It was particularly fitting last Sunday that Dr. Gil Bowen concluded his time as Senior Minister at Kenilworth Union handing out Bibles to the third graders of our church. Across the years and over the generations of children and youth and adults who have come through the doors into this church these last 37 years, Gil has preached the Word of God from the Bible, taught the Word of God, interpreted and illuminated the Word of God, taking “this old story,” as he affectionately refers to it, and connecting it meaningfully to our lives.
The Bible is the foundational text at the center of our faith. But “this old story” is certainly not limited to just the church; it is deeply embedded in our culture. Down through time, authors and screenwriters have told stories replete with biblical themes and allusions. This summer’s first blockbuster movie, Spider Man 3, contains classic biblical themes about the struggle between good and evil, about transformation, and about forgiveness. Cormac McCarthy’s recent Pulitzer Prize novel, The Road, is about a journey of love in an apocalyptic world, and about a hope that triumphs against all odds.
The Bible has enriched our everyday language with countless phrases that have become so familiar we often mistakenly attribute them to other sources. When I teach a class on the Bible to our Confirmation classes, I begin by asking them to guess how many of the following phrases come from the Bible: Signs of the time. Fear and trembling. There’s nothing new under the sun. Fight the good fight. Eat, drink and be merry. The powers that be. Can a leopard change its spots? The salt of the earth. Every single one of these familiar sayings is found in the Bible. Even if a person has never cracked open the Bible, chances are that they are familiar with other scriptural sayings like: To suffer fools gladly. In the twinkling of an eye. Escaped by the skin of my teeth. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Many are called but few are chosen. The blind leading the blind. A house divided against itself cannot stand.
The Bible is rich in content that can enrich our lives. And there are some surprises inside. Author Kathleen Norris, who lives in a small town in South Dakota, writes about a rather unusual one. She begins:
“The scariest story I know about the Bible is this. One Saturday night in a local steakhouse, my husband and I got to visiting with an old-timer, a tough, self-made man in the classic American sense…he and his brothers had built up a large ranch of many thousands of acres. This man had gotten where he was by being single-minded when it came to money; making as much as possible, and spending as little as he could, except when it came to his wife and kids.
“We knew him – I’ll call him Arlo – as a taciturn man, but that night he was in a talkative mood…Out of the blue, Arlo began talking about his grandfather, who had been a deeply religious man, or as Arlo put it, ‘a damn good Presbyterian.’ His wedding present to Arlo and his bride had been a Bible, which he admitted he had admired mostly because it was an expensive gift, bound in white leather with their names and the date of their wedding set in gold lettering on the cover. ‘I left it in its box and it ended up in our bedroom closet,’ Arlo told us. ‘But,’ he said, ‘for months afterward, every time we saw grandpa he would ask me how I liked that Bible. The wife had written a thank-you note, and we’d thanked him in person, but somehow he couldn’t let it die, he’d always ask about it.’ Finally, Arlo grew curious as to why the old man kept after him. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘the joke was on me. I finally took that Bible out of the closet and I found that granddad had placed a twenty-dollar bill at the beginning of the book of Genesis, and at the beginning of every book of the damn thing, over thirteen hundred dollars in all. And he knew I’d never find it…thirteen hundred bucks was a lot of money in them days,’ he said, shaking his head.” (Amazing Grace, p.94-5)
Makes you want to go home and look in that family Bible your grandmother gave you for your wedding doesn’t it?
In the book of Isaiah God speaks. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return until they have watered the earth…so shall my Word that goes out from my mouth…not return empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the things for which I sent it.” God’s word is loose in the world, working to accomplish God’s purpose. In today’s reading from the second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul declares, “…the word of God is not chained.”
Every Sunday we come into worship and gather around the unchained word of God, to hear it read, hear it preached, and here it set to music, giving us a vision for the living of our days.
The Bible is a collection of 66 books, written, edited and rewritten over a period of thousands of years. The authors drew on a diverse range of creative ways – prose, poetry, myths, letters, even an extended love song – to describe their experience of God. But the subject is always the same: the relationship between God’s people and their God.
From the majestic opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” to the hopeful vision of the closing words of Revelation, “See, the home of God is among mortals…he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away,” the Bible tells a story in which we can find ourselves.
It is a testimony to the spiritual power of the Bible, that though it was written so long ago in a very different time and place, it continues to speak personally to us today.
The Bible comforts us in our need. On 9/11, out of the bewilderment of such a tragedy, the palmist’s words…“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”…took on a powerful, immediate meaning we needed to hear.
The Bible also challenges us in our need. Like a good friend, it does not always tell us what we want to hear – but what we need to hear. Jesus said, “Judge not, lest you be judged….Why do you see the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”
The Bible is complex and diverse in what it has to say – not nearly so clear and unambiguous as some would have it.
You’ve seen the bumper sticker that declares: “The Bible says it – and that’s that!” But if you read the Bible you soon discover that it is not that simple. For example, in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he writes, “I desire then. . .that women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes…let a woman learn in silence with full submission…permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man.” Is “that-that” then? If so, then many of the women sitting here in church today are violating this scripture, and ministers like Jane Lionberger and Sarah Garcia have no place in the leadership of the church. However, were you to turn to another letter of Paul, you find something altogether different. In Galatians, Paul writes, “…in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” All one in Christ. What do you think? Between these two passages, which that is that?
The Bible is inspired, but the writing is a rich mingling of divine and human speech. There are human fingerprints all over it that reflect the culture and prejudices of its day.; which should give a person pause before selectively citing a single verse of scripture to prove a point. Shakespeare once quipped, “Even the devil quotes scripture for his own purposes.” Nevertheless that has not stopped some from co-opting the Bible to serve purposes that are in direct opposition to the grace of Jesus Christ. There is a sad history of using passages of scripture to justify everything from anti-Semitism to slavery.
It wasn’t until I went to seminary and seriously studied the Bible that I fell in love with “this old story,” even as I discovered it is at times confusing and inconsistent.; which I came to accept because after all, so is life.
I found it fascinating that within the first three chapters of Genesis, there are two separate, distinct, and different accounts of creation. The first is a lyrical, doxological description of the successive layers of creation being developed, ending with God resting on the Sabbath. Then within the space of just one transitional sentence, the second very human creation story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden follows. Two stories of creation side by side. Why two stories instead of just one? Any editor today would likely make a choice about which one should be in the final draft. But the compilers of this sacred text had the wisdom, and the humility, to understand that both of these stories have their own truth to tell. Two truths that point to a larger truth about the One in whom we live and move and have our being.
There was a cartoon in the New Yorker that pictured a man making an inquiry at the customer counter of a large bookstore. The clerk is looking intently at her computer screen and says, “The Bible? Let’s see, that would be in the ‘Self Help’ section.”
Just this Monday there was a front page article in the Tribune about the popularity of new Bible versions directed to particular marketing audiences. One was the “Biblezine,” which was designed to appeal to teenage girls. It has the look of magazines like Seventeen or In Style. A recent issue featured the catchy cover line, “Beauty secrets from the inside out.” The article inside referenced Psalm 139:13-16 and advised its youthful readers to “Accept the shape God gave you and work with it. Find clothes that accentuate your best feature.” (Chicago Tribune, Section 1, p.17)
Now I don’t suppose there is necessarily any harm in this approach, but I do believe that the Bible is trivialized when treated as just one more source of self-help advice. The Bible is not essentially “Life’s Answer Book.”
The author Frederick Buechner comments, “Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening to the questions it asks.” He goes on, “We are much involved, all of us, with questions about things that matter a good deal today but will be forgotten tomorrow – the immediate wheres and whens and hows that face us daily at home and at work – but at the same time we tend to lose track of the questions about things that matter always: life-and-death questions about meaning, purpose, and value. To lose track of such deep questions as these is to risk losing track of who we really are in our own depths and where we are going. There is perhaps no stronger reason for reading the Bible than that somewhere among all those India-paper pages there awaits for each reader…one question that may well be central for his [or her] own life. Here are a few of them. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Who is my neighbor? What is truth?” (Listening to Your Life, p.124-5)
The Bible is solidly grounded in real life. Michael Lindvall, a minister I knew in Michigan, sums it up this way. “We have experiences that confirm the deep truth of scripture to us. We have experiences along the road of life, hidden among the days, woven into words at table, incarnate in the routine of life. We see this for ourselves every time courage unaccountably conquers fear, every time life stares down death, when we see hope where there should be no hope, goodness where there should be none….Through our own experience, the Bible, this witness of the ages…comes to make sense.” (The Christian Life, p.70)
It is my hope that in the coming years the children who received their Bibles from Gil this last Sunday will discover the truth – and the sense – of “this old story” that has words that will guide, challenge and comfort them throughout their lives.
Early on in my time as a minister, I went to a nursing home to visit a woman who had once been an active member of the congregation of the church I was at in Birmingham, Michigan. I found her in an activity room. She was sitting alone at a table while some big band music played overhead from a hidden speaker. I introduced myself and at first she did not respond. Then she looked up and asked me to repeat again who I was. I told her I was a new pastor at her church, and she said, “No, Morgan Roberts is the pastor of my church.” Now Morgan Roberts had left the church some 10 years earlier. But for her, present and past were compressed.
Our conversation, such as it was, was rather awkward. She was polite, but drifted away a couple of times and then came back to ask me again who I was. At that point, I decided I would read her a passage from the Bible, from Isaiah 40. It was kind of a chance selection; I had read it earlier in the day. Then on second thought, maybe it was no chance occurrence at all. The words of Isaiah were: The Lord gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
I looked up as I read to see the woman mouthing the words of the old prophet along with me. “Mount up with wings like eagles…” she whispered, and her eyes appeared to shine with a knowing recognition. At that moment, I knew God’s unchained word meant more to her – and to me – than the words on the page.
May it be so for you. In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. .