Thank you choir – your gift of song continually invites us into God’s presence. Will you pray with me? Divine Comforter, Gathering with this community week after week is a reminder of your presence and faithfulness. We are thankful for the Holy Scripture as well as your continuous revelation, which guides us toward justice, reconciliation, and compassion. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
It is good to be with you this morning! I cannot thank you enough for how this church has welcomed me time and time again, first as youth program coordinator in February and now as the ministry intern. It is a tremendous gift to find faith communities that are dedicated to caring for, and partnering with students during their time in Divinity School. So thank you for this blessing.
We are three weeks into our current worship series titled “The Big Questions”; Lee has led us through the first two questions, “Who is God?” and “Who is Jesus?” and I am excited to explore our third question together – “What is the Bible?”
Most people in our nation, and even around the world, would agree that the Bible is a pretty important book. In the American household, there are an average of 4.7 Bibles, and an additional 25 million Bibles are purchased annually in the United States alone – it is the bestselling book of all time. Yet even though the Bible is this popular, many people still have a difficult time connecting with the text. While 88% of Americans own a Bible, only 37% say that they read it regularly. Only half of American adults can name even one of the 4 gospels, and most Americans cannot even name the first book of the Bible. But out of all of these stats, I must say my favorite by far is that 10% of Americans actually believe that Joan of Arc was in fact Noah’s wife.
I share all of this with you, not in an attempt to critique our biblical literacy or scold Americans for being bad at Bible trivia, but rather to point out the irony of this situation. On the one hand, many of us own multiple copies of the Bible, and may even name the Bible as one of the most influential books in our life, but we also seem to hold the text at a distance. Why is this?
Well, I know that we are busy people and sitting down to read anything can feel like a luxury. Perhaps, we think that reading the Bible is something for church leaders, or we remember the Bible as something that was important in Sunday school as a child, but not so much now. But if we’re honest, I think one of the main reasons we don’t engage Scripture is because we don’t know how. Depending on where the pages land when we open this book, the text can seem really confusing, perhaps boring and irrelevant? Or maybe it will just make us mad?
For better or for worse, the Bible is a central component of our Christian faith. Being a Christian means a commitment to the Bible as a foundational document, a part of our identity. The Bible is our story, our sacred Story. It’s shapes our vision of life – our vision of God, of ourselves, and of God’s dream for the earth. But at the same time it is also true that this collection of books has become a stumbling block for many. Some religious scholars believe that in the past ½ century more Christians have left the church because of the Bible than for any other single reason.
The Bible has been an important part of my faith journey from the time I was young until today. Growing up, I spent many Sunday afternoons practicing for Bible Drill competitions where we were taught to stand up straight, turn each page with caution, and memorize the order of books along with specific verses. In high school, I started getting more and more interested in the Christian faith, so unlike most teenagers, I would ask for Biblical commentaries for Christmas. I have this image in my mind of Bibles, commentaries, and journals spread across my bedroom floor as I read and studied. In college, I had the opportunity of travelling to China after my junior year. While I love to travel and see new places, I struggled a lot with homesickness during undergrad. So some nights in China when I felt extra lonely, I remember laying in bed and holding my Bible as tight as I could. The presence of this book brought security and comfort, perhaps because the presence of the text reminded me of the presence of God. Needless to say the connection that I had with this book was intimate.
But as I continued to read and study, and learn different perspectives on the text, there were specific passages and verses that I didn’t feel this same connection with. We don’t tend to talk about many of these verses and passages publicly, so when I stumbled across them in my personal study I was shocked. As a woman who cares deeply about the Christian faith, how was I supposed to feel when reading Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians telling women not to speak in church? As a privileged white American living in a society still working through issues of racism, how could I affirm the texts in Ephesians and Colossians demanding that slaves return to their masters, knowing full well that these texts had been used to justify centuries of oppression? What was I to do when told that if I really took the Bible “seriously” I would accept a literal reading of Genesis and reject any scientific or archeology evidence that suggested otherwise? Could I ignore the contradictions found throughout Scripture, when two authors provided different accounts of the same story? And what was I to do with the genocide present throughout the Old Testament that God and the Israelite leaders seemed okay with?
This text, our sacred story, can be complicated and intimidating, but for all of these reasons and more, how we read the Bible matters. Throughout our lifetime, our experiences demand that we ask important questions and remain curious. One of the gifts of Divinity School is the daily reminder that each of us has our own set of lenses with which we read the Biblical text. Our time in history, our gender, the color of our skin, our experiences of relationship, family, and sexuality – all of these influence the way we encounter, read, and react to the text.
Another gift of Divinity School is the opportunity to study the text in depth, as well as the cultural and social environments in which it was written. It can be hard to remember that the Bible did not always look like this – in fact, this collection of books all bound together with page numbers, chapters, maps, and a concordance is a relatively new thing.
Scholars estimate that the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, began being compiled in the 10th and 11th century BCE. However it wasn’t until the year 1010 CE, almost 2000 years later that vowels were added to the original Hebrew text. Not only is this fascinating but this history reminds us that Scripture began as an oral tradition – these stories were passed down verbally from generation to generation. If we were to try to read the Hebrew text without vowels there would be all sorts of possibilities, but these individuals knew the text, it was the story of their people, and they shared it with one another.
Our English translation of the Old Testament however, comes not from the Hebrew manuscripts but from the Greek translation, which occurred between the 3rd and 4th century BCE. Paul began writing the letters found in the New Testament in 50 CE, roughly 20 years after Jesus. The first Gospel recorded, the gospel of Mark, was written around 70 CE, roughly 40 years after Jesus, and the last gospel, the gospel of John, wasn’t written until 120 CE, almost 100 years after Jesus. By the 2nd century CE, a broad outline of the New Testament was in existence but it still wasn’t the exact collection we have today.
All of this to say, the Bible is a library or collection of many books. The Bible has over 40 different authors, writing from different places, in different times, and even in different languages. In one book alone, we can find different sources and different literary accounts. The Bible is also full of different genres – historical narrative, law, poetry, prophecy, letters, and apocalyptic texts. As you can see, the Bible isn’t one thing but rather a collection of many experiences. As Lee mentioned last week, these are all different takes on some of the same stories. She compared it to the memories we share from family trips. When we all come home, we each tell a slightly different version of what happened, about what the most important part of the trip was. We each remember different things that we want to tell our friends. In some ways, that’s kind of like the Bible.
If we choose, the diversity of the Bible, the differing experiences and our varying interpretations on the text can scare us into keeping Scripture at a distance. The thought that we all have different lenses, different ways of reading, a “freedom of interpretation” as the Disciples like to call it, can be terrifying or absolutely liberating. Rather than keeping us tucked away with our Bibles on the shelf, this gift can bring us into community with one another. As we read the Scriptures, listening to a different perspective than our own and perhaps catching a glimpse of the diversity of the Divine, we will be reminded that God can and God does speak to people in many different ways.
In the Exodus passage that Bill read for us earlier, Moses had just been on Mount Sinai with God. In chapter 31, the author of Exodus tells us that Moses had just received “two tablets of covenant, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God”. These two tablets contained what we now know as the Jewish Law including the 10 commandments. In some ways, what Moses held in his hands was everything the Israelites needed to live their life. But what I find fascinating and compelling is Moses’ request to God in light of receiving these commands. Starting in verse 15 of chapter 33, Moses says to God, “If your presence will not go with us, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?” Moses had just received these words written by the finger of God – but Moses knew that these words, these commands were not a substitute for God’s Everpresent Spirit. Yes, these words were sacred, they were foundational, they were central to the identity of the Jewish people, but they were not God himself. It was by the presence of God, that this people would be known, and it was by the presence of God, that this people would continue in their journey of faith.
In the New Testament, Jesus makes this same distinction to the religious leaders of the day. In the gospel of John chapter 5, Jesus was being attacked by the Jews for ministering and healing on the Sabbath. In response to their accusations and persecution, Jesus begins to talk about his relationship with the Father, referencing his own authority in relationship to God’s. In verse 39, Jesus says, “You search the scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Moses was onto something that the religious leaders in Jesus’ day had out of order. The Bible is not an end in itself. You don’t read the Bible, just to say you read the Bible. The Bible is a source of life in so far as it connects us to our Divine Creator and our Savior Jesus Christ. The Bible is a source of life in so far as it leads us to be good neighbors, show hospitality, and live with compassion, bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit. In this story, Jesus accuses the leaders of making the Bible a source of salvation. And as I look back on my own story, I can see where I played with this line as well. Unaware, I at times made the Bible the fourth member of the Trinity, placing my faith in the text rather than my Creator.
As I continue to wander in my faith journey, the Bible has once again become a trusted companion. There is life to be found in these pages along with some pretty crazy stories. And you know what, even when I do stumble across something difficult in the Bible, engaging with these parts of the Scripture usually leads to some important conversations and insightful dialogue with my community.
So just as the table is a place where all are welcome and we encounter the grace of God week after week, may the Bible also be a place where we encounter God’s presence. Let us now come as one body, with our honesty and our questions, with our different lenses and interpretations, which are a gift to this community and to one another. Let us come to the table of our Lord.