Sunday, May 14, 2006

Do you understand what you are reading?

Reading the Bible is one of the most important spiritual disciplines that Christians practice. Deacons, priests, and bishops all receive Bibles when they are ordained. Our baptismal vows include the promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching.” The New Testament is our primary source for the apostles’ teaching. And one of the great collects in the Prayer Book tells us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the holy scripture so that we may “embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.”

Some Christians maintain that prayer and Bible reading and virtually the only spiritual disciplines that Christians need to practice. The Protestant Reformers of the 16th c. are said to have taught 3 things: sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scripture – grace alone, faith alone, and scripture alone.

What I want to say this morning (and say as emphatically as possible) is that grace, faith, and above all scripture are never alone. There may be exceptions, but by and large grace, faith, and scripture all come to us through others, that is, they come to us in community.

Consider two questions in today’s reading: Philip approaches the Ethiopian court official who is reading from the prophet Isaiah and says, “Do you understand what you are reading?” and he responds with another question, “How can I unless someone guides me?”

Now before we delve into those questions, let’s step back and look at some of the details of this story. First, note that the Ethiopian was reading aloud. That’s what one did in the ancient world. Reading silently is a relatively recent phenomenon. Reading was not normally a private activity because books were scarce and expensive. Of course, when I say “book” I don’t mean books as we know them. Books in the ancient world were written on scrolls. Judaism has preserved the tradition of the scroll. A central feature of every synagogue is a large cabinet called an “ark” that contains the Torah written on a scroll. Torah scrolls are always written by hand and they take about a year to produce. Thus, they are enormously expensive. Books as we know them, that is individual leaves of paper or animal skin bound together along their left edge, came into being around the same time that the Christian faith came into being. You will notice that icons of Christ frequently show him holding a book, but Jewish art invariably portrays the Torah as a scroll.

That the Ethiopian was reading tells us a great deal about him. First, he was better educated than the average person in the ancient world. He had to be because the text tells us that he was the treasurer of the queen of Ethiopia. Second, he was a person of considerable power and status. The text tells us that he invited Philip to sit in his “chariot” with him. This was probably not the kind of chariot that was portrayed in the film Ben Hur but something more like a coach. There was not only room for two passengers but room for the Ethiopian to open and read a bulky scroll. Third, he was a man of wealth because he could afford his own copy of the scrolls on which Isaiah was written. More than likely, Isaiah was written on several scrolls. Finally, the fact that he was reading Isaiah and had been to Jerusalem for the feast of Weeks or Pentecost is a fascinating detail. Many ancient peoples were strongly drawn toward Judaism and admired it but did not go through the conversion ritual and become Jews. They were called God-fearers. The Ethiopian may have been one of these. On the other hand, there were Jews in Ethiopia from before the time of Christ. Indeed, legend has it that the stone tablets on which Moses recorded the Ten Commandments were taken to Ethiopia and are still there. It is possible that the Ethiopian was a Jew.

However, that is all to set the scene for the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian. Philip hears him reading from the prophet Isaiah. “"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth,” and asks “Do you understand what you are reading?” and the Ethiopian replies, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?”

In many ways, the Bible is a simple book. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” That’s pretty straightforward. It’s comforting to us at every age, from infancy to senility. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “What can separate us from the love of God in Christ?” So far, so good. These verses are pretty straightforward, although when we begin to unpack them, we find that they have layers upon layers of meaning.

My main point this morning is not that the Bible is a complex book written over many centuries in at least two languages that requires years of training to understand. My point is slightly different. Rather, my point is this: No one has ever read the Bible alone. When you are alone in your home (or your chariot!) and open your Bible and start to read aloud, you are not alone. The Holy Spirit is there, to be sure, but what we should all realize is that whenever we read our Bibles we are a part of an enormous conversation that began long before we were born and will continue long after we die. We always read the Bible in conversation with every minister, Sunday School teacher, and Bible study leader we have ever encountered. We read the Bible in conversation with every book or article we have read about the Bible. We read the Bible in conversation with everyone we have ever talked to about the Bible. Scripture is never sola; it is never alone.

We do not exist in isolation and neither does the Bible. The Bible is a product of a community and always comes to us in community. The Bible was given to us by someone – our parents, our church, a friend. Even if we went down to the bookstore by ourselves and bought a Bible, someone or something planted the idea in our minds that we wanted to read the Bible and know more about what it said. The individual in his or her hotel room who picks up the Gideon Bible and reads it is reading a Bible that was placed there by a community.

And that takes us to the second question in today’s reading. The Ethiopian said to Philip, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” The community is the correct environment in which to read the Bible. The more we isolate ourselves from community, the less likely we are to read the Bible correctly.

Sophomore year in college 2 strangers showed up at a Bible study group I was a part of. My friend Jim was also a part of that group. Jim was lonely, unhappy, and probably clinically depressed. He was doing badly in school and probably should not have been at Harvard. The two strangers took Jim aside and he spent the entire night talking to them. The next day Jim was gone. He spent the next year or two in a cult, until he finally came to his senses. But if Jim had come back to our group after talking to these strangers, if he had asked the rest of us what we thought of their interpretations of the Bible, there’s a good chance that he might not have gone off with them. Enormous harm is done when self-appointed prophets isolate themselves and a few followers from the rest of the world. Think of Jim Jones and Jonestown and David Koresh and Waco.

The church tells us that God guides us through scripture, reason, and tradition. Tradition is the conversation that we are a part of whenever we read the Bible. It is the eternal dialogue. It is the counterpoint, the polyphony of voices all the way from St. Paul to your first Sunday School teacher, St. Thomas Aquinas to Father So and So who baptized you and routinely put you to sleep with his sermons.

Finally, and briefly, there is another question. The Ethiopian was captivated by the story that Philip told and wanted to be baptized. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Scripture is not our only spiritual practice. Christian spiritual practices include the sacraments, and this even more vividly demonstrates how Christianity is not a solitary enterprise. We cannot baptize ourselves. We cannot feed ourselves at the Lord’s Table. We are baptized and fed by others, by a community. Just as scripture is never sola, neither are grace and faith ever sola, alone. Grace and faith come to us in, with , and among others.

We do not know what happened to the Ethiopian court official, but tradition tells us that he founded the Ethiopian church. Community begets community. Philip, a member of the church in Jerusalem, encountered the Ethiopian, who, in turn, carried the faith from Jerusalem to Ethiopia.

The Christian faith is a story, a story we tell whenever we sit down at table together. Every child knows that the story begins “Once upon a time…” and ends “happily ever after”, but as soon as we say “happily ever after” someone else wants to hear the story, and so we begin again, “Once upon a time…” So tell the story and do not tire of telling it. Tell it straight through from “Once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” You and I are part of a great conversation. Someone told you the story and someone wants you to tell them the story. “Once upon a time…” Amen.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Good Shepherd - an unifinished sermon

How many of you know a shepherd? How many of you have ever tended sheep? How many have even SEEN a sheep? I suppose most of us have seen sheep and even watched shepherds tend them, but today’s Psalm and Gospel reading, illustrate one of the big problems people have with the Bible – it seems so removed from the way we live life now. Most school children in the developed world have never even seen a sheep, much less have any idea what it takes to be a good shepherd.

If we go a little further down this road, we can easily imagine why so many men and women in the developed world dismiss religion. It seems at best a quaint relic of days gone by and at worst seems dangerously out of touch with modern reality.

The Good Shepherd seems not far removed from Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. The child who professes to believe in any of these receives an amused, sympathetic, and perhaps slightly wisful grin. Ah, to be seven years old again and capable of believing in childhood magic!

The indulgent and amused adult who encounters such a child may feel a pang or two of nostalgia for his or her childhood but more than likely has no wish to be that age again.

“I am the good shepherd…” Jesus said. Was he saying that he was the only slightly more believeable equivalent of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy – an appealing and fuzzy belief with which we comfort children, all the while knowing the universe to be cold, inhospitable and finally meaningless.

I wonder if perhaps Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy are figures that were invented to fill in the gap, to take up the slack in a world in which God was beginning to play a smaller part.

Obviously, shepherd was a powerful image in ancient Israel. The Old Testament often speaks of God as shepherd, and the best known example of this is, of course, Psalm 23.

Why shepherd? What is there about shepherds that made them an appropriate image for God?

If we were to choose an image for God that might be more appropriate for our day, where would we look? The image that comes to my mind immediately are the men and women of the New York City Fire Dept who rescued the victims of the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. Indeed, the image of a rescue worker carrying a wounded person out of the World Trade Center bears a remarkable resemblance to images of the Good Shepherd bringing the lost lamb back to the fold.

But where, we might ask, is the Good Shepherd when the world comes crashing down? When bad things happen to good people?

Rabbi Harold Kushner in his commentary on Psalm 23 points out how realistic this psalm is. It doesn’t promise us that there will be no death but promises us that God walks with us through the valley of death’s dark shadow. It doesn’t say that we will have no enemies but assures us that God is with us in the presence of our enemies.

Where is God when the shadows grow dark and our enemies seem to be all around? Where was God when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center? In the ancient world God was the Good Shepherd but in our world God may be the “Good Fireman or woman”. God is the one who goes into the burning building even as it falls down around us and carries us out safely.

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed
But yet in love God sought me
And on his shoulders gently laid
And home rejoicing brought me.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What's in a name?

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks in Romeo and Juliet. She could not understand how the mere fact that she was a Capulet and Romeo a Montague was a strong enough reason to keep them apart. But Shakespeare knew just how powerful names can be. In Othello the villain Iago says, “Good name in man or woman is the immediate jewel of their souls…. But he that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him / And makes me poor indeed...”

Names were even more important in the ancient world. Ancient Israel believed that to name a thing was to acquire mastery over it and to learn a person’s name was to acquire power over them. In the first chapter of Genesis God names each component of creation: “God called the dry land earth … and the waters that were gathered together he called seas…” But in the second chapter of Genesis, God brings all the creatures of the earth before Adam who then names them. Genesis 1 is telling us that the world is God’s artifact, God’s creature, but Genesis 2 tells us that God has entrusted us with the power to name and authority over creation.

Today’s readings touch on this idea of naming. Called before the Jewish authorities Peter asserts that the lame man was healed by faith in the name of Jesus. And in the gospel reading the Risen Christ tells the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name.”

For Peter to stand before the Jewish authorities and tell them that faith in the name of Jesus had healed the lame man was tantamount to telling them that Jesus was not just an intinerant prophet but that he was God. As Paul put it in the second chapter of Philippians, “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow…” To Jews then and now there is only one name in which we are to have faith, only one name to which every should bow, and that is the name of God.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is not only applicable to today’s readings because of Juliet’s meditation on the significance of names. Shakespeare’s Verona was divided between the Capulets and the Montagues. Take Verona and multiply it a thousand times, and you have the 21st century. Our world is fragmented a thousand different ways. Muslims and Christians, developed and developing countries, rich and poor, north and south, black and white. And religion seems to be responsible for some of the deepest, bitterest, and most dangerous divisions. As Jonathan Swift once said, “We have enough religion to make us hate one another but not enough to make us love.”

The world’s great religions generally agree that we should care for the poor, the hungry, and the homeless; that we should treat all people with respect; and so on. But as soon as we move away from ethics and start to talk about belief, all unity vanishes. From the very beginning Christians have maintained that to know Jesus is to know God and that the name of Jesus is also the name of God. Jews and Muslims cannot wrap their minds around this. Both Judaism and Islam believe that between the divine and the human is an enormous wall that cannot be penetrated. God is God and humans are humans.

If we continue to insist that the name of Jesus and the name of God are one and the same are we engaging in a dangerous spiritual and intellectual parochialism that will simply further divide the world? Is the only alternative a sort of mindless multi-culturalism that maintains that one truth is as good as another? I have no easy answers but I want to suggest a way forward.

First and foremost, I want to say that I am a Christian. I believe that. The Christian faith is the conviction that to encounter Christ is to encounter God. The followers of Jesus were convinced that the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, the God who brought Israel out of Egypt and gave the Torah to Moses on Sinai – the very same God had spoken to them in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. How did they know this? Workers of miracles and tellers of parables were common in first century Palestine. Many wandering teachers other than Jesus assembled and taught groups of disciples. None of these things is sufficient to explain why Peter, James, John, and the rest were so certain that the name of Jesus and the name of God were one and the same. What convinced them was the resurrection. They had seen Jesus die on the cross; they had placed his body in a tomb; but on the first day of the week he appeared among them again. He appeared not as a vision, dream, illusion, or phantom. They found him to be as real after his death as before it. He ate with them, walked with two disciples from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and the wounds in his hands, feet, and side convinced Thomas and others that he was indeed the Jesus they had known prior to his execution.

Christianity is the belief that to know Jesus is to know God. It is NOT the belief that Christians have a monopoly on the truth; it is NOT the belief that everyone else must be wrong. It is not the belief that Christians are morally and spiritually superior because of their faith.

One of my favorite definitions of the Christian faith comes from David Jenkins, now the retired bishop of Durham, England. Bp Jenkins was a famous or notorious liberal depending on your point of view, but he once remarked to my friend, Alan Webster, then Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, “The Christian faith is very simple: God IS as God is in Christ. Therefore, we have hope.” Note the present tense: not God WAS but God IS. We worship a Christ who is in the present tense, not the past.

And there’s the rub: If you believe as I do that God was (and is) in Christ reconciling the world, that Israel’s God was fully and uniquely present in Jesus of Nazareth, then is there any room at all for acknowledging the validity of other religions? Must we maintain that Christianity not only has a monopoly on the truth but even a monopoly on God?

Many would say yes. Apparently, this is the conviction of our president and many of his strongest supporters. And many would say that this is a dangerous position in a world as fragmented as ours is.

However, I think Jesus himself offers us a way out of this dilemma.
I always tell my students that the only way to understand the New Testament is to hold firmly to the fact that Jesus, Paul, and others were Jews. This helps us make sense of the things Jesus did and said. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exegetes three traditional mitzvot or commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery, and you shall not take the Lord’s name in vain. At the very beginning, he says, “I have not come to destroy the Torah but to fulfill (or complete) it.”

I think we may have put too much emphasis on the end of that statement and too little on the beginning. To be sure, we believe that to understand God’s word, God’s guidance for our lives, we need to look to Jesus. I believe that that is what he meant by saying that he came to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.

But what did he mean by saying that he did not come to destroy the Torah? For much of the last 2000 years, Christians have acted as though Jesus DID come to destroy the Torah. We have persecuted the Jewish people, driven them out of so-called Christian countries, and finally, Christian indifference allowed (some would say caused) the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

But Jesus did not set aside the Torah. He never denied its wisdom. And most significantly, he never denied that it was a genuine revelation of God.

I wonder if we might extrapolate from Jesus’ refusal to set aside the Torah, his insistence that he did not come to destroy what had come before but to fulfill it. Would Jesus say that he did not come to destroy the Qu’ran? Might he say that he did not come to destroy but to fulfill the wisdom of Buddhism? Would Jesus of Nazareth refuse to set aside the scriptures of the Hindu tradition?

I do not have a final answer, but I do believe that the God I encounter in Christ is comprehensive and broad rather than narrow and partisan. I cannot say how God is encountered in other great religions but I find it hard to believe that a God as big as the God of Jesus could be revealed only to a small part of the human race and completely hidden to all the rest.

I don’t think this makes me any less Christian. I still believe that God is in Christ reconciling the world. I still believe that hope and health, joy and salvation come to those who call on the name of Jesus. I still believe that you and I have a responsibility to proclaim these things. But I also believe that the kingdom is broader than the limits of my mind and I dare not limit the gracious hospitality of God.

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked. In Shakespeare’s great play the division between the Capulets and Montagues led to tragedy. Clinging to those things which divide rather than unite us in our world could lead to catastrophes that even Shakespeare could never have imagined. I believe that when I call upon the name of Jesus, I am calling upon God, but it is not for me to say that God might be known by other names.

Freshman year I was part of a fairly conservative Bible study group, and at the end of the year one of our members decided to attend Harvard Divinity School. We were a little worried about what might become of Betsy at this great bastion of liberal religion. After a semester at the div school I asked Betsy what she had learned. She smiled and said, “I have discovered that the kingdom is far broader than I thought.”

God has invited you and me to a heavenly feast. The invitation was written in Greek and went out 2000 years ago. . We call it the New Testament. But I believe that God has also sent invitations to the banquet in Arabic and Chinese and Sanskrit and Hebrew. God invites all his children to the eternal banquet, regardless of their language and regardless of the name by which they know him. Amen.