You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.
(New Revised Standard Version)
Jesus said: You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!
What makes the church, your congregation and mine, different, utterly essential, without equal, unique? Let me venture a response:
A congregation is Christian to the degree that it is confronted by and attempts to form its life in response to the Word of God.
Shaped by the Bible
What does God want from us?
What’s our lens?
Years ago, I officiated at the wedding of a wonderful young couple. The groom-to-be was a child of folks in my church. The bride, a confirmed atheist, with no church background, gracefully agreed to a church wedding as concession to her beloved. They were bright, engaging and interested in lots of conversation before their wedding. Our pre-marital counseling sessions led to lively discussions about religion, probing questions aimed in my direction about how faith made sense in today’s world, especially given the hypocrisy of the church (to which, by the way, I could only reply: Guilty as charged).
After the wedding, the couple gave me a gift to remind me of those conversations. It was a book entitled: “The Bible Tells Me So: The Use and Abuse of Scripture.” You can get the point of the book from the Table of Contents. A sampling of chapter titles:
How scripture was used to endorse slavery
How scripture was used to endorse the abolitionist movement
How scripture was used to deny ordination to women
How scripture was used to promote ordination of women
How scripture was used to challenge the environmental movement
How scripture was used to support the environmental movement.
On the cover of the book, a quote from Shakespeare: “Even the devil can quote scripture,” a reference to the temptation of Jesus where Satan and our Lord joust by citing scripture passages. All of this comes to mind because of the way scripture is being used in the heart-wrenching discussion of separating children from their parents on our southern border, a defining moral crisis for all of us if ever our nation faced one.
It raises questions for me, because I’m convinced that engagement with scripture is key to spiritual vitality in individuals and congregations. So how do we read scripture? How can scripture be cited in support of such opposite positions? I suspect each of us develops our own canon within the canon, our own set of scriptures that ratify what we already think, the way we gravitate towards favorite cable news channel. But the marvelous and mysterious mosaic we call the Bible, this scriptural symphony speaks with many voices. It speaks about revenge and about forgiveness. It speaks about taking up a sword and about turning swords into plowshares. Given all that, how does scripture guide us in times like these?
It’s a challenge of an adult faith. Jesus battled over how to read scripture, not only with the devil, but with leaders who sought to use scripture for their own political advantage. (Nothing new under the sun.) In the Sermon on the Mount, he quoted laws of the Hebrew Scripture this way: You have heard that it was said, but I say to you. He expanded on ancient laws in a way that always tilted towards grace, mercy and love. In one confrontation, he told his opponents “You search the scriptures because in them you think you have life. But they are witnesses to me.”
And what is that witness? You heard it in the famous wedding homily: Love is the way. That’s the lens we need as we read scripture. (John Calvin described the scripture as a set of spectacles.) When in doubt, choose the pathway that leads to grace, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness? Try out this lens: If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.
To be clear: For those who use scripture to justify separation of parents from children, the lens seems to me to be tragically obstructed, clouded or cracked. Maybe the lens cap is still on.
The Bible, in all its complexity and contradiction, is a story of grace, God reaching out to us, God reaching out to include those on the margins, persistently, inexorably, so that in the end, love wins.
At a gathering last week over dinner, our group spoke about whether we had ever heard God speak to us. One gentleman talked about his journey of faith. He said he never felt good enough. He recalled at one time offering this simple prayer: “God, I’m not perfect.” He said that as he uttered that prayer, he heard a voice say to him: “It doesn’t matter. I want you.” I find that divine desire throughout the pages of the Bible, said to you and me and all God’s children. All God’s children.
Said another way:
Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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