Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What is Scripture? - Kurt Nelson

Rollins Chapel, Sunday 1/9/11.
Luke 4:9-12
What is Scripture?

One day during my freshman year of college,
I stopped by my mailbox between lunch and an early afternoon class,
and discovered that I had an unexpected package awaiting me.
It was from an old family friend,
who seemed to have had a surplus of packing tape,
because I couldn’t make a dent in that package, let alone open it.
So I wandered to a nearby lounge,
in search of scissors.
And there I saw Chris.
Chris was somewhere between a friend and an acquaintance.
And I asked him if he had scissors or, really, anything sharp.
He rooted around in his bag earnestly,
pulled out his bible,
and said, “Sharper than a two-edged sword.”
Chris was the kind of guy whose bible
was in an immaculate zippered carrying case.
Something which marked him as a person of piety,
and placed him at the center of an important Christian subculture on our campus,
intentionally distinct from all the casual Lutherans and Catholics.
I replied, “I’m not sure that will be useful right now.”
And he quickly retorted, “It’s useful in all sorts of situations.”
It was not,
needless to say,
what I needed at the time.
But Chris, misguided as he may have been,
knew at the very least,
knew there was something important about the Bible.
Though he seemed more than a little confused as to why and how that was.
Which makes him, I think,
a lot like a lot of us.
Peter Gomes, Harvard University’s Chaplain,
compares our relationship with the Bible,
to that special kind of relationship,
wherein we know someone,
we’ve spoken with them,
often perhaps,
exchanged friendly greetings,
frequent pleasantries,
and perhaps even more in depth experiences,
but we don’t know their name.
And it’s too far gone,
too hard,
too embarrassing to ask the basic question, “who are you?”

Despite the fact that the bible remains on bestseller lists,
informs our grammar, our politics, and even our education in strange and unexpected ways,
we seem to know less and less about it.
And it’s becoming harder,
rather than easier,
to ask some basic questions,
Like ours today, “what is scripture?”

It’s a question of course,
that assumes that scripture matters.
And perhaps you’re here because you have an inkling that it does indeed,
but aren’t entirely sure why.

Those of you who were around last term,
know we focused on “Big Questions.”
Which worked quite well, I think,
in spite of the early hour.
So for those who liked our Big Questions,
don’t fear,
for we haven’t ventured far.
And I think we’ll address,
 we’ll wonder together about many more Big Questions,
through a new lens.
Because questions about scripture,
are, I think, big questions indeed.
And we must start, of course,
with the basics,
What is scripture?
It is not,  for the record,
useful in opening tightly wrapped packages.
And it’s not, despite appearances,
best thought of as a book.
But rather as a library,
fully of historical narratives, letters, gospels, hymns,
myth, poetry, theological treatise,
collected over the course of thousands of years.
And it’s a collection that asks much of us.
Not meant,
I think, to be casually accepted,
or casually ignored.
Not meant to be trivialized,
and not meant to be idolized.

And so I selected for today’s text,
this story of Jesus’ temptation.
In which the devil stands before Jesus,
and quotes perfectly from the 91st Psalm.
A story which highlights perfectly the perils,
that can come with a thing such as scripture.
Which can be used
like all important things,
 for good, or for ill.
We can be sure that the Devil,
whatever we might think of that figure,
knows his bible.
And indeed many evils,
much oppression,
have come on the lips of those,
quick to defend with Scripture.

So why not dismiss it entirely?
we might wonder.
Why not strip this thing of is import and power?
But like all important things,
like fire,
Scripture has the power to warm and illumine our way,
and has the power to burn.
And I’m not ready to give it up just yet.
Because I think above all,
Scripture is a thing which points not to itself,
but to something bigger, greater, and more important.

if we read on just a few lines further in Luke’s gospel,
we see a much better use of scripture,
than the Devil’s proof-texting.
Fresh from his wilderness temptation,
Jesus enters his home town synagogue,
opens a scroll of Isaiah,
and proclaims good news to the poor,
and liberty to those oppressed,
in the midst of his community.

 if we bring to it not only our hearts,
but our minds, our questions, our criticisms, and doubts,
can open  us to truth,
to God,
to community,
and especially, I think to love.
It speaks in rich, and often confusing tones,
placing on each of us,
the ability and responsibility,
to read, and think, and talk, act,
and interpret together.

I’ll close with a brief liturgical reminder.
Since that seems to be part of my job as resident Lutheran.
We’ve just left the season of Christmas, obviously.
A season of great celebration.
Of travel, and gifts, and giants trees all lit up.
And we’re on the footstep of Lent.
A solemn season of quiet, and reflection,
and, for many, suffering.

And we call this brief time in between Epiphany.
A season where we wonder,
how it is that God comes to us,
speaks to us,
not through celebration or suffering,
but in normal time.

And indeed,
it’s often a confusing presence.
Often we are left wondering.
Left with community, and possibility,
and, of course, scripture.

And so we will,
this whole term,
wonder about how scripture speaks to us
of God, of truth and of love.
And I honestly have little stake in convincing you to view scripture
exactly as I do.
Indeed, we’ll bring in a couple of guests this term with whom I don’t entirely agree.
But I do,
and suggest we all we all do,
have a stake in convincing ourselves that scripture is a thing worthy of some time,
some reflection.
For it is important.
It is rich, and it is complicated.
And it’s worth taking seriously, together.

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