What’s Missing in the Christmas Pageant

A sermon by the Rev. Teri Daily…

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, a day the Church celebrates each year on January 6th (which happens to fall on a Sunday this year). The word “epiphany” means “appearance,” “revelation,” or “divine manifestation.” In Eastern Orthodox churches, the focus at Epiphany is the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God that takes place at his baptism in the Jordan River.  In the Western tradition, though, the Feast of Epiphany became associated with the story of the magi or wise men, the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. And so our gospel reading today comes from the second chapter of Matthew.

We so often associate this story of the wise men from the East with Christmas pageants, with three youth wearing crowns and dressed in bright, shiny strips of cloth. Of course, true to the biblical story they each carry a gift – creative replicas of gold (which, according to tradition, represents Jesus’ royalty), frankincense (an incense used in religious services and so symbolic of Jesus’ divine nature), and myrrh (a fragrance used in burial rituals and so thought to represent Jesus’ mortality). In Christmas pageants, the three wise people walk down the aisle with lots of pomp and circumstance, kneel in front of the baby Jesus, and then leave amid smiles and good feelings. It’s all fitting for a Christmas pageant. But it’s not an entirely accurate portrayal.

If we take a closer look at the second chapter of Matthew, we see that: (1) nowhere does Matthew tell us that there are three people who come from the East (we assume that there were three people because Matthew tells us of three gifts), (2)  nowhere in the biblical translation that we read does Matthew say that these three wise people from the East are kings (scholars have suggested that these men may be astrologers, or Gentiles influenced by Jews who remained in the East after the Babylonian exile[1], or even Zoroastrian priests – after all, Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions and has its origins in Iran)[2], (3) nowhere does Matthew say that Jesus was still an infant when the magi arrived (the fact that Herod later issues the command to kill all babies two years of age and under means that Jesus could have been as old as two when the magi arrived, and Matthew speaks of them arriving at the house where Jesus was and not a stable), and (4) nowhere does Matthew speak of the Magi’s journey as peaceful or

Instead, we see a story full of risk, darkness, greed, and ultimately infanticide – all things that would be absolutely inappropriate to act out in a Christmas pageant, all things that stem from fear. Fear of what?

Well, east is the direction from which many of Israel’s conquerors have come – Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. And so it’s been suggested that, perhaps, uninvited strangers from the East brought up memories of oppression and exile and that this caused fear in Herod and the people. But that wouldn’t have to be the case. That people of prominence might come from the East and bow in the presence of a babe born in Bethlehem could actually have been seen as a great reversal of the past, and that these people would come and bring gifts with them could have been seen as the fulfillment of the prophecy in today’s passage from Isaiah – “nations shall come to your light,” “the wealth of the nations shall come to you,” and “they shall bring gold and frankincense.” The people of Israel could have celebrated this reversal of power and the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy, but that is not what happens.

Before going to see the new king that has been born, the wise men must get some information from the religious establishment of Israel. After all, the visitors from the East know the timing of the birth of the king of the Jews, but it’s the chief priests and scribes – those who hold the tradition and scripture of Israel – who know the place where the Messiah is born. When the wise men ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Matthew tells us that King Herod “and all of Jerusalem with him” were frightened. It’s not the visitors from the East that scared them; they were frightened by this child born in Bethlehem. And it wasn’t just Herod who was scared; it was the whole town – all the people. Why?

Well, the wise men seek Christ, but it’s been said that “the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power.”[3] With the arrival of the magi searching for the Christ child, Herod knows that the world is changing. Power is shifting. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that the wise men went to Jerusalem, the logical place to look for the king of the Jews. They only missed the location of the Christ child by nine miles, but the difference might have seemed more like a thousand. It was the difference between finding God in the powerful halls of the palace in Jerusalem and finding God in a smelly, animal-filled stable in Bethlehem. In choosing to be born in Bethlehem, Brueggemann writes, God reveals that kingdom of God “is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares.”[4] Yes, with the arrival of the kingdom of God, power is shifting. The whole definition of power is shifting. That is sure to scare King Herod; after all, he has cast his lot with the Roman Empire. It is also sure to scare other people in Jerusalem who have aligned themselves politically with the coercive power of Rome.

Sitting here today, the Roman Empire seems a world away. But it isn’t. It’s as close as nine miles, maybe as close as next door, or even as close as the next choice we make. I can’t help but think about the times that we choose empire over the living Christ – times we rest comfortably in a sinful status quo instead of upending it, times when we live from a place of scarcity instead of believing in the abundance of the kingdom of heaven, times when the arrival of strangers from a foreign land reveals that our hearts are more fearful than welcoming. Empire is alive and well in our world today.

But as there should be in every sermon, even here there is good news – there is gospel. If God came into the world in first century Palestine – a time of domination and oppression and false peace, then God certainly comes to be present with us today. That’s what the season of Epiphany is about at its core – the presence of God being revealed to us in the most unlikely places, at the most unlikely times, in the most unlikely ways, even in the most fearful of hearts. We never know when and where an epiphany will take place. And once we do come face to face with that revelation, with Jesus, everything begins to change. We can’t help but leave the encounter a different person, to (in a sense) go home by another way.

I’d like to share with you a poem by Madeleine L’Engle called “First Coming”:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice![5]

 

 

 

[1] Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds for January 6, 2019,” United Church of Christ website, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_6_2019.

[2] Niveen Sarris, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12,” Working Preacher website, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_6_2019.

[3] David Lose, “The ‘Adults-Only Nativity Story,” Working Preacher website, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509.

[4] William Bueggemann, as quoted in San Williams, “The Geography of Christmas,” University Presbyterian Church website, https://upcaustin.org/sermons/the-geography-of-christmas.

[5] Madeleine L’Engle, “First Coming” in The Ordering of Love (Colorado Springs: Shaw Books, 2005) 242.

Gifts Flowing through Us, or the Sponge Model of Discipleship

A sermon on James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23…

Something in us loves to root for the underdog.  Whether it’s cheering for Rocky Balboa to knock out Apollo Creed, or pulling for Scrappy Doo to defeat cartoon criminals, we like to see the person in the shadows have at least one moment of fame.  Take the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team.  Few events have captured the attention and imagination of our country as did the US hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union in the medal round of the Olympics.  The US team went on to win the gold medal.  And thanks to movies, books, and frequent replays, it’s a moment that lives in infamy.  The triumph of the misunderstood or ill-equipped or least suspected character happens all the time in literature as well, from Harlequin Romances to Jane Austen to Jane Eyre to Harry Potter.  When the less likely contender takes home the prize, we tend to feel a sense of satisfaction.  And, frankly, maybe that’s why I find myself drawn to the Epistle of James. 

We’re not completely sure who wrote the book of James—there are several different James mentioned in the Bible. And the salutation of this epistle describes James simply as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  But many scholars believe the James referred to here is Jesus’ brother— and there’s nothing like being the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ to make you feel a little overshadowed by a sibling; being the middle child pales in comparison to what that must have been like.  But not only was James perhaps a little overshadowed, but the book that bears his name has been as well.  Whether this letter was written by James or by a community or author using his name, the book of James has been short-shifted and misunderstood in the scheme of New Testament letters.  And since we’ll be reading from James for the next few Sundays, I think it’s important to talk for a moment about what has given rise to the misunderstandings that surround this book. 

The Reformer Martin Luther referred to the letter of James as “an epistle of straw compared to [St. Paul’s letters].”  For Luther, James’ emphasis on doing good works threatened to slide back into a “works righteousness” theology—Luther was afraid that good works would be seen as the way to salvation, instead of faith.  And unfortunately, many since Luther’s time have read James in the same way, too, causing it to be relegated to the second tier in the epistle hierarchy.  But, rooting as always for the underdog, I think James has actually gotten a bad rap.  

For James, doing good works is not about adhering to the letter of the law in a blind way, and it isn’t a way to obtain riches or favor.  Instead, being a “doer of the word” is about participating in the divine economy of gift.  God is seen here not as a punitive lawgiver, but as the one from whom all good things come.  God is the giver of gifts.  And because God is continually giving us good things, the logic goes that we should then be able to give to those around us as well—whether that’s giving our love, our patience, our kindness, our food, or our money.   

I call this the sponge model of discipleship.  Sponges don’t have circulatory or digestive systems to move nutrients through them.  They are dependent on the constant flow of water through their body to give them life.  In the same way, when we give to the world, it’s not from our own resources, but from the gifts we have ourselves received.  James doesn’t see the world as a closed system of resources and need, but as dependent at every moment on the generosity of God.  And for James, it’s precisely because God is gift-giver and not merely lawmaker that we’re also able to give, to orphans and widows (as our passage commands) and to others in need as well.  We are in a sense a conduit. 

In all fairness, though, God was never seen by Israel as strictly a lawgiver.  According to Deuteronomy, the commandments given to Israel were a way to show the closeness of God to the people of Israel.  It was about relationship, not blind obedience.  And that’s the point in our gospel reading as well.  Jesus wasn’t saying that following Jewish law was wrong or unimportant, just that our hands can’t be separated from our hearts.  The problem is that it’s all too easy for us to make what we do about rules, and to forget that what we do is really about participating in God’s gift-giving.   

But here’s the thing:  saying that it’s not about a set of rules doesn’t make what we do any less important, because what we do reflects the kind of God we believe in. When we believe in a God who gives mercy, we are more able to show mercy—to forgive those who may have wronged us, to be willing to provide a second chance for those who need it, to not beat ourselves up when we fall short of the mark.  When we see God as the creator and redeemer of all that is, then we care about the earth—we know that what we do will affect those who come after us, we view tending a garden as a form of worship, we see creation as more than a set of resources for our own consumption.  When we believe in a God of abundance, we work hard to show that there is in fact enough for everyone.  We get food to those who are hungry, medical care to those in remote places, and shelter for people who need it.  Here in Pope County, one in every four children have food insecurity (defined by the USDA as “the lack of consistent access to enough food to live an active, healthy lifestyle”).  We have a church on almost every corner (81 churches in this county), but one in four children do not know if they will have enough food this week. That’s why what in this place every Saturday is so important; that’s why sharing music, laughter, and a free hot meal with our neighbors every Saturday is—at it’s core—eucharistic.  Simply put: when we truly see God as the giver of all good things and we celebrate those gifts the way that God created us to, then we become gift-givers, too—we’re compelled to share those gifts with the world. 

So as we hear more from James over the coming weeks, let’s not see him as an opponent of Paul’s words about faith, or as someone who is fixated on the law, or on good works for their own sake.  Instead, let’s see him as someone who’s taking us to task.  James knew that good relationships empower us, and the relationship we have with God does this more than any other.  Because when the implanted word takes root in us, it changes us more and more into a reflection of the God we proclaim. 

Teri Daily

Thomas, Doubter and Believer

By Caravaggio, 1601-2, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A sermon by Charles Tyrone on John 20:19-30… 

My confirmation classes taught nothing that prepared me for my first Easter as an Episcopalian. Easter Sunday at St. Andrew’s Cathedral was just amazing. The flowers, the clergy vested in white and gold, the choir, the organ, the orchestra, an African American gospel anthem shaking the nave, the acolytes carrying banners, the children, all beautiful, carrying ribbon streamers and flowers for their cross just overwhelmed my novice senses. Dean Ed Bacon preached one of his amazing sermons. Bishop Duncan Gray celebrated the Eucharist. Dr. John Paul had pulled out all the stops on the organ it seemed. The charismatic parishioners, both of them, seated in front of me were glorifying and praising God. As a former Presbyterian, I’d never seen or experienced anything like the spectacle and joy of such a service. After all, Presbyterians aren’t known for a lot of showing lots of emotion and, as for the Episcopalians, well, nothing was held back. Because of that exultant celebration, I entered emotionally, experientially into the joy and mystery of the Risen Christ. Easter changed forever for me. I was caught up in what Bishop John Shelby Spong calls The Easter Moment.

However, such emotional intensity and fervor really can’t be sustained, and the Church in her wisdom celebrates the Second Sunday of Easter as Low Sunday. The Gospel lesson today grounds us and draws us back to the reality of the upper room on that first Easter day, where the disciples hide distraught, grieving, and full of fear. They locked themselves in a room where a host of doubts contests their beliefs. After all, their beloved Jesus — their Rabbi, their Beloved — had been brutally tortured and crucified just days earlier. No doubt, they thought, they too, would soon die. Then, in the darkness before the dawn after the Passover Shabbat, Mary Magdelene goes to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body, finds the stone rolled away, and the tomb empty. She runs to Peter and the other disciple, who were also in the garden, and tells them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have taken him.” Peter and the other disciple enter the tomb and find it empty. John’s Gospel says the other disciple, John himself, who entered the tomb first, “saw and believed even though they did not yet understand Jesus was to rise from the dead.” While the Peter and John return to the upper room with the news of the empty tomb, Mary goes again to the tomb, meeting a man she believes is the gardener. He asks, “Woman why are you weeping?” “They have taken him away, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then Jesus speaks to her, “Mary!” and she recognizes him, “Rabbouni!” (my great one). Jesus sends her with a message for the other disciples, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdelene goes to them with the astonishing news that she had seen, touched, and spoken with the risen Jesus. We can imagine their reactions, “Was this real? How is this possible? What did it mean?” Later in the evening, in the upper room, the disciples are gathered with the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.” With confused emotions flying all over the place, the ascended Jesus mystically and miraculously appears, and stands among them. “Shalom,” he says, bidding them peace with the customary greeting. Jesus shows the disciples his wounded hands and side to convince them that it is truly he. Then, as Teri told us last Sunday, in John’s account, Pentecost and the Great Commission happen right then and there. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into them and sends them into the world to forgive or retain sins of humanity. Next, John tells us, uniquely in all the Gospels, that “Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve was not with them when Jesus came.” So, who is Thomas?

In John’s Gospel, earlier we meet Thomas twice, and those encounters let us glimpse Thomas’s character First, when Jesus goes to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, knowing the rising danger to Jesus from Jewish religious leaders, the disciples urge Jesus not to go. Of course, Jesus doesn’t listen to their plea. Thomas says to his brother disciples, “But let us also go, that we may die with him.” Here we meet Thomas, the realist, who is far from a coward. Next, in the upper room discourses when Jesus tells them, “my father’s house has many dwelling places … I go to prepare a place for you …and you know the way to the place I am going.” Thomas, the literalist, confused and confounded, says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” On that revelatory Easter evening, Thomas returns to the upper room and hears this incredible tale from the other disciples that they have seen the Lord. Thomas, the realist and literalist, says “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the marks of the nails and my hand in his side. I will not believe.” Thus, Thomas, becomes Doubting Thomas.

Jesus in his resurrected body, which alters his appearance, gives to those he encounters that Easter day what they need to recognize him and believe he has risen. Jesus gives John, the Beloved Disciple, an empty tomb, and he believes. He calls Mary’s name, she recognizes him, falls at his feet adoring her Beloved, and she believes. He shows the ten disciples his wounds, speaks with them, and they believe. Now Thomas has set a higher standard of proof because he will only believe if he can actually touch Jesus’s wounds.

A week later, Jesus, out of love, comes to the upper room just for Thomas’s sake. Thomas is like the lost lamb of the parable in which the Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine behind to go in search of the one lost lamb. Not one of his own shall be lost. Jesus appears again and says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Though Jesus’s conversation with Thomas is often read in the western church as a rebuke, a closer look reveals something else. I think Jesus understands that Thomas’s doubt isn’t unreasonable for we all doubt, and doubt can very much lead to stronger belief and strengthen faith. Thomas doesn’t need to touch the wounds, his seeing the embodied Jesus is enough, and he proclaims, “My Lord and my God.” There are two things happening here. First, Thomas makes an emotional affirmation, truly remarkable for a Jew, that Jesus is God. It is an affirmation much stronger than proclaiming Jesus as Rabbi, Rabbouni, Messiah, or the Son of God, all names laden with Judaic traditional meanings. Thomas in this moment understands Jesus’s earlier cryptic teaching that “I and the Father are one.” Moreover, Thomas’s affirmation “My Lord and my God” is personal and possessive. It is this affirmation of belief and faith that is stressed in the Eastern Orthodox churches’ reading of this Gospel. However, for most of us, we’ve never gotten beyond the rebuke to the Doubting Thomas. It is easy to interpret what Jesus says next as addressed only to Thomas but, in context, recalling Jesus’s appearance the week prior to the other disciples, who also see the wounds and believe, Jesus says, I think, to them all, “Have you believed because you have seen?” This prefaces what Jesus says next to them, and I truly believe it’s given to all the disciples as part of their commission as apostles, now including Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This saying is in the form of a beatitude. Jesus gives one last sacred teaching to the Apostles. This beatitude is given to the Apostles and their successors to proclaim the Gospel — the Good News that Christ is risen — to our faithful ancestors and others like us who, though unable to see Jesus, will come to believe by grace alone.

Returning to Spong’s Easter Moment, he writes that “Whatever Easter was, it was the Moment when human eyes were opened to see the full meaning of this Christ and to meet God in him in a way God had never been met before.” This Easter Moment radically transformed Mary Magdalene and the other Apostles. They come forth from the locked upper room, no longer fearing, but boldly proclaiming the Risen Christ. We see the effect of the Easter Moment in the other readings for today. Luke in Acts writes of the Apostles’ Pentecost preaching, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” John in his second epistle writes of Jesus’s resurrection appearance, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life that this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it.” Paul in his first epistle to the church at Corinth writes at length about the importance of Christ crucified and proclaims, “for as all die in Adam so all will still be made alive in Christ.” The Risen Christ is the heart of our faith.

By Caravaggio, 1601-2, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Friday, we gathered for Dick Smith’s burial service and heard, “I am the Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life even though he dies. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die for ever.” Nearly ten years ago, I sat surrounded by you for Cal’s burial service and heard, “Our brother Cal was washed in baptism and anointed with the Holy Spirit; give him fellowship with all your saints. He was nourished by your Body and Blood; grant him a place at the table in your heavenly kingdom.” Hearing that in my lostness, reminded me of Cal’s baptism and a part of the blessing over the water, which says, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” Dick, Cal, and all our beloved Saints gone before, are present in the eternal light of Christ. In few moments, we will celebrate the Holy Eucharist and proclaim again the mystery of our faith, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

 

Amen

The Vulnerability of God in Scripture

The illuminated letter P in the 1407 AD Latin Bible on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England. It was hand written in Belgium, by Gerard Brils, for reading aloud in a monastery. The letters following the letter P are ETRUS, making the word PETRUS (Peter). [Wikimedia Commons]
A sermon on Acts 8:26-40…

Multi-disciplinary medical teams tend to provide better overall care to patients than when physicians act in isolation. That makes sense to us. After all, if I’m a patient, I’m going to want a cardiologist looking into my arrhythmia, a surgeon evaluation the incision from my recent appendectomy, and a physical therapist working to attenuate the weakness that comes from time spent in a hospital bed. Each person brings a certain expertise to the team, and I want this diversity on my medical team if I am the patient.

But what about social diversity? Diversity not based on expertise but on gender and race and age and sexual orientation? Such diversity can, at times, take us out of our comfort zones. So, what are the benefits that this kind of diversity brings to a corporation, to an academic department, to our society? In 2014, Scientific American published an article that explored just this issue; the article cited several studies that claim that social diversity (even in the absence of diversity of expertise) can improve problem-solving skills, productivity, and innovation.

Large businesses that prioritize innovation have greater financial gains when there is female representation on leadership teams, banks that emphasize innovation perform better financially when there is racial diversity within the management, and scientific papers written by a more diverse research team receive a greater number of citations and have a greater impact on a field than do those by teams whose members are ethnically homogeneous. And one fascinating experiment which sought to examine the effect of racial diversity on decision-making small groups found that when participating in a murder-mystery exercise, racially diverse groups were more successful at determining who committed the crime than non-diverse groups. It turns out that when we interact with people who are ethnically similar to us, we tend to think that they have the same information we do, and so we are less likely to share with one another all the information we have. The bottom line: social diversity makes us more creative, diligent, thoughtful, and productive. We need one another in order to figure things out.[1]

We see this in today’s reading from Acts. Just before this passage Phillip has been in Samaria, proclaiming the gospel, casting out demons, and curing those who are paralyzed or lame. But then an angel appears and tells Phillip to go south, to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. He finds there an Ethiopian eunuch seated in a chariot and reading the book of Isaiah. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Phillip runs over to the eunuch, hears that he is reading Isaiah, and asks “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” The eunuch is reading one of the servant songs from Isaiah, one of the passages that the Church has come to see as referring to Christ: “Like a sheep he was led to slaughter…” (Isaiah 53:7). When Phillip proclaims the good news about Jesus and how it relates to this verse from Isaiah, the eunuch says “Look, he is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Phillip baptizes the Ethiopian just before the Holy Spirit snatches Phillip away.

This passage gives us an opportunity to explore how it is that we approach the interpretation of scripture. It may seem from this passage that Phillip just straightforwardly explains the verses from Isaiah to the eunuch and, voilà, he is instantly enlightened. But, let’s be honest, that’s not typically how an interaction with scripture plays out. Yes, reformed theologians used to say that scripture possesses clarity; however, what they meant by this was that if scripture were studied diligently and honestly, then such study would ultimately “bear good fruit.”[2] It doesn’t mean that scripture should or can, in all cases, be understood easily and literally.

Literal interpretation is only one way that scripture can be understood. Scripture can also be interpreted spiritually – something that has been going on in the Church from the very beginning. Since the spiritual sense of scripture is itself divided into three categories, there are four ways of understanding or approaching scripture in our tradition. We call these the fourfold senses of scripture.

  • Literal sense – What did the passage mean in its original context? What do the words say, to what event do they refer, and how were the understood by those who originally heard them?
  • Allegorical sense – How does the passage tell us something about Christ and the Church? Sometimes the passage that is seen as allegorical is from the Old Testament (such as manna being an allegory for the Eucharist, or Christ being seen as the new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks), or it may be a New Testament passage that is understood allegorically (such as the story of the Good Samaritan, in which St. Augustine saw the man who was robbed and beat up as the whole human race and the Good Samaritan as our Lord Jesus Christ).
  • Moral sense – What does this passage tell me about how I am to live? How do I apply it to my own life or to the life or my community? If the shepherd sees one sheep as being so valuable that he leaves the other ninety-nine and goes searching for that one, then how am I to treat the person standing right in front of me? Is it OK to rush past them without even noticing them?
  • Eschatological or anagogical sense – Eschatology is about the end times. How does this passage relate to the kingdom of heaven, to that time and place when Christ will be all in all? We think here of the wedding banquet of which Jesus speaks in the gospels, of God one day making a feast for all nations where there will be no more death, or pain (something we read about in Isaiah), of the new Jerusalem with trees that contain leaves for the healing of the nations.

Scripture comes to us with an abundance of meaning, more than any one of us alone could ever uncover. That’s why we need one another to discern how scripture is speaking to us in a particular place and time. As Peter says in his second letter, “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21). The Holy Spirit enters into both the writing and the interpretation of scripture; and according to Jesus, we know his spirit is with us whenever two or more are gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20). That promise is made to us as a community.

Does this mean that interpreting scripture together, in the Church, protects us from interpreting it wrongly? No. That is a risk, a vulnerability that God accepts in revealing Godself to us in scripture. Christopher Bryan puts this beautifully when he writes:

What does it mean when we say that God speaks to us through Holy Scripture? It means that God has accepted the risk of being revealed to us through words, through texts, through literary genres, through the weaknesses and fallibilities of human authors, the errors of scribes and translators, and all the flaws, fallacies, and fantasies of human speaking and human hearing, It means the vulnerability of God who here and now, in the pages of a book I can hold in my hands, as in the blessed sacrament, as in Mary’s arms in Bethlehem, as before the Sanhedrin and on Calvary, does not think Godhead a thing to be exploited, but humbles himself, being obedient in all things, even to death on a cross (compare Philippians 2:5-11). …

Nevertheless – and how important that biblical ‘nevertheless’ always is! – nevertheless, this same Bible also tells us that God raised Jesus from the dead, and through our baptism promises to raise us, if we will have it so. And that means that the same God will not allow even stupidity, overconfidence, and disobedience as great as ours to have the last word, unless we insist on it.[3]

Diving into scripture, with its richness of meaning and the possibility that we will get it wrong, can be a daunting task, but it is so worth our time and our work, as well as the uncertainty of some of our answers. Why? Because scripture is less a book of information than it is an encounter with God; it is a relationship that, like any relationship, requires nurturing and tending; it is a relationship that transforms us, just as it did the eunuch on the wilderness road.

We come to this place each Sunday for just such an encounter. We come to encounter Christ in the body of Christ, this group of imperfect people trying to follow in Jesus’ footsteps the best that we can. We come to encounter Christ in scripture, with all its contradictions and difficult passages and what we consider outdated worldviews. And we come to encounter Christ in the bread and wine, sometimes stale and sometimes bitter. We come trusting in the God who always meets us where we are, who stoops to be revealed to us in the frailty and imperfection of the world, in the frailty and imperfection of the text, and in our own frailty and imperfection.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Katherine W. Phillips, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Scientific American, October 1, 2014 (reposted 1/31/17), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/.

[2] Christopher Bryan, And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today (New York: Cowley, 2002) 7.

[3] Bryan 48-49.