03 June 2013

Why Read the Bible

Yesterday morning I offered my Bible sermon.  It wasnt the first time I had preached the sermon, although this was a reworked, almost brand new sermon.  Every year I change it.  Like next year I'll include the NYTimes Crossword theory.  The great part is that every year new stuff about the Bible comes out, in some ways it rewrites itself.  Hope you like it.  
Judson Sermon 20130602 "The Good Book" from Jacqueline Thureson on Vimeo.

The Good Book
text: “I will write them on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33)
Recognition of Graduates and Sunday School Teachers
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

            Two things you can always be sure of: death and taxes.  And I would like to add a third: that Americans will always buy bibles.  We are not content with the Good Book we keep on snatching them up.  I own at least 33, of which at least 8 are of the same version, the NRSV.  You can find bibles in all shapes and sizes: large print, thin line, red letter, green letter, water proof, fire proof, camouflage, denim, duct tape, neon green, leather bound, cloth bound, hard back, paperback, name the language and it has a translation of the bible, name languages that aren’t really real and they too have versions of the bible: a Star Wars phrasing of the Bible (Good News for the Warrior Class), and of course a Klingon translation, the Hippie translation, and the Pigdin translation.  There are bibles written in different formats: the 100 minute bible (developed by an Anglican priest, a flattened version of the bible which can be read in 100 minutes), the screenplay bible (lights, camera, action) and so on and so on. 
We hold the bible in high esteem in almost talismanic quality with magical powers: we ask our presidents and public officials to place their hand on it during the taking of oaths (which ironically the bible says don’t do), towns spend millions of dollars in court fees to publicly display the ten commandments on stones (which too is a bit ironic since the ten commandments forbids graven images), and we give them to others to mark the milestones of life (my kids love their King James Version white New Testaments, it blows my mind.  And even though I have 30+ bibles I covet the one my grandmother gave my sister when she graduated from high school: KJV, blue colored leather with her name engraved on it – do not covet your neighbor’s possessions, another one of those pesky ten commandments).  In April of 1862 in the battle of Shiloh Confederate solider Sam Houston Jr. was fired upon by Union troops but survived because a copy of the bible, a bullet with a bee line for his heart was stopped by the 70th Psalm  which reads:
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me.   
O Lord, make haste to help me!
Let those be put to shame and confusion   
who seek my life.

            And the paradox remains: we are awash in bibles yet, as a nation, we routinely flunk bible quizzes.  Name the ten commandments, the four gospels, the five books of Moses or the Torah, provide three of the prophets in the Old Testament, where was Jesus born.  16% of Americans think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. 

Suffice to say the book you have in your lap, in your pew, or on your shelf did not fall from the sky.  It has a thick, troublesome, and beautiful history thousands of years old, separated by cultures, languages, customs, seas, and worldviews. 
Cigarettes, alcohol, chewing tobacco and soft drinks in NYC all have surgeon general warnings on them.  But the bible does not, and if anything needs a warning label it is the bible.  So before offering my five reasons why you should read the Good Book allow me to offer five cautionary words.

1. The Bible is really old, from foreign cultures.  We are separated by vast expanses of time and geography. Nevertheless we can identify with the characters of the Bible quite easily. Therefore, we think we can just pick the book up and automatically viola, complete understanding. The Bible always has been, is, and will always be a communal book meant to be read and understood in community. The world has already experienced enough nut cases claiming a direct revelation from God, let us spare the world another. Read and discuss the Bible together, preferably with a person or two with whom you vehemently disagree with on almost every issue.

2. You will never master the Bible, it is bigger than our thoughts, more expansive than our imaginations and greater than the sum of all our learning. This book was cut and pasted, whittled down and added to, elaborated and edited. Despite all of our advancement and progress there are parts of the Bible that are lost to our understanding. We keep those parts but at the end of the day we throw up our hands and say I do not know, and that is okay. The Bible’s contents have stood the test of time again and again as a wellspring for saints and sinners.

3. The Bible is not perfect. It is in many ways still a work in progress as we evolving human beings are still a work in progress. The portrait of God, as a whole, portrayed in the Bible is not neat and tidy but is messy and unfinished. The Bible is a product where the best and worst of human beings and of God are on display, for all the world to see. Always remember the Bible is a fully human product, soiled with prejudices, biases and troubling thoughts of the authors who penned its words.

4. Finally, the Bible is not the end. The Bible is a helpful guide, the one guide that judges all guides and helps along the way for human beings. But it is not the teleological point for human destiny, God is. The Bible is an ambassador that points to God but it is not God. Do not treat the Bible as an idol to be worshiped, the Bible simply points to the One, The Living God, to be worshiped. Owning a bible, swearing on one, putting in a prominent place will bring no special powers (but keeping one close to your chest may be worth it).  The bible is only useful it is used, if it is read, marked, learned, heard, and inwardly digested. 

And the kicker principles.  Prove me wrong. 
5.  No Christian allows the Bible to teach as the authoritative word of God what is known or believed (for whatever reasons) to be either untrue or immoral.  & Every Christian finds what the Bible teaches as the authoritative word of God to be identical or congruent with what is known or believed (for whatever reasons0 to be true and right.  Thanks to Ken Cauthen (one of my theology professor at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, if you want the entire essay it can be found in his book, Towards a New Modernism.   
 So why read this ancient, difficult, heavy, and troublesome book?

1. The Tautology Argument. Read the Bible because the Bible says so! Happy are those (whose)…delight is in the torah of God, and on God’s law they meditate day and night. (Psalm 1:1 & 2)

2. The Trust argument. Read the Bible because your parents, grandparents and your ancestors before you read it.  By reading it we are trusting our ancestors and strengthening our bonds of trust.  This book took a thousand years to compile, in the fourth century ce they were still debating what books to include in the canon.  Trust that they weren’t cavalier about what’s in here.    

3. The National Public Radio (NPR) argument. You cannot be an informed American or Global citizen without a basic knowledge of the stories, themes, and contents of the Bible. Read it because it is one of the important links in the chain that is Western culture and society. You cannot properly understand Shakespeare or the Constitution of the United States of America or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech or Prince’s song Controversy or Bob Dylan’s song Highway 61 or the News from Lake Woebegone without a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible. 

4.  The Mirror argument.  This book pulls no punches about who we are as human beings: beautiful and ugly, nice and mean, crazed sexual beings and calm celibate folks, war mongers and peace warriors, vegetarians and carnivores, sober and drunk, separated and reconciled.  Like the old commercial line, it’s in there.  There’s nothing new under the sun, our problems are human caused and can be human solved. 

5. Finally, the Travis Norvell argument. Read the Bible because through song and story, history and imagination, and poetry and prose the great book of books tells a very particular story of what it means to be a human being, who God is, and how we are to live in a covenantal relationship with the God who created us, the earth that sustains us, and the people whom we call brothers and sisters.

The Bible stands as a vessel vacillating between humanity and God as an aide in our relationship. The Bible informs (builds up), critiques (tears down) and reconstructs our thoughts, experiences, and dreams about the relationship.

In conclusion, Brothers and Sisters, take this book and read it, treasure its contents, find a translation whose rhythms and cadences speak to you, and you will find the stories, songs, poetry and prose a resting place for your troubled minds and great source of strength and comfort for your homesick souls. These words will knock you off your pedestal by reminding who you are and your place in this world. These words will also pick you up and nestle you close to the bosom of God. View this book as a life long wrestling partner. View this book as living words which allow you to nurse from the breast of God as the Bible nourishes your starving body.

The Bible is not God, but reading it, studying it, chewing it and digesting it sure does put you in a place and peace of mind for God to knock on your door and spend time with you.

Take these words and move them from a mantelpiece to part of who you are and how you see the world.

When you open this book pray these words as offered by Thomas Cranmer when the Book of Common Prayer was first composed:
Blessed God, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that,by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of life, which thou hast revealed to us in Jesus the Christ. Amen.

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