Monday, January 25, 2016

On the Interpretation of Scripture

"So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation.  They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading"
--Nehemiah 8: 8

"When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written:  'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.'  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, 'Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.'"
--Luke 4: 16-21

Think of every argument you've heard in church.  Think of every dispute that separates us and forces us into our own little silos.  I have a theory that all of these come down to one root cause:  the interpretation of Holy Scripture.  What exactly DOES the Bible say?  That question, and all of the various answers to it, has caused so many struggles, so many ugly breakups within the Church.  I can remember being a little kid and not understanding why some of my friends said the Bible said one thing, while I was hearing something totally different at my home church.  It turned out that the way they read Scripture, and the way my church read it, were completely different.  To my friends this seemed heretical, completely contrary to the purpose of Scripture.  

They're not alone.  About a year ago the BBC did a story on Pentecostal Holiness churches in West Virginia who practice snake-handling.  In their report they noted that the folks who participate in this ritual do so because the Bible tells them to.  The passage they quote is "And these signs will accompany those who believe...they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them" (Mark 16: 17-18).  The folks from the BBC pressed them on the matter, explaining that not only did biblical scholars agree that that passage wasn't part of the original Gospel (it was added in about the time Luke was written), but that they also agree that Jesus did not mean for folks to do this as a way of testing their faith.  The response, though, was always the same:  it says what it says.  

It says what it says.  This is a pretty dangerous way of approaching Scripture.  Such a mindset has led to the enslavement of peoples, the subjugation of women, and the justification for wars.  Taking Scripture at face-value, with no intention of asking questions and attempting to interpret it, leads to a splintering of the Body, a purpose for which Scripture was never intended.

In our Anglican heritage this is most apparent with our brothers and sisters in Africa.  In January of 2004, just a few months after The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first openly gay bishop in the Church, I was at St. Finbarr's Cathedral in Cork, Ireland and heard the dean of the cathedral explain the Africans' outrage perfectly.  He said, "When we (Anglicans) sent missionaries there, we built churches, gave them a Bible, and said, 'Read it!' but we never showed them how.  We never taught them we children of the Enlightenment interpret Scripture.  So they took it literally, and that's why we're in the situation we're in.  It's our own fault for not teaching them."

What the folks in Africa and West Virginia both fail to realize is that people have been interpreting and reinterpreting Scripture as long as there's been Scripture.  We see it in Nehemiah when the Jewish people come home from their exile in Babylon.  The governor (Nehemiah) and the priest (Ezra) read the words of the law "with interpretation."  They did not just read it and then leave it at that.  Instead, they read it with the purpose of teaching.  Jesus does the same thing.  He enters the synagogue and reads from the scroll of the prophet and then gives his interpretation of what was said.  This was not new.  Any learned man was permitted to read from the Scriptures and then give his two cents. Interpretations were often contested, but the purpose of synagogue life was to teach the Scriptures, have conversations about them, ask questions, and learn more about what God not only had done, but what God was doing right here and now.  

We call this practice Midrash.  Saint Paul does it all the time in his letters.  Midrash takes a piece of Scripture and interprets it through the lens of time.  The stories and customs of that particular community impact how it is interpreted, so that new generations might be able to make sense of it in an ever-changing and confusing world.  

Today seminaries and divinity schools do Midrash through practices like textual and historical criticism.  Textual criticism asks:  what is the deeper meaning behind this passage, and what is going on in the context of the story?  Historical criticism asks:  who wrote this, to whom, and where?  These are the kinds of questions that folks asked in the synagogue when Jesus and other rabbis would give their interpretation  These are the kinds of questions Paul asked when writing his letters to the churches and expounding upon what the prophets had said in light of this new phenomenon of Jesus Christ.  You see, Scripture has always been read and reread, interpreted and reinterpreted, and it always will.  The scholars of old understood that Scripture is alive, that is grows and evolves with us throughout history.  Scripture in Jesus' day was interpreted differently than it was in the days of the prophets.  Should we really be surprised that it has been interpreted differently down through the years?  

Too often I hear folks say that they interpret Scripture at face-value because it is the Word of God.  We must never forget that Scripture is NOT the Word of God.  Jesus Christ is.  While the Scriptures may point us toward Jesus, they themselves are not the agent of salvation that He is.  Who we are as Christians is tied not into our relationship with the Bible but in our relationship with Jesus Christ, the living Word of God.  It is through reading, praying, and wrestling with Scripture that we grow deeper in our relationship with the living Word.

Perhaps the next time you hear someone say, "The Bible is clear on..." you might invite that person into a conversation about how Scripture has always been wrestled with, that folks have always been asking questions of it.  Perhaps that's the point of Scripture.  And while we may not convince someone to read and interpret a passage the way we do, being able to recognize how and why Scripture is interpreted a certain way is one way in which we can still honor and respect each other, even when we disagree on what is being said in certain passages.

So keep asking those questions.  Keep wresting and struggling with what the Bible says in light of our day and age.  Don't run away from it, and don't take it completely at face-value.  Take it seriously, not literally.  Keep going deeper with it, and you might find them opened up to you in ways you never thought possible as you grow deeper in your relationship with Jesus, the living Word of God.  

Monday, January 18, 2016

Keep the Faith

When I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college I took my first trip abroad.  It was to Ireland to study literature and landscape.  One Sunday morning our two professors, an Episcopal couple, invited  us to join them for a super early mass at St. Patrick's in Dublin.  As I sat in a tiny side-chapel of this massive church I heard some very familiar words.  I heard "The Lord be with you.  And with thy spirit."  I heard "We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed."  And I heard "We do not presume to come this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness but in thy manifold and great mercies."  It's Rite I!  I said it out loud to my professors.  Here I was an ocean away from my home church and I was praying the exact same prayers.  I was a lifelong Episcopalian, and this was my first exposure to worldwide Anglicanism.

This church of mine was a church with a big C, I realized.  No matter where I went I could go into a church marked 'Episcopal' in this country, or one marked 'Anglican' in another country, and be right at home.  It didn't matter the personal politics of the folks in the pews or the personal theologies of the one standing at the altar.  Common prayer is what united us, grounded in the common faith of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If you wanna know what it means to be Anglican, I came to realize, then all you need do is come pray with us, and you'll find out.

Like many of you I have taken tremendous comfort in the fact that being an Anglican means I'm part of something so much bigger than myself, part of a family.  But being part of a family is often times complicated.  What exactly defines a family?  How is a family "supposed" to look or behave?  We all know that there is no absolute right answer to those kinds of questions.  And the same is true for the family of the Anglican Communion.

Our Communion is a family, not an autocracy.  So we don't have a pope or a college of cardinals dictating how we act and what we believe.  Anglicanism is not a confessional church.  So we don't have a written statement about who and what we are, nor do we have a chief theologian on whom we can all rely in times of disagreement--like our Lutherans friends have with Martin Luther and Methodists have with John Wesley.  Our family has been bound by four things:  the  authority of Holy Scripture, the significance of the Sacraments, the governance of the bishops, and the validity of the ancient creeds.  We call this the Quadrilateral, and it was ratified by the bishops of the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference in 1888.  It's in your Prayer Book, actually, page 877. So it seems simple:  affirm these four principles, be bound by common prayer and mission to serve, and you got yourself an Anglican!  But it's not that simple.

Y'all know that a collection of churches in a geographic area form a diocese, right?  Well a collection of dioceses forms a province. The Anglican Communion is made up of 37 provinces. The provinces themselves are governed by bishops called primates, which comes from prime, the Latin word for 'first.' So the first, or rather, senior bishop in the province is the primate. Some primates are called Archbishops--like the Archbishop of Canterbury, and some are called Presiding Bishops--like our own Michael Curry, and some are called the Primus--like in the Episcopal Church of Scotland. Confused yet?  Well just know that within all of these provinces, and among all of these primates, are subtleties. What are the societal norms of that province?  How is Scripture interpreted by the folks with the province?  How is a bishop chosen (the rules are different in England, for example), and who can even BE a bishop in each province?  The point is that each province is different, each primate is different, and in that difference, in that diversity, we have managed to find our unity.

It is easy to rush to the conclusion that that unity came to an end last week in England.  The 37 primates of the Communion gathered to address growing concerns, namely the decision of our body, the Episcopal Church, to amend its marriage canons to allow full marriage rites for same-gender couples.  We did this--based on our baptismal covenant and the words of St. Paul that "there is no male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus"--at our General Convention last summer.  After days of prayer and conversation last week, the majority of the primates recommended that the Episcopal Church "no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, and  should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee."  The recommendation is for a period of three years. What this means is that the Episcopal Church will have voice at worldwide Anglican gatherings but no vote.  It sounds like the primates have put the Episcopal Church in time-out:  go sit in the corner and think about what you've done and come back when you're sorry. 

But remember that we're not an autocracy.  So while the primates may recommend the Episcopal Church not represent the body on such committees, this is not, contrary to what some media outlets may say, a suspension or expulsion from the Anglican Communion.  The primates are an instrument of the Communion, not the Communion itself.  That's like saying the US Senate IS the United States.  We know that's not true.  The primates cannot kick someone out of the communion, merely they have made a strong suggestion (more like a "gentlemen's agreement"), and our primate, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, in an effort to continue to love and walk with his fellow primates, has agreed to comply.  As a side note:  only in the Anglican tradition could being told you can't serve on a committee be construed as a bad thing!!  And one of the committees on which we've been asked not to serve, well we haven't been serving on that for he last 30 years!  But I digress.  

What this means moving forward is still a bit unclear.  We know what it does not mean, though.  It does not mean that the breakawayAnglican Church in North America will become the official representative of Anglicanism in this country in three years.  It does not mean that we will amend our marriage canons once again and no longer allow same gender marriages just to appease our brothers and sisters in the Communion.  It doesn't mean that we are going to withdraw missionary aid to those areas who put the kybosh on us this week. And it doesn't mean we going to break away and form a new Communion of like-minded provinces.  Anglicans do not break away.  We are still Anglicans, still members of this Communion.  It's true that if the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion had a Facebook relationship status it would read "it's complicated."  But it's always been complicated.  It was complicated before last week, before Katherine Jefferts Schori, Gene Robinson, Barbara Harris, or the Philadelphia Eleven. It has always been, and it will always be, complicated. The truth is we are bound by our relationships with each other, not an edict handed down from on high. And as long as we continue to reach out in love, and continue to be in relationship, we are part of the Anglican Communion.

There is gospel truth in all of this.  On Sunday we heard the familiar story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee.  We have no idea who is being married, nor do we need to speculate.  But think about a wedding for a moment.  Think about your own wedding.  What happens?  Two people become one.  Relatives are pulled in, and a new family is created.  And no family is without dysfunction.  A family fights. A family pushes each other away. A family holds each other. A family reconciles.  Because through it all, they are a family.  And nothing can change that. 

Regardless of where we fall politically, socially, or theologically, we are a family.  We have been wedded together, and the bond that binds us is the Lord Jesus Christ.  As Bishop Curry reminds us, we are part of the Jesus Movement, and that movement keeps going forward.  NOTHING can stop it, not even the bickering amongst our family.  Jesus' witness of sharing and showing God's love for this broken world continues in us, His Body.  All of us are members of that Body--crazy liberals in America, staunch conservatives in Africa--but there is only one that is the head of that Body, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is our relationship with Him that binds us and strengthens us as the church catholic, the church universal.  Relationship, not hierarchy. 

Will these developments change how Good Shepherd or the Diocese of North Carolina continue to function?  No they won't.  Because we will continue to forge relationships with our neighbors, especially the poor, the disenfranchised, and those on the fringes of society.  We will continue to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, and we will continue to love our neighbors and respect the dignity of every human being.  Yes, even those members of our family that we find it tough to love sometimes.  Because that is what it means to be Anglican. 

God is greater than our disagreements.  God is greater than any one church, greater than Anglicanism.  And God will endure.  Because God is love. And love always wins. So in the spirit of Bishop Curry:  God bless you.  God love you.  And keep the faith.  


Monday, January 11, 2016

On the Epiphany, the Magi, and Mutual Respect

This past week marked the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Church marked the occasion with a three-day celebration of Jesus' birth, the coming of the Magi, and our Lord's baptism.  In the west, meanwhile, these have all been given their own days of commemoration.  At the church where I serve we moved the Feast of the Epiphany--which falls on January 6--to this past Sunday, which allowed us to celebrate the feast together with a beautiful pageant that featured some of our youngest parishioners.  It was a fabulous celebration!

Scenes from this year's Epiphany pageant at Good Shepherd, Asheboro

The Epiphany sometimes gets forgotten by us westerners.  For centuries it was the Epiphany, not Christmas, that was the big wintertime Christian celebration; in fact, it can be argued that only the Feast of the Resurrection has held a greater meaning over time for Christians than the Epiphany.  Why is that exactly?  I suspect that it's because the Epiphany marks the moment when the Gospel was made available to the whole world.  Tradition holds that wise ones called Magi came from the east to meet the Christ child at his cradle in Bethlehem.  They are not named in Scripture (nor are they numbered), though legend gives names to three of them: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Herdotutus, that great Greek historian, tells us the Magi were from Persia.  So we know immediately that they are not Jews, not part of the same story as this child that they have come to adore.  Why then did they do it?

It could be because they respected God in all of God's forms, not just their own.  According to the Jewish historian Josephus, as well as non-Jews like Seutonius and Tacitus, the Mediterranean world was groaning (in those "labor pains" that Isaiah spoke of), waiting for God to do something in the world, particularly in Judea.  It's pretty incredible that folks who were not part of the story still waited with anticipation for God's action in the world.  Could it be that there was a sense of respect and admiration for other cultures and religions in the ancient world that we simply do not experience today?  I'd say yes.

When I traveled to the Holy Land several years ago our group was led by an Episcopal priest from California.  Everywhere we went with him we were met with respect, and not a single person was harassed for being a Christian or proselytized by Jews or Muslims.  When someone asked him why this was the case--they had apparently been expecting to be met with hostility for being Christian--he pointed to his collar and said, "They respect this."  Even though he was not of their tradition, they respected him enough to let him lead his group without any worry of judgement.  The example of those non-Christians in the Holy Land made me realize that it is entirely possible to love one's own tradition while respecting the traditions of others.

This, I believe, is one of the lasting legacies of the Magi.  Did they convert to following Jesus after their encounter?  Not likely.  Firstly, Jesus was a mere baby, so the thought of "following" him is quite absurd.  Secondly, Scripture tells us they returned to their own country, which would strongly suggest they held on to their own beliefs.  Still, even they could see God at work in this child, and so they offered him their gifts, their admiration, and their respect.

Can we do no different?  In this day when Christians are so quick to throw non-Christians under the bus, I think we can stand to remember the example of those Magi.  We can love our own traditions, but that does not mean that we have to condemn the traditions of others.  We can respect other faiths and traditions because we know that God is bigger than just our own customs.  God is bigger than the people of Israel.  God is bigger than Christianity.  God is bigger than Islam.  God is big enough to encompass all people, all traditions.

So may we follow the example of the Magi, who saw God in this little child who was not of their own faith and tradition.  May we too respect what God is doing in all faiths until we come to that day when we all truly realize that we are all God's children.  Thanks be to God for the Magi and this Epiphany!