Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How is the Bible the Word of God? - Kurt Nelson

 Rollins Chapel, Sunday, January 23, 2011                                                                   
"How is the Bible the Word of God?"
Genesis 1: 1-5, John 1: 1-3
It’s a frequent occurrence in many Christian churches,
including my own
that at the close of a scripture reading,
the reader will say,
“The word of the Lord”
“The word of God for the people of God.”
And if you’re at all like me,
you might have wondered what exactly they are referring to.
Is the Word of God
 this disposable sheet with scripture and liturgy and announcements on it?
Or is it the whole book –
sometimes a giant ornate thing which sits ominously by the altar,
or sometimes a smaller, neater prop,
flapping energetically in the preacher’s hand?
Is it just the portion we heard aloud?
And, if so, what if the reader didn’t do a very good job,
stumbling over strange biblical names,
or far off places?
“The Word of God”
is a phrase often invoked,
but rarely explored, it would seem.
At least in the circles in which I spend much of my time.

My own relationship with the bible has never been simple.
A bit like a strained sibling relationship.
Always there,
always meaningful,
but not always easy, or joyful.
A relationship of tension,
but productive tension in the end, I think.
And it is thus that I ponder how the Bible is the Word of God,
I ponder the complicates ways,
that this amazing and troubling scripture,
has been a constant partner for argument,
and has dramatically shaped my vision,
and my relationship,
with the God of Love.

As I pondered  especially the Word of God these weeks,
I will admit with some chagrin,
that I became fixated on a memory of the 2008 republican presidential primary.
More specifically,
the so-called Youtube debate,
where questions came not from journalists,
but from common people,
through the magic of the internet.
About 2/3rds of the way through
a young, intense man from Dallas Texas,
named "calciumboy" came on the screen
and said,
"The answer to this question will tell me everything I need to know."
And holding up his bible to his webcam, he says,
"Do you believe every word of this book?"
It was a hostile question.

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.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What is scripture? - Richard R. Crocker

What is Scripture?
Richard R. Crocker
Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College
January 9, 2011
2 Timothy 3:14-17

What is scripture? Scripture is a name we give to the writings that we deem uniquely valuable, uniquely important in helping us to find meaning and purpose in our lives. Holy Scripture refers to those writings deemed so valuable by a community that they are considered, by that community, to be the word of God.

That’s the bird’s eye view. Now let’s look at the more human level.
When I was ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church USA, I had to answer certain questions and take certain vows. Among those questions was the following: ”Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?” I said yes. I still do.

So how do these scriptures, these writings, become God’s word to me, or to anyone?

Occasionally it happens that a person picks up a copy of the Bible, and, without any background or context at all, begins reading it and finds it to be the life-transforming word of God. This happens very rarely, but it does happen. I suppose the same thing happens for some people reading the Koran or the Book of Mormon or the Bhagavad Gita. But for most of us it is different. It happens in the way that Paul describes in his second letter to Timothy. Let me elaborate.

I wonder if there is anyone is this congregation who is familiar with the term “memory verse”? As I thought. Well, for anyone raised in the Protestant churches of the South, as I was, the term is very familiar, I went to Sunday School every Sunday from before I can remember. Every Sunday, we were encouraged – or required – to learn a memory verse, a verse from the Bible. They were usually very simple, becoming a little longer as we grew older. Such verses were as follows:

“Love one another”.
“Be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another.”
“Children, obey your parents.”
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

You get the idea. I learned the bible piece meal, in verses, over many years. One of the verses that I learned in late boyhood, as a member of the Royal Ambassadors, was this one from Second Timothy: “All scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.”

So, I was told, the Bible itself claims to be the inspired word of God, See, it says so right here! That settles it.

That position, however, came to seem obviously flawed to me, being a smart-alecky kind of kid. When Paul wrote those words to Timothy, I asked, did he know he was writing the Bible? When he said all scripture, did he know that he was writing scripture? How did those 66 books in the Bible (and we were taught to name them all) come to be selected anyway? How did God make sure that just those 66 were selected, and no others? And when Paul wrote “all scripture”, didn’t he mean just the Hebrew scriptures? After all, the only Christian scriptures then available were his other letters! The gospels had not even been written. (As I said, I was a smart-alecky kid.)

So how did these writings, these verses, these Scriptures ]become the word of God to me? Exactly as Paul said to Timothy. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Continue in what you have learned and believed from childhood, knowing from whom you have learned it …. You see, what I was learning at Sunday School from infancy on was not just verses. It was love. I was becoming part of a community. My Sunday School teachers taught me more than words. They taught me kindness and faith. Indeed, they embodied it.

I came to respect the Bible because I was taught to do so by others who loved me and who found it to be sacred,, That is the way most of us learn everything. We are taught by others, and the lessons are especially powerful if they are taught to us through love and reinforced in a community. And so it was that I became a part of the Christian church, which is rooted in the scriptures of the old and new testaments, and they became, through the Holy Spirit, the word of God to me.

Only such an upbringing has made me able to believe. Simply reading the bible as another text, as I was taught to do in college, and, to some degree in seminary, reveals many difficulties – not the least of which is the picture of an apparently unloving God that prevails in certain parts of the scripture. There are obstacles to belief, obstacles that prevent these scriptures from becoming the word of God, for some people. But for me, I was taught that the Bible was a story – of creation, of sin, of God’s call to his people Israel, of their obedience and disobedience, of destruction for sin, and of the promise of forgiveness sealed in the blood of his crucified Son. And although that story has many rough spots, so does my life. I am a part of that story. I have come to find my meaning in it, my solace in it during sorrow and trial, my joy in it during times of blessing. Though it can never be accepted without interpretation, and though the texts sometimes appear puzzling or contradictory, I still find, as millions of others have, this text, these stories, to be my story, and the texts useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

There are lots of problems that come with this tradition; it isn’t all easy. And we will consider some of these problems during this term. As a student who in college studied literature, and who still loves literature, I have read many other stories, some of which became important to me. But my life is shaped by the words of scripture, and by the community which passed on those words, and talked about them, and tried – with many failures – to live by them. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.