What it might mean to ponder anew our connection to Holy Scripture

Recently, I have discovered a renewed interest in the Bible. That might sound like a bit of an odd statement coming from a clergyperson (although I suspect there are not a few clerics who might benefit from a renewed interest in Scripture in the general sense). What I mean by this is that I have found myself asking deeper questions of Scripture than I remember asking before. I think there are several reasons for this. First, I am in the middle of a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program which is pushing me to ask those deeper questions, particularly in relation to how worshipping communities seek to organize, support, and mobilize communities around particular narratives of faith. During my first summer residency at the University of the South, where I am a student (again), I became fascinated by the Apophthegmata Patrum, the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” (“father” not being a gendered-term in the Desert monastic movement) where these men and women would go out into the desert and create whole communities, cenobitic and anchoritic, around deep engagement with words. Many times, pilgrims would travel great distances to one of these monks and receive a life-altering message from the simple request “father, give me a word.”

Second, I am a new rector in a new parish in a new city, all of which present me with a new opportunity to further craft my voice, not just in my preaching, but in this ministry more globally. Whereas before I was relegated to ministry with children, youth, and young families, I now have the privilege of ministry across the lifespans of people – birth to death. That necessitates a more diverse set of skills and rhetoric to engage, and the Bible is a great place to seek guidance for this type of work.

Finally, I think it was just time to deepen how I relate to Scripture. As those familiar with my life and work might know, I grew up in a Baptist church where the Bible was central to worship. Although everything about the space and worship communicated the centrality of the preached and proclaimed word of God, I am not quite sure I left with any depth in understanding what the Bible was or how it worked. I could recite lots of Bible verses and could find books in the Bible without having to reference the table of contents, but my knowledge of Scripture was an inch deep and a mile wide. To be clear: Scripture is still central to worship in the Episcopal Church, but it shares that central space with the Table. As renowned liturgical scholar and Jesuit priest Dr. John Baldovin, S.J., suggests “the word as proclamation and sacramental activity are inseparable… neither word and sacrament are sufficient alone.” We see this exemplified on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) where the Risen Lord appears to two of his disciples and begins to share the word of God with them, an encounter which climaxes with the sacramental action (“he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them”). The ritual act we recognize as Holy Communion illuminates the word in such a way that the disciples remember “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” It might seem counterintuitive, but the dialogical nature of word and sacrament – the fact that they share space – in the Episcopal Church helped to deepen my relationship to Scripture. In fact, it might be that holding space for word and sacrament to exist together actually undermines the idolatry of biblical fundamentalism because not only are we invited to listen to God through the record of Scripture, but also through the faithful community gathered around sacrament.

My pathway toward becoming an Episcopalian started when someone helped me to understand how complex, messy, and hard Scripture actually is. The idea that Scripture “says what it means and means what is says” had simply stopped working for me when I read about what appeared to me as the divinely-sanctioned genocide of Canaanite people, or sex trafficking of women and girls, or support for human slavery. At a certain point, my “inch deep” understanding of scripture was unable to engage the deep questions that I had. I had to grow to see scripture as highly complex, not in the sense of containing gnostic or unknowable knowledge, but in the sense of not being nearly as buttoned up as I would like it to be. I wanted a rule book, but rather than just give me a list of dos and don’ts, the Bible gave me stories, and poems, and laments, and curious genealogies, and the Apostles throwing shade at one another (how else does anyone read Galatians 1:1).

Part of my commitment to deepening my understanding of Scripture is a commitment to preaching the passages I’d rather not. The Lectionary already hems me in in that it chooses a set of lessons from which I can preach each week (which is radically different than the “Pastor’s Greatest Hits” list that I got growing up – the collection of scriptures that pastor knew well, often without a larger context or connection to the larger arc of scripture). Within this framework, I found myself tending to pick the Gospel lesson from the Lectionary selections because it was frankly easier to preach. For our modern, “western”, Christian sensibilities, Jesus is far less problematic than much of the Hebrew Bible (until he’s not… but that’s a post for another day). Because of how culture as appropriated Jesus and how the Church has sanitized him, Jesus sort of resembles a poseable action figure that invites us to use him as we will to support our own personal agenda. In contemporary, polite, Mainline churches, all we have to do is throw words like “love” and “grace” in a sermon with Jesus (actually mentioning him is optional), include a quote from Barbara Brown Taylor (guilty) or a Mary Oliver poem (innocent), and close with a story about a dog (not guilty…yet) or a recent vacation and you have the perfect recipe for the type of sermon where some people will walk away saying “nice sermon today mother/father,” but most people leave unconvinced and unchanged. It’s not that the Jesus of the Gospels is unable to contend with challenging questions of life; it’s that we seldom allow him to. It is as if we give Jesus the easy stuff because the hard stuff might actually prompt us to change. God forbid.

I also found myself convicted by something my preaching professor said – “when it comes to preaching the Jewish scriptures, why not consult some actual Jewish people.” It sounds simple enough, but it struck me as incredibly profound. I had to admit that I didn’t have a clear idea how Jewish people understood and understand their scriptures and, as a result, I don’t know that I had a clear idea how Jesus and the early Christian community would have understood them and the work that these scriptures invited them into. It bears remembering that Jesus was Jewish. He never renounces his Jewishness. He dies a Jew. All of the Apostles were Jewish. His early followers were Jewish. This fundamental communal identity doesn’t really change until St. Paul comes along and starts his ministry to the gentiles (which unleashes a whole can of worms). Each of them reference the Hebrew scriptures a lot. Like, A LOT a lot. Understanding Jesus and his movement is literally impossible without an understanding of the movement he was birthed into. He doesn’t inaugurate a movement; he innovates on it.

I deeply appreciate how Dr. Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury and current Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, frames Scripture, particularly our Christian connection to our Jewish forebears. He says,

…the sweep of the Bible’s history is much longer. And the Bible is not simply saying, ‘Here is a story’, but ‘Here is your story.’ Your life began with Noah and Abraham and Moses. Your history goes right back to those beginnings. This is your past we are talking about and the people about whom the Bible stories are written are people who are your family.

A Bible story is, inescapably, about history. It is about how things came into being, and how those things that came into being are still shaping you here and now as a Christian. If you met Abraham you would probably be very surprised. Perhaps one day, in whatever sense God wishes us to do so, we may meet the remote figure who stands behind the sagas about Abraham. But I think it would be a bit of a shock. It would be a little like meeting a long-lost cousin from a very distant country, with a very different culture and language. But it would be even harder than meeting your second cousin from Australia. This is your millionth cousin from prehistoric Mesopotamia. And your first thought would almost certainly be that you have no idea how to relate to him. Yet the Bible says, ‘This man is your family and his story is the beginning of your story, and if it were not for him you would not be where you are now. So get used to it…’[1]

There has been a lot of talk in the Episcopal Church lately about Evangelism as the “sharing of our stories.” I can appreciate that sentiment as it empowers each person with this sense that they have a story, and not an inconsequential one at that! But what also needs to be said is that each of our stories is connected to God’s larger story of love and redemption. The human struggle with that larger, divine story is captured in Scripture which the Church believes communicates something of the will of God to us. Flattening that written witness to lists of dos and don’ts, or filtering it through our screen of enlightenment or acceptability, or cherry-picking the bits we like the best at the expense of the rest reduces the ability of Scripture to speak God’s will to us. Scripture is hard, and necessarily so, because the subject it communicates is one of literal life and death.

But it can also be incredibly life-giving if we simply let it be what it wishes to be and open ourselves to the process of engaging it through wondering and wandering hearts.


[1] Rowan Williams. Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 29-30.

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