One of the many joys of my work at Kingston is the chance to mentor and teach Christian formation classes with you all. And this Epiphany I really bit off more than I should by teaching two different courses at the same time, one on Mondays by zoom and a second one on Tuesdays in person. The Tuesday class has been a “Romp through the Scriptures” this time around. How do you look at a book of stories compiled over at least three millennia with pages that number in the thousands in 7 weeks? Well, it takes a certain amount of foolishness on the teacher’s part. But in my defense, Episcopalians who have been doing the worship in church thing for a number of years have had the chance to get a good overview of the Scripture if they are paying attention, and most of you seem to pay attention! We range over most of the Scripture in three years’ time on Sundays. And for those of you who do Morning Prayer or use Forward Day by Day or maybe another daily devotional, the lectionary of Scriptures used for those covers the range of Scripture every two years. So much of what I am doing in our class is giving folks the overview they don’t get in the weekly or daily readings. I find that Episcopalians in general actually know lots of Scripture, but they don’t know how to put it together, and they often don’t think they know much Scripture at all.
How do you understand Scripture in your own walk with God? It is, of course, one thing to read the words in the book and another to experience the Word of God. It is one thing to wonder if those miracles in the stories really happened and how they happened, and quite another to engage God so deeply in our lives that the miracles come alive for us today. It is one thing to read the holy stories because they are “authorized” by King James or a church, and quite another to experience God’s love letters in prayerful reading so that we come alive. Too often, if we pick up the Bible at all ourselves, we pick it up as if it were a textbook or a history book instead of as a doorway into a transforming and life-making relationship with God and God’s people.
The book itself is nothing less than a miracle. And like so many of the miracles in the stories, it is a double-edged miracle. You can be on the side of the slaves fearfully but faithfully walking through the waters of the Red Sea on dry feet, or you can be one who wants to win and conquer like Pharoah and end up washed up dead in the surf. Scripture requires a reverence that means we come to it uncertain and faithful, questioning, exploring, trusting that God’s love will overcome all obstacles. When you think about how the Bible came to be, there is miracle right there! Oral stories passed down by folks at campfires in the desert ended up written on scrolls of papyrus. Some were chosen and others were prayerfully set away. Scrolls were copied through the years when the old copies wore thin with little changes and chances made by scribes. And eventually some umpteenth generation of papyrus later, these stories and poems, songs and praises, were gathered by rabbis to create a Bible. And the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) was written in an ancient Hebrew that is an alphabet without vowels. Grammar was fairly simple, and the words and sentences and paragraphs were all strung together without much punctuation or any space between them. There were no section headings or verse or chapter numbers and even the book titles were often nothing more than the first word of the book (“Genesis” is just our fancy English way of say the first word of that book which is “in the beginning.”) The ancient Hebrew was translated probably first into Greek and then later into Latin and eventually into all the languages of the world. And our New Testament went through its own amazing birth over a couple centuries with the church prayerfully deciding which Gospels belonged in the Church’s canon of books etc. Translations were not always good. (One quick example: the holy name of God in the Hebrew is: יהוהSince there were no vowels to easily understand how to say what we might transliterate as YHWH or JHWH, and since in faithful Jewish tradition you never say the name of God anyway, some scholars got together and decided that the English version of this would be “Jehovah.” Consulting wise Jewish folks, we eventually discovered that those vowel sounds were completely wrong. The better way to say that is “Yahweh,” and perhaps the most faithful way to deal with it is to do like our Jewish family and just replace the name, as the New Revised Standard Version does with “THE LORD,” all in caps.) Invariably things can get lost or misinterpreted in translations. Cultural differences impede understanding. The layers of meaning, confusion, and mystery pile up around most of the Scriptures. I believe all those layers are part of the miracle. And they are part of why we read Scripture by prayer and with the help of the Holy Spirit. It’s not about finding historical facts. It’s not about playing with it like a Ouija board and opening up to any page to see what God is saying to us today. It’s about living with it until we meet the Living God, THE LORD.
How do you take time to live with God’s Holy Word? How do you honor the miracle of it all? How might your relationship with God grow fuller with some prayer time romping through the Scriptures?
God’s Peace, Gary+
The Very Rev. Gary Barker