PRACTICES: Reading the Bible
This week's sacred story comes from Deut 11:13-21 and
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Christians are sometimes referred to as people of the book, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that we are people of story. This summer we’ve been reflecting on the ways these divine stories shape us. First, that they are experienced – that we remember the oral origination of the scriptures and that before they were written down, they were lived and told in ways that more closely resemble telling family stories around the campfire (see what biblical storytelling can look like here). These stories are then sent, shared, they take on a second life in writers like Paul who build on and connect them to new eras, new people and places. Now, we explore how they are practiced, how they come to life in us, how they are embodied in our ways of being. As it is important to discover and reflect on our family stories for what they have to reveal about where we come from and thus who we are, so it is essential that we engage scripture to…as the gospel of John puts it…shape what it is that we believe and explore how it is that we have life.
So today I want us to think about the practice of reading the bible – how we might do this and why we would do this. But first, we need to talk about what it is – what it is, what it isn’t, and what it’s about. Where does the bible come from and what is its purpose? This compilation of pages, these blots of ink – how did they come to be? At some point the stories being told aloud and learned by heart became stories written down. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John circulated within their general regions, but it wasn’t until Centuries after Jesus lived, that these Gospels, and the Hebrew Torah, and other holy writings were then vetted and voted on by a room full of (pretty much white and cis-male) church leaders to decide what would be included in the Holy Bible and what would not.
So what you end up with is it a book that isn’t really a book, it’s a library. There are different genres like history and poetry and fable, and you don’t ready history books the same as you read poetry. You expect different things from them and their intention is different. It is a collection of stories, stories that are partly the story of God, but honestly more the story of people’s interaction and understanding and misunderstanding of god throughout time. Because the Bible is pieced together, there are parts of the Bible that contradict other parts, and we have to be honest about that and wrestle with that. So the bible is not an encyclopedia or an owner’s manual, it is an anthology of literature assembled across generations.
Now, if you’ve ever played a game of telephone, you know that it is virtually impossible for anything to go through that many human hands and processes to come out on the other end completely unchanged. As Lutherans, we embrace the raw imperfection that is humanity. And thus, we also acknowledge that while we believe the bible is indeed the Word of God, it isn’t the straight dictation of God. As if God dropped a chunk of papyrus from the sky or possessed the minds and hands ancient scribes and controlled their every movement.
This is not to say that we don’t take God or God’s word seriously. It is about trying to direct our hearts to their proper point of worship. We respect, but don’t worship Moses. We respect the Mother Mary, but do not worship her. We respect the bible, but we do not worship it as an idol of perfection in the same way that God the creator is perfect. The bible is a gift, but it’s still not God.
The bible is the Word of God and it points to a kind of living word – the word made flesh, a word that comes alive and moves and speaks. It is a word not entirely contained by letters and sentences. It is a word that has a life of its own, a word that creates life - That speaks into being – that says “let there be light” and there was light. So the bible is the Word of God, but it is not the only thing that God ever said and it does not mean that God is done talking or creating.
One final word on what the bible is not. If the bible is a gift, the bible is not a weapon. These words are written so that we may come to know God better, so that we may believe God’s promises as they are kept across time and place. They were not written so that they could become the possession of a few in order to shame and hurt the rest. Any time we interpret these texts to think less of rather than love another, that is more about us than it is about the Word of God.
Ok, so what are we to do with this sacred library then? How are we called to engage these words? The texts we’ve highlighted today show God imploring us to keep them close, to make them a regular part of our rhythm of life, to study them together, and to teach them to the next generation. These are our stories, the story of our people, we should make every effort to know them. The more of it we know, the more connections we can make across its pages, the richer the stories become, the promises of God are even more pronounced. It is only within the past 500 years that we are lucky enough have these stories available to us in languages we can understand. We are lucky to live in a time and place, when the cost and availability of bibles make these words relatively easy to obtain. Even a generation or two ago, it would be rare to have more than a single bible to share as a household.
All this is to say that if we are to be followers of Christ, we should be reading the sacred texts that point us toward God. Reading the bible regularly, whether daily or some other rotation, grounds us in this story that is so much bigger than us. It creates for us a foundation a faith as it helps to reveal our true foundation in God. As we’re reading and as we seek to understand what we are reading, we have to keep a few things in mind. Every one of the books in this library has a context – it comes from a particular place and time and its author has a particular message they hope to communicate. Imagine you’re watching a sitcom from 30 years ago. it will probably reference news headlines from that era, but looking back on it now you’d have to work to research the details of that news story to really “get it” and even then it’s never quite the same as having lived in the time of that story or watching the scene when it first aired. And as you watch it, you know that its intention is to present you with a mixture of truth and absurdity that make you laugh. But all that also depends on your own sense of humor and your own perspective. Likewise, we can not help but have some of our own biases in the mix when we read the Bible, even with our best efforts to remain impartial and informed. But we come back to the texts, again and again, to discover more and more
We grow in Christian maturity when we read these words often, but also when we read them with others. Reading the bible in community helps us to see things we might otherwise have missed. Even when we think we fully understand a piece of scripture, we always have more to learn through what God is saying to us in the wisdom and perspective of others. When we read the bible on our own throughout the week, we have thoughts and questions we can reflect on when we come together in weekly worship.
As we read the holy scriptures in this way, we practice a spirit of openness to how God is speaking the word still. We read with expectation, keeping a look out for what God is speaking into being now. This is what the Word does. It creates, it becomes embodied, it activates us, it stirs us up. God, through the Word, does not leave us the same as before. When we read the bible we can ask ourselves, what is God saying to me here? These stories aren't just folklore to be passed down they actively affect us. They shape us and our world. They give us and all of creation a holy hope in what was, what is, and what will be.
This is all well and good to talk about but when beginning a new practice, I need real tools to support me. So I want to share with you a few things that you might find helpful to really make this a part of your rhythm of life. How about this, make it a commint for at least week, and then you can extend your goals from there. Start with something achievable.
So here are some tools. First, there's lots of digital tools to guide a regular reading of the bible. There's an app called "Our Bible" which offers an LGBTQ affirming bible and progressive devotionals, you can sign up for email meditations from Father Richard Rohr on the website for the Center for Action and Contemplation. For analog tools you can hold and touch, you can print out and use this "read the bible in a year" plan if you want to really expand what your read as there are so parts of the Bible that don't normally get included in devotionals.
My invitation and challenge to you this week is to pick one of these to engage, commit to it for at least this week, and see what God does with that. As it is written in Colossians, let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the father through him. Amen.