Sermon on Reading the Bible, preached at Bushey on 24 February 2013

Sermon  preached  in Bushey . 24th February 2013. By Ian Tattum

It was when I was here that I got into the dangerous habit of referring to the Archdeacon as the Arch-demon. It all went terribly wrong when I was in the church office one morning and Laura Hart answered the phone,  greeted the person on the end of the line and informed me quite loudly ‘ it’s the arch-demon.’

For parish clergy Arch-deacons can be figures of fun and fear because of the power they can exert over us- hence the appeal of the scene stealing one in Rev.

My current Arch-deacon, I must say is a charming and kind man, but the first time I met him he was something of a figure of fear; because he was interviewing me for my current job.

Most of you will have been in the same kind of situation yourselves when your ability to think straight, or even speak,  seems to be on the verge of disappearing. Having rambled eloquently about a book I had just read that’s title and author had just completely escaped me, I looked up, blushing, to see the Archdeacon formulating his next question.

‘What passage or story in the Bible best sums up your approach to faith?’

You know, those neuroscientists who insist that  the body acts before the conscious mind has a chance to tell it what to do, are quite right. While my brain was still whirling I heard my lips provide an answer.

‘None of them.’

The Archdeacon looked at me tolerantly but quizzically, and then tried again.

‘But most people have a biblical saying, or favourite text, which sums up their faith, like say ‘ love your neighbour’.’

I think I just sat there shaking my head for a moment, thinking that my chances of becoming the next Vicar of St Barnabas were rapidly receding .

I did recover!

And went on to say something along the lines of:

‘I don’t see the Bible that way.

 I see it as a whole, and although there are parts of it which speak to me more personally and directly than others, I try to let it speak above the buzz in my own mind.’

And I probably quoted a half remembered  comment made by Rowan Williams which hit me between the eyes when I encountered it decades ago- it went something like

Too much of the time when we read the Scriptures we seek to interrogate them, but we should let them interrogate us’

That thought made me reluctant to simply use the the bible to confirm my own point of view. Or to pay no heed to those bits which at any given time seem to have nothing relevant or helpful to tell me.

Letting God and the Holy Spirit get a word in edgeways seemed a more humble approach!

So have I found myself increasingly drawn to a text which is often used in the theological flame wars between those of us of a more liberal disposition and those who are conservative about biblical interpretation. Here it is-it is from the 2nd letter to Timothy chapter 3: v 16/17

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient , equipped for every good work.’

This is often used as a proof text by those we might term Fundamentalists, who see the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and is therefore  one of the  roots of all creationism.

But if you consider it closely it appears to be saying something much more interesting and expansive than Fundamentalists assume.

It is not saying that all scripture is true and must be taken at face value- it is saying that all scripture is useful, and potentially life changing and life shaping. It is the sort of saying that if taken seriously doesn’t allow us to stop looking, but inspires us to keep on exploring.

I find it helpful because I don’t believe that the Bible should be treated like a kind of holy Wikipedia, providing immediate and simple access to information, but rather, as what it is , a library of different books; a storehouse of reflections on the encounter with God. Christian, and Jewish wisdom, forged out of centuries long human experience.

The reading we just heard from Luke, which is the one provided in the lectionary for this evening, is a good place to begin to consider this issue of how to let the Scriptures speak to us. It is one of Jesus’ notorious hard sayings and if it is to be taken at face value we might as well all abandon hope straight away.

Jesus says

‘None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions’

That’s that then!

But, of course it isn’t.

For many individuals who have been exploring a vocation to the monastic life, these words have been heard as sanction and encouragement, and to the rest of us they issue a challenge to fashionable ways of thinking- such as the idea that your economic worth defines your moral worth or that modern twist to Descartes-‘ I shop therefore I am.’

There is that challenge to us, that interrogation of us, I was talking about earlier. So here are just a few handy hints about letting the Scriptures speak to us, which you might find helpful.

Firstly keep listening. I once had an interesting discussion with my atheist brother about the parables.

‘They are all really straightforward aren’t they’, he said, ‘take the Good Samaritan for example. It’s really clear what the message is.’

He had a point! But he also exemplified the tendency we have to define something, in a very limiting way, on the basis of our first impression of it! – we sometimes do that too, perilously ,when we first encounter people.

Just as there is a danger that a person we know will be perpetually judged by us on account of our reaction on first meeting them, there is a chance that throughout our lives we will approach the Scriptures through the eyes of our Sunday School self.

So when we come to church and hear the Gospel read to us, we always hear the same thing. But as we change and age, and have experience, we should be able to hear notes we couldn’t hear before.

On Ash Wednesday this year we had the very familiar  story of the woman taken before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, because she was an adulterer. But this time I registered something I had not really paid much attention too before. That the scribes and the Pharisees, who came with a double dose of malice in their hearts- seeking blood and wanting to trick Jesus into giving the wrong answer- might well have listened and learnt. When they leave one by one after Jesus has produced his devastating one liner-

Let  he who is without sin throw the first stone.’

St John doesn’t tell us why they left.

It could have been shame, but it could have been penitence. They who came with the most darkness in their hearts might have had it lifted. They too might have been the heroes, also taking away the message that they could be forgiven, and did not need to return to their sin.

So whether listening to well known Bible passages in Church or reading them at   home try to let them speak new things.

There is a famous Buddhist saying- ‘if you see the Buddha on the road kill him.’ I sometimes think there should be an alternative- ‘if you see a biblical commentator on the road kill him’, or perhaps, not quite as harshly. ‘If you see the Bible Reading Fellowship notes burn them.’  The way readings are chopped up for consumption on Sundays is not always helpful either.

My problem is with the habit of breaking down the bible into verses and short passages, and trying to distil the essence of the meaning from the tiny morsel you have left. A great Cambridge biblical scholar from the C19th, Fenton Hort, was accused of being just a bit too pre-occupied with minutiae- someone said he was the kind of man who when he should be looking through a telescope used a microscope instead.

That, in my opinion, is the curse of many a Bible Study. In the Jerusalem Bible the book of Jonah was translated by JRR Tolkien- how appropriate! A story rendered by a master storyteller. You start a story and you keep on going until you get tired, or bored!

St Paul wrote letters. Imagine getting a letter from a friend, or even from the bank manager, and reading it a paragraph at a time, and only once per week- and only during Lent?

Scholars now regularly compare the Book of Job to a Tragic Play. How would you make sense of Hamlet if you only ever heard the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy over and over again, and always torn from its moorings?

Because that is what happens in churches to this profound meditation on suffering and Divine Justice.

Strangely enough one of the few books in the Bible that is comprised almost entirely of short sayings, which should be pondered, one at a time’, the Book of Proverbs, is usually read in church, when it is read at all, in large chunks.

Like a bad tooth or a lame foot is trust in a faithless man in time of trouble.

Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood, sorrow gnaws at the human heart.

So that is my second piece of advice. Read Scripture, not as a collection of verses, but as a collection of books and genres. This store-house, this library, describing the encounter with God.

And finally, a point which follows on from these reflections, and is a message that all of us who style ourselves liberal, particularly need to heed. Don’t write off the Old Testament.

The passage from 2 Timothy I quoted before, about the inspirational nature of Scripture was written  long before the canon of the New Testament  had come into existence so it is inappropriate to use it as proof text for  sanctity of the whole Bible, as it was originally just aimed at the Old Testament.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson has recently made a powerful and convincing case that many of the distinctive features  in the American political system, which we would term ‘ liberal’ are there because of the Puritan influence which drew heavily on the Old Testament, for its ideals of social order. Those we often consider to be harsh, but when compared to those to be found in the Europe the Puritans fled they can look positively enlightened.

Where we are now, in the light of the ages and the Gospels, we can still lean on 1 Timothy- not as a proof text, but as a profound insight, applicable to the whole of Scripture.

All Scripture is useful. Or as it is put more austerely and provocatively in the words of the grandest translation- the King James version.

‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly  furnished unto all good works.’

 Amen.