Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Scripture and Sermon

At church this summer, we're doing a series of "instructed Eucharists" to explain why we do what we do in an Episcopal liturgy. Normally an instructed Eucharist happens all in one service (we did these when I was a kid...seemed to go on forever), but we've decided this summer to use each Sunday's homily to reflect on how the Gospel is preached in our liturgy. And, just so we don't overlook the Gospel lesson, we're including reflections in the bulletin for folks to read on the scripture readings for that particular Sunday.

Anyway, this past Sunday was the second in our series, and I was up to preach. The official topic was The Liturgy of the Word, but I point out that the entire liturgy could be considered as such, since Jesus is the Word. So, this sermon is specifically about the portion of our service when we hear lessons from the Bible and then on the sermon itself.

“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Collect for Proper 28, BCP 236)

This week we embark upon the second in our series of sermons about different parts of the Eucharist. I think the official title of today is “Liturgy of the Word,” but to be more specific we’ll be looking at the scripture readings and the sermon—the wordiest part of the service, so to speak. I’ve been wondering for a while how to start this reflection, and then it occurred to me that there may be some questions about the basics-why do we have this number of readings? Who picks them out? So I thought we’d start with these to get a grasp of what we’re working with, and then move on to some reflections.

The Episcopal Church uses what is called a lectionary, or a set plan of readings. If you were to look in the back of the Book of Common Prayer (around page 888) you’d find “The Lectionary.” We actually don’t use this one anymore, but I’ll get to that in a moment. For now the one in the Prayer Book will work as an example as it functions in a similar way to the lectionary we use now. If you flip to page 889 you’ll see the heading “Year A.” Keep thumbing through and you’ll eventually encounter “Year B” and “Year C.” Our lectionary is on a 3-year cycle, so that every 3 years we’ve gone through basically the entire Bible. In 2006 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church required that all churches switch to the Revised Common Lectionary—one that is used by many Protestant denominations. This lectionary incorporates a greater diversity of readings from the Old Testament, as well as more material dealing with the witness of women in the Bible. During the season after Pentecost, commonly known as “Ordinary Time,” we actually have the option of 2 Old Testament readings—one “track” is thematically linked with the Gospel, while the other provides semi-continuous lessons from the Old Testament. The reflection printed in your bulletin is from the “continuous lesson” track.

So that’s how we pick our lessons—in other words, we don’t really. They’re already chosen for us, and we could look at the correct chart and see what lesson we’ll have on the first Sunday in Advent in, say, 2012. It’s all laid out for us. This has its merits—the lessons we hear on Sunday aren’t subject to the whims of the preacher—but it can also be hard. Sometimes the lectionary gives us a set of lessons that may not at first speak to where we are on that Sunday as a faith community. That challenges us to open our hearts to the Spirit a little more than we might usually do.

Another basic feature of this portion of our liturgy is that it involves a lot of Scripture. Episcopalians sometimes have a funny relationship with the Bible. For example, if I asked an Episcopalian to quote for me 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, chances are this person would look at me as if I had lost my mind. If, however, I asked said person to quote for me what we call the words of institution from our Prayer Book, chances are this person could easily do so. I’ll quote for you the Corinthians passage right now, just to drive this point home: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Sound familiar? There’s an old joke that says an Episcopalian heard someone reading the Bible, and wondered what that thing quoting the Book of Common Prayer was.

The point I’m trying to make is that even if we don’t know it, our worship is full of scripture. In fact, I’d venture to guess it’s mostly scripture. Not only are the words of the Prayer Book largely derived from the Bible, but we hear no less than 4 passages from the Bible every Sunday: a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm or Canticle, a reading from the New Testament epistles (or Acts or Revelation), and finally a reading from the Gospels. That’s a lot of scripture! Probably more than most people hear at church on a Sunday. But what are we to do with all of these Words? They can be overwhelming at times—trying to sink our teeth into one reading can be difficult enough, much less into four. So why do we hear so much of the Bible every Sunday?

The answer is historical, as the practice of hearing this much scripture actually dates back to the fourth century. It was lost by the time of the Reformation, and it wasn’t until the liturgical renewal of the 20th century that the Episcopal Church regained this tradition. It used to be that there would be a reading from an epistle and a Gospel—the Old Testament was rather left out. But now it’s back, and we once more hear the Old Testament witness.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while—why do we hear so much Scripture, and what are we to do with it? It’s even a challenge for preachers to work with one text, much less four. I did some reading to try and help me with this question, and time and again came upon the same thing. We read the Bible because it is our story. As one of my favorite writers, Frederich Buechner puts it, “just because the Bible is a book about both the sublime and the unspeakable, it is a book also about life the way it really is. It is a book about people who at one and the same time can be both believing and unbelieving, innocent and guilty, crusaders and crooks, full of hope and full of despair. In other words, it is a book about us…One way or another, the story we find in the Bible is our own story” (Wishful Thinking, 9). Or, as George Herbert puts it when speaking of the Bible, “Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,/ And comments on thee: for in ev’rything/Thy words do find me out, and parallels bring,/ And in another make me understood” (“The Holy Scriptures 2”).

The Bible has all things in it: it’s a story about people. Us. Think of the psalms: they go from joy at God’s creation, to hatred of our enemies, to feelings of abandonment and salvation. They’re all over the place. Or think of the characters in there: Moses, who stuttered and had to have his brother speak for him. Joseph’s betrayal and eventual reunion with his family. Job’s heartache and faith. Jonah’s indignation at God’s mercy, even after being in the belly of a whale. The youthful David turned old, followed by his sins. A teenage girl finding out she was pregnant before marrying her husband, and it wasn’t Joseph’s child, but the Lord. A poor fisherman named Peter who never seems to understand fully what he hears, but follows Christ to his own cross. The flip flop of Paul—from persecutor to proclaimer of the Good News. And Jesus—our salvation.

What’s more, the Bible isn’t just the story of us, it’s the story of how our story has everything to do with God. It’s a holy story—a story about God’s actions in the lives of so many. We say the Collect for Purity before we hear the scripture readings, asking God to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit”—we ask, in other words, to be opened to the Spirit before we hear these readings. And, as liturgical scholars Louis Weil and Charles Price note, because the Bible “is one of the means that God uses to give Godself to us continually…[i]n reading or hearing it, one may always expect an encounter with the ultimate. This experience of transcendence, of height, is an incomparable aspect of hearing and reading the Word of God in the Scripture” (Liturgy for Living 100). On Sunday mornings, we get the chance to hear these holy stories among holy people in this holy place.

After hearing all of those words, we then listen to more words in the sermon. In their book Liturgy for Living, Weil and Price point out that there are three forms of God’s Word encountered in the liturgy. There’s Jesus as the Word—the ultimate Word by which all other words are judged (this is why we could, to a certain extent, call our entire liturgy a Liturgy of the Word). There’s God’s Word in scripture. And then there’s the word of the preacher. Price and Weil write, “God continues to be shown forth in the words as well as in the deeds of human beings whom God commissions to act and speak” (94). In other words, the job of the preacher is to try and help us reflect on how God’s Word—both the Word of Jesus and the words of the Bible—function in our own lives. Very often, at least in my experience, the sermon is given as much to the preacher him/herself as it is to the congregation. This isn’t to say that every sermon is going to impact every single person every single week. If only. Rob recently likened sermons to getting a letter in the mail—it’s not a bill, it’s not a credit card application, it’s not the weekly coupon mailing—but a letter that is hand-addressed to you. I personally might be suspicious of such a letter, as no one but my grandfather and occasionally my mom actually writes those things, so I like to think of it as an email that’s not spam, or business, or a one-line communication about what time to meet a friend at the coffee shop tomorrow—but a long email written just for me from a friend with whom I haven’t spoken in a while. Or, to use another metaphor, the sermon is like someone trying to interpret a map we’ve been given. The symbols may be slightly out of date, but with some training and inspiration from the Holy Spirit, we can see how this map will guide us today in our lives as Christians.

One of the most interesting things I’ve read lately about scripture comes from Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis. In an essay about teaching the Bible in church, Davis—an Episcopalian who teaches at Duke Divinity School—notes that “teaching the Bible confessionally is not primarily a matter of conveying historical information…[but] means enabling people to wonder wisely and deeply. Wondering is the business of scholars and preachers, just as it is of Sunday School children” (“Teaching the Bible Confessionally in the Church,” The Art of Reading Scripture, 11). I would add, just as it is of every single person in the church. She then goes on to quote Garrett Green, another Old Testament scholar who has argued that “in many instances the biblical term ‘heart’ refers to what we call imagination” (11). I find that to be amazing—If we go back to the Collect for Purity, we ask the Holy Spirit to “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts”—or our imaginations. And in the Eucharist we “lift up our hearts,” think about lifting up your imagination (both example taken from Davis’s essay). In the baptism service we pray that the person being baptized may be given an inquiring and discerning heart—what if that also means an inquiring and discerning imagination?

Preaching allows us to engage our imagining hearts in the work of the Spirit as we hear it in Scripture, and how that work is carried into our own lives. The Godly Play Sunday School curriculum uses the phrase “I wonder” as part of every class session. The teacher and children sit and literally wonder about the Bible story they’re hearing. I wonder how it felt to walk on water as Peter did? I wonder what it felt like to walk across the bottom of the Red Sea, with towering walls of water at your side? I wonder what Abraham thought when Sarah laughed at the news that she would bear a child? I wonder what Mary felt like when Jesus asked who his mother was? I wonder… This wondering opens up new doors into scripture.

The Word of God, in Jesus, in the scripture, in the sermon—is an essential part of our liturgy. It forms the core of all of the words we say when we come together and worship. It provides food for our imagining hearts. It tells our story, and reminds us that we always have been and always will be about God. Grant us, gracious Lord, to hear your Words, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, and proclaim their Good News in all that we do. Amen."

Side note: The opening collect, from the Book of Common Prayer, is one I like. I can't help but think of the following passage from Revelation (there's a similar passage in Ezekiel 3:3, but the scroll tastes only of honey and doesn't turn sour):

"Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, ‘Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.’ So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, ‘Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter. " Revelation 10:8-10

My boss called this "scriptural indigestion."

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