Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nevertheless and Always (or, What's the Bible All About?)







A young man receives a letter, perhaps the final letter, from someone he loves who is soon likely to die, a mentor who has nurtured and supported him through the years.  He is struggling in a new ministry in a difficult time, and the letter is a gift.  It encourages him to continue in the face of hardship, to pursue, to trust God in the middle of it, to remember and live like those he loves who have gone before and shown him what faith means, (along with lots of more directed instructions on how to live together as the church).

A young man gets a letter.  And in the letter, this older teacher reminds him that one thing that helps him to live into the truth that in Christ we are saved and freed and sent to the world – is scripture.  Scripture that the mentor says is able to strengthen his faith in Christ, scripture that is inspired by God – God breathed
And the letter is delivered into his young friend’s hands, filled with love and prayers and hope for the young man, the budding evangelist and teacher, as he witnesses the story of his life, and this community of lives, unfolding in God.

The scripture our letter writer is referring to, of course, is the work of the prophets, and the stories of Israel’s covenant relationship with God, God’s enduring faithfulness despite Israel’s unfaithfulness.  Spoken stories passed through generations, scrolls taught in the synagogue, promises shared around the dinner table and the fire late at night.  It is the words of the Psalmists - songs of praise and anguishing tomes of despair and grief, and expressions of great joy and gratitude. It is proverbs of wisdom, life lessons in line and meter, it is love poetry and character dramas and differing accounts of similar events throughout the time of the kings that highlight different aspects of the human experience and of God’s relentless devotion to God’s people.  A revealing scrapbook of stories and glimpses of life of those gone before, it is poems and lists and yearning and confidence put down in words and picked up later as true and authoritative testimonies to God. 
This is the scripture that our letter writer commends to our doubting and fragile follower.  This is the scripture that he says will help him to learn and to teach, will keep him grounded in Jesus Christ, and quite astonishingly, even reveal Christ to him, even though almost nothing has yet been written about Jesus, and certainly nothing that he is referring to. 

He doesn’t mail his young friend a bible.  There is no bible yet.  Instead his letter itself ends up in the bible that ends up in our hands as we struggle through our own versions of doubt and belief, of fear and faith, of following in the footsteps of our ancestors in the faith, and practicing the faith in community, carrying on the tradition which at times carries us when we aren’t sure what to do or how to believe.  This letter ends up being for us just what it speaks about, God-breathed, inspired, useful for teaching and guidance, helpful to keep us grounded. 

But our writer didn’t know that, couldn’t know that. But the magnificence of the Bible, our sacred writings, our scripture as Christians is its mosaic of little stories of people’s live and faith that make up one big story about God.

It begins in the beginning ‘In the beginning…” Genesis says, “God created.”  The first words about God and most frequent depiction of God throughout the bible, one who created, who creates, who is creative.  So in the very beginning with God’s creative force, it begins.  
And this book, this remarkable collection of books that is at the same time one book, ends in the very end. Revelation gives us drama, allegory and cryptic and colorful storytelling that speaks of the end that is to come – when God will be our God and we will live as God’s people, and God will wipe every tear from every eye and suffering and pain will be no more, when all wrongs will be made right and the creativity that spun the world into being will pull it into it’s complete and glorious culmination. So the end of this book we call the bible is the end of the Story, capital S.
 
And in between its pages are stories, small s, so many lives unfolding, so many varied characters – kings and queens and peasants and prophets, shepherds and squires and slaves and children, thieves and soldiers, priests and lawyers, strangers and families.  As Buechner says, “men and women of very possible sort, heroes and scoundrals and some, like ourselves, who from time to time manage to be something of both.”[1]  And here in this book we watch them wrestle with meaning, and life, and what it means to live.  

This is the startling beauty of the bible, that as God breathed life into humanity their stories are breathed into as well, and this creative God creates and restores them, and us - because if it begins at the very beginning and ends at the very end, then we find ourselves, our own stories, somewhere between the very beginning and the very end as well. We are in the middle between Genesis and Revelation[2] with all of these other people of faith and fear… we are right alongside the letter writer and its young recipient.

Scripture is remarkably candid: filled with messy humanity, paradoxes and the frustrations, something to offend almost everyone, God’s enduring and comforting presence, and horrifying absence at times. But the many many ways people talk about their faith, live their faith, seek to understand their faith that have been collected here as a way to help us talk about our faith, live our faith, and seek to understand our faith.  It shows us both favorable and unfavorable times, in season and out of season times, when people both succeeded and failed at this life of faith and still God’s grace and mercy prevailed. 

Contradiction and paradox, by the way, are this book’s great forte.  This book screams the great “nevertheless!” into our world.  The bible is full of stories where winners and losers write the history differently and both versions are included, where people amend and change other people’s stories, and translate and transcribe and rearrange, where questions are more important than answers and specific instructions for specific situations get canonized for all time, and it’s cut and pasted together over long spans of time and argued over and compiled - it is all these things and nevertheless it is the very word of God, God-breathed!

We ourselves are filled with inconsistency and ambiguity, we’re forever hurting one another without even trying, and we’re always changing and adapting and repeating old mistakes, and we join right on in the world’s workings where even with enough for all, people go hungry, and nevertheless God chooses us to be a blessing to the world.

Scripture witnesses to the birth and life of a poor peasant man, nothing much to look at who lived to his mid thirties and was executed as a common criminal who nevertheless is the very Lord and Creator of all.  
Because as God’s Story, as God’s word, it is, in the end (and the beginning) the word about Christ Jesus, the WORD of God. It is the many different angled glimpses at the actions of God incarnate, the Creator with us and for us, as he walked and spoke and healed and lived, here among us, to redeem us. God made known, revealed in its pages in flesh and blood just like our own flesh and blood. The very word that spoke the world into being now speaks to us through the broken witness of those gone before, through this ordinary and extraordinary book filled with contradictions and difficulties, just like life, just like us! 

The bible is a testimony, many, many testimonies of God’s creative faithfulness in people’s lives.  And each one of us has our own. Each one of us could share, in poems or words of wisdom, or narratives, or parables or paint or sewing or music or building or baking or caring for children or parents, or whatever way we create and communicate in the world, we could, and do, share our own testimony to God’s faithfulness in our lives.  We have a story that is part of this story.  And sometimes we can’t see our own story, but others can. 
Faith is believing, and doubting and ultimately trusting, that God is at work - when we see it and when we don’t. Nevertheless and always, God is at work.  We have this promise in the person of Jesus Christ.

So here is what our letter writer wants to impart to his protégé.  First: faith, and life, are found in Jesus Christ the person, God with us, who has come to share our place and defeat the power of death.   
The second thing is that we now live that reality, and we do not live it alone. We live it with others, we read scripture with others, we build community with others, we struggle and celebrate with others, we rejoice and we weep with others, and in that way we actually encounter Christ Jesus, who is here, with us as we are here with each other- the Body of Christ alive in the world. 

And then he says that we do this together connected to each other and learning from the faith of those gone before. This isn’t about some kind of right belief, this is about how you live your life.  And really, it is about how WE live our LIFE, because it is never alone, never merely internal, or mental, it is always physical, actual, real and shared. 

And finally, he points him to scripture, a precious gift.

But sometimes, when we come to this book we get afraid, because it doesn’t feel much like a gift. We forgot that it isn’t, and never was, about how much we know or understand or remember about what is inside of it, or even how well and consistently we believe in any of it.  
It is always first and foremost about the grace of God in Christ Jesus that claims us before we have a chance to know or believe anything, long after we’ve stopped really knowing or remembering anything, through all the times in between when for whatever reason we’ve stop believing.  This is what it is really about. 
 
We forget that faith itself is a gift and we get to nurture it, that life is a chance to participate in this story, that in fact, and quite amazingly, our lives already do, because God is still creating and recreating.  We could scarcely fathom that people look at us and see the faithfulness that strengthens their own faith, but they do. Or that one day someone might read a letter you’ve written to a young grandchild or godchild or son or daughter and this letter would give them strength and guidance and teach and ground them in the same way our letter of long ago does for us, in the way the faith of Timothy’s mother and grandmother did for him as this letter points to.

So relax. We’re in this faith thing together.  And we’re going to read the bible together. We are going to talk about it and not duck out at the hard parts. We are going to wrestle with it and let it mess with us. 
We are going to struggle together with what it means that this is God-breathed by the Creator who is still creating and creating and creative, and we’ll point out together where we see the breath of God and the creativity of God speaking the world and through our very own lives, our very own stories that are nestled within God’s Story. 
We are going to assume that by doing this our faith will be strengthened, and by that I mean we will follow Jesus more consciously, we will share in God’s healing more generously.  We will be less susceptible to the lies and myths of our own world and time – which are different and yet similar to those of every world and time – recognizing and resisting together the tendency towards independence and isolation, judgment and ingratitude, apathy and anger, and the eternally human habit of listening only to those who are saying what we want to hear.  
Instead we will trust that it will nurture in us strengthening resolve to give, share, pray and to notice God at work in the world and join where we see the breath and spirit moving, stirring, transforming. 

We are going to read the bible together and it will help us remember to remind each other that the end is one day coming, that we are part of a story that is always creatively moving forward.  It will help us live in the hope of a day when justice and peace and love prevail. 
We are going to find times and places to support each other and ground each other in the truth of our salvation in Jesus Christ, in the truth that this great big messed up world actually belongs to God who is subtly and boldly weaving all things towards redemption in his backwards, inside out way, that brings life out of death and hope from despair and creates anew and anew.

And we are going to remember, because we read together, that this is our story, and not so much that we claim it, though we do, unabashedly and sometimes with uncertainty, but that this story is our story because it claims us. Because it has a hold on our lives and we are in it.
And as we do this, may we begin to find, like the Psalmist, that it tastes like honey in our mouth, and may we revel in what a gift it truly is. 





[1] This quote is from a wonderful article entitled, “The Good Book as a Good Book” in Secrets in the Dark: A life in sermons.
[2] I am indebebted to David Lose for this concept

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