November 18, 2018

2018 Nov18

Proper 27 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Karen Seigfreidt


Today I would like to preach on interpreting the Scriptures through the lens of love. I will use the opening collect as my text: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”


This past June, there was quite a kerfuffle when the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, used a biblical verse to defend his department’s policy of prosecuting immigrants who cross the southwest border illegally. Supporting the practice of separating immigrant parents from their children, Sessions cited Romans 13:1 to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, IN: “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” He continued: “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves…and protects the weak and protects the lawful.”


I would agree that some (but not all) governmental laws and processes are good. But I don’t think I would use Paul’s letter to Romans as my defense. There are two dominant places in American history when Romans 13 (regarding obeying governing authorities) was invoked. “One is during the American Revolution when it was invoked by loyalists, those who opposed the American Revolution. The other is in the 1840s and 1850s when Romans 13 was invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong.” (John Fea)

 

John Fea, a professor of American history, claims that after the Civil War, there have been few references to Romans 13 by the political front. This is because the essence of the passage has to do with submission to authority which is often regarded as un-America.  Remember, America was born and built on rebellion, and so there is a sort of radical resistance to authority.  Given our rebellious posture as a nation, how are we to interpret passages like Romans 13:1 which reads: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”  Well, let’s begin by taking a closer look at our opening collect.


When it comes to understanding the Bible, its context, its history, its original languages, its message and its purpose, Episcopalians are not at the top of the pyramid. Even though we believe that God still speaks to us through the Bible and that it contains everything necessary for salvation, we have often been lax in hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the words of the Bible. As a result, we are unable to articulate thoughtful interpretations of Scripture in the public square, leaving the discussion to be dominated by more fundamentalist Christians. And even worse, because we haven’t put in the time to inwardly digest the Holy Writ, we lose out on the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to enlighten our minds and transform us into the likeness of Christ through this spiritual practice.


Last month a parishioner said to me that she didn’t believe in the God of the Old Testament. I am sure that some of you feel this way too. But here is the deal. The Bible is the story of God and God’s people, in particular the Jews and the early Christians. It was written by human authors who were inspired in their faith journey. It contains their stories, their experience of God, and their interpretation of how this interaction with God and God’s people influenced their lives. The issue is not whether you believe their written stories but rather whether those stories hold authority in your life today. We are all at different stages of faith and so some stories have greater impact on our faith journey than others.

 

The purpose of reading scripture
is to experience ‘everlasting life’
which is basically becoming
whole, seeped in the
spirit of Christ.

 

This is the trajectory of the Christian path. So how do we become whole (or in churchy terms), how are we saved? Jesus showed us the way: “Love God and love your neighbor” while following Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. By hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the Scriptures through the lens of love, the Holy Spirit will reveal to us not only what is necessary for our salvation but also how to embrace that abundant life that God promises us. While the Scriptures contain everything necessary for salvation, they also contain a lot of that is not necessary for salvation. To discern the difference requires a heart and mind seeped in God’s love.


So let’s start our pilgrimage towards ‘everlasting life’ by inwardly digesting two of today’s readings. All of today’s readings have to do with the sacrificial system of the Hebrew people which was eventually overthrown when the second temple was destroyed, just as Jesus had predicted.


Today’s first reading is from the 1st Book of Samuel. This book records the early history of Israel and was written down some 2600 years ago from a combination of independent texts. The genre is narrative history. This genre is different from other genres in the bible such as the wisdom literature, poetry, epistles, and gospels. Each genre has an important function and is interpreted differently.


The initial chapters of the Book of Samuel focus on God’s raising up a new leadership in Israel to meet the moral crisis of the day. While these stories are informative, they tend not to be necessary for my own salvation in the 21st century. However, they were salvific for the people at that time.


Today’s story is about the birth of Samuel, a prophet who will be called to anoint the first two kings of Israel. In this story, Hannah is a barren woman and is inconsolable. She lived in a society where women were valued only if they produced children.  Each year, she and her husband and her husband’s other wife and family would take a pilgrimage to Shiloh and offer a yearly sacrifice to God. It was there that Hannah prayed fervently to God for a child and promised that she would dedicate her first born son to the service of God. Her petition is granted. Hannah gives birth to a son whom she names Samuel. After weaning him, she brings him to the sanctuary in Shiloh where he is raised. Today, we sang her song of praise. It is a song of thanksgiving and praise to the God who metes out justice and cares about the poor and the desolate. Here is what I learned by inwardly digesting this story:

  1. The Hebrews believed that God controlled their entire lives. If a woman was barren, then it was God who closed her womb. If a woman was fertile, it was because God had blessed her. And while we are more savvy today about issues of infertility, there are many women in the 21st who are inconsolable when they are unable to produce a family. Like Hannah, we need to have compassion on them and help them in their distress.
  2. The Book of Samuel begins with a story of salvation: “New life comes out of barrenness. Hope rises from hopelessness. Despair is transformed into thanksgiving and praise. We can learn from Hannah the importance of expressing our needs before God. Hannah simply and straightforwardly expressed her need to God. In so doing, she recognized that wholeness in her life lay beyond those things she could control and rested in God as the larger reality of her life.” (NIB, Vol. II) Sometimes, facing our needs through prayer as individuals and as church communities can open new possibilities, not of our making, but of God’s.” This is where I place my hope for the future.
  3. Hannah trusted that God’s grace was available to her. Her response to that gift of grace was to give back. When grace brings new life, we also are called to give back, rejoicing in what we have received. Gratitude and generosity are the marks of a person who has embraced everlasting life.


Today’s second reading is from the Book of Hebrews, a rather complex construction. The genre is an epistle, commonly known as a letter, although it reads more like a sermon. Letters were written to different churches by many early leaders who followed Christ. Most of the letters included in the New Testament were from the apostle Paul but not so with ‘Hebrews’ whose author is unknown. It is believed that the Letter to the Hebrews was written for Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem who might have been thinking about returning to their Jewish roots during a time of persecution. But please note, this is just speculation.


How we read these epistles is different from the narrative stories. The real question of course is whether these letters still have authority some 2000 years after they were written or are they specific advice to a particular church community during a particular time? Romans 13 (regarding governing authorities) is a case in point. Do the insights of a rabble rousing convert of the 1st century written to a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire have the same authority for a democracy in 21st century America? As you can imagine, opinions on whether this passage still holds authority among Christians in America differ significantly.

 

So how do we read, mark, learn
and inwardly digest the Holy
Scriptures in order to experience
everlasting life?

 

Fr. Richard Rohr suggests that we read the Scriptures like Jesus did. Jesus honored his own religious tradition wherever possible and did not react against it needlessly. He looked for the core, the truth, and the wisdom of what God might be saying in the Holy Scriptures.


Jesus ignored (or even opposed) parts of his own Scriptures that were in any way punitive, imperialistic, exclusionary, or presented God in these negative ways. He broke rules regarding the Sabbath and hung out with unclean people. Through the lens of compassion, he was able to connect the dots in Scripture and found out where it was heading. Jesus concluded that the biblical narrative was headed toward inclusivity, mercy, justice, compassion, and the dignity of every human being which is why he focused on the great commandment: Love God and love your neighbor. We are called to do likewise.


"In Scripture, God has uttered
for us, not the last word but the
first - a word designed to set us
off on pilgrimage, in pursuit of
the life that God has willed for us
to have.


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