SERMON FOR BIBLE SUNDAY 2012
Some months ago I was asked to do a talk on the American Civil Rights movement for the Hampstead Christian Studies Centre next Tuesday. My expertise on this subject is based entirely on the fact that I have an American passport, so I had to do quite a bit of research.
It has been a very interesting piece of work. One of the historians of the movement made the observation that the Civil Rights movement was powered by a potent mix of two very different ingredients. One was a sophisticated intellectual tradition. Leading from the top was Dr Martin Luther King, with his PhD in modern liberal theology and his awareness of the nonviolent tradition of Gandhi, and a range of other thinkers including socialists and labour activists. But the movement would have gone precisely nowhere without the bedrock of black Christian believers, whose faith was based on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, trust in the miraculous power of God to transform situations, and a very deep knowledge of the Bible. This linking of traditional conservative theology with progressive social action was something new and powerful. Neither personal religion nor political liberalism on their own would have had the same impact.
But put them together and see what happened. On the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, who was aware of threats against his life, gave his last speech, and it included this passage:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
His audience knew that he was speaking with the voice of Moses, who led the Hebrew slaves for forty years through the wilderness. In the last chapter of Deuteronomy, the very end of the Torah, God takes Moses to the top of Mt Pisgah and shows him the promised land, saying I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there. And in the next verse Moses dies, before the conquest of the land begins.
For an audience who had been steeped for generations in the story of Exodus, of being led out of slavery by the mighty arm of God, this was an incredibly powerful comparison. And in view of the murder of Dr King the next day, it sends shivers down the spine.
Where would the Civil Rights movement have been without the Bible? Those who led the battle against segregation of black and white claimed no authority for themselves. They were inspired to speak and act: the Spirit moved them like the prophets whom they quoted. Like Amos: But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And Isaiah, whom we heard this morning:
So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
The words they spoke went to the hearts of their hearers. They made the connection between the written story of God’s people and their own story. In the end, the segregationists, fervent Christians as they were, could not make a case in such language. They could see the moral force of their opponents. They knew the scriptures too, and they were convicted by them.
But it couldn’t happen here and now, could it? I think we are in a desperate situation in 21st century Britain in terms of knowing the Bible. Those who do use it to browbeat the private lives of their fellow citizens or to fight a rearguard action against modern science have put people off it altogether. Of course it’s not just the fundamentalists’ fault. Many of us have simply drifted away to books and ideas that are more immediately accessible and congenial. We are embarrassed by the crudeness of some the Old Testament stories and unwilling to tackle the difficult bits of Paul’s theology. It’s easier just to give up on the whole project.
But at what tremendous cost do we deprive the next generation of even the basic Sunday school knowledge that many middle-aged British people still have. I find nowadays that many adult confirmation candidates have never heard of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. I still remember a young woman in Poplar who asked me with genuine curiosity what happened on Easter morning – she had no idea how the story of Jesus ended. Young adults walk round art galleries in real puzzlement because they don’t know who the baby in the lady’s lap is, let alone what is going on in the lions’ den or at the crossing of the Red Sea. An orator in modern Britain who compared himself to Moses, without even naming him, would leave his audience utterly confused.
So why have we reached this state of general ignorance? Why do so many of us avoid the Bible?
Maybe because we think it will be boring. Those of us who met in the vicarage garden over the summer to read out loud the Song of Solomon and the books of Daniel and Judges could tell you differently. We encountered passages of erotic poetry, tales of carnage, apocalyptic visions, and stirring set pieces like Nebuchadnezzar’s Feast. Shocking it may be, but boring it isn’t.
Maybe because we think it is morally suspect, promoting genocide and slavery and the oppression of women, because we assume we already know what’s in it. But reading the Bible isn’t like reading the daily paper – one quick skim of the headlines and you’ve got the gist. To really know the Bible we need to read it every day, inhabit its worldview, become soaked in its rich language, pray through the difficult parts. The Christian way to read the Bible is to read it prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten us, being honest about the bits we can’t make sense of or can’t accept, and doing all this as part of a community of faith.
That’s why we encourage everyone to read the Bible daily as part of a pattern of prayer, and that’s where this book, Reflections for Daily Prayer, can be a real help. It includes this year inside the front cover a short version of Morning Prayer, so all you need to pray the daily office is this book and a Bible. Or you can get it all on your Kindle!
One other reason to avoid the Bible is a very natural one – we may think that it is a bit dangerous and that it will unsettle our comfortable lives. That’s a very proper fear.
A few years ago I read an extremely entertaining book called The Year of Living Biblically, by a secular Jewish journalist who just wanted an original project. For twelve months he tried to follow every one of the Biblical commandments literally to see what would happen. He did get a very funny book out of it, particularly when he described how he managed to stone an adulterer in Central Park unobtrusively by dropping tiny pebbles on his shoes, and how his wife, after a row, decided to contaminate every chair in their flat by sitting on it so that he couldn’t sit down at all, but the result of the project surprised him and, I would guess, most of his readers. Having engaged with the Bible intensively and talked with lots of people who take it seriously in their lives and their faith communities, he discovered that it had value for him. He began to take his family to synagogue, not to laugh but to learn, and to be part of a religious fellowship.
A few days ago, at Morning Prayer, we kept the commemoration of Henry Martyn, a young translator of the scriptures in India around 1800. When he went to India, he found that the recitation of the Magnificat at Evensong was forbidden in Anglican churches there, lest the natives should take God at his word and seek to put down the mighty from their seats. At least the imperialists recognized the danger of Mary’s words!
People rightly fear the power of the Bible. Taken seriously, it can change the world. Those who never read it think it is full of rules to prevent you enjoying yourself and threats of hellfire for sexual sins. But those who read it day by day by day, who pray with the scriptures on a faithful and regular basis, know that the story it tells is one of generous love and mercy, and also one of passionate concern for the poor. It may console and challenge individuals, but its main thrust is towards the flourishing of human communities. Or as another famous quote from Martin Luther King puts it, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
In the end, the scriptures point us to the one who is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ, who shows us what living in God’s kingdom is like. We have to take that further step into a relationship with him. Jesus said in today’s gospel, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” The written Word is exciting, maddening, difficult, stirring, uplifting, and sometimes completely baffling. But the one to whom it points us is Christ, God among us, who wants to give us life to the full. It is when we receive that life that we flourish as a community of people who have passion for justice and compassion for the poor. Then the Word comes alive in us, through the power of the Spirit.
Incline your ear, and come unto me, says God through the prophet Isaiah: hear, and your soul shall live. What is the Bible saying to us here and now? And are we ready to listen and be transformed?