I was watching one of the cable news stations the other day when one of the talking heads, this time a woman, came on to promo her show. “People ask me why I do this,” she said. “My answer,” she said, “is that it is a big wide wonderful and sometimes frightening world out there and I do this just so I can begin to understand it a little better and my place in it. [By this she meant assembles and discusses/analyzes news stories, I assume].
Because we are in the midst of this Living the Questions series and I was thinking about the topic for the week which is “Taking the Bible Seriously,” it occurred to me to think, when I heard this News Personality talking, that I read the bible for the same reason. “It is a big, wide, wonderful and sometimes frightening world out there, and I do it just so I can understand it a little better and my place in it.” As I often say in the midst of a memorial service when I am about to read scripture, “The scriptures are sacred to us because they reflect the very real experiences of our forbearers thousands of years ago as they recorded God’s presence in their lives as a source of help and hope and strength in times of need and at all times.”
From the beginning, we have a book of stories – stories of people interacting with one another and with their God…trying to respond to what they understand their God wishes them to do and, failing in that endeavor, seeking God’s forgiveness and help to begin again. The Psalm from which we read a portion this morning is just one of literally dozens of similar songs proclaiming the wonderful deeds of God:
11 I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
The memory of God’s activities is recalled in the particulars of the nation’s history. This psalm obviously refers to the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from the clutches of Pharaoh…it recalls the moment, poised at the edge of the Sea when the people were trapped against the water and suddenly it opened before them so that they could cross over…this was God’s accomplishment “through the hands of Moses and Aaron.” Obviously this psalm was not just for the purpose of celebrating God’s release of Hebrew slaves in some prehistorically uncertain moment; it is a celebration of the conviction of the people that this is how God acts – God hears the needs of God’s own people and responds not only with mighty deeds, but God responds by freeing those he loves from bondage. Thus this psalm is not only a song appropriate for people caught in slavery, or people fleeing across a wilderness who suddenly are confronted by the barrier of a great body of water. This is a song for anyone who is captive in a situation and looking for the Lord to help them surmount impossible odds.
The story is told about Augustine, a young man of northern Africa. Augustine, as a bright young man with a superior classical education, confessed to Bishop Ambrose that he had tried to read the Bible but frankly, he was unimpressed. To him the Bible seemed like woefully inferior literature, crudely written, poorly edited.
"You young fool," replied Ambrose. "You can't get it because when you read in the Bible about 'fish,' you think 'fish.' When you read 'bread,' you think 'bread.' "
Ambrose explained to him the spiritual depth of scripture, showed young Augustine levels of meaning beyond the surface appearance of things.
Thus, years later, after entering this strange new world of the Bible, Augustine is sitting under a tree in a garden. He hears a child singing, "Take up and read, take up and read." Is it the voice of a child or an angel? By this time his imagination is so excited, his consciousness so heightened that he can't tell the difference. He does what the voice says, takes up the Bible, flops it open to an obscure passage from Romans, and his life is changed forever. After that, we call him "St. Augustine." It is St. Augustine who is the champion of the notion of salvation by grace – and of course that is the subject of the passage that he opens to in the Letter to the Romans.
A collection of letters and the Gospels that were a combination of collected sayings of Jesus and biographical material, which detailed his ministry life and his death, were all written by Churchmen and became the New Testament after a series of church councils designated them as canon…or the official sacred texts.
Assembled as it was over a period of centuries about 500 years before the birth of Jesus, what we call the Old Testament and which might more properly be referred to as the Jewish Testament, came together as a result of another time of captivity when up against the wall and concerned for their survival as a distinct people (There were not really religions in 560 BC when the Judeans were brought as captives to the city of Babylon under the kingship of Nebuchadnezzar) among the countless different groups of nationals that were brought back from wars of conquest. Those who collected all these material together in the wake of the Babylonian invasion were priests and scholars who did not want the traditions and history of the people of Israel and Judah to be lost after the city of Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by conquerors.
So, why do we consider the Bible Sacred – why has it considered “the word of God?” Because it is the unique story of a faith journey that continues to this day as the people of God reflect upon the manner in which God enters into their lives both with guidance and with judgment and always with this overwhelming desire to love them – love us in spite of all that we do to alienate God’s affections.
There are other ancient texts and epics – The Odyssey, the Upanishads and the Vedic literature of India; the Books of Zoroaster of Persia or the ancient wisdom of Confucius of China. These are not our story and these are not about our God. The heroes of the Bible are as varied and as vulnerable in their humanity as we are – and they struggle at times to be faithful. The Bible is the lens through which we can look at how God the Lord of Abraham and Sarah and Jacob, Moses, Hannah, Samuel, David and Bathsheba, has sought for a relationship with humanity for these many millennia.
William Willimon tells the story of teaching a literature class at Duke which was looking at more contemporary authors and the ways in which their work reflects the same yearning of men and women to work out their lives in relationship with God.
I was attempting to enlighten a class of Duke students on the short stories of dear, difficult Flannery O'Connor, patiently explaining to them all of the possible levels of meaning, the symbols and significance of her work, when a student blurted out, "What gives you the right to see all this stuff in this woman's work? Maybe she didn't mean anything other than what I read. Maybe she didn't mean for that ashtray to be a symbol of Ash Wednesday. Maybe the river is just a river and not a baptismal font. Did it ever occur to you that you're reading way too much into a really simple story?"
I admired his courage in challenging a professor, but not his stupidity. I realized that I was dealing with a bright young thing on whom we had spent years of education and a fortune in tuition, beating into him the notion that the world is flat. A tree is a tree. A mystery is to be explained. A miracle is to be disproved. Everything going on out there is the result of some easily discovered material cause and everything going on in here is due to something your mother did to you when you were three.
It's the modern world closed, fixed, flat, demystified, disenchanted and dull. Don't expect surprises and, if by God's grace a surprise really occurred, don't expect to get it because you've lost the means even to know a surprise if you got one.
At the time all I could think to say to him was, "You don't get it, do you?"
Ambrose told St. Augustine, “Don’t look at a fish as a fish.” It is not just literary analysis, which tells us, don’t get stopped by the image, or the word, or the players in the story – look beyond and behind and through them…don’t worship the lens – use it. As you gaze through the lens, be prepared to be surprised.
Understanding scripture as a lens, leads us to see more than the words, more than the stories, more than the sayings or the exposition of rules and laws – the lens leads us to understand more of the scripture than even the sum of all its parts.
Viktor Frankel tells a story:
Two neighbors were involved in a bitter dispute. One claimed that the other's cat had eaten his butter and, accordingly, demanded compensation. Unable to resolve the problem, the two, carrying the accused cat, sought out the village wise man for a judgment. The wise man asked the accuser, "How much butter did the cat eat?" "Ten pounds" was the response. The wise man placed the cat on the scale. Lo and behold, it weighed exactly ten pounds. "Here we have the butter. But where is the cat?"
Where is the cat? All the parts taken together do not add up to the whole. One can memorize all the words and images of the Bible and still not understand the Word, if one does not realize that it is the whole of scripture that is pointing us to something else. Parts, out of context, are just “butter” – “where is the cat?”
Turning to the story of the two people walking the road to Emmaus, why didn't they recognize Jesus when they walked along the road with him? It is a simple, but instructive question. Isn’t it one more case of being stopped by human tendency to literalism…Jesus is dead so this cannot be Jesus. The limited, material view defeats us – a fish is a fish and a tree is a tree. Death blinds us too, tells us that the world is closed shut and, if there is an intrusion, an invasion not of our own devising, we don't get it.
Look what happens on the road. They are defeated – we thought, “He was the one…” They were looking for the Messiah to perform a specific function – restore the power and the prestige – the autonomy of a defeated nation, a nation that had been captive really since the Babylonian Exile with one set of conquerors succeeding another. Looking for a hero, they put that expectation on Jesus – even his disciples did as you recall. The story of Israel was a story of the need for redemption. This was what the two walkers wanted. Redemption to them would have meant – restoration, victory.
(This is the same way the word has been used the last two weeks, constantly, by commentators at the Olympics. Bode Miller needed “redemption.” Bode Miller needed a medal is what they meant – redemption for his poor job at the last Olympics in Torino meant only one thing, victory in the race.)
This stranger retold the stories to them – recalled for them the scriptures and they recalled later that their hearts burned within them. This stranger was suggesting a deeper meaning for these stories and for the idea of redemption. Jesus became himself the “suffering servant” – he became Israel – became the human community of those whom God loves and has always loved and on behalf of the suffering Israel he himself suffered. He went into exile himself, the human exile from the Garden, which means he entered into death. In doing so he became on the cross, in the resurrection, on Easter morning, the very embodiment of God’s light and truth. In his return from death he led the people of Israel to a new place of redemption – a new kind of hope – not victory but transformation – a change of heart.
God is with us in those places of pain and doubt. The Psalms, the stories of Israel’s battles and its prophets have always testified to that, yet we did not understand – through the lens, however we see that – God is with us. Jesus took the ultimate journey so that those places might be forever transformed to places of life and light.
It was when he broke bread with the travelers that their “eyes were opened and they recognized him.” No longer stopped by what they saw and didn’t see – they suddenly truly saw and understood. It is a big wide, wonderful and sometimes frightening world out there – and for me, scripture is the gift that allows me to see beyond what is merely in front of me. It is the lens, which “opens my eyes to the ways in which God in Christ Jesus is alive and at work in my world, in my life.” Amen.