SJF • Proper 28b • Tobias Haller BSGA few weeks ago a priest friend of mine sent me a short note. He is writing a book about the Bible, and how it is used in the church. His note got me thinking, and the collect for today continued my thinking. Because one of the questions he asked me was, “Why don’t Episcopalians know the Bible better?” I agreed with him that this was true of many Episcopalians, and offered a few suggestions as to why this might be the case. I told him how shocked I was to discover in seminary that some of my classmates had never read some of the lesser prophets, to say nothing of the Wisdom literature. But then I also told my priest friend that my congregation did not in general fit that sorry rule.
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.
For while it is sadly true that many Episcopalians never open a Bible from year-to-year, I know that many of you in this congregation read your Bibles regularly. I know this because when I visit members of this congregation at home or in the hospital, I will very often find a Bible sitting by the bedside — or even in someone’s hand! And from the look of the worn covers and page edges, I can tell you don’t just grab the Bible as an emergency lifesaver when you’re feeling low, but you read and study it on a regular basis!
I also know that this congregation has a close relationship with the Bible based on things I’ve observed in our Sunday worship. Our worship shows me that this congregation has a firm grasp on the five steps laid out in our collect for today: to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scripture.
I can see how carefully you listen to the proclamation of the written text — and I can see how you will follow along with the text printed in the bulletin, combining hearing and reading in one step.
I also note how you mark the text — and mark doesn’t mean to get out a highlighter or pencil and adorn the printed page. To mark in the sense our collect means it is to pay attention, to heed what is said or written rather than to ignore it. And it is also in worship that I can see this happening, right before my very eyes. I’ve noticed how you respond to my sermon whenever I refer to the scriptural text. You may not even be aware of it, but every time I see you do it, it makes me proud. For whenever I refer to the scripture reading for the day I see many of you immediately look to the bulletin to find the text to which I am referring. And you do this, I know, not to check that I’m not making things up, but rather to mark the text: to make a mental note of it by seeing the words to which I refer.
If you’ve ever watched artists drawing a portrait or painting a scene, you will see them look back and forth between their subject and their work. They are marking the scene or the subject in order to set out a true likeness or a recognizable landscape. And it is the same with the Scripture. When you hear someone say, “The Scripture says such-and-such,” it is wise to look to the text and see that it really does say what is claimed. One of my favorite seminary professors would challenge students when they made claims about the Bible, by saying, gently, “Show it to me in the text.” Often they would discover that it wasn’t in the text at all! So this is how we mark the texts of Scripture — paying attention to them, as if our Lord were saying, “Mark my words!”
Which brings us to learning. In the first sentence of our gospel today there is a wonderful phrase, a parenthetical comment which says, “Let the reader understand.” (By the way, did you notice how you looked at the text?) Understanding is important — learning what the text means, what it meant to whoever spoke or wrote it, and what it means to us who hear, read, and mark it so as to learn it. Learning, as we all know, doesn’t just mean memorization — although it is wonderful to have a good memory so as to be able to have portions of Scripture at one’s disposal in one’s mind. This is a skill that comes with constant exposure to Scripture by reading it on a regular basis. This is one of the reasons I can refer to Scriptures that are not in the readings for the day with the confidence that you, who have been exposed to Scripture through your own study and reading, will know what I’m referring to.
The Scripture writers themselves did this all the time: for they were writing for people who knew the Scriptures well. Our gospel passage today refers to the book of Daniel, for example, both the abomination that makes desolate, and the idea of understanding the words of the book. The passage we heard from the Letter to the Hebrews alludes to the prophet Habakkuk, “The righteous one will live by faith.” (This was a very popular quotation, by the way; Saint Paul quotes it twice, once in his Letter to the Romans, and once to the Galatians.) My point is that the Scripture is full of these kind of cross-references, quotations and allusions, woven together like cloth with woof and warp — but if you only know the shreds and patches of isolated passages, you won’t have learned to grasp the whole fabric of Scripture.
So it is sad, but true, what my friend observed: many contemporary Episcopalians simply haven’t learned the Bible all that well, because they haven’t marked it, or read it, or even heard all that much of it. The three short portions that they hear on Sunday may be their only experience of the Bible: and believe me, that little hearing and reading will not be enough to learn the Holy Scripture! It would be like thinking you understand dressmaking on the basis of having looked at some fabric swatches.
For as our collect says, there is more than hearing, reading and marking to be done, even more than learning: we are called upon inwardly to digest the Word of God. What a stunning image; for when you digest something it becomes part of you, incorporated into you, a part of your body and your being. That is the level of intimacy that God wants with us — to have the Word of God within us, in our heart and mind and body — so that we may love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.
This is a kind of skillfulness to which God calls and invites us. And acquiring a skill takes a lot of hard work, effort and repetition. Just hearing three bits of Scripture once a week willcertainly not do it. I can guarantee you that even reading the whole Bible through once will not give you the kind of skill God wants you to have. Even reading it twice or three times will not do it. Rather it is the daily exposure to the Word of God through study and reading and reflection that incorporates it into your heart and soul like the food you eat becomes part of your body. So I commend to you regular daily Bible reading, especially through the church’s Daily Office, which is laid out in the Book of Common Prayer starting on page 936 — a program of daily prayer and Scripture. The Daily Office will lead you through all the most important parts of the Bible over a two-year period — and not only you, but the thousands of people throughout the church who will be reading the same passages each day — as if we we’re all part of a huge church without walls — which, if you think of it, we are! That may seem like a big effort, but as with any skill, no matter how hard it may seem at first, it becomes much, much easier with practice — I’ve been doing it for about thirty years myself, so I can testify — that it comes to the point where it may not seem to take much effort at all — it is just part of my day. And when the Scripture becomes part of you, by being a part of your day, you may not even notice it: God’s Word will just be there, resting in your mind and ready to be recalled, a quiet source of inner life of which you may be no more conscious than you are conscious of the beating of your heart.
A 19th century religious sage of Eastern Europe once observed a tightrope walker at a town fair and said, “He makes it look so easy; yet what a degree of skill it takes to walk that rope. If only people would apply themselves to walking in God’s path with such devotion!”
This is the skillfulness to which God invites us through the Word — the Word of God spoken so that we might hear it, written so that we might read it, preached and proclaimed so that we might mark it, studied so that we might learn it, and finally taken inwardly into ourselves to nourish us and help us grow into the stature of Christ, the living Word of God, to whom we ascribe, as is must justly due, all might and majesty, henceforth and forevermore.