SERMON FOR BIBLE SUNDAY 2011
A generous benefactor at the church where I grew up left money so that every child on reaching the age of 13 would be given a rather fine copy of the Bible. He insisted that it should be the King James Version. I have my Bible here. If you examined it closely you would see that it is not particularly well-worn. I did make some valiant attempts to read it when I was a teenager, but the obscure language and the tissue-thin paper gave me difficulties. And yet I wanted to be engaged with it. I felt that the Bible would reveal something important to me if I were only able to read it properly.
A friend of mine, who went to a different church, was a keen Bible-reader. She gave me a box of Scripture gems – little cards with single verses on them that you could pick out, one day at a time. This was kindly meant, but it gave me almost the opposite problem – it was just too easy to be a sort of biblical magpie, picking up verses at random without any context.
I did manage to read right through a modern language version of the New Testament, but without understanding a lot of it. As for the Old Testament, I simply gave up on it apart from some of the Psalms. I turned my attention instead to modern writers who helped me make sense of Christian faith without succeeding in sending me back to read the scriptures for myself.
I am sure my story is fairly typical of young Christians, and not so young ones too, who are trying to be serious about their faith but simply can’t find a helpful way in to reading the Bible. Years ago the stories became familiar via Sunday school and church parade, but it is a rare young adult nowadays who has had this sort of exposure to the Bible. And we are all wary of being the kind of fundamentalist who walks around with a black leather Bible open in one hand, ready to denounce feminists or gays or liberals of any kind, so we may well steer away from getting to know what the Bible actually contains.
The lesson that Ronnie read us from the book of Nehemiah gives us a refreshingly different idea of reading the Bible. Picture the scene. The Jewish exiles had had come back from Babylon and rebuilt the ruined city of Jerusalem. They had unearthed the books of the Law of Moses, which had been lost to them for a long time. The people gathered in the rebuilt city. We are told very specifically that the crowd consisted of men, women and children – the reference to “all who could hear with understanding” means any child old enough to pay attention to the reading. We might equate the gathering to a congregation of first Holy Communion age upwards.
The verses that have been omitted from the lesson this morning tells us that when the book was opened, all the people stood up to listen, just as we stand to hear the gospel, and that they interacted with the reader. Ezra blessed the Lord and they said Amen, Amen, lifting up their hands, and then bowing down to the ground. They listened attentively as the words of the Torah were read and then interpreted, so that all could understand, from the oldest to the youngest. They understood, and they wept, because they could see that they were not living in accordance with God’s Law.
But note what the teachers of the Law said: ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’
So the response of the people had several important features: it was communal, not individual. It was an intelligent response, because they were able to have an explanation of what they heard. It was heartfelt, because they were genuinely open to hearing God’s word. And it resulted in a religious celebration, rather than mourning. They were told to feast and to share their celebration with the poor. And they were reminded that the joy of the Lord was their strength.
Map this onto what we do on a Sunday morning and you will see some marked similarities. We too gather, men, women and children, and listen to the scriptures being read and interpreted. We respond by declaring our faith in the creed and praying for one another. And then we celebrate: we share the peace, offer our gifts of bread and wine, feast at the Lord’s table, and are sent out, strengthened by God’s joy.
The reading from the Bible is central to all of this. It is the foundation of our communal worship and celebration and action.
It took me many years to realize that this is how I could read the Bible and really get something from it. I needed to start with what was read in the assembly of worshippers, hearing the scriptures read aloud. I needed to discuss them with other people. I needed to respond to them in prayer. And I needed to be spurred by them into action. So Bible reading ceased to be a private academic exercise, which had never flourished anyway, and became part of my whole Christian life.
Today, the last Sunday after Trinity, is called Bible Sunday, because of the very famous collect for the day. Note that it doesn’t say that the Bible is the dictated word of God, but rather that God caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning – something rather different. We then pray that God will help us, who are gathered together as God’s family, “to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them”. I love that phrase.
Reading and eating are linked in a number of ways. You know how when you are really enjoying a book you simply gobble it up. Over the years I have watched my children “devour” books like Harry Potter and Star Wars. The Book of Revelation describes an angel telling the visionary John to eat a little scroll, which will be as sweet as honey in his mouth but bitter to his stomach. And the spiritual practice of lectio divina teaches us to imitate a cow chewing her cud in these four ways:
First, like a cow grazing on grass, we use a lectionary or another method to choose a short Bible reading, which we read either silently or better still aloud. Thus we bring the food to our mouth.
Secondly, we chew it over, like a cow chewing fresh grass. We reread it, think about it, allow associations and different possible meanings to come to mind.
Then thirdly, and now it gets a bit graphic, like the cow regurgitating the sour cud, we let the biblical text move down into our gut and connect with our deepest feelings, as we turn our meditation into prayer.
And finally, just as the cow rests and digests, we let the scriptural food get into our bloodstream in a time of quiet contemplation, and we delight in its sweetness.
This process can be done individually, but it is most fruitfully done in a group, just as we saw in Nehemiah. In a group we can share our choice of texts and the meanings we find in them, we can pray together, and we can share the richness of silent contemplation.
Perhaps we need more opportunities at St Mary’s for lectio divina. Of course we do it in a simple way every day in the daily office. You are probably all aware that Morning Prayer is said every weekday morning, usually at 9 am, and on most weekdays Evening Prayer is also said in church. When those of us who gather for this prayer meet in the chapel, we read the set passage, listen to a commentary on it, and base our prayers on what we have heard. It is this daily practice of praying the office that has been the biggest help to my own spiritual life and engagement with the scriptures.
Today there are some books at the back of church that may help, if you wish, to adopt this practice for yourself. Time to Pray provides a simple form of the daily office that can be said at any time, on your own or with others. Reflections for Daily Prayer gives the daily lectionary readings from Monday to Saturday, the same ones that we read in church, and a short commentary to help you start chewing the cud. You would need not only these two books but also a Bible. There is also a Bible that includes a short form of the Anglican daily office, and a small book called Sacred Space that offers prayers and reflections for every day. If you want to purchase any of these books you can order them today.
If you have moved on technologically, there are of course ways to do all this online. You can click on Oremus Church of England to get the daily office including the Bible readings. And you can download the commentary, Reflections for Daily Prayer, as an app to your phone or Kindle. So you can use travel time or lunchtime at your desk to do your feeding on scripture.
Feeding on scripture, with or without the framework of the daily office, doesn’t change our prayer overnight into something easy and fulfilling. The Bishop of London describes how our spiritual practices help us to develop a vertebra. It takes time for a skeleton to grow. We have to be very patient. But if we try to move without a skeleton we will simply collapse. The regular prayer, Bible reading and reflection that the Church has developed over the centuries helps us to develop a strong spine. We can then branch out in lots of different ways.
Please think on this Bible Sunday about ways that you can put some calcium into your backbone, and talk to me or others on the ministry team if you have questions or suggestions about how we can do this together. And may the word of the Lord shine ever more clearly as a lantern unto our feet and a light upon our path. Amen.