Sermon for Sunday, October 16th
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
I have the privilege of being married to a hospice chaplain. And when this husband of mine isn’t graciously editing my Sunday sermons, I am blessed to hear stories of encounters and interactions with his numerous patients. Some of the most beautiful narratives occur with those individuals who for whatever reason (whether it be proximity to death, or Alzheimer’s, or dementia, or the haziness of medication), those individuals whose hearts are somehow stirred by the Word of God.
In one encounter an elderly woman who was confused and depressed, sobbing uncontrollably, blaming herself for the lack of her son’s presence, was finally able to take a full breath, able to let the Spirit breathe into her lungs and calm her anxiety as she heard the words of Psalm 139: “O Lord…where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?… If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Or another woman, who had been unresponsive for an entire visit, not sitting up, not opening her eyes, not speaking a sound, but as soon as she heard the words of Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me,” she grabbed the chaplain’s hand and squeezed, recognizing the softly spoken words of comfort and hope. Or a man struggling with severe Alzheimer’s, no longer able to string words together to form a simple sentence, but as the chaplain broke into the the words that Jesus taught us—recorded in Matthew 6 and Luke 11—,as Nathan began to pray the man began to moan. And his lips formed the words of that prayer imprinted on so many of our hearts:“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”
In the last moments, in the fleeting final breath, the words of Scripture speak to so many individuals. Becoming words of tranquility, words of comfort and hope, and perhaps even the only words of recognition. As our Psalm for this morning states:“How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.” The Word of the Lord offers sweet, sweet serenity.
And although my friends the majority of this Psalm uses the word law and its synonyms—such as commandment, decrees, and judgments— I would encourage us to consider how law and scripture are intertwined. To an ancient Hebrew population, these were not two distinct categories but an integral relationship. It is no accident that in Judaism the word, “torah,” refers both to religious law as well as to the first five books of the Bible. Scripture is the framework for which the law has been given to the people of God. If we replace the word law and its synonyms with Scripture and its synonyms, Psalm 119 still holds true:“Oh, how I love your Scriptures! All the day long it is in my mind. Your sacred word has made me wiser than my enemies, and it is always with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for the Bible is my study.”
Perhaps we may think the Word of God is reserved for the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, or used in the classroom as some historical or literary perspective, or even sought out in our darkest hours, searching for some semblance of hope. Yes it is all these things but is so much more than this. Our Scriptures, the Word of God, are living and moving, dynamic and active, ready to enlighten our lives if we let it. I cannot even begin to tell you how exciting it is for me to encounter a passage that I have heard over and over again becoming new to me in a way I never saw coming. Speaking truth into my life, not as if I was interpreting Scripture, but as if Scripture was interpreting me; not as if I was reading the word of God, but as if the word of God was reading me.
For example, a passage I preached on this summer, Jeremiah 1 states: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” These verses had always been a word that spoke to me personally, quelling my fears, calming my anxieties, making me feel loved in the midst of loneliness. Yet when I heard this sacred script again this past August, these words were not just directed at me personally but were for every one of the children and youth in this parish. They became a mission, my mission, a goal that during my time at Grace Church, I would strive to make each child entrusted into my care feel like a beloved child of God.
And as I continue to contemplate how Scripture has shifted for me, I think back on Mark’s passion narrative. It was never one I particularly connected with, never one that seemed to stand out to me (the only intriguing piece of the narrative being that no disciple stood with Christ at the foot of the cross). Yet on a labor day 2015, as my mother-in-law lay on a hospital bed in Houston, with doctors and nurses telling my family she would most likely never wake up, I turned to the daily office readings for solace. During that time of morning prayer I read the words for Mark’s crucifixion of Christ. In that moment when I thought all was lost, that this was indeed the end, I instead felt the faintest glimmer of hope for I knew that if that morning I was reading of Christ’s death, the next day I would read of Christ’s glorious resurrection. And on that Tuesday evening, on that day when I had read the words of the resurrection, I saw Sally, my mother-in-law, open her eyes for the first time, fluttering ever so faintly. It was a slight sign that even though we feared the truth as Mary, Martha, and the Magdalene feared the truth of Christ’s return, even though we feared to hope, God’s hope was still there, and it was our choice whether or not to embrace it.
Even today’s parable from Luke of the unjust judge, speaks differently today for me than it has in years past. This unjust judge sounds like a number of corrupt politicians in our American system. Take your pick on whose name you would like this judge to represent. Yet even though this individual neither feared God nor had respect for people, God’s justice was still granted, the widow was still taken care of, God’s will would still be done no matter who was the judge, and no matter who will be holding political office after this election cycle.
My friends, our Scriptures know us, know each and every one of us. Know what we need, what we desire, and what we are too scared to ask. Because our holy Scriptures are the inspired word of God, as our reading today from 2 Timothy so kindly reminds us. And by inspired I do not mean that we take each verse as literal word for word, but the Greek for “inspired by God,” found in 2 Timothy 3:16, can also be translated as “God-breathed.” Like the words from our creation narrative in Genesis, the same breath that gave Adam and Eve life, that gave humankind life, that deemed all of creation, “good,” that same breath is embedded in our Scriptures. Giving the Bible a life of its own, leading us, guiding us, still speaking to us in new ways every single day. And because God breathed life both into us and into Scripture, this story of salvation is our story as well. We are interconnected.
Now my friends, this does not mean our relationship with Scripture is always warm and cuddly. It does not mean that we necessarily are thrilled with the words place before us. But it does mean we are called to wrestle with the word of God. We are called to ingest it, process it, be patient with it, and finally breathe back out into the world—through the witness of our very lives, through our daily actions—the word of God, the law of love, the covenant that—as Jeremiah states today—God will write upon our hearts. Our Scriptures, the Word of God given to us long ago and still speaking to us today, will never be silent, will never be out of date, will never be inapplicable to our lives.
So we have an opportunity before us as we discern what it means to be a disciple of Christ in this modern American culture. As we discern what it means to be the church in the 21st century, will we pick up our Bibles? Will we turn through the pages of Scripture? Will we wrestle? Will we digest? Will we listen? And will we allow ourselves to be changed in the process?