Sunday, October 16, 2016

22 Pentecost

October 16, 2016

Genesis 32.22-31; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5

+ I believe I have shared this story with you before. It’s a story I love, and have preached many times, because it’s just that good. But I’m share it again this morning, because it sorts of echoes our reading from Genesis today, which is another story I love.

In this story, there was once a very wealthy king. He was a good king, who loved God dearly. One evening, he was walking in his beautiful garden, admiring the trees and the flowers and the plants. And as he did so, as the joy and beauty of it all came upon him, he found himself singing psalms to God. The psalms just seemed to well up from within him. Suddenly, an angel appeared to him. It was a mighty, beautiful angel and the King was amazed. He was so excited that an angel of all things appeared to him! Just as he was about to exclaim his joy at the angel, the angel raised its hand and struck him hard across the face. It actually knocked the King off his feet and threw him into the dirt and mud.

The King was shocked. He had never been struck before! And he was confused.

As he looked up from the mud, his clothes torn, wracked with pain, he cried, “Angel, why did you strike me? What did I do wrong? Here I was singing God’s praises in this beautiful garden and then you struck me! Why would you do such a thing?”

The angel replied, “Of course, you can sing God’s praises as you wander about in your beautiful garden, dressed in fine clothes, with joy and happiness in your heart. That’s easy. But now, try. Try to sing God’s praises after you’ve been struck across the face by an angel.”

I love that story. Because it is true. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been laid low by an angel who now demands that we sing God’s praise from our pain.

In so many ways, it really does remind me of the story of Jacob and the angel.  I love the story of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel.  And I know, we often like to personalize this story.

I know we tend to look at this battle between Jacob (or ourselves) and God. But I once heard a preacher share how in his opinion this could very much be an analogy for our own struggled with scripture. I love that analogy. Because, it also is true.

Oftentimes, our struggle with scripture feels like we’re wrestling with an angel. Or, more often, like we’ve been slapped across the face by angel.  You’ve heard me reference scripture as a potentially dangerous two-edged sword. An often unweildy  two-edged sword, especially for those who use it as a weapon. And we’ve all known those people who use it as such.  You’ve heard me say, again and again, that if our intention is to cut people down with the sword of scripture, just be prepared…

It too will in turn cut the one wielding the sword.  And I believe that.  That is what scripture does when we misuse it.  

However, if we use scripture as it meant to be used—as an object of love, as a way in which God can speak to us—then it is also two-edged.   If we use it as way to open the channels of God’s love to others, then the channels of God’s love will be opened to us as well.  Now, I am very firm on this point.  When it comes to people using scripture in a negative way, wildly waving that sword around, I love crack the knuckles. Because, I truly do love the Bible.   Of course, what kind of priest would I be if I didn’t love the Scriptures?  But I really, really do.

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 I 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 often have 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


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 fundamentalism 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 those difficult and uncomfortable scriptures and meet them face-on.
And we have to wrestle with them, as Jacob wrestled with that angel, 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 fundamentalist heresy.   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 fallible 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 still speaks 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 us 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.

Yes, our encounter with God in scripture sometimes is very much like Jacob wrestling with angel. And very often it may feel like the angel who slaps the king across the face when we become too sure of ourselves. If scripture doesn’t do things for us sometimes, if we only go to scripture to feel good about ourselves, to prove ourselves right about things, and not be challenged, then we are using scripture incorrectly and it may, in fact, come back to cut us.

So, let us embrace this balanced and reasonable and 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.  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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