Sermon – Reading the Bible as an Act of Compassion

Romans 15:1-6

Today, we’re starting our Lenten series with some education about the Bible.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that scripture was “for our learning…” So let’s learn a little bit.

The first thing we should notice is that although we often talk about it as one book, it’s actually a library of books.

It’s 66 books, 73 if you’re Catholic. 79 if you’re Greek orthodox. The Protestant Old Testament includes the same writings that modern Jewish people include in their canon, their “official” library of scriptures. They number their slightly differently. For example – we have 1st and 2nd Solomon, they just have Solomon, but all the words are the same.

 The Catholics have a few extra books from a different version of what some people considered the “official” library of Hebrew scriptures.

What was considered “official” and “unofficial” took some time to come together.

Whichever translation of the Bible you have, when you open it up, you’re opening up an entire library of at least 66 books.

And just like your shelf at home, where you might have some fiction, some non-fiction, some mysteries, some romance novels… the Bible includes several different genres as well.

(history, poetry, etc).

Reading the Bible is a lot easier if you think about taking on 1 book a month. Reading 66 books front to back feels incredibly intimidating. Breaking it up is much more palatable.

And if you want somewhere to start, I’d recommend the Gospel of Luke, which we’ve been reading this month.

So it’s a library.

It’s also an imprecise library.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, more and more fragments of biblical texts were found.

And not all of them are identical.

Some have extra words and phrases. Some have entire sections that others leave out.

And while scholars try, it’s impossible to know which was the “original” version. Was it the one with more writing or less?

The most accurate version, they’re discovering, is also not always the oldest one, so carbon dating and other archaeological tools are imprecise as well.

They’re also written across thousands of years. The Hebrew of Genesis is different than modern Hebrew. And the Hebrew of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is also written without vowels, and the words have no spaces between them.

Nouns in Hebrew, just like English, can also have different meanings based on the context.

That’s true today too.

For example, if I say, “This worship service is lit,” some of you would think I meant that the lights are on.

Younger folks or folks familiar with more modern slang – if I say this service is “lit,” it means that’s just awesome. It’s hype. It’s turned up. It’s amazing. So I’d mean “lit” in a more metaphorical sense.

Those of you who grew up in the 40s and 50s might know that term as a different kind of slang—used to used, I’m told, by blues and jazz musicians. It was a term for that “sweet spot” where someone was just tipsy enough to play better without being so drunk it hurt their ability to play. So if I said “This service is lit,” and you took it metaphorically, in a jazz slang sense, it would mean, this service is just intoxicated enough to be great, but not so over the top that we’ve lost total control.

If you just took my literal meaning when I said “This service is lit,” you might miss what I was trying to say completely.

So when someone says, “Do you take the Bible literally?” the first question I have is “What do you mean by literally.” The second is, “Which Bible?”

Which manuscript? And which translation? An English one? Hebrew? Aramaic? Greek?

Taking something literally means, to me, listening to the strict meaning of the words, not their figurative or metaphorical meaning.

But so much of the Bible is written USING allegories and metaphor. Taking all human writing and communication “literally” would be a gross misinterpretation of much of human language.

A literal reading really misses some of the beauty and rich meaning of our scripture.

Knowing when authors are using metaphor and when not is tricky, though, then and now.

The truth is, we have trouble understanding what each other means 2019, with people who speak our same language and share our culture.

Trying to figure out the head space of a 1st Century Jew in Rome or the poetic inspiration of a king who lived in 1000 BC is nearly impossible .

But perhaps that’s ultimately why reading scripture is SO important.

In addition to being a library of books that human beings have read for thousands of years, which I sincerely appreciate.

My grandmother and great great grandfather read some of these same texts. Jesus himself read or heard much of what still consists of our library of sacred text.

But more than that, it’s a collection of books that forces us to contend with the “other.”

When we read the Bible, we’re trying to relate across a nearly unbridgeable gap.

We read the scholarship, we try to imagine being there with these people who lived and wrote these stories,

and we consider seriously, why did they act that way or write this down?

It’s a practice in compassion.

That’s why taking it literally or thinking we know all the facts of what “happened” isn’t helpful.

Reading scripture is much more of a practice, the way we might think of a yoga practice or a weight lifting practice.

There’s never a point at which we say, “Ok – I’ve figured out yoga and all the poses now. I can be done forever.” We don’t go to the gym and say “Okay, I can curl 20 lbs. No more weight lifting for me.”

No. It’s not something we just “get right” and finish.

It’s a practice.

It’s about applying ourselves to something that’s always bigger than us.

It’s about engaging our imaginations in service of compassion.

It’s about reading scriptures like 1 Timothy and wondering what must have been going on in that church that the author wanted all women to be silent?

It’s about reading the book of Joshua, which is so violent and cruel and wondering, what were the Israelites suffering and what did they witness of tyrany that they were able to capture its essence in language?

It’s about letting ourselves enjoy the mystery of the Song of Solomon and imagining the wild love between two people, and wondering at the same time what value our ancestors place on erotic love that they decided to include such a racy poem in their sacred texts?

When we read these stories of people from so long ago who lived in such a different world, and yet had so much in common with us, it gets easier to recognize in them parts of ourselves.

The parts of ourselves that the world needs. And the parts of ourselves that are harmful to others.

Which leads us to the next part, which is seeing ourselves in others, recognizing that these people from so long ago, just like the “others” in our modern lives are not so different from us at all.

That’s the power of these stories.

It’s not about getting it “right.”

It’s about connecting with God in relationship to these ancient stories that we’ve been telling for generations, and

It’s about discovering our humanity, our own limits, and practicing compassion for people who are so different from ourselves and so much alike.

Amen.