Monday, October 21, 2013

22 Pentecost

October 20, 2013

2 Timothy 3.14-4.5

+ Last evening our Diocesan Convention delegates limped home from Diocesan Convention. I think that’s an apt image. It was…well…let’s just say, as Cathy McMullen said last night, an “interesting” convention. Quite a bit contentious on some levels.

But I’m a person who has a somewhat love/hate relationship regarding Diocesan Conventions. I have been to too many of them in my life. On one level, for an extrovert like me, I can say that I always have a good time, no matter how contentious the convention might get. And this one was no exception.

But I must say, that  much the real gist of what happens at Convention happens not on the convention floor. Or at the Convention Eucharist.  Oh no. It happens at the meals. And it happens, yes, in the bar.

It just so happened that one of the most interesting conversations for me happened at the bar on Friday night. It seems that out little congregation of St. Stephen’s has been getting some notice in the diocese. Notice as a progressive, dare I say, “upstart” kind of congregation.

One of the conversation I had was with a deacon from another congregation. She and I have been friends for a very long time. We are still very dear friends.

But, during the course of the night, she said to me, “Jamie, I just don’t understand how, in scripture, you can defend being essentially a liberal, progressive congregation that welcomes all people.”

She said “welcoming” in a kind of derisive way, like it’s a bad thing. As in, “are you saying our congregation is ‘unwelcoming?’”

When I asked her why she had such issue with our supposedly progressive/liberal attitudes, she said, “I just believe  Scripture is clear about certain things that you profess in your congregation to welcome and embrace.”

We all know where she was going with this. I certainly did anyway. 

I said to her, in no uncertain terms, “Be careful, my friend, where you go with this. This is slippery slope, using scripture in such a way.”

“As long as I go with Scripture I will never be wrong,” she said. “Scripture cuts through everything. And with scripture as my guide, as the sword in my hand, I have no need to be careful.”

I smiled. And then I said, you are right. I will concede that. Scripture IS a sword. A two-edged sword, especially for those who use it as a weapon.

And then I very gently warned her, If our intention is to cut people with the swords of scripture, just be prepared that we too will in turn be cut. That is what scripture does when we misuse it.  But if we use scripture as it meant to be used—as an object of love—then it is also two-edged.  If we use it as way of open the channels of God’s love to others, then the channels of God’s love will be opened to us as well.

That, let’s just say, essentially ended out conversion. We, of course, parted friends as we always have. But when it comes to people using scripture as the basis for an arguments such as this, I love crack the knuckles.

I hope it doesn’t surprise anyone here this morning that I truly do love the Bible.  I mean, what kind of priest would I be if I didn’t love the Scriptures? After all, one of the vows I made when I was ordained as a Deacon and later reaffirmed when I was ordained a Priest was this (and renewed these vows yesterday at the Convention Eucharist):

“I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation…”

Now, that might sound like a somewhat fundamentalist view of such things. The scriptures are the Word of God? you might ask.  Even with all the apparent flaws and contradictions? And it contains everything necessary for salvation?  Come on. But I do believe these statements—though not in a fundamentalist way of thinking.

If we look in our Prayer Book, as we do on a very regular basis, back in that place I like to direct us to go sometimes—the Catechism—we find a little expansion on this thinking. On page 853, you will find this question:

“Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?”

The answer:

“We call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks through the Bible.”

I think that is a wonderfully down-to-earth, practical and rational explanation.

In our “Episcopal 101” classes that we do here on a regular basis and several of you have taken,  we have been having fun exploring what Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church are.  One of those fun ones for me, anyway, is what is called Richard Hooker’s three-legged stool.  Some of you might remember this.

Richard Hooker was a great 16th Century Anglican theologian. He explained that Anglican belief was based not on “The Church Alone” of the Roman Catholic Church nor even on “The Word Alone” of some Protestants, but is in fact based on a more balanced view.

The three legs of the stool of Anglicanism are Scripture, Tradition and Reason.  Take one of those legs away, the stool wobbles and falls.  But use all three and you will have a very a balanced view of religion. For example, if we only have Scripture, without Reason or Tradition, we end up with what I consider the heresy of fundamentalism.

And it is a heresy. Anytime we place anything on par with God—any time we claim anything is perfect and without flaw, except God—we have a created an idol. My view is that fundamentalists have made the Bible into an idol.

But for us Episcopalians, our view of scripture is based on a balance of tradition and reason. We can’t just believe anything we want with regard to Scripture.  There are scriptures that we don’t like hearing. But none of gets to edit the Bible.  We don’t get to cross out those things we don’t like. We have to confront them and meet them face-on. And we have to wrestle them and in wrestling with them we must use a good dose of reason, and a good dose of tradition.  And if we do that, we come away from those difficult scriptures with a new sense of what they say to us.

For example,  I personally might not like what the Apostle  Paul says sometimes—I might not even agree with it—but, good or bad, it isn’t up to me.  Or any of one of us.  It’s up to the Church, of which we, as individuals, are one part and parcel. For us Episcopalians, we don’t have to despair over those things Paul says that might offend our delicate 21st century ears. We just need to remind ourselves that our beliefs about Scripture are based on a rational approach tempered with the tradition of the Church.

In fact, if we continue reading on page 853 in the Catechism, we will find this answer to the question, “How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?”

The answer:

“We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of Scripture.”

There you see a very solid approach to understanding Scripture.  Reason (in this sense the inspiration of the Spirit), along with the Church (or Tradition) helps us in interpreting Scripture.  Such thinking prevents us from falling into that awful muck of fundamentalism.  Such thinking steers us clear of this misconception that that the Scriptures are without flaw. Such thinking also steers clear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, with regard to Scripture as well.

Sometimes, if we use too much reason in our approach to Scripture, we find ourselves reasoning it all away and it becomes nothing but a quaint book of myths, morals and legends.

Yes, the Scriptures are not without flaws. As God-inspired as they might be, they were written by human beings. Pre-scientific human beings, writing in a language that has been translated and retranslated over and over again.  And human beings have been notorious—even in Scripture—of not always being able to get everything perfect, no matter how God-inspired they are. Not even Scripture expects us to be perfect.

But, the second part our explanation of the question from the Catechism of why we call Holy Scripture the Word of God is even more important to me.

“God stills peaks to us through scripture.”

I love the idea that God does still speak to us through these God-inspired writings by flawed human beings. And what God speaks to us through Scriptures is, again and again, a message of love, even in the midst of some of the more violent, or fantastic stories we read in Scripture.

Now, one of those flawed human beings in the Bible was of course, the Apostle Paul.  Paul himself would admit, on one of his less grandiose days, that he was a flawed person.  And I love the fact that, this morning, God seems to be speaking loud and clear through Paul in his letter to Timothy.

“All scripture is inspired by God,” Paul instructs, “and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

I love that. That is some rational, solid thinking, if you ask me. Scripture here is intended not to condemn, not bash, not to hurt, but to build up and equip us for “every good work.”

“Proclaim the message, “ he tells Timothy (and us), “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorably; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

For any of who have been teachers, those words strike home. But, if you notice, nowhere does Paul say we must condemn or pound down, or coerce others using Scripture.

Scripture must build up and encourage and teach us to serve and to love.  And Scripture must be a conduit through which God continues to speak to us.

So, let us embrace this balanced and reasonable very Anglican approach to Scripture. Let us listen to Scripture and hear the Word of God speaking to us through it. Let us continue to place the Scriptures at the center of our lives and let us allow them to guide us into a pathway of love and service.  And, most importantly, let us use it, again and again, as an instrument of love rather than a weapon of war and hatred.  And when we do, we will find that the two-edged sword of that instrument of love, will open the doors of God’s love to us as well.


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