November 17, 2019, the Rev. Louise Kalemkerian
Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (track 2 readings)
In the name our all loving, all embracing God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. AMEN.
Today’s Collect is one of the most famous in the Prayer Book. It was written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the compiler of the first English BCP in 1549. These words, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest have become “code words” of sorts to draw attention to something important, to commend something to another’s attention. So how do we read, mark and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures?
Today’s Gospel paints a picture of Jesus heading toward his passion and death. It has come to be understood as warning about Jesus’ Second Coming, an event the first century Christians thought was imminent. In a nutshell, the text tells us “things are bad. They’re going to get worse. And you’ll be okay.”
According to the 1st century historian, Josephus, the Jerusalem temple of Jesus’ day was an awe-inspiring wonder. Herod reportedly used so much gold to cover the walls that anyone who gazed at them in bright sunlight risked blinding herself. The Temple symbolized God’s presence, so Jesus’ prediction that “the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another,” must have sounded like the end of the world.
It’s important for us to know that Jesus’ words in the Gospel were not taken down as dictation. These are remembered words, written down from the community’s memory by Luke, about 50 years after Jesus spoke them. We’re in 2019. Can you remember what was said/happened 50 years ago? For some of us 1969 is before we were born. Nixon was president, the Vietnam War was raging, I was in seminary. That’s about all I remember.
Jesus speaks these words. They are recorded 50 years later. These words (and others attributed to Jesus) are distributed, remembered and revered as authentic (or not), a process which took the church almost 300 years to clarify, what we call the Canon of Holy Scripture. And so these words we read in the Gospels and elsewhere throughout the Bible have been tested and authenticated and revered and proclaimed and memorized down through the centuries.
We call the Bible our Holy Scripture, both because of its sources – the people and the events where God has inspired and intervened – and because the words have been made holy by the holy people of God who have looked to Bible down through the centuries as the living voice of God, continually active to convert, nourish and transform us.
So how to “read, mark and inwardly digest” the holy texts we read? Episcopalians are Bible-believing Christians. We understand that the Holy Scriptures are to be read with faith, and with investigative and curious minds. The Bible is a book of faith, of revelation of God’s love for humankind. It is not a geography text, nor a history book, nor a science text.
The Bible includes various writings of law, history, wisdom sayings, the words and work of Jesus, letters, and dreams and visions. The particular type of literature will inform how we read and understand it. That presumes we will use our minds and do our homework. Like with today’s Gospel lesson. We need to know something of the historical context. If you don’t know the context, it’s very easy to misconstrue what was said or what was intended.
We are called to pay attention to the integrity of the text. By integrity I mean hearing particular words of the Bible as how they relate to other words, teachings, understandings of the Bible. Otherwise, you can make the Bible say almost anything by cutting and pasting selected words or phrases… like, “Judas went out and hanged himself. Go and do likewise.” The Bible can be used to justify almost anything.
We can see how the Bible was used as a principal defense for slavery, for the mistreatment of Native Americans, for the subjugation of women. Down through the centuries, an appalling number of crusades, wars, and genocides have been propagated and justified using the authority – the pseudo-authority – of the Bible. That’s called “proof texting.” Likewise, we often need to make the distinction between what is to be understood literally – like Jesus’ telling us to forgive our enemies – and what is to be understood not literally but truly.
The Bible contains a lot of metaphoric language. When Jesus says he is a good shepherd and we are sheep, when Jesus says he is a vine and we are branches, he is speaking metaphorically. I’m not a sheep; I’m not a vine, nor are you. Metaphors point to the truth.
Just as in Jesus’ teaching in parables. They’re just stories, but the stories reveal profound truth. In the Book of Genesis, we read the account of creation, a story. It’s not literal. To try to make it literal will only diminish the truth. The truth being conveyed is that God is the creator of everything that was and is and shall be.
We also need to use our minds to understand what kind of literature we are reading in the Bible. The Bible includes writings of law, history, wisdom sayings and proverbs, biography, poetry and songs, prophecies, the words and work of Jesus, letters, and dreams and visions. The particular type of literature will inform how we read and understand it.
If, for example, we are reading something from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, or the Revelation to John in the New Testament, we are reading dream language… which will be as majestic, perhaps as surreal, perhaps as bizarre as your own dreams. Which isn’t to say dream language is unimportant, but it is symbolic language. What does that symbol mean: what did that symbol mean in its historic context and how does that symbol translate in today’s world.
We also need an approach to the Bible that has integrity with what is present and what is missing given the time in which we live. There’s nothing in Scripture about nuclear armament, nor global warming, nor genetically-engineered farming practices. We could make quite a long list of what isn’t in the Bible. Likewise, we may find any number of teachings in the Bible which do not speak truth to us today. Jesus speaks any number of times about slavery as a given; that teaching and its context has to be interpreted.
We read any number of things about women – their place, their role, their subordination to men. We can read about divorce and remarriage; we can read about politics. It is important to recall that throughout the Bible God’s politics are always to champion the poor, the unprivileged, the marginalized in every society.
The words of this Collect are a reminder that we are called into relationship with the Bible, and urged to study and integrate the texts into our very being. Our tradition is to revere the Scriptures, and to understand that they must be both interpreted and viewed alongside the other ways of God’s revelation, to understand authority as a graceful interaction between Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Scripture plus tradition.
Tradition, which recognizes that the people of God were following, obeying, worshiping God before they had text in hand. Tradition also recognizes how the church has historically made sense of the Bible.
Scripture plus tradition plus reason. Reason recognizes that we have been created with minds to think and hearts to discern. We don’t go brain dead when we read the Scriptures. We need not hesitate to use our intellects – informed by many disciplines – as we approach the Scriptures. Scripture plus tradition plus reason plus experience.
Experience is what it is. How does what you are reading in the Scriptures ring true to your own life experience and, if not, then what? The Anglican approach is to be on good speaking terms with Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
The bottom line of the Bible is that God loves us, God loves humankind and wants to be in relationship with all persons. That’s the ultimate truth of the Bible. We read the Bible, hopefully, to be transformed into more loving, caring, more God-like persons. We are reminded that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God; we are of the same family.
The Scriptures offer a treasury of guidance, strength, hope, and comfort. The Scriptures are worthy to be read seriously and critically; they are also worthy to be read devotionally. And so our prayer at the outset of the liturgy. To inwardly digest the Scriptures will take a lifetime, and there is a treasury to be gleaned.
 Curtis Almquist, SSJE, sermon, “Read, Mark, Learn and Inwardly Digest”, November 18, 2012. Used with permission.