to which I referred two weeks ago: that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life. And Ezekiel and John present us with two very explicit and compelling images of death and life. The prophet tells of being set down in the midst of something that looks like it came right out of a horror movie, a valley full of dry human bones — all that’s missing is the Terminator’s metal foot crunching up the skulls; and the evangelist shocks us with what must have been an equally terrifying moment for the crowd of people gathered at that tomb, as the mummy-like figure of Lazarus emerges still tied and wrapped in the linen bands of death.

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These are vivid images and powerful testimonies in part because they go against our common sense everyday experience of life and death. Death we have seen; but resurrection is not in our actual experience. Who among us here has not lost a friend or relative to death? Who among us has not known that empty feeling, and the knowledge that things don’t work the other way — the way they are described in these biblical passages this morning? The film doesn’t run backwards. Dead people don’t come walking out of their graves; the doors on the fancy mausoleums up at Woodlawn never get opened from the inside. Skeletons don’t put on flesh and stand up to take a breath of fresh air. This is just not the way things work.

And yet, in spite of our experience — or perhaps I should say in this case our lack of experience — still we have this faith that this will not always be the way of things. Still we have this faith that death is not in fact the end, and that the miraculous events of which we hear from prophets and evangelists alike are still awaiting us out there at some future time when the world is fully redeemed and reborn through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

And why is it so? Why do we believe in the resurrection of the dead — since none of us have actually seen it happen? What is it that gives us this sense that there is more to life than just this one go-round. You know, Christianity isn’t the only religious tradition that teaches that there is more to life than just a “once-through and then you’re done.” It isn’t even only the three religious traditions deriving from the faith of Abraham — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — that teach there is a life in the world to come. Even ancient pagan Greek philosophers believed in the immortality of the soul; and the Egyptians built their pyramids and wrapped their mummies with a purpose, not just to kill time — or to ensure full employment or a big government budget! The Brahmans and the Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and the Confucians honor their ancestors as if they were still alive. Very few people who have walked this good earth of ours have ever believed that “this is it and that’s the end.”

But why? Is it just our sense that it simply isn’t fair; that it’s like taking children to a wonderful amusement park and then telling them they can only have one ticket for one ride and then you have to leave? Is it just wish fulfillment, just a forlorn hope in an outmoded faith? Well if it is, then we are, as Saint Paul said to the Corinthians, “of all people the most to be pitied”!

There is, of course, the other possibility — and it is why we are here instead of sleeping late on a Sunday morning, especially having lost an hour to Daylight Savings Time — or sitting at home reading the Sunday Times. It is because of faith, and because of hope — faith and hope in things we have not seen, things reported to us from thousands of years ago that we have no reason to believe except our own inner conviction, that feeling you get deep inside when you know something is right. And it is the source of that inner conviction of which I wish to speak — for it is the source of that inner conviction that gives breath and life to the dry bones of what might otherwise simply be a doctrine, the source of that faith that moves us beyond the Scripture itself into the life which the Scripture promises — just as the story of the valley of dry bones is itself much more than a historical episode — it is a prophetic vision of how God works and is at work even now.

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When the Spirit of God sets Ezekiel down in that valley of dry bones, God challenges the prophet with a question, much as we are challenged. “Mortal, can these bones live?” The prophet’s answer, if it were based on his own experience, would likely have been, “Of course not. Dead people stay dead; that’s what death means. After a few days the body begins to stink and decay; and as for these dead here in this valley, well they’ve been dead so long the flesh has long since turned to dust.”

Thus Ezekiel could have answered in the practical fashion of Mary and Martha in our gospel. Mary shows her anguished disappointment that it is too late: that if only Jesus had come sooner he might have prevented this death. And Martha, as much as she believes in Jesus, and the eventual resurrection of the dead, right then and there she reminds Jesus that her brother’s body is four days dead, and ripe.

Ezekiel, however, is a prophet. He knows that God is up to more than simply planting him in a valley of dry bones and asking him a question to which a negative answer seems obvious. No, God is clearly up to something, and so, as a prophet — or as some might say an astute politician — rather than answering yes or no Ezekiel says to God, “You know.”

And indeed, God does know; and commands Ezekiel to begin to prophesy, and the bones come together just like in the old song, shin-bone to knee-bone to thighbone, with a whole lot of rattling! And then comes the sinewy cartilage and then the fleshy muscles and finally skin covering them all nice and neat and newly packaged like fresh-made sausages in their casings.

But they are still as dead as sausages. The bodies are reconstructed, but there is no life in them. Something is missing. God knows it and Ezekiel knows it. And just as Jesus speaks at the tomb of Lazarus, not out of his own need, but for the sake of those standing by, so God commands Ezekiel one more time, to prophesy to the wind from the four corners of the earth to enter and literally to inspire those bodies and bring them to life.

This breath, this inspiration, this spirit is the missing element, the spirit of faith and of hope that lifts up and revivifies people who claim their bones are dried up, and their hope is lost, and that they are cut off completely from any future, hopeless and faithless.

The breath that brings them back to life is the spirit of faith and hope that fills us with the knowledge of the truth of God’s call from death to life. This is the spirit of faith and hope that fills that gap in our experience of the world — a world in which we have yet to see a resurrection — and yet convicts us in our heart of hearts with an assurance so deep that nothing can shake it.

This is the Spirit of life and inspiration that fills us when we take up the Scripture — its pages are as dry and lifeless as the bones in the valley. But they can come to life as the Spirit flows through our hearts and our minds as we encounter their testimony: and by faith and hope are raised from the dead. This is, in the long run, the difference between the pagans and us: God has given all humanity a glimpse of the truth that this is not the end, but has given to us a written Word in the Scripture, and what is more, a living Word in Jesus Christ — whom we encounter as we worship in Spirit and in Truth.

It is nothing less than the Spirit of God himself that is within us that gives us life. It is nothing less than the Spirit of God himself that teaches us truths of which no mere mortal experience can instruct us. This Holy Spirit teaches us that if God can give life to our mortal bodies by means of the earthly breath we first take in when the doctor or midwife holds us up and gives us a good slap to shock us into mortal life — how much more will God’s own Spirit give new life to our immortal bodies by the spiritual breath that rushes upon us and calls us from our graves. Even in the midst of Lent, this is our Easter hope and Easter faith, which we proclaim as true not because we have seen it, but because God’s Spirit has been poured into our hearts to ratify the testimony of the Scripture that it is true — the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

As God said to Ezekiel, it is by the Spirit we shall know that God has spoken and acted. What now we discern in the Scripture and hope for in our lives, what now we hold by faith, we shall then behold in earnest, as called from our graves by the powerful Spiritof the one who calls us forth, we take full possession of the new life promised us in Jesus Christ our Lord — the promise fulfilled, the bonds of death dissolved, so that, unbound and free, we will rejoice and live with him for ever and ever.+

Voices of God

SJF • Last Epiphany C 2007 • Tobias Haller BSG

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
We come now to the end of the Epiphany season, and our Gospel reading ends on a note that resounds as an echo to the Gospel reading with which the season began. On that first Sunday after the Epiphany we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus — and commemorated our own. The Gospel for that day ended with the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Today we commemorate Christ’s transfiguration on the mountain, where he reveals himself to his three closest chosen disciples. And again the voice of God speaks on the mountain, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

The commandment to “listen to him” is not just for Peter, James and John; it is given to us as well; we too are commanded to listen to the voice of Jesus the Son of God. And we obey this commandment in many ways in the church.

Most importantly, we listen for the voice of God in the Holy Scriptures, and we are most attentive to God and readiest to hear his voice as we experience the reading of the Bible week by week in church, in the context of our worship, where our voices blend together, not simply reading and hearing and listening, but singing, praying and celebrating as well.

There is much debate these days about Scripture and its meaning and interpretation and authority. Sad to say, some people seem to want to reduce the Bible to a kind of Berlitz phrase book where you can get all the answers — especially answers telling other people what to do! There are others who want to treat the Bible like a reference book you pull down off the shelf only when you need it, rather than as a constant companion on our daily pilgrimage. And I want to reflect today on how we best make use of the Bible — not as a stopgap — but as a guide for our lives, and a companion with us on our journey: a lamp unto our feet and a compass for our pilgrimage.

It is first of all important to note that while we call the Bible the Word of God, we do not call it the words of God. For unlike the Qur’an, which according to Muslim belief was written by one man as a single volume at the direct dictation of Allah, our Bible was recorded by many hands — human hands — over many centuries. And only the tablets from the mountaintop are said to have been written directly by the hand of God — all the rest comes to us from human hands. The scriptures were assembled over many years from the experiences of many people from the whispers God whispered in their ears, or the shouts God shouted from the hillsides, but also including and expressing their own reflections and history, their own thoughts, prayers, and opinions. Our Bible does not speak with just a single voice. It is even more than a dialogue between God and one faithful interpreter. It is rather a chorus of voices, some of which claim to speak for God, but many of which represent not God’s voice but a human response to God. In this mix of many voices we need to listen very carefully, and take care to distinguish between what is truly God’s word for us, and what may have been intended as God’s word for someone; or to discern what isn’t God’s word at all, but merely a human opinion.

Sometimes the Scripture writers themselves make it relatively easy for us to tell the difference. When the prophets say, “Thus says the Lord,” we ignore them at our peril. Other times it is equally clear that the scripture is not recording God’s words, but human words, words spoken in response to God. Often the scripture is plain historical record, as in the books of the Kings and Chronicles; often the writer of the particular passage is offering us his or her own wisdom or prayer, as in Proverbs or the Psalms. When David says, “I called to the Lord in my distress,” it is clearly David who is distressed, and David who is speaking — not God. Similarly, Saint Paul often lets us in on his thoughts, and in a few cases, as in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, he is takes great pains to note the difference between God’s commandments and his own opinion. He wrties, “I say — I and not the Lord” as he gives his opinion on what Christians married to nonbelievers should or shouldn’t do. Saint Paul would no doubt be scandalized to hear people claiming — as some do today — that everything he wrote or said should be treated as if it was “the Word of God.” He had the humility to confess that he often spoke with the “tongues of mortals” and was more often a clanging gong than he wished he was!

And this is where the difficulties arise. For often, discerning God’s voice among the many voices that speak to us in Scripture is not so simple. Most texts to not come with handy labels saying, “Thus says the Lord,” on the one had or “Peter said, ‘Let us make three dwellings’” on the other — and Scripture attests that Peter didn’t know what he was saying! And even when the prophet does say, “Thus says the Lord,” how can we be sure that what the prophet speaks is truly God’s word. Scripture records at least one incident in 1 Kings chapter 22, when the prophets all speak wrongly — 400 of them promise victory to the king, claiming, “Thus says the Lord.” And when one lone prophet warns that their promises are mistaken, they turn on him and literally slap him upside the face and have him put in jail!

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So a large part of the church’s task is to help its many members with how best to understand and act upon the saving message the Scripture holds for us. This is why the Bible, in which God speaks to us through many voices, is best heard and understood in the church, the gathered assembly which is the body of Christ, and of which we are individual members.

This is not to say that we should not also do our own personal reading of the Bible — and I hope all of you have this discipline as part of your Christian walk; and if not, may I recommend it would be an excellent thing to take up during Lent, which is about to begin this Wednesday!

But private reading of the Scripture is never enough by itself: it is in the interchange that takes place in the church, the ability of each member to say, “I think this is what it means” that we come to better understandings than we could come to on our own — for the Scripture is not a matter of any one individual’s interpretation, but rather the gathered wisdom of the members of the church comparing notes, as we seek together to grasp at God’s meaning. It is in the church, which is to say, in Christ, that as Saint Paul said, the veil is lifted from our minds so that we can together understand the Scripture.

Still, it is obvious to anyone who reads the papers there are still disagreements as to what Scripture says, what it means, and what it means for us. It has often been said that if the Scripture were plain and clear there wouldn’t be so much division and dissension among Christians! There is scarcely a verse of Scripture that has not been disputed at some time or another — even something as seemingly straightforward as “Thou shalt not kill” has been debated in causes as remote as capital punishment and a “just” war.

However, within our Anglican tradition, we have been given a rare opportunity to continue to discuss the meaning of Scripture for us, for we Anglicans — exceptionally among Christian bodies — take very seriously Saint Paul’s words: we know only in part; we do not claim certainty; or infallibility, as I mentioned last week: and we have proclaimed from the Reformation on that we believe the Scriptures to be “sufficient unto salvation” — that is, not that the Scripture is infallible or inerrant, but that the Scripture, as the Prayer Book says on page 868, “containeth all things necessary to salvation.” We have the faith and hope that even though we make mistakes, God will lift the veil to help us understand his will for us, sufficiently to the end which he intends: which is our salvation.

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But even with the veil thus partially removed by faith and hope, we still have at hand the difficult task of understanding as best we can what God means for the church and the world, to find the voice of God among the many voices both in Scripture and in the church itself. Richard Hooker, the sixteenth century theologian and single most important architect of what we now call Anglicanism, often referred to this process as “sifting” the Scripture. And this is a useful analogy for the task.

Some years ago a friend of composer John Cage sent him and his collaborator David Tudor: a box each of assorted Indian spices. Upon opening the packages, they found the lids had come off the spice-jars, and the spices were all mixed together. Cage simply put the whole mess in a corner of his apartment and tried to forget about it, but Tudor set about assembling a selection of sieves of varying sizes, from coarse to extremely fine, and over several weeks sifted through the mixture of spices until he had separated each and every grain back to its original jar. He then went to John Cage and said, “Whevever you’re ready to start on yours, so am I.”

The Scriptures are like those mixed up spices. We have, for example, two creation stories in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis; two accounts of the flood woven together; there are four Gospels that disagree on a number of points — and these are just a few examples of the jumble. Agnostics and atheists look at the jumble and decide they don’t want to bother with it. At the other extreme, Biblical fundamentalists imagine we’re not dealing with various spices at all, just a particularly unusual blended curry. But we Anglicans hold that Scripture is a mixture of many different ingredients, that we can come to understand better as we sift and separate them.

In doing this we have at our disposal a number of “sieves.” I’ve already mentioned the importance of the community of the church, and its faith and hope. Also important is the study of the ancient languages in which the Scriptures were first written. So too is the knowledge of history and culture, to understand that a given turn of phrase may mean something very different in different times and places. Then since we are dealing in all cases with very ancient manuscripts, many of which are damaged, all of which are copies of copies of copies of now lost originals, we look to the study of how manuscripts are edited, and the kinds of mistakes people make when they copy things by hand. Then too the study of the many literary forms in which the Scripture is written can help us understand them better: from the short, sharp wisdom of a proverb, to the extended meditation of a psalm, from the historical narratives to the challenging symbolism of the apocalyptic books like Daniel and Revelation.

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But ultimately there is one final sieve that we will employ if we are truly to understand God’s meaning for us. All the other tools of human wit and wisdom will do no good in passing on God’s message, even the divine gifts of faith and hope will be of no avail, without the most important tool at our disposal. Saint Paul said it best, in words that have challenged the church for nearly two thousand years: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Love is the finest sieve that separates out all the harshness, all of the roughness from the Scripture to leave the pure gold of the Word of God. It smooths the rude accents of anger and self-righteousness with which some of the biblical speakers speak, and it shapes our understanding too as we read the text not to find a weapon against someone with whom we disagree, but an opening for grace and love to thrive and grow.

Remember, beloved, that love is the purpose for which God’s written word came to us. And even more importantly love is the reason God’s Incarnate Word, God’s own beloved Son, came to us to be with us. For just as God gives us the Scripture to guide us, so too God loved the world so much that he gave us his only Son to the end that we should not perish, but have everlasting life. Love is God’s sufficient purpose for us; love is also thesufficient means by which God comes to us in word and in person, and love is the means by which we can begin to come to God, and to some understanding of God’s will for us.

In all of our reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the Scripture, let our minds be seasoned with the knowledge of God’s love: for it is only in his love that we will understand God and his loving purposes for us. The law has come to an end in Christ. As for prophecies, they will come to an end as well. Only love never ends, the greatest of God’s gifts, incarnate in his own beloved Son, his Chosen one: let us, beloved, do as God commands, and listen to him.+

The Bible and the Church

Easter 5b • SJF • Tobias S Haller BSG

Philip said to the Ethiopian, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He said to him, “How can I, unless someone guides me.”
It is no secret that there has been some significant tension in the Anglican Communion over the last several years. One of the sources of tension has revolved around the place of the Holy Scriptures in the life of the church. In the late 90s, the Bishop of New York appointed me to serve on a committee charged with drafting a statement concerning the Anglican view of the Scripture. Now, it might be surprising to some to hear that there is such a thing as an Anglican view. But one of the characteristics that distinguish each of the various traditions in Christendom lies in how each of these differing members of the one Body of Christ understand and regard the Scripture.

So today I want to take advantage of the reading from Acts as a springboard to talk about a very important and central belief in the Christian faith as Anglicans have received and understand it: the role and place of the Bible.

Just about every Christian church holds the Bible in a special place in its life and worship. Perhaps it comes as a surprise to you to hear that not all churches treat the Bible in the same way. But the way Anglicans regard the Bible is not the same as the Roman Catholics or the Baptists or the Methodists, or the Eastern Orthodox, to say nothing of those who wander further afield and produce their own Scriptures — such as the Mormons. They have added an entire additional volume of Scripture to the Holy Bible, which they call Another Testament of Jesus Christ.

But even among the other traditions I mentioned, there is not complete agreement even on what makes up the Bible. The Roman Catholic Old Testament has books that Protestants do not accept as Scripture, in spite of the fact that the early church accepted them as such. These are books from the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures used in the days of Jesus and Paul, including some books not originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic — books of the wisdom and prophetic tradition, along with the history of the Jewish people in the days of the Maccabees: the time when Greek culture, language and governance dominated the Mediterranean world. Protestants generally rejected these Greek additions, and instead accepted only the older Hebrew and Aramaic material for their version of the Old Testament — again, in spite of the fact that Saint Paul and the early church make reference to these Greek scriptures in their teaching.

Anglicans — with our usual desire to find a compromise and cover all the bases — accept these books that the Protestants reject, but put them in a separate category: suitable for instruction but not for doctrine — a neat solution similar to having ones cake and eating it too!

So one of the things where Anglicans differ with many of the other Christian traditions lies in the books of which we consider the Bible to consist. But before I go into any more of the differences, let me mention the things we have in common with most of Christendom when it comes to the Holy Scripture.

First of all, we hold the Bible to be a unique record of God’s saving work from creation through redemption. We hold it to contain revelations of God that we could not find by any other means. That is, you don’t need the Bible to tell you that murder or theft is wrong, even though the Bible will tell you that — for this is part of universal human knowledge and isn’t peculiar to Jews and Christians. But nature or reason alone cannot tell you that God created the world, or that Jesus Christ redeemed it. These sublime truths are available to us only because God has told us this through trustworthy witnesses — the prophets whom God inspired, and the apostles who witnessed and testified to the work of God in Christ — and we accept their testimony.

Second, in common with almost all Christians we make use of the Scripture in our worship, public and private. We not only read Scripture as part of our liturgy — the Daily Offices and the Holy Eucharist — but we encourage people to read and study the Bible on their own.

So much for what we have in common. But we quickly come to differences between the churches once we move beyond these basics. The first is the one I alluded to earlier, the very contents of what you will find between the leather covers of a Bible varies from one tradition to another.

That is important when it comes to some matters — most of them hot button issues at the time of the Protestant Reformation when the Protestant Bible was pared down to eliminate parts of it that the Roman Catholics were using to support their view over some of the bones of contention, such as prayers for the dead and the invocation of saints. (It’s strange, but so often the do-and-die issues of earlier ages come to seem of so little importance in following years. I wonder if we’ll ever learn?)

However, the most important difference between us Anglicans and those of the other Christian traditions lies in how we understand the Bible. At the Reformation, when the Church of England took the form in which we know it today, battles were raging not just about which books were Scripture and which were not, but about how the Scripture — whatever it consisted of — was to be understood.

There were three basic traditions in play at the time: the Roman, the Reformed, and the Anabaptist. The relics of these traditions remain in how the present day Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Baptists regard the Scripture.

The Roman view elevated Tradition to an equal level with Scripture, and placed full authority for biblical interpretation in the hands of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. This allowed the Roman Church to teach doctrines that were not mentioned in the Scripture, or which couldn’t be proved by it — such as that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin, or that she was bodily assumed into heaven at her death — and to enforce acceptance of these dogmas.

The Reformers took a similarly restrictive view when it came to biblical interpretation: it was to be in the hands of the church leadership. But while they rejected the Roman tendency to require things beyond theScripture,they went further in the other direction: so that if something wasn’t in Scripture you not only couldn’t require it, but you couldn’t do it. So they objected to things such as the use of a wedding ring in marriage — no wedding rings in the Bible! — vestments for clergy, the baptism of infants, or the distinction between the offices of presbyter and bishop — which they understood as two different words for the same office.

The Anabaptists, on the third hand, were the liberal freethinkers of their day: for them the understanding of the Scripture was up to the individual, whom God would inspire with a true understanding, and without benefit of clergy to guide or instruct. This led to a multiplication of many smaller and smaller sects as private interpretation splintered the various groups as they followed different teachers. Later, in this country, a number of theories of biblical inerrancy or biblical literalism developed out of this school of thought.

So, Anglicans found themselves poised in the middle of this triangle of extreme views. In particular, we found a middle point between the Roman tendency to require belief in things you couldn’t find in Scripture, and the Puritan tendency to forbid anything that couldn’t be proved by Scripture.

We came up with the wonderful word sufficient: the belief that God has a purpose for Scripture — and that purpose is salvation. That is what Scripture is for: to lead us into God’s way, God’s truth, and ultimately, God’s life. The most important teachings in Scripture aren’t the things that you could find out by common sense, and without the church’s help, such as that theft and murder are wrong. The truly important supernatural teaching of Scripture is that God created us, and in Christ has redeemed us, and that we are capable of becoming children of God through the grace of God.

So the Anglicans denied the church power to require anything to be believed as essential to salvation if it could not be proved from the Scripture. And at the same time held that the church did have the authority to allow things about which Scripture was silent, as long as they worked for the good of the church and the people — so we could keep our wedding rings, vestments, infant baptism and bishops!

But what about that Anabaptist view — that sense that every Christian had the right to be his own Pope and decide what Scripture meant for him or herself? Well, this is where the Ethiopian eunuch comes in. What did he say to Philip? “How am I to understand unless someone guides me?” Guidance is crucial — guidance on the Way to the Truth and the Life; guidance which all we pilgrims need: but guidance, not coercion.

So we Anglicans ask a similar question, and what’s more important, have an answer, in our Catechism. Page 853 of the Book of Common Prayer lists this question, “How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?” and answers, “We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.” And as the Catechism goes on to explain, the Church referred to here is not just the bishops, not just the clergy, but the whole community of the faithful. So while we Anglicans encourage folks to read the Bible on their own, we neither leave them on their own, nor place a commanding prelate or a forbidding puritan a at their shoulders. Rather, we encourage the dialogue and discussion among all of the faithful — clergy and laity alike — that leads to better understanding of those portions of the Scripture we may find it hard to understand — our about which we might disagree.

Ultimately, as Philip showed the Ethiopian, the heart of the Scripture lies in how it points to Christ. He is the living Word of God to whom the written Word of God — the Scripture — leads us in the Way into the Truth, and the Scripture is useful to us only to the extent that it performs that task, a task for which we are assured it is, as the Anglican tradition puts it, sufficient. For its ultimate purpose is to bring us to the new Life of faith — as it did the Ethiopian, who, when once on his Way the Truth was opened to him by the Spirit’s guidance and Philip’s teaching, immediately asked to be baptized into the new Life, to become himself the newest member of Christ’s body, the church.

Most of the tension in the present life of the Anglican Communion would vanish in a flash as sudden as Philip’s disappearance if we would simply take Jesus the Word of God at his word! The Scripture is not hard to understand in this respect, though we find it hard to put it into practice. He has told us mortals what is asked of us — it is amply stated in John’s teaching to us today in both epistle and gospel: the commandment of God is to believe in Christ and to love one another. Got that?

When Jesus summarized the law in his commandment to love God and neighbor, when he taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do unto others as we would be done by, he meant what he said, and he gave us both a task and a promise. Those in Christ who love their sisters and brothers in this way — doing for them as they would be done by — have observed God’s commandment. All the rest is commentary.

My sisters and brothers, as I prepare for the General Convention this summer, where I will serve as a deputy from this diocese, along with three other priests, four lay persons, and the three bishops who serve New York, this is what I will keep in mind and heart. The Scripture is sufficient to salvation, for it has told me the truth that is so simple a little child can sing it: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. This simple truth is my armor against doubt, against judgment, against those who seek division and domination, against bigotry and ignorance, against pride and power, against all who would diminish human dignity or deny human worth.

So, as Christ taught us in his Word, “Let us love one another, not in word or speech but in truth,” neither condemned by our hearts nor dismayed by those who would demean us or deny us. God is love, beloved sisters and brothers, and we follow his commandments when we love him and each other.Against this the Scripture records neither law nor prophet, but rather the voice of the Lord himself to affirm us in our faith in the power of the Spirit, now and to the end of the ages.+