When reflecting on the lectionary readings for this morning’s service, I inevitably retraced some of my own footsteps. It was inevitable because many of these verses have significance and a history for me. I am officially in my final semester of seminary, and I’ve learned some very important things in this journey. Things about myself and about others, things about “the church” and denominations, cultures and sub cultures. Most importantly I have learned that everything, everything, everything has a context.
To say it another way, here’s an old joke, “A hunter shot his birddog because it wouldn’t fly…context is everything.” Some of you see what I did there, some of you know that a birddog isn’t a flying dog, it’s a dog that hunts birds but to someone who might not know better you might think that a birddog flies. Everything has a context, a story behind the story, within the story, inside and outside of the story and scripture, each book was written by specific authors in specific time periods directed towards specific people.
I’m going to be honest with you, I lost my faith halfway through seminary. I wondered even up until just months ago, if I was in fact atheist and living a lie by calling myself a person of faith. I say lost my faith but I think now, given further reflection, misplaced my faith, would be a better way to conceptualize it.
You see, as most of you know, or hopefully know by now, I came of age in a Baptist tradition and while that can mean many different things to many people, including a biblical basis for living, a striving for personal integrity and purity, an emphasis on the atoning sacrificial love of Christ, what it mostly meant for me when viewing scripture was that I, as several of my sisters and brothers in Christ did, within said tradition, would be to read scripture and we would all inevitably ask ourselves, “What is God saying to me in this scripture, right now?” I feel that in some ways that approach was lacking. Please don’t misunderstand me, I do feel it has been a valuable tradition that many in the church have done through the centuries. In fact, your own Lutheran tradition is steeped in a process known as lectio divina. Lectio Divina as some of you might know is a Benedictine process, first practiced by monks and nuns, it is the process of prayerfully reading the bible.
I encourage you all to do this. However, I also encourage you, to do this together. If I have learned anything from the Quaker tradition it is the power of a faithful community prayerfully engaging scripture and insights from a variety of sources. In my former Baptist church home and my former Church of Christ church home, the consideration of the wisdom of those gathered, such a key thing wasn’t always considered, and I believe all who study scripture and seek to follow God must open themselves up in this way. If we are all created in God’s image, then all of our insights are needed to fully grasp at the Divine. Not only must we seek to ask, what is God inspiring in me when I read this today but also what was it meant to inspire to it’s original audience and also, who was it’s original audience?
The temptation when reading the words of the Prophets, Isaiah (as we do today in Isaiah 58), David (as we do today in Psalm 112) or Jesus (as we do today in Matthew 5)can be to see these messages as prophetic and only for us. I would propose that this is partly true but we also know that there is more to the story. Our brothers and sisters at Mbaga Lutheran Church and people in several other countries will wrestle with these scripture passages at some point in their journey. Maybe even Outi…Who is Outi? Well, she sent me this postcard via an internet site called postcrossing.com where members around the world exchange postcards. Outi is a 56 year old woman from Finland who informed me she is Evangelical Lutheran, little did she know who’s hands this postcard would land in.
Yes, scripture does have a message for those of us who consider ourselves followers of God. Wherever we are, Africa, Finland, America or any other country. However, I think there is a richer way to view scripture. I would propose that we would view scripture like poetry. I say this as the highest form of praise and compliment. I am one who has for over ¾ of my life, I have crafted songs, poems and stories as a means of expressing and wrestling with my connection to the Divine and other humans. I am completely aware that not only does God’s Spirit inspire, during the creation of art but also God’s Spirit is present and leaps off of pages, off of canvases, out of instruments and voices and into our hearts. In this way, scripture is art.
Art is valuable, art is meaningful, art inspires us. Why shouldn’t we be inspired by the masterpiece that is scripture? In Isaiah 58 we read, “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you are naked, to cover them, and not hide yourself from your own kin? Then, then your light shall break forth like the dawn; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard…If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness…the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong, you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail…You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets.”
Inspired yet? Could we be the repairer of the breach, restorer of the streets? Do we care? Yes, I think we do, if not we wouldn’t be discussing Heifer International and the ways in which we might be able to financially help our brothers and sisters across the globe not just survive but thrive. Want some more inspiration, more poetry? Then ponder Psalm 112, which tells us, “They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright…they have distributed freely, they have given to the poor.” Jesus within his lifetime saw the withering, sickness and lacking in his time period, the widows, orphans and poor, he urged those that would follow him, as we read in Matthew 5, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I believe Heaven and Hell are both available today. I have said this in previous sermons. I believe God’s Spirit and inspiration is available to all who seek it. I echo the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians, “I didn’t come proclaiming the mystery of God in lofty words or wisdom…my speech and proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom but with a demonstration of Spirit and Power…we speak God’s wisdom, we speak of things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.” May God’s Holy Words and Spirit, a work of art, reflected in and through scripture, always inspire you to plead the cause, to seek justice where there is injustice for the marginalized, oppressed and victimized in your local community and your world and may you, in exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees, enter into heaven on Earth as you take up God’s work, as you repair the breach and restore the streets and make God’s light known in the darkness.
Edit: I realize now years later that many were faithfully wrestling with and allowing other voices to rise in regards to interpretation of scripture in the Baptist church I am referencing. That being said, at this time, in my opinion, there are still those who walk in a faith that is synonymous with narrowminded and/or outdated interpretations of scripture. I share this in hopes of allowing for a dialogue.
Thank You For Reading 🙂
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^pril (Barnhart MDiv)