Carlos Wilton, October 21, 2012; Non-Lectionary Sermon; John 6:50-69
“The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
In one of his books, the travel writer Bill Bryson tells of visiting Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri [Bill Bryson: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America]. The house where the great writer grew up is still there. It’s a small, white house with green shutters, tucked into the middle of Hannibal’s downtown.
It was while he was visiting this historic home that Bryson fell into conversation with a fellow tourist. “What do you think of the place?” he asked.
“Oh, I think it’s great,” replied the man. “ I always come here when I’m in Hannibal — two or three times a year. Sometimes I go out of my way to come here.”
“Really?” asked Bryson.
“O yes,” the man said. “I must have been here twenty or thirty times by now. This is a real shrine, you know.”
“You must be a real fan and follower of Mark Twain. Would you say the house is just like he described it in his books?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said the tourist. “I wouldn’t have the foggiest notion. I’ve never read any of his books!”
Well, how does that happen, do you suppose? How does a man become a fan of a writer, enough to visit his home twenty or thirty times, without ever reading any of his books?
You can almost get away with it, with an American icon like Mark Twain. Some of his best-known stories — like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court — have spawned movie versions. Maybe the guy saw some of those. Or maybe he had the chance to watch the late Hal Holbrook in his one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight. Holbrook re-created Twain’s wildly popular lecture tours, which were the closest thing nineteenth-century America had to stand-up comedy.
Yet, even if the man had encountered Twain’s stories secondhand, in the movies or in a live stage show, it still doesn’t explain his enthusiasm. It does seem very strange, indeed.
No stranger, though, than the legions of Christians — even passionate, enthusiastic Christians — who only rarely pick up a Bible and read it!
Now, once upon a time, there was a good excuse. Back before Gutenberg’s invention of movable type that made modern, printed books possible, Bibles were rare as hens’ teeth. They had to be copied out, laboriously, by hand. What most people knew of Bible stories was based on sermons they’d heard in church, or maybe vignettes they’d seen depicted in stained glass.
That’s hardly true today! Walk on down to Barnes and Noble, or call up Amazon.com on your computer, and you’ll see dozens upon dozens of Bibles to choose from — every translation or special edition imaginable. Why, the Bible’s probably more accessible today, to a greater number of people on this planet, than has ever been true in human history.
This past week, we heard Presbyterian mission workers Jeff and Christi Boyd tell of their work in the nation of Cameroon, in Africa. They’re involved in a Bible-distribution plan, using mission funds provided by our denomination, that makes Bibles in various native dialects available for a bargain price of $4.50. The church in that land thinks it important to offer Bibles for sale (at a heavily-subsidized price) because it calls forth commitment from the readers. When you consider that the average earnings, in Cameroon’s agricultural regions, can be as low as $10 a month, you really get a sense of how hungry God’s people are for a Bible of their own, one they can take home and read. I’ll bet those who pay so dearly for their Bibles don’t fail to spend a great deal of time reading them!
Which brings us back to us. We live in a culture that reveres the very idea of the Bible, but yet is composed of a great many biblical illiterates (or nearly so). In case you doubt that, consider this saying: “God helps those who help themselves.” Now answer (silently, to yourself) this question: “Does ‘God helps those who help themselves’ come from the Bible or from some other place?
If you answered “the Bible,” I’m sorry to inform you: you’re wrong. “God helps those who help themselves” occurs nowhere in the Bible. It was written by Benjamin Franklin and published in his Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Another example was given by Yale University religion professor, Stephen Prothero. There was a celebrated case, a few years back, involving a death penalty verdict in Colorado. The judge overturned the sentence of death because, at the original trial, members of the jury had brought Bibles with them into the jury room. They’d done so because they wanted to read and discuss the biblical phrase, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
The Christian-right group, Focus on the Family — which favors the death penalty — was outraged by this news of the judge’s ruling. They blew it up into a national brouhaha, seeing it as a turn away from what they would describe as our nation’s biblical values. “It is a sad day,” said their spokesperson, “when the Bible is banned from the jury room.”
The only problem is, the only place “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” occures in the Bible is in a passage from the Gospels in which Jesus begins, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” But then, Jesus goes on to reject this ancient legal code — known as the Code of Hammurabi — offering instead his famous instruction to “turn the other cheek.”
Prothero points out that both the members of the jury who smuggled Bibles into the jury room and the lobbyists from Focus on the Family completely misunderstood what Jesus actually says about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” What he says is: “This rule is bogus! Don’t seek revenge. It goes against my teachings of compassion and mercy.” Take that scripture verse out of context, and it may seem, to Christian proponents of the death penalty, that it helps their case. Yet, examine it in its full context, paying attention to how Jesus actually uses it, and you’ll see it’s the very worst choice you could make, if you want to argue in favor of the death penalty.
Biblical illiteracy, it seems, is everywhere!
In our scripture reading from John, chapter 6, Jesus says: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
In this teaching of his, we have an approach to the words of scripture that’s different from the fundamentalism practiced by so many today. Rather than being static, unchanging, narrowly-interpreted words on a page, Jesus describes his own words as alive, inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Notice how he says “the words that I have spoken to you.” Jesus isn’t talking here about the authority of words on the page, in the holy scriptures. He’s talking about his own spoken word — that we can receive, by the grace of God, as we faithfully and prayerfully read the scriptures.
So, how do we open ourselves to the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, as we try to live up to the commitment card many of us will sign today, pledging ourselves to the spiritual discipline of daily Bible reading?
Let me give you a few suggestions.
The first thing you have to do is know where to begin reading.
“Well, that’s easy,” you may say to yourself. The only place to begin is at the beginning: Genesis, Chapter 1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”
Those early chapters of Genesis do make pretty good reading: stories like Adam and Eve in the Garden, the Tower of Babel, Noah and the Ark, and the lives of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Right after that is the thrilling set of stories known as the Joseph cycle: Joseph and his coat of many colors, sold into slavery, given up for dead, rising to the highest level of authority in the Egyptian empire short of the Pharaoh, but deciding to use his powers for grace and forgiveness, rather than revenge.
Yet, you don’t get too far in those first books of the Bible before you come upon chapter after chapter of dreary, ancient laws. You also come upon historical accounts of wars and conquests that fairly drip with blood: some of which would actually meet the contemporary definition of genocide. Yet, the Bible not only mentions such horrors, but at times even seems to revel in them, claiming that such slaughter was carried out with the expert technical assistance of none other than God!
I believe there’s something to be gained even from passages such as those, but it takes an awful lot of interpretation to boil them down into food that will feed our spirits.
If you’re reading along and come to one of those passages — describing in detail the deployment of regiments in some ancient battle, or what sort of robe the high priest is supposed to wear, or architectural plans for the Temple in Jerusalem — just skip over those parts. Far better to begin with a more accessible and understandable part of the Bible — especially for first-time readers, or readers returning to the Bible after many years away. Otherwise, you’re likely to bog down before you even begin!
If you’re looking for a place to begin your daily Bible-reading discipline, I’d suggest you choose a simple book like the Gospel of Mark. It bears the essential message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in an elegantly simple fashion. Stay away from the Gospel of John, in particular, which is laden with some pretty heavy-duty theology, served up in the form of long discourses by Jesus that can seem tedious and repetitious.
If you’re looking to delve into Paul’s letters, don’t start out with the long ones: Romans and the Corinthian letters, with their complex, sometimes even ponderous, sentences. Try, instead, the beautiful little letter to the Philippians, which explores the subject of Christian love in some truly engaging ways.
Second practical hint: try to remember something very basic about the Bible — something a lot of you have heard me emphasize before, though it bears repeating — the Bible is not a book. It’s a library.
That may sound perfectly obvious, to anyone who’s ever tried — perhaps in Sunday School, years ago — to memorize the order of the books of the Bible. Most all of us know, on one level, that the Bible contains some books that are history, some poetry, some philosophy, some letters sent by someone like Paul to various churches. Then, there are apocalyptic books like Daniel and Revelation, that are something else altogether! Yet, because all those books are gathered together into one, encased in an elegant leather cover (as they so often are), we tend to forget that essential characteristic. We unconsciously fall back into treating the Bible as a single book — which is not helpful for understanding.
Such an approach plays havoc with our understanding of what we’re reading: because we’ve simply got to know what sort of literature we’re dealing with, in any given biblical book.
If you go down to your local public library, looking for an automotive book to tell you how to change the oil in your car, but end up in the poetry section instead, you’re not going to find what you’re looking for. By the same token, if you’re looking for a good biography and end up in the biology section by mistake, the only book that looks at all promising is one called, The Lives of a Cell — but when you open that one up, you’ll find it’s like no biography you’ve ever read!
An essential step in letting a book of the Bible speak to us is learning what category the book belongs to. If the Bible you’re using is a study Bible, with a short introduction to each book, written by the modern translators, you’ll go a long way towards finding in its pages God’s word to you.
Third tip: if your Bible has the word “Holy” printed on the cover, try to understand what that word really means. What it doesn’t mean is that the book itself — its cover, its pages, its bookmarks, whatever — is somehow holy, in and of itself.
On that level, a Bible is just an ordinary book, like any other.
I think back to my second-grade Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Dabaghian, at the Presbyterian Church of Toms River, who taught us young kids with a true sense of joy in her heart about being a Christian believer. One thing Mrs. Dabaghian used to tell us, bless her heart, was to make sure that, in a stack of books, the Bible is always on top.
I understand the piety out of which that teaching came, and appreciate my old teacher’s sense of devotion, but I have to say, it’s completely wrong. It’s wrong to treat the physical Bible differently from any other book, just because it’s got the word “Holy” on the cover.
If, for example, you’re the sort of person who likes to underline or highlight passages from books as you read them, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t do so in the Bible you’re using for study. And, if you should happen to accidentally drop your Bible, or lay another book on top of it, don’t give it a second thought. It’s no sacrilege! Bibles are meant to be read, re-read, bookmarked, underlined — whatever you need to do to get deeply into them.
What that word “Holy” refers to on so many Bible covers is not the physical book itself. It’s the contents. You hear on the news, from time to time, stories out of Muslim countries about riots or civil disturbances because someone has physically desecrated a Qu’ran in some way. Muslims have a very different view of the literal holiness of their scriptures — the actual book and the paper it’s printed on. There’s no reason whatsoever for Christians to go down that road.
Next, in your approach to the Bible, take time: both for silent mediation and for prayer. Don’t bite off huge chunks of the scriptures, but focus on small, manageable pieces — usually a good bit shorter than the typical Bible chapter: a paragraph is about right. Pray for the Holy Spirit to guide your understanding, then read a passage, pause for reflection and read it again. Maybe even pause, trying to empty your mind of stray thoughts, then read it a third time, concentrating on insights different from those you had the first couple of times.
A friend of mine, leading group Bible studies, likes to encourage people to talk of what “shimmers” for them, as they read the passage. You may find it helps to keep a journal or notebook close at hand, and write down, in just a few words, what shimmering treasures you’ve discovered. You’ll find it very meaningful to go back and look over those notes later.
Finally, it can also be immensely helpful to read the Bible together with others. A close friend or two, a family member, someone else you trust: the insights that arise from several different people, each one bringing their own unique perspectives to the task, can truly be enriching. (And besides: as with any other discipline in life, having someone else to keep us accountable — whether it’s jogging on the Boardwalk or reading the Bible — can be a valuable thing.)
All this is for the purpose of leading us all to make Bible reading an integral part of our lives: so the message of the scriptures moves from head to heart.
The final thought I’ll leave you with this morning comes from one of the great preachers of our day, Barbara Brown Taylor, who has a unique way of understanding her own life with the scriptures. Here’s what she says:
“My relationship with the Bible is not a romance but a marriage, and one I am willing to work on in all the usual ways: by living with the text day in and day out, by listening to it and talking back to it, by making sure I know what is behind the words it speaks to me and being certain I have heard it properly, by refusing to distance myself from the parts of it I do not like or understand, by letting my love for it show up in the everyday acts of my life.” [Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993), p. 56.]
In the end, regular Bible reading is not just an activity: it is a way of life. I encourage you to make it a part of your life. If you do, I promise you: you will be blessed.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.