(As with the other sermons in this autumn 2006 series from Marsh Chapel, the choir sang immediately prior to the sermon one of the Randall Thompson ‘Frostiana’ pieces—for this Sunday, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening)
What is the Bible about?
You know, it is possible to miss the forest for the trees. Today we look at the full forest.
Stop for a moment, by the woods. East, West, South, and especially due North, here is a natural survey of majestic freedom, symbolic of the Bible—its main theme freedom, and its four compass points of faith, fact, fairness, and future. The Bible is a book about freedom.
God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. The pulpit is freedom’s voice. The church is freedom’s defense. And the Bible is freedom’s book. The Bible is a survey of freedom.
What James Smart decried a generation ago, “The Strange Silence of the Scripture in the Churches”, is true of you as well. All books suffer in a video culture, including the Good Book. You may yourself continue as literate (not one who can read only but one who does), but your grandchildren are stumbling about in other thickets. So if the content of the Bible is ever stranger and more foreign in an increasingly illiterate (not those who cannot read but those who do not) culture, then how much greater is the lack of capacity to interpret the book whose contents themselves are distant relations.
The old levees of biblical understanding have given way to the great flood of video culture, whose hurricane forces have carried in the disease of Biblicism, the destruction of literalism, the rampant looting of Providentialism, the tidal crash of unbiblical bibliolatry. These levees cannot be rebuilt in a New York minute. They have to be painstakingly renewed, sermon by sermon. We are doing some of this today. What kind of book have we given them? In what key is the music of scripture best played? What is the Bible about? From what angle of vision do we best see the Bible?
Stop by the woods. Turn East. We see the Bible with the eyes of faith. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. The righteousness of God is from faith to faith. Abraham had faith and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Yes, we may affirm, the Bible is a survey of faith. Faith is trusting reliance upon God. Says Huston Smith: “we are in good hands and in recognition of that fact it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.” You are committed to a combination of a deep personal faith and an active social involvement. Holiness, personal and social. Ruth had faith to leave. Esther had faith to speak. Eudaia and Synteche had faith to work. Faith is the courage to shake of sleep and worry and get to church on Sunday. Faith is the courage to tote up one’s income and give away 10%. Faith is the courage to keep faith with one’s partners, through thick and thin. Faith is a personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. Yes, the Bible is about faith. We give our children the grammar of faith, the language of faith, the mother tongue of faith, when we give them their Bibles. Whether or not they choose to speak is their decision. Here is Paul’s testimony of this faith: “Do not be anxious about anything but in all things by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
For 2000 years women and men have found faith in the hearing of the Scripture. These are the stories and events that give us the courage to face death with dignity, disappointment with honesty, and failure with a steady hope. In the apocalyptic language of the New Testament, this faith is revealed to us. It comes by inspiration, imagination, invocation. Faith is being grasped, being seized by a love that will not let go. As Karl Barth said, visiting New York City, and asked to state his faith: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
But faith alone, with due respect and apologies to Luther, is not the whole story. In fact, such a reading of the Bible can become the Bible’s undoing. The Bible is not to be memorized, but interpreted. It is not meant only to be repeated, but to be read. It opens its pages best not to faith alone but to faith seeking understanding. In our tradition, the Bible is not the only source of truth, primary though it be. There are many places where the Bible may be theologically though not historically accurate, which leads to another thought.
Stop by the woods. Look South. We understand the Bible with the mind of reason. The Bible is, second, a book of fact. For more than 200 years, generations of scholars have critically studied the 66 books of the Bible. We have learned a great deal about its languages, history, geography. We have seen the four different hands at work in the writing of the books of Moses. The Greek influences on Ecclesiastes we now appreciate. Isaiah’s three different modes we comprehend. Jesus meets us in these wondrous pages, and the few facts of his life of which we are certain we can list, as James Sanders did years ago. We know that Paul probably did not write 2 Thessalonians, any more than he wrote 3 Corinthians, a document from the third century. The Revelation to St John we now understand, if that is the right word, in the context of similar apocalypses from antiquity. The withering inspection and criticism of the Scripture since 1750 have borne fruit. Law, Prophets, Writings, Gospels, Letters, Apocalypse: all six parts of the Bible have factual features. We have searched the Scriptures for 200 years. Here Paul names names: two women, one man, many co-workers. Facts. Earliest Christians. Facts endure. He
re Paul discloses his worldview: time is short, the end is near, the day is at hand, as Dave Brubek would put it: ‘it’s later than you think’. Or, in verse: “The Lord is near”. It is a fact that Paul’s worldview is not our own. But his world is, and that too is a fact.
In fact, the factual limitations of the Scriptures have been the primary learning of this period. The world was not created in 7 days, unless by 7 days you mean 15 billion years. The human being was not made in a day, unless you mean by a day, the emergence out of primordial ooze that began 3 billion years ago, and is still continuing today. The words of Moses and of Jesus are not video recordings of speeches captured by unerring scribes, but are far more—words formed in the community of faith. Most famously, the scientific–religious showdown of the 20th century was captured early on in the Scopes trial of 1925. We remember or misremember the trial largely through the play Inherit the Wind which itself was more theologically than historically accurate. William Jennings Bryant was not the buffoon caricature of that fine play, nor was his enemy Darwinism as much as it was Social Darwinism, nor was the generally insipid cast of old time religion anything like accurate with regard to golden rule Christianity, then or now. Bryant is made to say, “I am more interested in the Rock of Ages than in the ages of rocks”, and is pilloried by the protagonist, Clarence Darrow: “the Bible is a book, a good book, but not the only book”. In the matter of fact, the Bible carries a more limited weight and role in our time.
But science, and its measured facts alone, can only carry a part of the sacred story. As Justice Holmes said, science gives major answers to minor questions. Religion gives minor answers to major questions. Science alone—as wonderful as it is—does not cross the bridge from fact to value, cannot swim the river from flesh to spirit, has not forded the creek from brain to mind, and cannot judge about the things that matter most—love, death, memory, hope, thought, desire, heaven and God. To the one most important question of life, God, science has no response. Because there is no conclusive evidence. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (H Smith). Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…
Stop by the woods. Look West. We hear the Bible with the ears of fairness. The Bible is, third, a hymn to fairness. To justice, equality, the right and the good. In our time, African Americans and others have found again the liberating power of the Hebrew Scriptures, of Exodus and Amos. The suffering masses of Latin America and Asia have returned to, and been nourished by, the abiding picture of God in the Bible, God who has a preferential option for the poor. Most lastingly, the feminist movement has found in the pages of the patriarchal Bible, a warning about justice, justice delayed, and justice denied. The deep rivers of fairness and justice have been diverted to flow over the dry land of prejudice, injustice, and patriarchy. The Bible is a testament, on this view, to fairness. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God? It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. So, the Bible is a resource for liberation movements of many and good kinds, and the record of the churches in peace and justice is improved. Here in Philippians Paul asks for unity and peace. For fairness. He exposes his reliance on the kindness of strangers and the company of women. Paul had great regard for his partners in the Gospel, Eudaia and Syntyche, whatever he may have written elsewhere about liturgical proprieties. “I urge Eudaia and Syntyche to be of the same mind…help these women for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel”. Beside. Not beneath. Not behind. Not before. Beside.
It is difficult to overestimate the crucial significance of this perspective on the Scripture. Real religion is never very far from fairness, from justice. Fairness does not always mean equality, nor justice always similarity. There are varieties of gifts. But the renderings of Moses, the citations of Micah, the meditations on Job, the pictures of Jesus, the readings of Paul and even the explorations of the Apocalypse which in our time have focused on fairness, and justice, have a penultimate power. “The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, said Martin Luther King. None of us fully ever deconstructs our own background, our own culture. We need, however, the whiter and maler and straighter especially that we are, to acknowledge our own privileges. The sense of limitation and injustice to which the Biblical measure of fairness responds is the gift of our time to the unforeseen future. Still, fairness alone is not the full Bible.
Will we see the Bible in our time, in full, through these lenses of faith, fact, and fairness? No, important and good as these views are, they are not the heart of the matter. They are not the heart of the Bible nor the heart of the church nor the heart of the matter. They are good, but not the final good. You will sense in them the predominant views of the Bible to date—pre-modern, modern, post-modern, or, traditional, scientific and liberal. Faith: the traditional view. Fact: the scientific view. Fairness: the liberal view. Let me show you a still more excellent way….
Stop by the woods. Look North. Follow the drinking gourd. The Bible is preeminently more than faith alone, fact preserved, or fairness defended. The Bible is a survey of freedom, divine and human. In a word, the Bible is a book about freedom. God’s freeing love, and our freedom in love. God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. God’s way with us is loving and free, free and loving. You cannot coerce another into freedom, and you cannot frighten another into love. BUT NOTE THIS WELL: this freedom is mostly known as hope—hope for this earth and hope for eternal life, the future of freedom promised today.
Strangely, then, the Bible is fully and precisely the word we need in our emerging 21st century.
This is the heart of what Paul writes to the Philippians. Yes, with pre-modernity, his words celebrate faith. Yes, with modernity his words carry fact. Yes, with post-modernity, his words seek fairness. But if that is all you have heard, you have missed the marrow of his meaning. Paul is s
inging here, a song of freedom. With the best insights in all of Scripture, these words of his carry us out into the open space of God’s future. Rejoice always…no anxiety about anything…whatsoever things are true…the Lord is near…Here is the radiance of resurrection, the freedom for which Christ has set us free. To the word of faith, Paul will say, yes, but work out your own salvation in fear and trembling. To the word of fact Paul will say, yes, but who hopes for what he sees. To the word of fairness, Paul will say, yes, but I know how to be abased and how to abound. The Bible is more than a source of inspiration, or of information or of insurrection. It is all those. But it is more. It is hope for the future! It is a survey of freedom, real freedom, the freedom from love and the freedom to love. The future holds an indestructible promise of freedom—of peace and joy in this life and of everlasting peace and joy in the life to come.
It has the shocking temerity to recall for us our utter dependence on God and one another, our utter similarity before the cross, before death, before God. Personal faith, yes. Factual understanding, yes. The struggle for fairness, yes. But there is more. Our age has the chance to interpret the Bible in full, as a survey of freedom, divine and human. It is this shared gift of freedom that will deliver us from the evil of this age. We are free, and in the hands of the God of freedom. All of us. The same. In our time, we need, desperately need, to reclaim our religious commonality. Across this small planet, we are all more alike than we are different. And spare us, please, as Freud said, “the petty narcissism of small differences”.
We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.
We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.
We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.
We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.
We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.
We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.
Ringing out—it is unmistakable in this text and on this morning and within this sanctuary—from the heart of the Bible is a transcendent hope of a future freedom, on earth as it is in heaven, but not for all that lacking in heaven. The transcendent beauty of this nave, the transcendent glory of this sanctuary, the transcendent loveliness of this music, the transcendent history of this congregation, the transcendent height of pulpit and depth of prayer here, hold a future freedom that will endure well beyond the days that all the bongo drums are in garage sales, and all the horizontal worship spaces have been reconverted to Wal-Mart’s.
This hope is for earth and for heaven. For a day when the lion will lay down with the lamb, and lamb will be able to sleep. Asbury First, this year, in a time of change, we truly need the Bible’s perspective, its survey of freedom. We need its steady affirmation of faith, to steady us when we are anxious. We need its craggy collections of facts, when we might be tempted to avoid the harder facts. We need its preference for fairness, when we might be happier to take an easier, less far route. It will take faith, fact, fairness and more for us to prevail in this year. And more. We have no words really with which to name this. But the survey of freedom that is the Bible rests on resurrection. On a reliable future. You sing your courage and confidence:
And thou our sister gentle death
Waiting to hush our latest breath
Thou leadest home the child of God
And Christ our Lord the way has trod
O praise ye
O praise ye
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Howard Thurman could have spent his whole ministry absorbed in the inherited expressions of faith. He chose to move forward instead. He could have spent his whole ministry engaged in the science of history and psychology. He looked farther out. He could have spent his whole ministry upon the vital issue of racial justice. He saw a farther horizon. He saw, knew, felt, and heard the Bible as a survey of freedom. One night he spent walking the beach, wading in the surf, and listening to the stars above in a cloudless canopy. He wrote,