Delivered to the United Church of Jaffrey
February 5th, 2017
Readings: 1st Corinthians 2:1-8 | Matthew 5:13-20
Preaching can be a tricky business.
This morning’s scripture reading reminds me of the low point in my life as a preacher.
It wasn’t my first time preaching – but I was still pretty green. I’d been wrestling with a particularly difficult passage from the scripture, when I proclaimed the fateful words:
I am the kind of pastor (I said) who thinks that the Bible is the work of human hands.
No sooner had the words “human hands” escaped my mouth, then I heard an unusual sound.
Bump, bump, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle bump.
Looking out from my perch, up in the pulpit, I saw the source of the sound.
The bumping and shuffling was being made by a woman who was in the act of walking out.
Apparently she did not agree with my attitude about the Bible.
I suppose I was not her kind of pastor.
The experience was a bit of a shock.
I was not angry.
More than anything I was upset that I had upset someone.
I don’t like being the source of such unhappiness.
I like to imagine that I am eloquent enough to talk my way out of such misunderstandings, but this, clearly, was not the case…
…and it was about time I learned it.
If I was at fault, I discovered, after quite a bit of conversation with my mentors, it was that I had been too glib.
No matter what one’s beliefs about the Bible – whether one believes it to be the inspired work of God, or the result of generations of oral history – one must not treat it lightly.
What kind of pastor I was was not the point!
I thought a lot about all this.
I did not change my mind about how I think the Bible came into being.
But I did change my mind about the Bible.
Now I approach it with a great deal more care.
I approach it with more humility.
No doubt you have noticed that I pray before I preach.
The prayer is a variation on the final verse of Psalm 19 which reads as follows:
May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to Thee, O Lord,
my rock and my redeemer.
This prayer is important to me.
I pray that the soul searching that I have done is acceptable to God
– so it is a prayer of humility.
The pulpit, I learned, is not a place to show off.
It is a place of humility.
And another thing.
When I pray, I follow my teacher and mentor Tom Troeger, who shifted the words of the psalm to include everyone in the congregation, so that instead of praying about the meditations of my heart, I pray that the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable to God.
Doing this, I accept a serious responsibility.
I accept the responsibility that, in this church, since I am speaking from the pulpit, it is my soul searching that is nourishing the meditations of all of your hearts. You have asked me to open the doors that lead to the truth that God offers us.
This is an awesome responsibility…
A responsibility that I am keenly aware of.
A responsibility that I am honored by.
A responsibility that keeps me humble.
But, of course, when it comes down to it, I am really only a small part of what brings all of you to God.
Thankfully, you do not depend on the unmoored wonderings of my imagination, as you seek God.
When I speak to you, I speak to you about Jesus Christ – the person whose life, we believe, gives us some small knowledge of God.
When I speak to you, I speak to you using the Gospel – the story of Jesus Christ.
And through these winding, sometimes peculiar, and endlessly surprising paths – our hearts turn to deep considerations of
what it means to be human,
what it means to love God
what it means to be just
And how to grow.
I hope that, with these words, I have impressed upon you of my deep appreciation of the importance of the gospel.
I think the gospel is gospel.
Stick the word “gospel” in front of the word “truth” and you get something that is undeniably true.
The gospel truth.
I’ll go along with this.
But in spite of being walked out on, I still maintain that gospel truth is not the truth of fact.
It is not the truth of law.
The Gospel, DOES arrive at a real and powerful truth – I affirm this.
But I suggest that the gospel arrives at this truth by way of description, not prescription.
Prescription is important. Laws prescribe. Doctor’s prescribe. Sometimes we must follow prescriptions.
But in its essence, I do not think religion speaks the language of prescription.
In its essence, I believe that religion uses the language of description to arrive at truth.
“That’s nice,” says the woman who got up walked out on me, “but have you considered this morning’s lesson from the fifth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew?”
In this passage, Jesus says:
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
“…not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law…”
Jesus, here, seems to favor a prescriptive understanding of religion.
Follow the commandments and the laws of the Jewish prophets precisely to the letter and you shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
The battle lines fall into place around passages like this one.
People who read the Bible literally point to this verse as proof that their way of reading the Bible is proper.
God gave us the laws and the prophets
And Jesus told us to obey them.
And that, as the saying goes, is that.
On the other side, People who insist that the Bible grew out of the history of the Jewish people will point out that the gospel of Matthew, where this passage appears, is obsessed with the idea that Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, and so this statement that “…not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law…” was motivated more by Matthew’s interest than Jesus.’
But this is not a lecture, and I am not concerned with the gospel as a source of fact.
This is a sermon, and I am interested in the Bible as a description of truth.
And with that, I would like to respectfully invite that woman who walked out on me all those years ago, to come back into the sanctuary.
Perhaps you have something further to say to me, this morning? If so, let’s talk. My office door is open to anyone.
Perhaps we can start by setting aside the question of whether the Bible was written by God or humans.
Even if I proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that humans wrote the Bible, you will say that God made humans.
This question can never be satisfactorily resolved.
So, how about we concern ourselves, instead, with how the Bible brings us to God.
You walked out on me, I think, because you think God prescribes truth through Biblical revelation.
I prefer the descriptive path to Biblical truth.
I think religion means more to us when it is the source of questions rather than answers.
I think religion involves mystery, and mystery does not give answers, it asks questions.
Description is never ending. Prescription resolves. Description uses commas. Prescription uses periods.
In religious speculation, a descriptive approach to truth does not allow the impossibility of the task get in the way.
In religious speculation prescription inevitably fails, since God defies definition.
God defies definition
But God does not defy description.
The Bible describes God.
And so do we.
We describe God when we feed the hungry.
We describe God when we visit the prisoner.
We describe God when we love our neighbor.
We describe God when we welcome the stranger.
To define God, is to limit God.
To describe God is to free God into our midst.
To define God is to place God in the past.
To describe God is to bring God into our hearts.
And when we do this, we grow.
Describing God, our heart’s grow.
Our spirits grow.
Our love grows….