In which we think about scriptural interpretation

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11A – July 19, 2020 – Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again. “Want to make God laugh? Make a plan!” John Lennon put it this way: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Trained first as a journalist, and much later as a homilist, I cringe in the face of clichés such as these. However, they do contain their truths.

One such truth is this: we cannot control the future. We might crave—and even indulge—the illusion that we can. But it is undeniably just that—an illusion. The best we can do is faithfully adapt to what comes our way. (Although even that is easier said than done.)

The first portion of this morning’s gospel parable captures this truth well.

Jesus begins, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.”

Listen closely to get a sense of the whole arc of this brief story. When the plants begin to grow, the householder recognizes the weeds as the work of the enemy and then decides how best to respond.

“Shall we go and gather the weeds?”

“No. Gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat, too. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

The landowner’s decision is prudent. He cannot afford to sacrifice the wheat. Trying to get the weeds up now would do more harm than good.

Although he is responsible for managing the property, this man couldn’t control the wicked nature of the enemy, but what he could do was adapt to this new set of circumstances.

Perhaps his response gives us a little glimpse of the Kingdom. Think about it. Jesus does not compare the Kingdom to someone with absolute control of the future, or the ability to magically erase the events of the past. He compares it to a person with control only over how calmly and faithfully he responds to present circumstances.

At least, that’s one way to look at it. Matthew gives us another interpretation in the second portion of today’s reading.

“Explain it to us,” the disciples say to Jesus. “We need some help here. What does it mean? Lay it out for us.”

“Oh, yeah, well sure, that’s easy . . . the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one; the enemy is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are burned up, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels; they will collect the sinful ones and throw them into the fire, but the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Makes sense, right? It’s all very straight forward.  

But what if I told you that this second portion of today’s text does not stem directly from the words of Jesus, as does the parable, but is rather the author’s attempt to make sense of Jesus’s words for a particular audience facing a particular set of circumstances?

The interpretation is attributed to Jesus for legitimacy’s sake. But if, as scholars tells us, this attribution is merely a rhetorical technique, then what are we to make of it? Is the interpretation legitimate? Of course! I’m not here to argue with Holy Scripture.

I will, however, suggest that it is not the only legitimate interpretation of the parable. Matthew’s interpretation casts a particular view of the future. Because this particular interpretation is linked to Jesus, it is tempting to hear it as the only sure and certain way to understand this parable, but to do so would be an attempt to control something that we cannot control: the word of God.

Remember, one who embodies Kingdom principles is not one who can control what comes next, but rather one who calmly and faithfully responds to what does come.

As humans, we desire sureness and certainty. We want to have a say in future events. We want to understand exactly what things mean. Certainty brings a sense of security and completeness. Once we have it, we can move on to the next thing. You can’t blame Matthew for writing a neat and tidy explanation of this parable so the reader can learn the lesson and move on.

But to identify a specific interpretation of any passage of scripture as the correct one is to miss the point. We can’t even do that with human knowledge. A poet friend of mine recently wrote of the med school professor who tells his students on the first day of class, “Half of what we teach you here will be wrong. The only trouble is, we don’t know which half.”

Think of human forays into understanding DNA, the effects of DDT, or the mysteries of the human brain. Think of our attempts at space flight, witch trials, or religious inquisition. Eventually we learn that some theories are wrong, or at the very least, that there are others. An expectation of certainty is futile.

Just as sure as we cannot control the future, we cannot control the meaning of God’s word or God’s will, and it’s okay to admit that to ourselves. The point of scriptural interpretation is not to be “certain” of what God wants from us or expects of us. We can’t be.Why else would we pray, as we will this morning, “mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask”?

It is not the duty of the faithful Christian to define the word of God. It is the privilege of the faithful Christian to experience it, respond to it, and return to it time and time again. We read and interpret scripture in order to nurture our relationship with Jesus and to strengthen our ongoing commitment to the faith so that we can expand the Kingdom.

It is not my intent to question the legitimacy of Scripture, or of Jesus. I am merely proposing that there is no single, rock-solid-set-in-stone interpretation for any biblical parable, story, or teaching.

Surely there is an arrogance in the mind of any reader who believes themselves to have a monopoly on the truth. Our perspectives are colored by experiences we’ve had, and none of us has had every experience under heaven.

Nevertheless, we can take comfort in the fact that, while we may not have the capacity for absolute certainty, the steadfast love of God persists. God is always with us, even if we cannot always anticipate, and certainly never predict, how we will experience God.

If we read the Bible over and over and over again, it should not be because we take comfort in knowing precisely what it all means, or exactly how each story ends. It should be because we are continually humbled to participate in the covenant of God’s loyalty.

God’s word is not ours to define for all people in all places. It is not ours to specify or to stipulate. Its meaning is not stagnant or idle. To define it once and for all would be to kill it, to render it impotent in an ever-evolving world. And that’s impossible, because the word of God is alive, sustaining us always with the grace we need to get by.  

Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Lent – April 26, 2020 – Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; Luke 24:13-35 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer (via Zoom)

In today’s gospel, we hear a familiar story once again. Jesus is made known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. Some of you may already be thinking about the fact that we can’t do that today. 

But look at verse 27. Jesus also opens the scriptures to them. We can do that. But rather than stick with the gospel, I think we should look more closely at the psalm. 

It’s fitting to turn to the psalm, I think, because it’s the only piece of scripture that we read this morning that was around back then, when these travelers walked the Emmaus road. Remember, the scriptures referred to here are those of the Hebrew Bible, which we call the “Old Testament” today.

Last Tuesday, at our weekly Bible study, we discussed Psalm 116 with Dr. Becky Wright, of School of Theology fame. 

The psalm certainly has an air of Easter sweetness. It is, of course, not ours alone to claim as Christians. As Becky pointed out, it is one of the “Hallel” psalms. “Hallel” refers to a certain set of praise psalms typically recited by Jewish people on holy days, such as the Passover. 

If we listen closely, we’ll hear why: salvation is at work!  

“I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him. The cords of death entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow. Then I called upon the Name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray you, save my life.”

To get a sense of all that this psalm has to offer, we can, and must, go beneath the surface of our Prayer Book’s translation. As Becky shared with us, the phrase “I love the Lord” in the first verse may be better translated as “I am loyal to the Lord.” The concept of loyalty points beyond mere emotion to a deeper truth: God’s steadfast fidelity to us, his people.  

At a time when “cords of death entangled” him, the psalmist not only prays—he also experiences God’s response to his prayer. God’s response is especially evident in verses four through six, which are among those that the lectionary has us omit this morning. 

“Gracious is the Lord and righteous; our God is full of compassion. The Lord watches over the innocent; I was brought very low, and he helped me. Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has treated you well.”

This psalm is the song of one who has experienced God’s steadfast faithfulness. It makes me think of another song, “Great is thy faithfulness.” 

“Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”

I feel a special kinship with this hymn because its familiar tune was written by William Runyan in Baldwin City, KS, where I attended Baker University. 

But it’s more than a familiar tune. My college chaplain once pointed out that he likes this hymn particularly because it assigns the responsibility of faithfulness exactly where it belongs—to God. 

As Christians, we consider ourselves people of faith, and we often measure ourselves based on our ability to keep the faith. But in this hymn, it is God’s faithfulness of which we sing, not our own. 

It is, as we said more commonly in generations past, “meet and right so to do.” God’s faithfulness makes our faithfulness possible. God has told us from the very beginning, “I will do what I promise.” 

We called to mind some of those promises just a few weeks ago when, during the Easter Vigil, we listened to the stories of God’s saving deeds throughout history as we sat by the soft light of our candles. The story of God’s relationship with humanity is the story of God’s faithfulness to us. 

It is God who created the universe. It is God who set his bow in the clouds as a sign of his everlasting covenant with his people. It is God who renewed that same covenant with Abraham. It is God who led Israel to freedom from bondage through the Red Sea. 

It is God whose breath restored a valley of dry bones. It is God who calls prophets to forecast his new vision for the world. And it is God whose saving work is revealed in the resurrection of his son Jesus Christ.

Each year at the Vigil, we recount the stories of God’s saving acts throughout history as a means of recalling God’s loyalty—God’s faithfulness—to us, as we prepare to revel in our Easter joy. 

And revel in it we do—even today. Yes, we are physically distant, so we cannot break bread. But we gather anyway, to hear what the Spirit is saying to us through the Acts of the Apostles, the First Letter of Peter, the Gospel according to Luke, and, yes, even the words of Psalm 116. 

As I mentioned, it is somewhat ironic that the Easter spirit is particularly evident in the verses that the lectionary leaves out. Listen to verses seven and eight. “For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling. I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.” 

Perhaps there is a lesson for us here, in what is left out. 

We are, after all, a people forced to do without these days. Without hugs and kisses from our grandchildren. Without stopping to chat with a neighbor in the grocery store. Without commencement exercises. Without birthday parties. Without weddings and funerals. 

Without friends popping in for morning coffee, or evening refreshment. Without dinner parties. Without Tea on the Mountain. Without first-Sunday potlucks. Without the breaking of the bread at all. 

Perhaps we should take a moment right now, or this afternoon, or in the coming week, to think about the things that are left out. If we do, I wonder if we might experience what they mean to us in a whole new way. I wonder if we might realize that the grace of God that was present with us then is present with us still. 

I wonder if, when we think on these things, we might, like those early disciples, find our hearts burning within us. If we do, we just might realize that Christ is alive, proof positive that we will never, ever have to go without the faithfulness of God.

Always be . . .

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 20, 2019 – Luke 18:1-8 – Trinity, Winchester

There is a series of internet memes that begin, “Always be yourself…” Maybe you’ve seen them. Perhaps the most popular is “Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.”

It’s not without warrant. Batman is really, really cool. His car is epic, his house is massive, and his butler Alfred cooks all his meals.

We love this meme because it represents innocent, child-like fantasy. Can’t you just picture a kid saying, “I’m Batman!”?

Children have an uncanny ability to imagine that they are someone else. They pretend. They make believe. They take on the role and insert themselves into a story. All it takes is a blanket fashioned as cape and ¡voila! Batman.

Kids don’t just dress up for Halloween, they become whoever they dress up as–sometimes for weeks on end! I’m not going as an astronaut, I am an astronaut. I’m not going as a princess, I am a princess. I’m not going as a pirate, I am a pirate.

We adults can’t get away with that. Perhaps that’s why the meme is so compelling. We long for those care-free days when we had the time and imagination to be somebody else. All we can do now is be our boring ol’ selves.

We must, however, have retained some of this child-like ability because use it whenever we interpret a parable.

We’ll read a parable and stick ourselves right into it. We’ll read a parable and say that we are the prodigal son whenever we wander into sin. We’ll say that we are the sheep, hapless and hopeless on life’s journey. We’ll say we are servants, needful of wise counsel and tough love. And then we’ll say that the talents are our God-given gifts, which we must not hoard but invest boldly in God’s economy. 

We do this for good reason. Parables have layers of meaning. When we encounter something complex, our instinct is often to make it simpler. However, parables are not reducible to simple, easy-to-understand analogies. 

Parables are complex because our lives are complex. Their complexity is a virtue. It is just as impossible to derive a single moral lesson from a parable as it is to apply such a moral to any given life circumstance.

We do not have to be the widow in today’s parable. Nor does her relationship with the judge have to represent our relationship with God.

In fact, it shouldn’t. The judge is unjust. He has little regard for others. But we know God is not unjust. God does not relent to our prayers out of exasperation. God does not grant our desires just to get us off his back.

Likewise, what the widow is requesting of God—justice against an opponent—is not always what we request of God. Our prayers are not merely demands for justice. They certainly might be (and perhaps they sometimes should be) but prayer is more than that.

Prayer can also be a time for giving thanks, asking for guidance, or listening quietly for what God has to say. In just a few minutes we’ll pray, as we do every week, for the mission of the church, the welfare of the world, and the sick, the dying, and the dead.

Many of us have been studying the Bible a long time. We think we know how biblical interpretation works, but sometimes we get so focused on plugging ourselves—and God—into the parables that we forget to listen for what else the Spirit might be calling our attention to.

Taking ourselves out of the story can be helpful because it forces us to ask the more complex questions. If God is not the judge, and I am not the widow, then where is God in this story? And where am I?

I hate to break it to you, but God is not a character in the parable. And neither are you. But that’s okay, because God’s the one telling the parable. And you’re the one who’s listening. We don’t have to insert ourselves—or God—in the story to find meaning in it. We can simply be ourselves and listen with a little help from the Spirit.

I really do know a guy who used to pretend to be Batman. Now that he’s an adult, he no longer runs around with a blanket around his neck. But he can still listen to what Batman’s story has to tell him.

“It might sound silly,” he admitted recently, “But Batman is my biggest role model. He overcame intense childhood trauma, he manages a super successful company, he’s extremely philanthropic, and he puts himself in harm’s way to pursue justice totally anonymously. Plus, he still finds time to work out.” 

Likewise, you can be yourself and listen to what the widow’s story has to tell you. Today that story might inspire you to pursue justice. Or it might inspire you to persist in prayer. Or it might inspire you hire a good lawyer.

This morning I wonder if it also might inspire you to persist in listening for fresh meaning in scripture. 

The Book of Common Prayer tells us that scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. I actually believe that. But there is no one way to interpret what that salvation means. Our approach to it can and should be varied and open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

That’s why we pledge in baptism to commit ourselves to continually reading and studying scripture. Because we can’t get it all the first time. Scripture always has something new to tell us, even if we’re reading a story for what feels like the millionth time.

I’m not ignorant to the fact that many of you come to Bible Study on Tuesday afternoons. Keep it up. Neither am I ignorant to the fact that many of you cannot come to Bible Study on Tuesday afternoons. This is not a guilt trip. 

It’s a reminder. There is a reason that we call Jesus the Word of God. If we listen, we can find him in the words of scripture. Whether it be in the favor of a judge who rarely does the right thing, the persistence of a widow who has nothing to lose, or the deep, deep commitment of the reader, whose faith already dwells secure. 

Easter Sunday 2019

Easter Sunday – April 21, 2019 – Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18 – Trinity, Winchester

Easter is a day on which we typically don’t pay much attention to our scripture readings. Like Christmas, we already know the story. We come wearing bright colors (and maybe dressed a bit nicer than usual) to sing glad hymns and shout “Alleluia!” My job is to remind you to never underestimate the power of scripture, no matter how familiar you may think it is. 

Each of today’s readings gives us a sense of the fullness of the eternal life into which we walk with the Risen Christ, this day and all the days of our lives. 

From the Acts of the Apostles we hear Peter’s brief message of God’s peace in Jesus Christ. Peter tells us that we carry on as witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

From 1 Corinthians we hear Paul working out one of the Church’s first theologies of Jesus’s death and resurrection. “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

Paul tells us that just as we die daily in our sin, we are also continually raised by virtue of the fact that we have been baptized into the life of Christ, who claims ultimate victory over sin and death.

From the Gospel according to John we hear an account of this very morning involving Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. 

I commend to you each of these readings (and the psalm!) for further study. However, this morning I want to focus on this rich gospel account.

It reads to me almost like a game of human pingpong. Back and forth, back and forth. To and from the tomb. Stay with me here…

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. Startled that the stone has been rolled away, she runs away from it. She tells Peter and John, who decide they need to see it for themselves, so they run back toward the tomb. 

They find the tomb empty, as Mary said they would. They see the linen grave clothes lying inside, but there is no body. Then they go, you guessed it, away from the tomb, back to their homes. 

Somewhere in the course of these events (the scripture isn’t clear) Mary makes her way back to the tomb as well. 

All three of these characters have different reactions to what they observe at the tomb. The gospel tells as that, after seeing the grave clothes, John believed Jesus had been raised. That’s remarkable, really. He had no gospel account to clue him in. It was all unfolding right there before his very eyes. 

We’re not quite sure about Peter. Maybe he gets it. Maybe he doesn’t. Perhaps he has some more thinking to do.

Mary, on the other hand, doesn’t get it at all, which is totally understandable. Thinking his body has been carried away, she remains at the tomb to cry and lament the fact that she has lost Jesus, her Lord, for a second time. 

At this point, some of us might be tempted to identify with one of these biblical characters. You know, the sort of thing we do with Mary and Martha when we hear the story of Jesus visiting their home in Bethany. We tend to ask ourselves questions like, which personality is analogous to mine? 

There’s a danger in that, I think. It limits your perspective on the story. In fact, I think we can identify with all three of Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel. 

We are all John. We are all Peter. We are all Mary Magdalene. 

We are John when we see something, and believe it. We are John when all the puzzle pieces finally fall into place. “Oh, I get it now.” We are John when we arrive on Easter morning without one shadow of a doubt that Jesus is risen. 

We are Peter when we are unsure. Sometimes it just takes a little longer to sort this stuff out. I am reminded of a young girl, maybe about four years old, who went to church with her grandmother one Easter morning. Her grandmother explained to her the Easter story, including Jesus’ death on Good Friday. “Then, on Sunday morning,” the grandmother said, “he came back to life!” The little girl glanced up with a look of pure innocence, and said, “Yeah right!”

Finally, we are Mary when our grief overcomes our ability to make sense of eternal life. When someone we love dies, grief often overcomes our senses. We don’t have the ability to perceive what’s right in front of us, even if that something is the presence of God. 

Friends, we are all in different places on our Christian journey at different times, and that’s okay. Even on Easter. Whether you run toward the empty tomb with an open mind, or run away from it in disbelief. Whether you need to take a break and come back later, or if you just need a little more time outside to cry. The good news is, the Risen One is always by your side.

Although you may not always perceive him, he is there waiting to call your name—even when you least expect it—and to give you the confidence you need to run from the tomb one final time proclaiming the living God. 

Amidst the ordinary

Last Sunday after the Epiphany – March 3, 2019 – Luke 9:28-43a – Trinity, Winchester

Listen to this week’s sermon here.

As we leave the season after the Epiphany and head into Lent, it’s good to be reminded that not every experience of the divine is one of sudden revelation. Jesus is always with us, even in the ordinary and mundane circumstances of our lives. Be attentive, and you just might notice him!