Readings: Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
September is here, and along with it a return to a sense of academia, even for those of us no longer in formal studies. For some, school posed welcome challenges and opportunities, for some; it was a place of tedium or anxiety. But regardless of what camp we fell into, we could all count on emerging from high school having been force-fed some of the great classics of high school literature – Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, To Kill a Mockingbird, and so on.
I am glad we were exposed to these works with universal themes and richly crafted narratives, but also aware that prescribed reading is often undertaken with a mixture of unwillingness, resentment, boredom, confusion, or indifference – hardly a mindset conducive to learning. We may end up taking these books for granted, or worse, being discouraged from further reading of works that may seem too intricate, too obtuse, or too irrelevant to our contemporary world.
I have been having similar thoughts about the Bible lately. Not that it’s irrelevant, I hasten to say, but that so many of us take it for granted. Whether or not we are churchgoers, its language, its allusions, its stories, its characters, its very existence, have all been bedrock to our culture for nigh on millennia. For many it, too, may have become a dusty, boring tome that one reads because one is told to.
Then I imagined what our collective response would be if the compiled scriptures that make up the Bible had for some reason been buried in antiquity and never seen the light of day. What would we think of these works if they had just been unearthed during an archeological dig? To find and to translate this stunning trove of ancient literature would be the stuff of legend, dominating headlines around the world. I imagine people of all faiths and none reading for the first time these scriptural passages and letters and songs and stories in our newspapers and on our Facebook feed; I think of them downloaded to our Kindles for our bedtime reading or listened to in a podcast during our commute; I imagine us marvelling at the colourful language, the compelling storylines, the paradoxes and the conundrums. And I think they would indeed find much of the Bible’s content very relevant to the life we are living today.
Those readers would not be bringing to the newly discovered scriptures any expectation that these ancient stories provide easy answers, a detailed, infallible moral handbook, or an assurance that the contents were divinely authored. Those readers would note the many internal inconsistencies and outright atrocities with interest, not anxiety. Instead of being dismayed by references to slavery, to unjust wars, to rape or to murder, all within an often morally ambiguous narrative in which the so-called “good guys” seem to indulge in such failings almost as frequently as the so-called “bad guys,” readers would marvel at the books’ insights into the complexity of human nature, the inner spiritual and ethical wrestling we have done since time immemorial, and our eternal longing to be sought, seen, and reclaimed by the creative force that first kicked off this crazy, wonderful universe.
I wonder if we might try to look at the Bible with eyes this fresh, to release it from the argument and interpretation that have been layered on top of it since the time of the early Church, to remove our assumptions of what the Bible should mean to us and discover what it can mean to us. As much as I appreciate and learn from the contributions of biblical scholars and theologians, I am also a fan of putting all that aside at times to let a passage or verse sink into my soul, untethered by footnotes or commentaries, and see what bubbles to the surface.
This week, here’s what is bubbling up for me from our lectionary readings:
- In the first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, I wonder if Wisdom notices just how hypocritical she sounds. Wisdom, personified, is calling from the gate of the city, saying “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” Why won’t you people listen to me? she is saying. Fair enough, we can all relate to that at times, perhaps some of our public health officers especially.
But then she goes on to say to those folks who continue to ignore her guidance: “I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.”
Well, who’s scoffing now? It hardly sounds like Wisdom is taking the high road here. And I think about the divisions in today’s society and how it is that many of us who think we are on the side of right can so easily – and unproductively - add fuel to the fire by heaping our scorn and our scoffing onto those we disagree with; how we, too, can pollute the public square with weaponized self-righteousness.
- But in today’s psalm, I see a beautiful corrective to this kind of behaviour. Psalm 19 speaks of God’s unchanging law that is woven right into the fabric of the universe, in the heavens that declare the glory of God and in the night and day that wordlessly but seamlessly impart their knowledge from one revolution of the earth to the next. Unlike the figure of Wisdom in the passage above, this psalmist knows that we are all fallible and that if we want to rid the world of fools and scoffers we had best look first within ourselves.
Who can tell how often they offend? he asks
Cleanse me from my secret faults.
Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me;
then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable in your sight; O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
These two readings remind me that scripture can be self-corrective; that when we read through the lens of love and mercy we can find answers to the most troublesome of passages; that the dismaying pronouncement we may read in a gospel passage or epistle can be reinterpreted with the wisdom of a psalm or prophet, and vice versa. Instead of anxiously ignoring those difficult passages, creatively engaging with them may be where we do some of our best learning.
- And in the second reading from James, we are graphically reminded of a timeless truth – the power of words to do immense harm. We see this in our families, our workplaces, in society, in politics, in churches. In an especially timely metaphor for us, James says “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”
Like the psalmist, James acknowledges that we all make mistakes. I’m sure all of us here have suffered the unfortunate consequences of an ill-chosen word either delivered or received. But, as I pointed out in this week’s newsletter, the very good news is that the opposite is also true – that the simplest of kindly spoken words can have an impact far more than we can ask or imagine. We can likely all remember a moment of compassion shown us years ago, even when the giver will have long forgotten it. It is inspiring and reassuring to know that even when our big dreams to change the world are frustrated, we always have immense power to improve the day-to-day lives of the people outside – and inside – our own front door.
- And finally, the gospel passage from Mark warns us that all these best laid plans and good intentions are not always easy to carry out. The world is full of scoffers, and advocating for gospel values in a culture that tends to favour the mighty over the meek is often not well received. We not only have external forces dampening our ardour for justice and compassion, we have the inevitable internal forces that tell us that making the effort is someone else’s job, that we as individuals can’t make a difference, that we are looking after our family and friends and that’s enough. But Jesus assures us that in picking up our cross and following his way, we will ultimately not lose our life but save it.
There is so much in this week’s readings that resonates with me. As we start a new academic year, with a new priest at the helm, we will no doubt embark on Bible and book studies, discussion groups, and other means to deepen our learning about our scriptures and our faith. All of these opportunities add layers of understanding and meaning to our spiritual life, and they are hugely beneficial.
But on occasion let us also put ourselves in the mind of those fictional readers I mentioned earlier; readers who have just discovered these never-before-seen scriptures unearthed from sandy hills in the Middle East. Let us give thanks for the vibrant characters, the puzzling paradoxes, the marvellous mysteries and the golden threads of grace and glory that run throughout this history of humankind’s relationship with our Creator. May we let ourselves be enchanted anew by the richness of the gift that is our Bible. And with its help may we learn to walk this world with humility and charity, wherever we may go.
- The Rev. Peggy Trendell-Jensen