Sunday, October 20, 2019

19 Pentecost

October 20, 2019

Genesis 32.22-31; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8

+ In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures today, we get this very famous, very visual story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It is a story that really grabs us. It captures our imagination.

We can actually picture this momentous event. Maybe we do because most of us think instantly when we hear this story of that famous Gustav Dore illustration, of Jacob
and the Angel locked in battle, pushing against each other, the angel’s wings raised above the scene. 

And I know, we often like to personalize this story.  I know we tend to look at this battle between ourselves and God.

But I once heard a preacher share how in her opinion this could very much be an analogy for our own struggled with the Word of God or scripture. I love that analogy. Because, that also is true. Oftentimes, our struggle with scripture feels like we’re wrestling with an angel.

You’ve heard me reference scripture as a potentially dangerous two-edged sword.  An often unwieldy  two-edged sword, especially for those who use it as a weapon.

And we’ve all known those people who use the Bible as a weapon.

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.  

We all should crack our knuckles whenever we see or hear people misusing the scriptures in such a way.

After all, we are followers of Jesus, and as followers of Jesus we hold the scriptures in the same esteem as Jesus did. OK. “Esteem” isn’t the right word. We, as followers of Jesus are steeped and saturated with scripture just as Jesus was seeped and saturated with scripture.


Well, let’s just take a book in our Prayer Book.  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. Still, that doesn’t mean that we can use and misuse it by taking it out of context.  And let’s face it; 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, as good catholic-minded Anglicans do.  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 Holy Spirit), along with the Church (or Tradition) helps us in interpreting Scripture.  

Very Anglican. Think of Richard Hooker’s 3-legged stool of Scripture, tradition and reason.

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.  

I hate to break the news to you, but God didn’t set down a perfectly formed Bible, writ in stone and perfect King James English in our midst.

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 and justice, even in the midst of some of the more violent, or fantastic stories we read in Scripture.

Our Gospel reading is a prime example of that.  What does the widow in Jesus’ parable pray?

“Grant me justice against my opponent,” she prays.

This also a truly interesting story. 

This widow, who would not take no for an answer, persisted.  This widow, who, in that time and place without a man in her life was in bad shape, was demanded to be heard.

This widow who had been taken advantage of (someone cheated her of her rightful inheritance) did not let discouragement stop her.
This widow prayed day and night.

And what happened? God heard her. And turned the hearts of the unjust.

That, definitely, speaks to us right now. That is what we should be praying for right now in this country.

See, God is definitely speaking loudly here to us through this scripture.  We are to pray for justice, not only against our opponents. But we should be praying for justice in this country and this world.

Please, God, turn the hearts of the unjust! And grant us justice!

The scriptural definition of “justice” is “to make right.” So, to seek justice from God means that something went wrong in the process, and we long for “rightness.” We too need to be praying hard, over and over again, for justice.

God also seems to be speaking loud and clear through Paul, himself a very flawed human being, 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 unfavorable; 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. 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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