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.+

The Human Sign

Saint James Fordham • Advent 4a • Tobias Haller BSG

The Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

In the days before the Internet, before television, and long before they started showing commercials in movie theaters, one of the most effective and common kinds of advertisement was called “the sandwich board.” Nowadays sandwich boards have returned with their original purpose, whiteboards or blackboards standing like little A-frames outside of restaurants with the specials of the day written in chalk or multi-colored marker.

Once long ago, some unknown restauranteur got the bright idea to make this fixed sign mobile, and for a few dollars a day, hired a man to wear this sign over his shoulders, and walk up and down the crowded street. No doubt the first few times this happened people were astonished and took notice, and even followed this odd human signpost back to the restaurant for lunch or dinner. But eventually, as more and more cafes took up the idea, and the streets became as crowded with human signposts as with potential customers, the effectiveness wore off, and sandwich boards went back to their place by the doorway.

Although I must confess that just a few weeks ago I encountered someone, not with a sandwich-board, but holding an old fashioned sign on a stick, on the corner of Fifty-Second Street, pointing the way to Hamburger Heaven hidden half-way down the block. (And the hamburgers were heavenly! But I’d never have known about the restaurant without that sign on a stick.)

I noticed the sign chiefly because it was unusual. Most places have given up on the “walking” sandwich board or the hand-held sign. We’ve seen the same kind of fading effect with the banner ads that appear on websites and intrude into our e-mail. The more we see them, the more they become a nuisance, and finally a bore, so that we hardly even see them anymore. We employ other software to prevent their even appearing! And as with the passing of the sandwich boards, new means of advertising have to be sought out. Just as the human signposts of the last century were soon out of work again, so too the internet ad companies struggle and founder to find new ways to purvey their virtual wares.

This is one of the inherent problems in advertising, and with signs of any sort. They may catch our attention at first, but after a while we become used to them, become bored by them, so that they cease being signs — that is, being significant — and just become a blur in the background.

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And yet still we long for signs. There are few things worse than being lost out on the road, map in hand, but without a single street sign to let you know where you are, so that you can use the map to find out how to get where you want to be. You know those signs in shopping malls— the ones that are so helpful because the first thing they show, the first thing you look for, is that all-important arrow and the words “You Are Here” — words that show you where you are so that you can figure out how to get to where you want to go. And with the increasing use of Tom-Toms and Garmins and other such electronic GPS marvels, we can carry around an electronic map that always shows us to be at the center of a virtual world, and will even tell us where to go!

God knows we long for such signs, signs that tell us where we are, to help us find the way to where we want to be. This is so not just in our ordinary daily life but in our spiritual journey as well. If only there were a GPS that monitored our spiritual location and told us how to get to where we needed to be!

God knows just how much we need such pointers on the way, so much so that once long, long ago, God commanded King Ahaz of Judah, worried half to death over the new alliance between Syria and Israel to his north, to ask for a sign from the Lord his God. When Ahaz refused to ask, God said through the prophet Isaiah that God himself would provide a sign. And this sign would not be a wonder of fire from the heavens, nor a pillar of smoke arising from the depths of the earth, but something different, something human, a human sign. A young woman, already pregnant, would have a child, and give him the singular name Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” And before that child would be old enough to reject evil and choose good, God would deal with Israel and Syria by bringing disaster upon them in the form of the king of Assyria, who would destroy them both and carry their inhabitants off to exile.

Now, this human sign must have been just as, if not more, startling than walking sandwich boards the first time they appeared, and for precisely the same reason. We are not used to human signs. In those days people were used to signs made of stone or wood or cast metal, as much as we now are used to signs made up of lights or flashing on the screens of our computers or the GPS on the dashboard. We are not used to signs made of human flesh and blood.

But this was precisely the sort of sign that God chose to give to King Ahaz, the sign of the infant who would not be grown out of childhood before the world would radically change and two kingdoms fall. And more importantly for us, this is the sort of sign that God chose to give again some seven hundred years later, a sign to another Judean faced with doubts, though of a more domestic nature, but a sign that would be as high above Joseph’s worries as those concerns were below the affairs of state that so sorely troubled King Ahaz.

For Joseph’s concern with Mary was of a private, household nature: he had discovered his wife-to-be was pregnant. Being a kind-hearted man — but no fool — he had decided to deal with the matter quietly, saving her and her parents, and himself, serious embarrassment. Yet within this little domestic drama in first century Palestine, a story so low-key it would scarcely make the cut in a modern soap opera, within this family drama God suddenly enters in, raising it from domestic to cosmic. For the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph to tell him that this is no ordinary human situation. No, this is quite extraordinary — nothing less than the power of God made real in human flesh. This is completely unexpected and unusual — nothing less than the entry of the Holy Spirit into the daily lives of men and women through the actions of ordinary men and women, and most especially through the birth and life of one extraordinary child who would grow to become an extraordinary man. And they would call him Emmanuel — God is with us — and they would name him Jesus — Savior!

So it was that God, who once spoke in visions and celestial signs, in this latter age spoke to us in person — in a person, his own beloved Son, begotten of a woman through the power of the Holy Spirit, born to be God with us, and to save us from our sins. God in Christ marks the world with an indelible sign: You are Here, because he is “God with us,” and he shows us how to get to where we need to go, because he is the Way, the Way who leads us in peace to salvation.

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So it is that we have received a sign from the hand of God, but not a sign fixed to one place like the signs outside of restaurants. This is a sign that moves where it wills and reaches us wherever we may be — it is the very spiritual GPS I spoke of before, the thing we most need when we stray from the path. And guess what — we all got one for Christmas. It is right here in our hearts, if we will let Christ in; and if we listen to his voice, he will tell us how to follow him. This is a sign that seeks us out and finds us to tell us that there is something to eat and drink of which we did not know. There is food for salvation, there is a table spread and places set for us, and we need do no more than follow this human sign back to the banquet, the festival meal of those called to be saints.

On this final Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas Eve, we begin to get the glimmer of that human sign’s arrival. Christmas is almost here. Let us not in the bustle of the packages and wrapping paper, in the shower of credit card bills that suddenly appear out of nowhere in the new year, in the crowd of myriad Santa Clauses and the preponderance of reindeers, amidst the trifling whimsey of elves and the militant cheerfulness of insistent jingle bells — let us not in the midst of this sensory overload neglect or overlook the one important sign that God has given us, that human sign, that infant sign, the sign of the child born in Bethlehem, born to be God with us, and to save us from our sins.+