Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sermon for Proper 24

St Stephen's, Harrisburg--II Timothy 3:14-4:5

Let’s talk about the Bible. You know, that’s something we don’t actually do it very much. We read it and study it, and, honestly, those are the best things we can do with it. But, once in a while, it’s a good thing to step back and ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our relationship with that collection of sacred writings that we call Holy Scripture.

In the second reading for the past several Sundays, we’ve been working our way through St Paul’s two letters to his younger protégé Timothy, a man who held the position that we would now call Bishop in the Christian community of the great ancient city of Ephesus. Paul writes to Timothy, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

All scripture is inspired by God.

Some find this sort of affirmation kind of scary, and understandably so. To put it bluntly, St Paul’s words have been abused, abused in many ways. People have tried to make the Bible something it’s not—a textbook on science, or history, or psychology, or economics, or a manual for making moral and ethical decisions. It’s none of those things. To affirm the inspiration of scripture does not relieve us of the responsibility of using the brains God gave us, and the words of scripture are certainly complex and demanding enough that we have plenty of opportunity to engage those brains.

All scripture is inspired by God.

Of course, it’s also possible that we find these words scary because we perceive them as threatening—threatening to some of our habits of thinking and behaving that we have grown very attached to. We instinctively recoil at the idea of anything objective, anything outside ourselves, cramping our style, presuming to sit in judgment over us in some way. But scripture itself, if we pay attention to it, reminds us that we see the world through distorted eyes. Our vision is clouded. We can’t help it. We inherited the condition. We do well not to fully trust our own perceptions, and this is where the witness of scripture—a witness that is “inspired by God”—can be very helpful. Attending to scripture can protect us from a condition that Paul refers to in his letter to Timothy as “itching ears.”  “Itching ears” might be described as a compulsive curiosity that can be relieved only by “scratching” with interesting and spicy bits of information, bits of information that simply confirm our prejudices. There are several cases of itching ears on our political landscape, with most everyone gravitating toward those news sources that will tend to just confirm the opinions they already have, and dish dirt on their opponents. Speculation and the scandal-mongering do little more than harden us in whatever prejudices we already incline toward. We have made ourselves—our whims, our desires, our perceptions—the sole measure of our experience. The more we scratch our itching ears, the less of the truth we are able to hear.

All scripture is inspired by God.

As I’ve said, this affirmation is subject to distortion. The Bible isn’t a science book or a history book, and needs to be interpreted properly. But it’s nonetheless our foundational document. For the Church, Holy Scripture functions in a way similar to the way the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and the Gettysburg Address function for our nation. It’s the lens through which we read our past, interpret our present, and anticipate our future. The Bible is not just a source we turn to when questions arise about what we believe or how we should behave, and it’s not the only source, but it is the first such source and the last such source, and the one to which we hold ourselves accountable as an authority. Being judged is never pleasant, but we do, collectively and individually, sit under the judgment of Scripture. It’s not an option that we can take or leave, or a cafeteria from which we can eat what appeals to us and ignore all the rest. It’s the word of God.

All Scripture is inspired by God.

Scripture certainly comforts us in our affliction. This is why St Paul tells Timothy that it’s “profitable” for “encouragement.” Few among us have not heard the words of the 23rd Psalm at a time of grief or loss and taken heart from them in some measure. How many brides and grooms choose to have Paul’s own ode to love from I Corinthians 13 read at their wedding liturgies precisely because it offers them encouragement right when they’re stepping into the abyss known as marriage. And scripture also, and rightly so, afflicts us in our comfort. This is why St Paul says that its good for “reproof” and “correction”, and urges Timothy to “convince, rebuke,” and “exhort,” in his ministry as a bishop, employing scripture as one of the useful tools in that ministry.

All scripture is inspired by God.

Comforting us and afflicting us, I would suggest, are important functions of Scripture, but not its primary one. The primary purpose of Scripture is to enable us to see with God’s eyes, to see what God sees, in effect, and in a scaled-down way, to know what God knows. In the pages of the Bible, we know ourselves as we really are—as created in the image and likeness of God, as infinitely loved by God, and as fallen creatures with distorted perceptions, under the grip of Sin and Death. In the pages of the Bible, we know the world as it really is—the creation of an almighty and majestic God, and something that has been entrusted to human care as stewards, not something to merely exploit and destroy. In the pages of the Bible, we see an alternative to our own mercurial whims and prejudices—an anchor, a rock, an objective reference point.

It is our privilege, in our public worship and in our private study, to bathe ourselves in Scripture, to let its vocabulary and phraseology plant themselves in our hearts and imaginations, to become second nature to us. Doing so enables us to resist the allure of “itching ears,” and gives us the sort of quiet confidence that is not bigoted or pugnacious, but is not timid either, because it is rooted in the magnificent reality of God himself.

All scripture is inspired by God. As our collect four weeks from now will exhort us, let us “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it,” to our great good and God’s great glory. Amen.  

1 comment:

  1. I was just speculating on Facebook as to whether any Episcopal preaching was done on this lesson this past Sunday, so that I am pleased to see that one bishop did so.

    ReplyDelete