Sermon for Sunday, March 19, 2017 || Lent 3A || John 4:5-42
Recently, a few dozen parishioners of St. Mark’s blessed us all with their meditations on Bible passages found in the Lent issue of The Lion’s Tale magazine. Their work got me thinking about biblical interpretation in general and that fact that such an adventure is not reserved for clergy alone. Anyone can be an interpreter of the Bible, though I am aware that most people do not feel equipped to do so. So today, I’m going to give you a crash course on interpreting the Bible, as at least a place to start: Ten Handy Guidelines for Interpretation (or HGIs for short) that we will derive from the Gospel story I just read. There’s a bookmark in your program that lists the Handy Guidelines, and I invite you to stick it in your Bible when you get home. You ready? Here we go.Continue reading “The Gift of God (With 10 Handy Guidelines for Interpretation)”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 12, 2014 || Proper 23A || Matthew 22:1-14
Today I’d like to do something a little different. Do you remember how, in math classes, your teacher told you to “show your work” in order to get full credit for answering a question? Well, this morning, I’m going to show my work as we go through this sermon together. Rather than just give you the end product of my Bible study, my struggles and false starts, and my attempts to listen to the Holy Spirit, I thought I’d pull back the curtain and show you some of the process.
I’ve decided to do this today for two reasons. First, the passage we just read from the Gospel according to Matthew is very difficult to encounter, so taking a step back and looking at it from a higher vantage point can be beneficial. Second, I never want to fall into the trap where I set myself up as such an unassailable expert in all things spiritual that, instead of inspiring you, I keep you from thinking you have the necessary skills to do what I do. Believe me, I am not an expert. I’m just a fellow disciple, who perhaps has a bit more specialized schooling than you might.
So think about this sermon as one that is really a step or two from the normal finished product. In it, we’ll explore together one way I like to study and interpret Biblical passages. My hopes are, by the end of this sermon, we will hear a word from God about today’s Gospel reading, and we will all be just a little bit more confident the next time we sit down to read the Bible. So without further ado, let me introduce you to a favorite acronym of mine: P.E.A.C.H. PEACH will lead us through five steps toward more fruitful Bible study. I commend these steps to you whenever you sit down to study our sacred texts. PEACH stands for Prayer > Encounter > Atmosphere > Charge > Humility.
We’ll start where any endeavor should: with Prayer. You might seek out a prayer specifically about reading the Bible, or you may write one for yourself to pray whenever you sit down to read. Or you may allow a new prayer to bubble up whenever you are getting ready to pick up your Bible. Perhaps your prayer might sound something like this:
“Dear God, thank you for prompting me to read the Bible today: please help me to be surprised by the generosity of your Word, to be patient in the face of everything I still don’t understand, to be enfolded by your grace as I read, and to be courageous as I bring your love with me from these pages out into the world; In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.”
After you pray, read your passage. Read it aloud. Read it slowly. Try to have an authentic Encounter with it. Don’t allow preconceived notions about how you think you should feel about the Bible ruin this authentic encounter. If the text makes you revolted, feel revulsion. If the text makes you question, feel confusion. If the text makes you peaceful, dwell in that peace.
Today’s parable from Jesus contains so much overt hyperbole that any emotion our encounter with it evokes will most likely be a strong version of that emotion. The parable begins innocently enough. We have a king, a sumptuous wedding banquet for the prince, and guests who decide they have better things to do. So far this sounds like several other parables Jesus tells. But then everything goes haywire. The realism of the story disintegrates when the would-be guests kill the invitation deliverers. And then when the king burns down their city. And then when the host throws the improperly dressed fellow not back out into the street but into “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
I don’t know about you, but so far my authentic encounter with this story leans me toward discomfort, if not all out revulsion. It’s entirely possible that such a response is exactly what Jesus is going for. To look further into that, we turn to the next letter in PEACH. “A” is for Atmosphere.
The atmosphere of a reading is everything around it that helps it breath. This can mean a lot of different things where Bible study is concerned, but for our purposes, let’s say the atmosphere surrounding our reading is everything that happens within a couple of chapters of it in the Gospel. Backing up, we witness Jesus ride in humble triumph into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. That means we are at the beginning of Jesus’ final week. We know what’s right around the corner, and by all accounts, so does Jesus. Jesus gets off the donkey, walks into the temple, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and drives out all the sellers of sacrificial animals. This disruptive action probably seals his fate.
Jesus returns to the temple the next day, where the chief priests, Pharisees, and many others question him. He tells three consecutive parables, all having to do with inviting a new and unlikely set of people into the kingdom of heaven. The first parable (which we read two weeks ago) speaks of two sons, on who did the will of his father and one who didn’t. The second (which we read last week) speaks of wicked tenants who kill the son of the vineyard keeper. By this time, Jesus’ opponents realize he’s talking about them. But he’s not done. Now Jesus tells today’s parable, and the violence ratchets up again. With each story, Jesus gets more explicit and more graphic. After a few more verbal skirmishes, Jesus stops speaking in parables entirely and denounces the scribes and Pharisees openly. If chasing people out of the temple didn’t sign his death warrant, this indictment surely does.
The important thing to glean from our look at the atmosphere of our story is the constant ratcheting up of tension within Jesus’ parables. With each successive story, he makes his point more graphically so that no one mistakes his meaning – that those chosen to represent God among the people had failed in their duty and that God was welcoming all to become God’s representatives.
And this is where we find the “C” of PEACH. This is where we hear our Charge from God, the word God puts on our hearts during many prayerful, authentic encounters with scripture. In today’s passage, our charge comes when the king sends his messengers out to invite everyone they find in the street to attend the wedding. Everyone becomes a guest, no matter what. We hear our charge in this good news. Everyone is capable of being a guest at the heavenly banquet. Therefore, God invites us to treat all people – regardless of any reason we might have not to associate with them – as guests at God’s table, as people who bear the image and likeness of God in their souls. The more we treat each other as God’s honored guests, the more generosity, hospitality, and gratitude we will show one another. And not just each other, but everyone, for the wedding hall is filled with guests.
But this charge, which invites us to be radically welcoming, runs up against our last letter in PEACH. “H” is for Humility. The prayerful, authentic encounter with scripture often leads to unanswered questions and causes for further study somewhere down the road. The humble response when this happens is simply, “I don’t know.” Such is the case with me and the very strange paragraph about the fellow who doesn’t have a wedding robe. I confess I don’t know what to do with those few sentences. I have no answers, just questions, and so I strive to remain humble in the face of these cryptic words of Jesus, to admit I’m not in a place to hear them instead of throwing them out or explaining them away.
So there you have it. I invite you to try this process when you read the Bible. For fruitful study, try PEACH: Prayer, Encounter, Atmosphere, Charge, Humility. Without going through these steps this week, I would still be stuck in the discomfort of the passage and I would not have heard my charge, which I now share again with you. Everyone is a guest at God’s table. Far be it for us to bar the way. Instead, why don’t we go out “into the main streets and invite everyone we find there to the wedding banquet.”
In the fourth installment of The Moving Picture Bible Study, join me for a field trip to my seminary’s library to look at some of the books you can use to help you study the Bible. They get pretty heavy, so no need to go to the gym after this video.
The following post appeared Tuesday, February 2nd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.
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Sometimes, I am too young to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel. Or too old. Or too naïve. Or too refined. Often I wonder if God is holding a particular set of words in reserve for a particular time in my life — when I need those words I will finally hear them. Or perhaps I already have, and they have settled into the bedrock of my faith.
The words of Jesus are beautiful and dynamic. They grow in depth of meaning as I grow in depth of experience, emotion, and faith. Many of Jesus’ words mean something new to the disciples after the resurrection because the disciples are different after the resurrection. Likewise, the words of Jesus are the same, the chapters and verses are the same, but I am different every time I read them. In the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says a similar thing about the natural history museum:
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finishing catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole…Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time…Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean.
Both small differences in me from day to day and large changes in me from year to year can affect my reading of scripture and my encountering the words of Jesus. The climactic change in the lives of the disciples was the resurrection; for me, the changes tend to be small, the differences subtle. But a new encounter with Christ can erupt from even the smallest change, the subtlest difference. When I open myself up to seeing gasoline rainbows, when I realize I am different than I was before, I discover the power of the words of Christ working within me.
In a recent bout of nostalgia, I read some of my old writings and found that I had discussed the same verses on three occasions. After he washes the disciples’ feet, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The words were the same each time, but I was different. Here’s what I mean.
It’s May 9, 2004, and Easter season blooms on the domain of Sewanee. I’m a junior in college. I’m two or three steps into the exhaustive process towards ordination. Classes are drawing to an end; exams are approaching. With flagging energy, I am writing lectionary-based reflections on xanga.com (before people ever used the word “blog”). And Jesus’ words encounter me:
“Wow. [Jesus] could not have put it more succinctly, or more beautifully. It does not take mighty acts or wondrous miracles to show people that we are followers of Christ. Just love. But I would argue that love is a mighty act, it is a miracle. Loving with the love Christ taught us – the only true love – is more powerful than anything. […] When we love with the love Christ taught us, we bring Christ to others. This love is powerful, transformative, life-changing, irresistible. Paul tells in his letter to the Romans that nothing can separate us from it. And it is our duty, and it should be our joy, to spread this love to others.”
It’s March 7, 2005, and fog rolls into the domain along with Lent. I’m a senior in college. I’m a postulant for Holy Orders, and I’m waiting for my bishop’s decision about sending me to seminary next school year. I’ve broken John’s Gospel into forty passages, one reflection per day for my Lenten discipline. And Jesus’ same words encounter me again:
“This is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian – to love one another as Christ loves us. We are capable of love because God loves us. Indeed, Paul tells us, ‘God is love.’ So how do we love? I think that is an impossible question to answer succinctly. In a past reflection, I called love the ‘conscious or unconscious search for God in other creatures.’ Searching for God means searching for all that is good, right, true, and graceful about another. However, this does not mean looking past all the other stuff. When we love truly, we see the good and the bad and continue to be in relationship. Contact (spiritual, emotional, &c.) is essential for love – only by staying in contact with God and others can we feel the love that purges our iniquities from us.”
It’s March 20, 2008, and Maundy Thursday comes impossibly early this year. I’m a senior in seminary. I’m a new deacon in the church, and I’m preaching at my field education parish. But the flu keelhauls me for five days, the middle of which is Palm Sunday. Being ill is all I can think about, and Jesus’ words encounter me a third time through that illness.
“Life is only worth living when it can be shared with others. This sharing is another word for love. And love shatters the illusion of self-sufficiency. When the flu knocked me out, my friends served me. I had no choice but to let them serve me because I could not serve myself. And I am better for it. They showed their love for me by bringing me medicine and food. In their act of loving service, they washed my feet. I have a share with them, and we all have a share with Jesus Christ. We are his disciples because we have love for one another. There is no such thing as self-sufficiency. An inability to accept the service of others masquerades as self-sufficiency. But this masquerade is a dismal half-life. Christ came that we may have life, and have it in abundance. Washing each other’s feet, serving one another, and loving each other with the love of God brings this full, abundant life in Christ.”
It’s January 26, 2010, and I’m seeing through the eyes of my old selves. On each day when I read those verses from the Gospel according to John, Jesus encountered me with the same words. And each time, Jesus used my gasoline rainbows to transform me into a new vessel for those words. Over the years, the same words have helped me change into the new person I am continually becoming.
I invite you to look for the gasoline rainbows in your life. You are a new person since you last picked up the Bible. How are you different from the last time you read a particular passage of scripture? What is new about you? How have Jesus’ words made you new? What are your gasoline rainbows?
Watch the pilot episode of my new video series, The Moving Picture Bible Study! As with most pilots, there are some kinks to work out, but I think I’m on the right track. If you have suggestions of things you’d like me to address, please let me know.
In the middle of the second century, a guy named Marcion took his Bible and tore out most of the Gospel according to Luke and some of Paul’s letters. He stapled these together and chucked the rest in the dumpster. Marcion had decided that the “god” who created the world was evil because the world sure wasn’t doing him any favors. The other god, the real “God,” was Lord of the “spirit world,” totally alien from our world, except for that thing about sending his son here. The trouble was, that’s not what the Bible said. So, Marcion, with a stockpile of misplaced entrepreneurial zeal, made up a new one.
Well…that’s not actually what happened. You see, the “New Testament” as we now have it wasn’t compiled yet. Christians and various derivative groups had been writing letters and gospels and stories and strange things called “apocalypses” for a hundred years. Some circulated widely, like the ancient equivalent of viral YouTube videos. Others stayed put in the community which produced them. Some were attributed to Jesus’ apostles or their associates. Others were written by that guy with the hair and the thing. Some espoused doctrine that both created and helped support the emerging theological position of the “Church.” Others claimed “secret knowledge,” known only to the few who could get into the metaphysical country club.
The viral papyri attributed to an associate of Jesus and espousing sound theological views eventually became what we now call the “New Testament.” The other stuff — the classified documents, location-specific texts, and the ones written by that guy — predictably faded into obscurity.*
Okay, let’s go back to Marcion. Since there was no list (or “canon”) of authoritative texts, Marcion felt entitled to make one up that suited his own viewpoints. When he threw the Hebrew Scriptures and many of the viral papyri into the rubbish bin, the leaders of the Church said something to the effect of, “Hey, you can’t do that!” And Marcion shot back, “Too bad, suckers.”
At that point, those leaders decided that a list of their own would probably be a good idea. But, things moved slowly in the ancient world, so the top 27 texts were not finalized until the end of the fourth century (and even then, there was still some dispute between the Eastern and Western churches). But, I get ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit.
With Marcion’s heresy forcing the Church to respond with its own canon of authoritative texts, scholars began compiling lists. Certain texts were shoe-ins. First and foremost, the Hebrew Scriptures (which became known as the “Old” Testament) were never in question because these texts were the Bible for the people who wrote the rest of the Bible. Second, the letters of Paul (the most virulent of all the viral papyri) and the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, along with the Acts of the Apostles (which is sort of the Godfather II of Luke’s Gospel). The Gospel of John was on the bubble at times because some of the heretical groups loved it. But, it made the cut partly because its “high Christology” helped the Church’s position on the divinity of Christ.
Over time, the New Testament canon solidified with 27 texts.** The four accounts of the Gospel came first, as they narrated the reason why the rest of the texts exist. Then the Acts of the Apostles propels the canon into the letters of Paul (strangely enough, appearing in descending order by length). After Paul, Hebrews begins the section of various texts addressed to a wider audience (the “catholic” epistles). Appropriately, the Revelation to John ends the canon.
The compilation of the New Testament from viral papyri to authoritative text speaks to us today of the value of various viewpoints within a larger structure. Unlike Marcion, who depleted the message until it said only what he wanted it to say, the 27 canonical texts present myriad experiences that coalesce into the great message of the love and grace of God. From an early time, the Church valued several different expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because it realized that one text could not contain such overwhelming truth and beauty. What is striking about the compilation of the canon is that the Church exhibited pretty startling ecumenism over a long period of time as the churches from both far-flung places and major cities shared their experience of the God made flesh in Jesus Christ.
I wonder when we Christians decided to stop valuing the experience of our fellows. The viral papyri tell a different story. Would that we could live that story again.
* Well, until a sensationalist media program digs up a “gnostic gospel” and decides that “everything we know about Christianity is about to change.” Honestly, give it a rest. That story lost the lead to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
** In the mid-1700s, an Italian named Ludovico Antonio Muratori stumbled upon an ancient fragment stuck in a book in a library in Milan. The “Muratorian fragment,” which could be dated anywhere from the second to the fourth centuries is the oldest extant list of the texts of the New Testament. What’s most interesting about the fragment is the short justifications it gives for why certain texts were either chosen or not.
In the last Bible study, I talked about reading the Bible out loud as a way to focus our interpretive endeavor. When we read aloud, we are forced to make interpretive choices that silent reading misses. This is especially true when reading dialogue. In the Gospel, narrators set scenes, but most of the important information is conveyed through characters’ interactions with one another. The evangelists* present these interactions in various ways, but each uses dialogue as the main vehicle of communication.
When you study the Gospel, pay attention to how the writers structure their dialogue. What is said? What is not said? What are the speaker’s preconceived notions? What are his motivations? What is her background?
Here’s one example. Every time someone calls Jesus “teacher” in the Gospel according to Matthew, that someone is not on Jesus’ side. They are scribes and Pharisees and people asking Jesus questions to test him. On the flip side, Jesus’ disciples and those asking for healing always call Jesus “Lord.” In this way, Matthew shows that the former group doesn’t get that there is so much more going on than an eccentric teacher wandering around spouting eccentric ideas. While “teacher” is not necessarily pejorative, Matthew uses it to show Jesus’ opponents attempting to stifle the rumors of his messiah-ship. With this simple comparison of title, Matthew communicates the struggle for influence between the establishment and Jesus’ disciples.
Matthew does all that with two little words: “teacher” and “Lord.” Across the Gospel, there is very little extraneous information, so we rarely get an explicit statement of a character’s mood or bearing. Besides Mark’s use of “immediately,” adverbs are in short supply in the Gospel. The dramatic force of characters’ interactions is driven by the dialogue itself; this dialogue is charged with intent, meaning, and suggestion, so descriptors are distracting at worst and ancillary at best. Read through all four accounts of the Gospel, and I bet you could count the number of times someone’s mood is described on one hand. (Check John 11 for a couple).
The narrators do not need to intrude into conversations because the evangelists are pretty darn good writers. How would it be if the text said: The woman said flirtatiously, “How can you get that living water?” Jesus, feigning ignorance of her advance, responded dispassionately, “You drink of this water…”
I know. Not the best writing ever. Rather than infesting their conversations with adverbs, good writers develop dialogue that suggests what I stated explicitly in the above example. Here’s how John writes the conversation: The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. (John 4:11-14)
Of course, I’m making an interpretive choice when I read flirtation into this conversation, but John’s dialogue leads me there. Pay attention to what the characters in the Gospel say and don’t say, especially the ubiquitous dialogical motif of a speaker failing to answer the question that is asked.
Try this one on for size. At the beginning of the Gospel according to John, some priests and Levites come to question John. They ask him: “Who are you?” Here’s what he doesn’t say: “I’m John from over yonder a bit. My parents are Zechariah and Elizabeth. I’m the crazy guy who eats locusts and wild honey and wears uncomfortable shirts.” Instead, he says, “I am not the Messiah.”** Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but this does not even come close to answering their question. If someone came up to me and said, “Who are you,” then responding, “Well, I’m not a toaster oven,” doesn’t really narrow it down.
But John and the Levites keep playing twenty questions: “Are you Elijah?” I am not. “Are you the prophet? Nope. Obviously, because of John’s recent activity, both he and the Levites know that this little game is about more than who John is. If it were that simple, my answer about uncomfortable shirts would have been enough. They want to know what his significance is in the history of the salvation of Israel. With this in mind, his leap to downplaying rumors of messianism makes more sense. Rather than asking him if he’s larger than a breadbox, they try a new version of their original question: “What do you have to say about yourself?” And again, John doesn’t answer their question. He speaks not about himself but about the one to whom he points: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ” Even here, when they ask him a direct question about himself, John points to Jesus.
By structuring a conversation in which John answers different questions than the ones asked, the evangelist offers us insight into both parties. Watch out for this kind of conversation in the Gospel (especially John’s account).
Okay, I’m approaching a thousand words about this topic, so I think I’ll stop soon. When you read the conversations in the Bible, be sensitive to how the writers put the words together. Focus on the dialogue and let it speak to you. And know that Jesus is not just talking to the woman at the well or the crowd beneath the mount. He is speaking to you and to me.
* This is a handy shorthand for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authorities behind the four canonical accounts of the Gospel.
** Actually, according to the narrator, “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” This is one of those odd places where the narrator does inject description into conversation. But it’s so rare that these few words take up lots of pages in commentaries.
For the first time in my life, a rooster woke me up this morning.
Before I go any further, let me say that I was none too pleased by this event. Everything I know about roosters comes from cartoons and various other early childhood media, and the aggregate sum of that knowledge boils down to two facts: (1) roosters are boy chickens and (2) roosters crow at sunrise. Now, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department, sunrise was at 7:09 this morning at longitude W80.0, latitude N38.7 where I happen to be on retreat. So, either the cartoons lied or the rooster was jet-lagged because that darn bird woke me up at 5:30.
As an aside, I’ve always thought clock-radios to be rather neutral devices, but the one in my room mocked me with its diabolical red numbers.
At first, I didn’t know what was making the noise. It was guttural, gravelly — like the rooster version of Tom Waits. Then, as sleep traitorously fled from me, I took stock of my position as it related to the unknown sound. I was in bed. I was in the middle of farm country. I was awake before I should be. The sound was not my alarm. Taking these four items into account, I deduced the encroaching noise was the call of a rooster — an overzealous rooster fiend — but a rooster, nonetheless.
So, what’s all this have to do with the Bible? Well, not much, in truth. I needed to vent. However, as I am writing this post, I realize that taking stock of my position helped me identify the rooster’s crow. In much the same way, taking stock of my position in relation to the various texts of the Bible facilitates a more authentic encounter with those texts.
Why does that one story make you angry? or sad? or joyful? or indifferent? What memories does that other story stir in your heart and mind? Maybe your grandmother recited the twenty-third Psalm to you every night as you fell asleep. Maybe that gesticulating street preacher quoted a verse at you while explaining that your bare legs condemned you to hell. Maybe you were on the verge of mental collapse and you threw your Bible to the ground and it flopped open to Romans and you read and you were filled. Maybe you cannot read Paul because the slave owners justified their action with his words.*
Simply put, our positions, our baggage influence our readings of the text. None of us can achieve a state of Tabula Rasa when we open our Bibles; nor should we try. I don’t believe God wants blank slates to write words on. God wants us — in all our history and tragedy and comedy — wants to rearrange our baggage into those words of life. We bring ourselves to the texts of the Bible. All those positive and negative memories and emotions bubble up. Quelling them for the sake of “scholarship” or “study” makes no sense. The Bible should be too much a part of our lives to keep our lives from being a part of the Bible.
When you pick up the Bible, acknowledge that your position and your baggage do, in fact, influence your reading. Ironically, this acknowledgment will make you less biased in the long run because you will begin to see why a story strikes you a certain way and not just that it does. Chronicling your past associations with a particular text offers one way to chart your growth in your life of faith. The text does not change, but you do. What changes happened? How does the constancy of the text bring those changes to light?
Take stock of your position when you open the Bible. Let the text encounter you — not the person you think you should be in order to be worthy of the Bible’s holiness nor the unobtainable Tabula Rasa, but the person you are in all your human particularity and messiness. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the text will speak to this honest, baggage-ridden person. Where the text and your baggage intersect, you will have found your story in the Bible. You will know you aren’t alone in your experience for there are no new stories. There are just new people telling them, new combinations of baggage which add depth and innovation, new ways to proclaim that old, old story.
Who knows? Maybe the next time I read the Passion narrative and come to Peter’s denial of Jesus, I’ll think of that overzealous rooster fiend at longitude W80.0, latitude N38.7.
** In the 4th study in this series, I spoke of a dual reading of the text — once with your context and the historical context and once in the light of a “holy naivete.” I think this holy naivete is different from the blank slate mentality. In the former, you let go of your baggage in order to set it into sharper relief in your reading. In the latter, you delude yourself into thinking you have nothing to offer the encounter.
One of the easiest missteps people make when sitting down to study the Bible is mistaking the Bible for a book. I know it looks like a book — it has folios stitched together and a cover enclosing the whole bound volume. But whatever its resemblance to a book, it is not one. It is many. The word “Bible” began its career as the Greek phrase ta Biblia which means “the books.” Therefore, the Bible — all visual cues to the contrary — is, in point of fact, a library.
Here’s what I mean. What we call the Bible is a collection of all sorts of writing: transcribed oral tradition, history, prophecy, poetry, gospel, correspondence, sermon, song, vision, law code, genealogy, novella, advice column, propaganda, shopping list, architectural schematic. And these are just the ones I could come up with off the top of my head. The history of how the particular collections of what I will from now on rather lamely refer to as “texts” came together to form our modern day “Bible” is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say that from history down to shopping list, each text somehow relates an encounter between God and God’s people. God’s people found the particular encounters that make up the texts revelatory and important, and they, in many a Spirit-filled decision, collected those texts together into the library that has become the Bible.
So, what’s all this have to do with studying the Bible? After picking your pericope, figuring out what type (or genre) of writing the passage comes from can help you begin to unpack it. You’d expect to find dialogue in a Gospel because the genre of Gospel is narrative.* You’d expect to find poetry in the collection of psalms because psalms were originally liturgical song. (Indeed, attached to many psalms are directions for the accompanying instrumentation.) But what if you found poetry in the Gospel. What would that tell you? Perhaps, the writer is reaching back to an earlier tradition and putting that liturgical song on the lips of a character. Check out Mary’s song in Luke 1, influenced clearly by Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel. Check out Jesus’ words from the cross in Matthew and Mark, which come from Psalm 22.
Being sensitive to the various genera found in the biblical library gives us the opportunity to compare the myriad ways biblical writers explored their encounters with the living God. One writer finds God in the proportions of architecture, another in correspondence with the churches he has founded, another in the list of the generations of God’s family going all the way back to Abraham and before. Putting these different experiences in conversation with each other shows us the wonderful range of expressions of the life of faith.
So delve into the library of the Bible. Get lost in the stacks of the Hebrew Scriptures. Run your fingers along the volumes of Paul’s letters. Find one of those rolling stepping stools and reach the dusty top shelf of Revelation. Be aware of the different kinds of writing in the Bible, the various encounters of the people of God. And remember that you, yourself, are part of the greater story still being written, still being added to those last, unfilled shelves.
* Actually, as far as scholars can tell the form of “Gospel” as narrative is unique to Christian literature. Other ancient texts call themselves “gospel” but they tend to be something closer to news reports about various glorious victories for the Roman Empire. The fact that Mark calls Jesus’ message “Gospel” could be an ironic coopting of Roman phraseology — a literary “nah-nah-na-nah-nah,” if you will.
I wasn’t planning to write about this particular aspect of Bible study for a while yet, but a few days ago I broke the very direction I’m about to relate to you. Before I tell you what this direction is, I must say that failing to observe my own guidelines is an odd and humbling experience. You might say, “Adam, you made them up; you can get rid of them just as easily.” Well, I’ve never liked when presidents dump their own executive orders when they get inconvenient. So I better stick to my guidelines and remember that God’s greatest gift to me is slapping me upside the head with humility.
Incidentally, I wonder if police officers experience any humility or remorse when they speed by with nary a siren or light turned on. I doubt it. Anyways, back to the Bible. So, I was beginning my sermon prep and reading through this Sunday’s lessons in a book that has all three of them conveniently grouped together. I finished the short passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and my eyes wandered down to the Gospel reading. “Matthew 16:13-20” said the bold headline. Right, I thought, that’s Peter’s confession of Jesus being the Messiah, keys to the kingdom and all that. Then I closed the book.
Yep, I closed the book. I closed the book WITHOUT READING THE GOSPEL LESSON. Take 30 seconds to mull over all the ways that’s just stupid before continuing to read this post………..right, let’s press on.
The next morning in the shower (I do all my best thinking in the shower), I was thinking about my sermon and realized I couldn’t remember what the Gospel text was for Sunday. I could, however, remember shutting the book after reading Romans. I took 30 seconds to mull over all the ways that’s just stupid. When I got to church, I pulled out my Bible, opened up to Matthew 16, and read it. And read it again. And read it again.
And I surprised myself so much that I threw my head back and laughed a manly laugh of triumph. Actually, I had an uncontrollable fit of giggles, but if Cameron Crowe ever makes my biopic, I hope he inaccurately portrays me so I seem less like a 12-year-old girl.
I giggled because I noticed something in the text I’ve never noticed before. I’ve read Matthew 16 a few dozen times over the years, but until Tuesday morning, I never saw that Jesus asks his disciples two different questions: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say that I am?” I always saw the “those people/you disciples” distinction, but never the “Son of Man is/I am” one. My sermon is still percolating somewhere in the region of my belly, so I don’t know if this distinction will influence what I say on Sunday. But, the important thing is this: the text surprised me–this text that I thought I knew so well that I didn’t even need to read it to write a sermon about it surprised me with something new and exciting.
The title of this post is a bit of an oxymoron. If you’re expecting to be surprised, then will there really be a surprise? With birthday parties, No. With reading the Bible and living your life in God’s grace, Yes. God can and surely does surprise us when we are least expecting it. But we can also foster the faithful expectation that God’s sleeves are full of never-ending pocket handkerchiefs and affixed to God’s lapel is one of those flowers that squirts water and in God’s loving embrace await ever deeper and more beautiful surprises.*
When you read the Bible, practice expecting to be surprised, especially when you are studying the most familiar passages. And I do mean practice. Every reading will not yield some surprising event, but every expectant reading will cultivate an openness to the Holy Spirit, whose whole game plan is about surprising us with God’s grace and joy.
Here’s one exercise I find helpful. Read the passage twice, with a few minutes of silence in between. The first time, read as critically as you can, with all your past experience and knowledge of the historical context and history of tradition and understanding of ancient biblical languages and your kitchen sink. The second time, let all the baggage recede into your mind’s Green Room and read with the lightness of a holy naivete. Finally, have a conversation with yourself about how your two readings compared. What was the same/different? What was confusing/clear? What sprung from the page? As your intellect, curiosity, and hunger mingle with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you will find something new and exciting. And you might just giggle like a 12-year-old girl.
*After the first comment on this post, I think I’ll qualify my clown imagery. I was going for the surprising things clowns do. If you’ve ever met me, you know clowns really freak me out, but it’s the painted smiles, not the gags. The clown therapy people who frequented the hospital at which I worked one summer wore white lab coats like doctors. It was weird.