Rev. Teri Peterson|
The Book for ...
2 Timothy 3.15-17, John 21.25
19 August 2012, People’s Choice 12
Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training in righteousness, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good. There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
When I was 15, I had plans that involved studying both music and English Literature in college. I figured I could easily double major, because I liked and was good at both those things, and neither one would get me a job, so surely there must be time for both. I spent a lot of time reading and writing. But it wasn’t long into my journey with classic and important literature and music that I figured out that I was missing something. I was missing the undertones, the subtext, the metaphor, the language and background that authors and composers assumed people would have. So I decided that I was going to have to read the Bible. Otherwise, I spent a lot of time wondering what characters were talking about or why things were important. So I started reading. At the beginning. And at the rate of about 5 chapters per day, I read straight through this book from beginning to end.
It was a weird book. Repetitive in parts, confusing in parts, and downright disturbing sometimes. It had stories of lying, murder, seduction, despair, hope, coming-of-age, and traveling adventures. One day it was like Swiss Family Robinson, and the next day it was Agatha Christie, and the next day it was worse than trying to read the Waterloo section of Les Mis in French. Which, of course, is because the Bible isn’t just one book, it’s dozens—more like a library than a novel. The story arc weaves in and out throughout the history and mythology and weird social contracts to create something I’d never experienced before. What made it even stranger was that by the time I got near the end, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t just a good story. There was something more to this God-story, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, besides to say that I thought it might just be True.
Now, I’m one of those people who gets sucked in to a good story and then has a hard time separating the story-world from the real world. Just ask everyone who traveled in Scotland a few weeks ago—I stopped to take a picture of every single blue police box because you never know when Doctor Who is going to step out of one. The worlds that authors create can be very compelling, and it’s difficult sometimes to remember that there really aren’t wizards and witches cloaking themselves from our eyes or Time Lords winging their way through the universe…probably. So it wasn’t surprising to me when I first felt that the story of God’s people was maybe more than just a good story. What was surprising was that the feeling held on, even as I turned to other books with other worlds and their stories. There was something about this library that held this particular story of this particular people. It wasn’t just another novel. When I eventually went to church, I used to say that I was Presbyterian in part because I was converted by the scriptures—reading the Bible was the beginning of my journey with God.
For the first 300 years of the church, there was disagreement about what should be in the library—there are still a few books that various denominations disagree about! And then until the printing press and the Protestant Reformation, it was unheard of for regular people to read anything, especially the Bible, for themselves. We lowly ones can’t be trusted with the sacred words—they’re holy and full of God’s own writing! But then along come Gutenberg and Luther and Calvin and Knox, and suddenly we can read the word of God, and learn it, and encounter the Living Word in it, ourselves. It’s out in the open, like any other book…but it isn’t just like any other book. When Paul tells Timothy that “all scripture is inspired by God and useful,” which scripture is he talking about? Is he just talking about the Hebrew Bible, which was pretty well agreed upon by then? Is he thinking that the letter he’s writing might one day be considered Inspired—literally breathed by God? Does he know about how confusing it will be for one page to commend the women preachers and another to command women to be silent? If all scripture is the very breath of God, the word of God, then what about the books and letters that got left out? What about the stories that reveal just as much about the time and culture and people as they do about God? How can it be the breathy word of God if it reads more like it’s written by a bunch of guys perfecting their family’s campfire stories than like lightning bolts streaming from God’s fingertips?
Well, in short, because it can be both of those things at the same time.
The Bible is the story of God and God’s people—through good and bad times, through untimely relocations and strange family trees and sibling feuds and inside jokes, through flood and drought and good ideas and bad ideas, through times of widening the gap between humans and God and times of God closing the gap sometimes slower than a snail and sometimes faster than the sun can rise. Those stories are the stuff of every family reunion, and this library is our set of family stories—it tells us who we are, and who God is, and how our family has worked out a life with God and with each other in all kinds of situations and circumstances. It’s written by people, like any family story, but the breath of God flows through the words and makes them come alive in ways that open up Truth and Love and Real Life that novelists can’t even imagine. So it is all useful for learning how to be in right relationship and for correcting our course, because each story points the way—there’s nothing in there that is an end in itself. The written word points us to the Living Word, about whom the world could not contain all the books that could be written. Instead of more books to fill the shelves, that Living Word gave the world something else—something living and breathing and moving…the church, the body of Christ, to be a constant witness, a signpost pointing the way, a living story that gives the world a glimpse of the bigger story arc weaving in and out of mundane and confusing and beautiful moments.
The old children’s song says that the B-I-B-L-E is the book for me, that I stand alone on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E. The thing is…it’s not just a book, and it’s not just for me, and at no point do we stand alone there. When we enter the scripture, we stand in the company of all God’s people who are part of the story, and we look together for the Living Word that God is still revealing through the words on the page. We learn that we are a treasured possession of the One who created all things. We learn that we are created for relationships that embody justice and peace and love. We learn that the One who started all this is not just nice but is Love and Righteousness and Truth. We learn what hope looks like in the darkest hours of despair. We learn how to care for one another, how to live with people with whom we disagree, how to let good news triumph over the world’s incessant string of bad news. We meet the God who doesn’t just sit in heaven but comes to live a brutish but beautiful, short but timeless human life with us. We meet the God who refuses to let darkness have the last word. We meet the God who offers us everything and demands everything—which means that indeed the only place we can stand is on the word of God (that’s right, I just corrected the grammar of the song). In short, we find inspiration—the breath of the Spirit, whispering from every word. That continued inspiration, that breath that flows through these pages, is why we keep reading. It’s why we feed those who are hungry, it’s why we advocate for those who are poor, it’s why we gather in community, it’s why we have hope, it’s why we know what love is, it’s why we seek justice and practice mercy. This book doesn’t just tell a good story, it lights the path for a life with God. People fought, were exiled, and died so that we could read it for ourselves, and with good reason—because this set of family stories is for all of us, and when we come to the word together, then the capital-W Word is alive in us again and again.
may it be so. Amen.