<I really encourage you to listen to this one rather than read it. You can do so here.>
2 Timothy 3:16-17
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.
What Did You Expect?
For your word seen in scriptures
In Christ who is The Word,
We give thanks this morning.
Release in us the freedom of your Spirit
That we may be held by nothing but
Tuesday we traveled with 20 of our High School youth to Carowinds amusement park for some death-defying thrills.
And having that number, 20, plus the adult participants, meant someone had to drive and take some folks, and that someone ended up being me. Which, in theory I’m fine with, but in practicality meant that I had to take out two car seats and then do a quick vacuum of the backseat because, well, look: if my car ever went off a cliff and we were trapped at the bottom of a ravine, the police report would never say that we died of hunger. Because there are whole boxes of Cheerios and Goldfish crackers back there…
So two youth, who will remain nameless, decide to ride in the car with Pr. Marsha and myself, and I immediately pop in a Lady Gaga CD because, you know, I’m hip. I know what the kids like.
Except I don’t, I guess, because immediately the two youth put on their headphones. And no matter how loud I turned up the volume, they refused to sing “Ooooh…caught in a bad romance…” with PM and I who were, if I might be so bold, in fine voice. Air high-five.
But, I mean, what did I expect. I’m almost 38, and 20 years have passed between where I am now and where they are now and the world is so much different…
And yet, the world is so much the same, too.
I mean there are places of relation, points of contact, between our two experiences. And there are places of huge difference, and it will always be so, because time marches on and things change.
Think of everything that is different over the last 20 years in the world. Now expand that lens and think about what’s different over the last 2000 years. Now expand that a bit and think of what’s different over the last 5000 years.
And when you can imagine that, you can start to gain some perspective on the difficulty it is to relate to some parts of the Bible. The gap there is huge. Epic.
While it is true that the scriptures are timeless in one sense, like a diamond that retains its value, there is a very real sense, too, that it is a product of the time, the person, the place it was written in. Like we all are.
It’s easy to imagine that Genesis was crafted in Silicon Valley, but it was written down some 2500 years ago during the Babylonian Exile by people who understood the world differently, who dressed differently, with different diets, lifestyles, and ideas to help people who had no home find a link back to a common heritage. And yes, the Holy Spirit was involved, but that doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed a bit.
And sometimes when we take in the vast differences between when and how the scriptures were written and our situation today, one temptation is to put on the headphones. To stop listening to them. To stop hearing them. But Archbishop Rowan Williams says this would be a mistake, because, he notes, “a Christian life is a listening life.”
A Christian life is one that expects that God can speak across space and time. That’s the first thing I want you to remember: A Christian life is one that expects that God can speak across space and time.
But another temptation, kind of the opposite temptation, is one where we start pretending that the scriptures are so easy to understand, it’s like they were written yesterday. In the suburbs. By someone who looks like us and drinks pumpkin spice lattes and has middle-class problems.
And this gets to the second thing I hope you remember today: a Christian life is a learning life. Because you are meant to use your brains when it comes to the scriptures. You are not meant to just take it at face value, or to imagine that the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, or whatnot didn’t or don’t apply.
I know many absolutely brilliant people, brilliant in their own line of work: physics, chemistry, medicine, languages, who take big critical thinking skills to work with them every day, but when it comes to Sunday they just leave them at home when they go to church.
God did not give us the Bible to replace our brains, beloved. I mean, what did you expect? That somehow God was wanting us to ditch the most amazing organ in our body?
The scriptures are meant to be dissected, ingested, questioned, as well as treasured. Like a good song written long ago whose lyrics still speak truth, even if that truth needs a bit of interpretation to make sense today.
You know, I like acronyms. I mean, we’re in the ELCA after all. Our church is an acronym. This is where you LOL, BTW.
But one acronym I absolutely can’t stand is the one where people take the letters of the word Bible, B-I-B-L-E, and they say it’s an acronym for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”
Do not write that down!
That’s terrible. It’s horrible. That kind of simplistic view of the scriptures has caused so much damage in the world. Because, well, what did you expect? The Bible is full of beautiful poetry, myth, songs, history, laws, prose, and apocrypha. And if you take all of it as the same kind of writing, you get into the terrible situation where you suddenly can divorce your wife if she burns dinner (but she can’t divorce you if you do), you can stone people, marry your daughter off to pay a debt. You start to believe that you can move a literal mountain with your faith, and if you can’t then you’re lacking (I actually had someone in tears telling me that they tried this and were so disappointed when it didn’t happen…).
That’s not how the Bible is used, beloved. It’s not a cookbook of instructions. As Rowan Williams says, “The Bible is not a single sequence of instructions, beginning with ‘God says to you…’” He says, “The reality is that as soon as you think you know what the Bible is, you turn the page and it turns into something different.”
And that, Beloved, is what a living document does. It continues to speak because it speaks many languages, and primarily the language of story, our story, your story, and the story of the people who came before us over 5000, who saw themselves through the lens of God.
And I guess that’s the third thing I want us to hold today. The Christian life is a life that sees God’s story and our story coming together through the lens of scripture, a scripture with Jesus as its center.
So, we get to Carowinds, and surprisingly none of the kids wanted to walk around with me, PM, or Buck. Which I couldn’t understand because we are really fun.
So the three of us start walking around together, and since it was a Tuesday and overcast, no one was there. Perfect day for an amusement park. And we started riding the roller coasters. And it’s been a good 8 years since I’ve been on a roller coaster.
And so we go on one. Then two. And after the third one we get off and I notice that I’m starting to sweat. And not sweat because I’m hot, it’s the kind of sweat that lets you know that your stomach is not ok with whatever is going on with you. And you start to make mental notes when that starts to happen. Notes like, “Ok. There are three trashcans along this path, and a bathroom toward the end of the lane…”
And Pastor Marsha is like, “Tim…are you ok? And if you say yes I won’t believe you…”
It’s weird. On Tuesday I found out that I can’t ride roller coasters like I used to. They’ve changed for me. It’s not like I don’t like them, I do! It’s just that I can’t ride do it all the same way anymore.
And I guess that’s the fourth thing…which is totally un-Lutheran to have four points in a sermon, there should only be 3! But I guess that’s the fourth thing I’d lift up about the scriptures today: you’ll read them differently, and even some parts differently, at different times in your life.
And it must be that way. Because we learn and grow, both as humans and as people of faith. And I know many of my friends who have left the faith because they thought that any change in the way they viewed the scriptures or viewed the faith made it all not worthwhile. Some parts turned their stomach now. Some twists and turns in the scriptures seemed unbelievable to them now. And so they just got off the ride.
But I’m here to tell you that it’s going to happen. It needs to happen. Growth and change needs to happen, and that just because the experience changes it doesn’t mean somethings wrong.
In fact, that’s when we have to pay the most attention!
Because usually that means God is speaking a new thing in a new way to us. And yes, it can be scary, and even frustrating. But it is part of growing as humans, as people in the faith, as people of faith.
Rowan Williams in this little chapter reminds us that scripture is like God saying, “This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made…where are you in this?” Scripture reading is not observational. You are in the story, which is why you feel the twists and turns, and that’s ok.
And finally, the fifth thing (yes, 5…totally un-Lutheran, Beloved) that I think we must remember is that, at the core, Lutherans are Jesus people. We are people who love the Bible because it tells us about Jesus. We are not people who love Jesus because he tells us about the Bible.
You get what I mean?
I mean that, for Lutherans, and for many of our kissing Christian cousins, Jesus is the center of our scriptures, and the measuring stick against which all the scriptures are held against. If there’s something in the law, or the history, or even the letters of the New Testament, that seem to not embody of spirit of Christ presented in the Gospels, we follow Jesus first.
Now that’s not easy, Beloved. It’s not easy because, well, Christians have long used the Bible as a means for social control, not societal enlivening. And so in many ways part of what we’re doing is re-educating the Christian landscape, re-orienting the church back on Christ, intentionally. It’s a long process…I’d say it’s been a 2000 year process, with some eras being better than others, frankly.
But, as Martin Luther so rightly said, the Scriptures are not the Gospel. Jesus is the Gospel, God’s good news. The scriptures are the manger in which he is held. And we are always on the quest for Jesus in the scriptures, looking for the places of love and light and grace there.
Kind of like we’re always on the look for Jesus in the text of our own lives, right?
It was the end of the day, and we were all gathering up at the front of the park to head home. And a couple of the kids came looking a little queasy. “Are you ok?” I asked. And one of them said, “We road the Intimidator 15 times in a row…they just let us stay on the coaster and ran us through again and again and again…and now I don’t feel so good…”
To which I replied, “Well, what did you expect?!” You need a little relief.
The funny thing about a stomach that is upset by rollercoasters is that it usually, actually, needs some food in it to settle it. It’s counter-intuitive, but it works. And so I encouraged everyone who was sick to go get a pretzel, which most of them did, and it settled things down a bit.
All they needed was a bit of bread.
And, perhaps that’s a good place to end it, folks. Because here’s the thing, when you’ve been tossed and turned, by your faith-life, by people using the Bible badly and you’re not sure you can stomach it anymore, or by just life in general, and all you’re doing is hanging on by a small handle, perhaps that one scripture verse like, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” when you’re at the end, I find that a little bit of bread and a sip of wine, here, each week, helps to settle everything down.
It just does. So let’s eat. And I bet you’ll say to me, “Yeah, that worked” after services. To which I’ll reply, “What did you expect?”