Preached at Trinity Cathedral Trenton, NJ, November 2015.
When I was a child, growing up in the Bible Belt, we were not knee-high to a grasshopper before we learned two songs. The first was “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.” The second was “the B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me! I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.” In today’s collect, we Episcopalians put it differently:
“Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life…”
Still, the love for the Bible is the same.
Echoing St. Paul, today’s collect declares: Holy Scriptures were written for our learning. Not primarily to give us information about ancient history, although the Bible is an important source alongside archaeological digs for scholars trying to discover how people lived and moved and had their being in the time of Abraham and David and Jeremiah. Without despising scholarship, today’s prayer is talking about another kind of learning. It is saying that God caused Holy Scriptures to be written to help us grow up, to learn how to become God’s people. It is a teaching tool, which God uses, which our forebears brought us up on. It is the household “how-to” book, because we never stop learning how to be God’s people. We need to keep turning and returning to it, not only to hear it, but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it every day of our lives.
How does the Bible help us grow up to become God’s people? Well, think about how we grew up to become members of our human families. Adults worked overtime to orient us to their way of carving up the world into objects–mama, dada, grandma; cats and dogs; cars and bikes; sun and moon; trees and flowers. They taught us how to smile and how to eat, how to walk and how to talk. Little by little, they initiated us into the family legends: how dad was the best runner or mom the blue-ribbon seamstress; how grandpa scared the fox away from the chickens; how grandma used to plow and hoe the vegetable garden and can the food; how far they had to walk to school; how and why our forebears came to this country and how hard they had to work to settle in. Grandparents tell children’s children what it was like when they were little boys or girls, what they used to eat, what they had to learn, the pranks they pulled, what they used to do for fun. Eventually, we learn what risks they took, what they stood for, and what it cost them. The stories start simple and over time grow more nuanced–all in the aid of teaching us who we are and how we got here, all in hopes that we will become people who can carry on the family’s values, heirs who can live into, even fulfill some of the family’s hopes and dreams.
God caused Holy Scriptures to be written to help us get our bearings. Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here? Bible stories answer: this is God’s world. God made it on purpose. God made it alive and dynamic because doing things is fun. God made human beings, because God wanted to enjoy life together with us. God wants us all to grow up into fit citizens of God’s Great Society, a land of milk and honey where there is plenty of everything, where justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God caused Holy Scriptures to be written to introduce us to who God is, to what God expects of us, to what we might expect of God. God provides the Bible as a means for initiating us into God’s family values. This happens by stages. Today’s collect is remarkably explicit about how this can work.
Where Holy Scriptures are concerned, the first step is familiarity. We have to hear, eventually to read them with attention. Where I grew up in the rural midwest, Bible classes were held before church every Sunday morning, age-appropriate, cradle-to-grave, something for everybody. Preschoolers heard about Adam naming animals in the garden, about Noah’s ark, about Samson killing lions with his bare hands, about David and Goliath. Teen agers went on to the miracles of Jesus, the challenges of discipleship, the journeys of St. Paul and the lure of martyrdom. Adults faced up to the seamier sides of Israeli kings and the scorching rhetoric of prophetic critiques.
Learning began with Bible knowledge. Even pre-schoolers had memory verses: “Let the little children come unto me!” “God loveth a cheerful giver.” Vacation Bible School coached grade schoolers to recite the ten commandments and the beatitudes. Youth memorized the books of the Bible in order, held drills to see who could find passages the fastest, were quizzed on who’s who and who dunnit’s. Adults were supposed to read their Bibles daily, until–when they began to hear a story read out–they knew what was coming next. Their classes taught them to dig into the cross references, to understand Isaiah’s “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” as looking forward to Jesus, to notice how Jesus’ 40 days in the desert recapped Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wandering. Thorough and deep familiarity with the Bible was a test of Christian literacy. Or, to attempt a computer analogy, downloading huge chunks of the Bible into your psychic data base is essential to a Christian operating system.
Of course, we download many things into our psyche–the multiplication tables, for example. Holy Scriptures do not really begin to form us into God’s people until we inwardly digest them, until we upload them, until we allow them to shape the dynamics of our traffic with God. God is very, very big, and we are very, very small. Whatever our predicament, we need to know, but it’s hard to tell who we are to God and who God is to us. Holy Scriptures were written for our learning: identify yourself with a Bible-story character in a similar situation, and try it on for size that God is with you here and now the way God was with them there and then! Many of us are old hands at this. We are Jacob wrestling for blessing. We are Moses, swallowing our fears and rising to God’s call. We are Israelis running for their lives, getting across the Red Sea just in the nick of time. We are the widow of Zarapheth, unexpectedly rescued from ruin by the arrival of a stranger. We are the rich young man, torn between worldly riches and following Jesus. We are the disciples falling apart when it really mattered. We are the indignant elder brother refusing to join the party. We are the prodigal startled by the Father’s gracious welcome. In one moment, we hesitate with the cripple by the pool to resume the responsibilities of healthy living. In the next, we are blind Bartimaeus, refusing to shut up until Jesus gives us our sight back. In one moment, we are the woman with the issue of blood sneaking the cure that Jesus might refuse. At another, we are the Syrophonecian woman demanding that Jesus do whatever it takes to make her daughter well. Identifying with the characters, relating to God through their roles, weaves the Bible story into our stories and our stories into the Bible story. Each posture puts us in touch with a distinctive aspect of Who God is for us and who we ought to be for God. Each episode binds us together and makes us belong to each other in new ways. Inwardly digesting Holy Scriptures goes far beyond Bible facts, as familiarity with the text gives way to familiarity with God.
God caused Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. Familiarity with God breeds confidence that calls on God to answer for difficult passages. We all know, they are there. Leave aside for the moment “women should be silent in the church”! The God of Judges commands genocide on the Canaanite cities. The God of Ezra and Nehemiah is a racist who favors ethnic cleansing, while the God of Ruth maneuvers to make sure that King David has a foreign great grandmother. Inward digestion requires questioning and disputing. “Should not the Judge of all the earth do right?” “Did You really command the Israelis to wage jihad against the Canaanites? Did you really tell them to anticipate ISIS (or Allies fire-bombing Dresden and Tokyo) and destroy everything alive? Or, was that what they wanted to do? Were they simply assuming that since You were their God, it was Your job to back them up?” “Did You really command Abraham to make a whole burnt offering of Isaac? Were You really glad, did You really reward Abraham for his willingness to do it? Or did surrounding cultures make it easy to get confused about Your expectations? Do these stories really tell us what You are like, or do they reflect the story tellers’ points of view? Do they perhaps show us more about what we are like, and how easy it is for our fears and ambitions to get You wrong?” The human authors of the Bible were fallible, and so are we!
The words of the Bible were written down centuries ago. Their lines and phrases were originally used to recall situations and events long ago and far away. But the more we use the Bible stories to frame our traffic with God, the more its verses and expressions become rooted in our lives. How often in the throes of decision-making does a line from the Bible cross our minds unbidden? When I was a child, we had a Bible verse for every occasion. When a family member couldn’t make it for Thanksgiving, s/he was “absent in body but present in spirit.” When departing for a trip, the traveller would declare: “in a little while you will see me no more; and in a little while, you will see me.” When the guys were so absorbed in what they were doing that they forgot to turn on the light, we would tease: “men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil!” We children were convinced that “Study to show thyself approved unto God!” was a warning to get busy on our homework. Such usage does not prove that we are bad Bible scholars. What it shows is that trafficking with God through the Bible turns Holy Scriptures into our mother tongue, into the language of our prayer! “O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger. Do not punish me in Your wrath!” “Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid!” “You are my hope, my confidence since I was young!” “O God, You are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for You,… as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.” “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” “Your loving-kindness is better than life itself!” “So will I bless You as long as I live and lift up my hands in Your name!”
No doubt, the Bible’s God speaks many languages. After all, the Bible’s God created the heavens and the earth. We know from experience how greedy God is for relationship, how God stops at nothing to get through to us. No doubt, the Bible’s God caused the Upanishads and the Koran to be written for other tribes and nations. Certainly, God speaks through Shakespeare–probably also through rock stars. But today’s collect celebrates how God caused the Bible to be written for our learning, calls on us to give thanks in our own mother tongue!
The Reverend Canon Marilyn McCord Adams