Transcribed from the audio

Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

In reflecting on the Scriptures you just heard this morning, you can see in a very tangible way the power, the potency, and the possibility that are inherent in Holy Scripture. And I would like to reflect with you this morning for a few minutes on why I believe it is urgent for us to recommit ourselves to biblical study and interpretation in community.

In his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero cites the following: nearly two-thirds of American adults believe that the Bible contains the answers to all or at least most of life’s basic questions; yet only about a half of American adults can name even one of the four Gospels and most Americans can’t tell you the name of the first book of the Bible. Now, I’m a lifelong Episcopalian. I grew up in the church. My parents ensured that I was in church every Sunday and when I was growing up, like a good Episcopalian in that time, I was well-versed in the liturgy. I knew what the flow was; I knew how to receive Communion properly. I knew when to stand and I knew when to sit. I knew when to kneel. I knew when to bow and I knew what that meant. I knew what receiving Communion meant. Biblical literacy—not so much. I remember to this day, with great horror, one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I was in Mr. Daley’s eighth grade English class and he was teaching about allegory. And he decided to make a reference to something that was in the Bible. So he called on me to explain the biblical story. To this day I remember the heat emanating from my red face because I had no idea what he was talking about: none, zero, zip. And I thought that he must’ve momentarily confused me for one of my Baptist classmates. I still feel the heat in my face and I’ve been trying to make up for lost time on biblical literacy ever since.

We somehow got away from our wonderful Judaic roots. Go back to that lesson today from Nehemiah and just to help put it in context: the Israelites had been exiled in Babylon for at least two generations. They’ve come back to Israel. One of the first things they do is ask to have the Book read. They were eager; they wanted to hear the word of God. So Ezra stands up and for six hours, mind you, reads and they are in rapt attention. And it was intended for everyone—men, women, and children, everyone—to hear the word of God. And it talks about how the Levites moved around the crowd for interpretation. Now scholars believe part of that might’ve been actual translation because they’d been gone for two generations. They no longer knew Hebrew, which is what it was written in. And so it was translated into Aramaic. But scholars also believe that there was interpretation going on so that they would understand what they were hearing. It was an important part of what was going on. Six hours, can you imagine? I’ll have to say that I’m seen some of you look a little fidgety when some of the lessons seem to be one of those long ones. Six hours, rapt attention.

Moving on to the gospel lesson from today we encounter Jesus who was a rabbi and a teacher in his own hometown, in his own synagogue, reading that passage from Torah in Isaiah. And he has the boldness and the authority to claim, “Today that Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Then he goes on, if you continue to read in Luke, helping to interpret it. And it so enraged the people they drove him to the edge of town and they were prepared to hurl him off the cliff. Biblical interpretation is risky business and certainly recently in the Cathedral we’ve been reminded of the risky business of biblical interpretation with some of the strong stands we have taken on social justice issues.

It is vital that we engage in biblical study and interpretation within community. And as I was reflecting on the Scriptures for today, I remembered a little book I read about ten years ago called Struggling with Scripture. It’s a compendium of three essays and presentations that were made by renowned biblical scholars at the time in a conference called “Biblical Authority in the Church.” And the three scholars were Walter Brueggemann, William Placher, and Brian Blount. In the introduction to the book, William Sloane Coffin makes the point that the Bible is neither self-evident nor self-interpreting. It requires us wrestling with Scripture. And wrestling with Scripture is not something to be fearful of or a weakness, but rather it evidences faithfulness to our religious faith and call—that it is only being faithful.

Walter Bruggemann in his presentation makes the point that biblical interpretation is a living process, that it’s not normally “settled simply by erudite cognitive formulation.” Nor are those issues tending to be settled on the spot; they happen after a long period of “pastoral attentiveness to one another in good faith.” William Placher makes the point that to take the Bible seriously means that we cannot and should not “affirm its truth separate and apart from struggling to understand its meaning.” Brian Blount makes the point once again that the Bible is God’s living word to us and “nothing that is living can ever be last; that the living word is always a beginning word.”

This seems to be a time when it is particularly vital for us to study the Bible, to reclaim our Judaic roots that held up the study of the Torah as the most important thing that any observant Jew could, should, and would do. In this Cathedral community we have myriad ways in which we are engaged right now in doing that. Our 20s and 30s group has a weekly Bible study. We are launching our Transforming Literature of the Bible, which will be a survey of the New Testament very shortly. Disciples of Christ in Community is about to begin. There are any number of ways in which this community of faith is engaged in faithful study of the Bible and wrestling together with what that means and what God is seeking to say to us today, this day, in our time, in our context. So look for sheets in the back by the congregation table for how you too can recommit yourself to this important work.

One last reflection: in Brian Blount’s presentation in the book he recalls something that he heard from Howard Thurman that Howard Thurman’s grandmother told him. Howard Thurman’s grandmother, when she was young, had the responsibility to read everything to her grandmother, who could neither read nor write; she’d been a slave. And one day she asked her grandmother why she was not permitted to read the Pauline letters. And her grandmother told her that when she was a slave the master’s white minister would on a regular basis preach from the text in Paul that says that slaves shall obey their masters and would go on to interpret that: that if slaves would just obey their masters and be happy and not cause trouble that God would bless them. And her grandmother said, “I vowed to my Maker that if I was ever free and if I could ever read, I would not read that passage.” Because, you see, that grandmother may not have been able to read and write but she inherently knew that God’s word is a living word and nothing that is living is ever last. The Scriptures are God’s great gift to us and one important way in which God continues to reveal God’s self to us—who we are, who we are called to be in community. William Sloane Coffin says that “the Bible is like a sacrament, a means of grace, God’s mediation for God’s presence in each one of our lives and God’s concern for the whole planet.” The time is now to reclaim our roots, to recommit ourselves to studying God’s great gift of God’s holy and living word to us. Don’t miss it. Amen.


The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope