The last two weeks and this week, we’re previewing my new Bible study, which is available now on Amazon.com. I will be using it this fall with the wonderful people who attend the adult forum hour at my church. If you’re looking for a similar offering for your church or Bible study group, I hope you will give P.E.A.C.H. an audition. Two weeks ago we previewed the preface, last week we previewed Session 1, and two we preview session 2 of the five week study.
Sermon for Sunday, May 3, 2015 || Easter 5B || Acts 8:26-40
Twice last week, I got to wear a tie. I went to the MASH gala fundraiser and to the Eastern Connecticut Symphony concert, at which several of our parishioners sang their hearts out performing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The benefit was fabulous, the concert was wonderful. And I went to both wearing a tie. This may sound like a strange thing for me to report to you, but I assure you, I am going somewhere with this. Whenever I’m getting dressed, I’m faced with a wardrobe decision. Do I wear my black shirt and collar or not? If I decide not to, then I leave the house incognito. I’m still a priest, of course, when wearing a coat and tie or jeans and flip flops, but people at the concert hall or grocery store won’t be able to spot that about me on first glance. (They probably think I’m a college sophomore home on break.)
Sometimes when I’m not wearing my clergy clothes, I revel in the anonymity I have. I can take the twins to the pediatrician without people looking at me funny. Is he allowed to have kids? I can ride in an airplane and not freak out the other passengers when I white knuckle it through takeoff. (I’m not the best flier, and seeing a man of the cloth nearly hyperventilating while taxiing down the runway is not doing anyone any favors.)
The trouble is, when I consciously choose not to wear my black shirt and collar, I can fall into the trap of thinking I’m off the clock, I’m done for the day, my timecard is punched. But that’s not how it works. I get paid to be your rector and spiritual leader. That’s my job. But living as one of Jesus’ disciples, living out my baptism? That started long before I was ordained, long before I had the choice of attire. That started the moment I said, “Here I am,” when God called me into relationship. Living out my baptism, following Jesus – that’s not my job. That’s my life.
And it’s your life, too. You’re just not faced with the same wardrobe decisions. The question I have for you is this: Since your clothes don’t out you as a Christian like mine do, how do people know? What about your life is different because you signed up as a follower of Jesus? If you got into a conversation about the important stuff how long would you talk before mentioning your faith?
We share the Good News of Jesus Christ in many ways – both in word and deed. We tend to focus on the “deed” part, and I think we do it pretty well. But the “word” part is hard. The thing is, the word gives the deed context and shape. In a world as spiritually malnourished as ours has become, the interpretation of our God-inspired deeds with God-inspired words is critical. I know for a fact that people out there are hungry for some connection with something…deeper. Spiritual malnutrition leads to spiritual hunger, though most people don’t have the language to name the lack they feel. We do have that language, and it is our delight to share it.
This is what Philip does with the Ethiopian eunuch in today’s lesson. The Good News of Jesus Christ has just begun to spread, and Philip is on the vanguard. He runs up to the eunuch’s chariot and hears him reading the prophet Isaiah. The eunuch is hungry to know of whom the prophet speaks. Philip shares the good news, and then the eunuch asks my favorite question in the book of Acts: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
What is to prevent me from being baptized? The answer is nothing. Philip baptizes him right there on the side of the road. For we who are already baptized, this question transforms. What is to prevent us from living out our baptism? The answer to this question should also be “nothing.” But it’s not that easy.
What prevents us from living out our baptism? What prevents us from sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed? Many, many, many things. Let’s talk about four of them.
First up is apathy. If we don’t take the time to cultivate our part in our relationships with God, then sinking into apathy is a real consequence. Apathy results when we don’t take our faith seriously – when it lives in the topsoil rather than the bedrock, just one good rainstorm from eroding away. God showers us with the promises upon which faith rests, but it’s up to us to practice our faith and our discipleship so they become constant motivators in our daily lives. If we don’t, we might wake up one day and look out at the vista of all that God calls us to do and be, all whom God calls us to serve, and say, “I don’t care.”
But we aren’t going to sink into apathy because we do care. We live out our baptism by being engaged. But that brings us to our second item: lack of expertise. Once we care, we realize how dwarfed we are by the enormity of the history and tradition and biblical witness undergirding our faith. How could we possibly know enough to be able to share it correctly? Let me set your mind at ease. I studied this stuff for three years at school. I have another seven years as a priest. And I’m still not an expert. I never will be. God doesn’t call us to be experts. God calls us to be authentic versions of ourselves, sharing our faith as we have received it. Yes, we are molded by history and tradition and scripture, and that means we need to trust that God is shaping us using those instruments, whether or not we can read the Bible in its original Hebrew. When we share our faith, we don’t share a particular scholar’s view of faith. We share ourselves.
But again, this leads to our next item: fear of rejection. Sharing something as important as our faith with others makes us vulnerable. What if they stop being my friends? What if they think I’m a weirdo for my beliefs? If your faith is an integral part of who you are, then you have to be willing to risk this rejection. I’m not saying you have to launch into dissertations about Jesus apropos of nothing, but don’t hide your faith either. It’s a part of you. Who knows how you will affect the spiritually malnourished people around you if you show it, no matter the risk?
This leads us to our final item: politeness. Didn’t your parents teach you that the two things you aren’t supposed talk about are politics and religion? I say that’s nonsense. The loudest voices in the media espousing so-called Christianity are people whose brand of our religion makes me physically gag: people who seem to revel in excluding others, people who mangle scripture to suit their own twisted ideologies, people who hate in the name of God. The spiritually malnourished around us hear those voices, too. What kind of picture of Christianity do you think is forming in their minds? But imagine if you got into the conversation about the important stuff that I mentioned earlier with one of those people seeking something deeper. If you shared our wonderful, inclusive, loving expression of Christianity with him or her, what a beautiful image could replace the horrific one that’s probably there!
One of the calls to live out our baptism is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. So many things prevent us from doing that – things like apathy, lack of expertise, fear of rejection, and misplaced politeness. But our faith matters. Our discipleship matters. Our relationship with God matters. These are the things that make us who we are. This is not just part of our lives. This is what undergirds our lives, gives them meaning. How could we not share something so wonderful, despite all that prevents us from doing so? I promise that the next time I have the opportunity to share my faith when I’m not wearing my black shirt and collar, when I’m wearing jeans and flip flops, I will, with God’s help. How about you?
If you take the vast sweep of Christian history into account, far fewer people have read the Bible than have heard it read. When the New Testament was still just a collection of letters and a few strange things called “Gospel” (say from about 50 to 325 CE), specially trained performers recited entire letters and books from memory during worship. In the middle ages, the majority of people never heard scripture read in a language they could understand and probably wouldn’t have recognized a book if it fell on them from a scriptorium window. Even as the Reformation gained steam and the printing press made vernacular versions of the Bible available, most people heard scripture, but never read it. The “family Bible” didn’t become fashionable until the 18th century, and even today churchgoers hear more scripture than they read (no matter the ubiquity of the Bible online and on store shelves).
What’s this have to do with biblical interpretation? I’m glad you asked. The texts that make up the Bible were always meant to be read aloud. Acts 8 makes this quite clear: Philip approaches the Ethiopian eunuch and knows he’s reading the prophet Isaiah because he is reading out loud. To himself. Follow the eunuch’s example (no, not that example). Read your passage out loud. I know you are reading a translation, but the beauty and rhetorical power of the biblical text do not necessarily suffer in an English treatment. When you read aloud, you will notice oratorical patterns and cadences that the Biblical writers employed to make recitation easier and listening more captivating.
Try this one on for size: say the following two verses in your mind and then say them out loud. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30).
Notice the oratorical power in the repetitive cadence. This is called a “step argument”: each phrase builds on the previous one until the sentence climaxes on the word “glorified.” Paul obviously wrote this sentence to be spoken rather than read. So there’s no point in studying these verses as “written.”
Besides appreciating the oratorical flair of Biblical writers, reading aloud gives you the opportunity to engage the drama of the Bible. A good chunk of the text is narrative and a good chunk of the narrative is dialogue. Now, we have no audiovisual documentation of the conversations recorded in the narrative, so it falls to us to interpret how the dialogue sounds.
Let’s take Pilate’s response to Jesus as an example: “Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ ” (John 18:37-38). How does Pilate say, “What is truth?” Is he angry? Is he skeptical? Is he desperate? Each of these readings offers a different insight into the mind of the Roman governor. If you take reading aloud seriously, the dialogue will force you to make interpretive choices of tone, emotion, and motive. I’m not going to lie. Practicing a text for performance is an awesome way to enter into an interpretive mindset.*
A trained musician may be able to “hear the music” when she looks at a score, but most of us cannot comprehend music’s beauty and power without hearing it played. Similarly, the Biblical text soars when it is read aloud. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being. When we read the Bible aloud, we access that creative voice within ourselves and use the breath and the bodies that God created.
So, read the Bible, yes. But don’t just read it. Speak it. And don’t just speak the Bible. Proclaim it.
* The next few posts on this blog will expand this discussion of exploring dialogue in the Bible by presenting a three part Midrash on Pilate’s statement “What is truth?” Stay tuned.
** I want to thank the writer of the first comment on this post. Reading scripture aloud during worship is the main way people are exposed to scripture. Knowing that, we’ve got to make sure our lectors are trained and know what they are reading ahead of time. Too often, (for various reasons) priests are running around five minutes before services looking for people to read. Reading scripture aloud is too important for that to be the norm.