Sunday, October 25, 2015

Phil Kniss: Dusting off the family Bible

What if we did discernment like a family?
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21

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It’s time to dust off the family Bible.
    Now . . . no disrespect for the great Hank Williams and Kitty Wells,
        and other country singers who made famous the 1940s song,
        “Dust on the Bible, dust on the Holy Word
            The words of all the prophets and the sayings of our Lord,
        Of all the other books you’ll find, there’s none salvation holds,
            Get the dust off the Bible and redeem your poor soul.”
    Nothing against that song.
        It’s point is well-taken.
        The Bible doesn’t do a lot to shape our lives
            if we don’t actively read and engage with it.

But . . . I mean something a little bit different,
    when I say we need to dust off the family Bible.

I mean, the Bible is intended, from the start,
    to be the book of a people,
        an extended family,
        the household of God,
        the oikos.
    It is to shape household life,
        household values,
        household politics,
        household economics . . .
    It is to shape in nearly every way
        how the household functions within the culture it finds itself.

But that way of reading and engaging scripture,
    especially in our modern, individualistic age,
    has largely fallen into disuse.
    There is a thick layer of accumulated dust obscuring it.
        And it’s time to dust off the family nature of the Bible,
            and start letting it form and shape us,
            as a spiritual family, as an oikos.

To begin to make my point,
    I take us to an unlikely place in scripture—Nehemiah 8.

The people of God had been in exile, in Babylon,
    for generations.
    So many years that,
        in the absence of temple worship,
        in the absence of annual religious festivals and rituals,
        in the absence of any reading of the law, the Torah,
            by anyone at all, for generations,
        the power of that book to shape people’s identity, and moral life,
            was completely gone.
    There was a mass collective forgetfulness about who they were.
        If there were any memories passed on about the old days,
            they were certainly fuzzy, indistinct, and confusing,
            and had no power to shape their moral life . . .

        until they returned,
            and Ezra and Nehemiah helped lead them
            in a massive rebuilding project.

    They rebuilt the city walls,
        they restored the temple from its state of disrepair.
    And in the process, they discovered,
        literally, a dusty Bible.
        They found the Torah scroll in the rubble.
        And after a few learned people read it,
            and realized the importance of this discovery,
            they had a public celebration,
            in order to restore the book
                to its rightful place among the people.

    Nearly 50,000 people were gathered there, we are told.
        And they brought out the book
            and gave it back to the people.

    Obviously, when I say it was given to the people,
        it was not a mass individual distribution.
        Ezra didn’t pass out 50,000 little green Testaments,
            and tell the people, “Now go home. Read and obey.”
        They didn’t teach familiarity with the Bible,
            the way I was taught growing up.
        In addition to the Bibles I showed the children,
            I was given gift Bibles by my church,
            some of which had a list of inspirational verses in the back,
                and a chart telling me what verse to read
                    if I was discouraged,
                    or afraid,
                    or tempted,
                    or if I needed to forgive someone . . .
        Nothing wrong with that, per se.
            It was actually helpful sometimes.
                [note piece of paper in my HS Bible]
        But that’s not what happened here.

    Another thing that didn’t happen,
        is that Ezra, as their expert leader and theologian,
            did not just read it to them and tell them what it meant.

No. What happened probably seems a little strange to us,
    and also very cumbersome and inefficient.

First Ezra, and 12 other people, 6 on his right, and 6 on his left,
    read the text out aloud to the people . . . for six hours.
    And then those 12, plus 14 more,
        worked with the people to make sense out of what they heard.
All 26 helpers are listed by name in Nehemiah 8, v. 4 and v. 7.
    Linda/Mark, I’m so sorry for making you read all those names,
        but the fact that all 26 were named,
        shows how significant these interpretation assistants were.

    Exactly how these 26 interpreters did their work,
        we aren’t told.
    The story implies that they fanned out among the people,
        and worked in smaller groups,
        worked together at the task of interpreting and discerning.
    They would have had to.
        How else do you lead a 50,000 person Bible Study session?

In any case, it was not a private reading for private inspiration.
    It was family work.
    It was the combined work of the whole people,
        a people moved by the Spirit of God,
        to seek the word and will of God together.

And I just love what happened next.
    The result was so powerful,
        that 50,000 people spontaneously fell on their faces . . . and wept.
    The emotion of remembering and reconnecting
        with something deep within them that they had lost,
            overpowered them, and they wept.

Now, to be sure . . .
    it’s not that we can’t be individually blessed and inspired
    by reading and reflecting on scripture on our own.
    I have been . . . many times.
        And I will be many more times as my faith journey continues.
    We need, in fact, to strive for that kind of personal familiarity
        with scripture.
    We should expect, and prepare for,
        ways to open our own lives to the Spirit’s work
        of teaching and shaping us through God’s Word.
    So please, hear me say that.
    But also, please, hear me say that the Bible is first of all,
        a book of the People whom God has called into being.
        Our individual encounters with the text,
            must be in the context of, and informed by,
            our communal engagement with scripture.

Our Mennonite Confession of Faith
    puts it beautifully,
    “The Bible is the essential book of the church . . .
        We commit ourselves to persist and delight
            in reading, studying, and meditating on the Scriptures.
        We participate in the church’s task of interpreting the Bible
            and of discerning what God is saying in our time
            by examining all things in the light of Scripture.
        Insights . . . we bring are to be tested in the faith community.”

Reading and interpreting the Bible is the task of the church—
    a task in which we all have an obligation to participate.
    This is not a job we delegate to preachers and professors
        and ask them to report back.

Wrestling with scripture is our job, that we must do together,
    if we want to call ourselves a household of God.

One of my critiques of the church of our times—
    the 21st-century, Western church,
        in our post-Christian, individualistic culture—
    is that Christians cop out when it comes to wrestling with scripture.

    I see this happen all along the theological spectrum,
        left and right and in-between.

It’s a result of the culture we live in,
    that we don’t look to the family, the oikos,
        in any serious way,
        for the task of discerning the will of God through scripture.

This ignoring of the family nature of the Bible
    takes different forms.

    There is the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,”
        form of Biblical individualism.
    That form essentially denies the need for interpretation,
        denies the need to apply scriptures to different cultural contexts,
        and therefore doesn’t need the community to wrestle with
            the question of what God’s will is for this time and place.
    The person that says, “God said it, that settles it,”
        basically claims there is one plain reading for all time
        that doesn’t need to be confused by group discernment.
    But usually, those who say that,
        do not adequately take into account
        that the way they read the text
            already has been shaped by a tradition and a people
                who wrestled with it at some earlier time and context,
            and that their personal understanding emerged from
                a particular tradition and people they identify with.

    And at a very different point on the theological spectrum
        there is the “however you want to read it is fine with me”
        form of Biblical individualism.
    That form essentially claims that every individual
        is free to take from the text whatever they see in it
            that seems helpful to them at the moment.
        If you’ll pardon me,
            that’s a feeble form of Christian spirituality.
            It’s a kind of therapeutic deism—
                “the God you most want is the God you should have.”
        It certainly is a user-friendly way to read the Bible,
            and might help some people get along easier.
        But it doesn’t take seriously the wisdom of
            the tradition and history where one is located.
            Or the wisdom of other traditions,
                in other times and contexts.
            It doesn’t appeal to a higher truth, or meta-truth,
                beyond the self,
                truth that can be discerned together,
                    with others, with the help of God’s Spirit.
        It’s an every-reader-for-themselves approach.
            Thoroughly individualistic.
            Thoroughly in line with our culture.

Both those examples—
    and I admit I may have exaggerated them to make a point—
    both fail to take the household of God into account.

    One puts all the authority
        on the plain, uninterpreted text.
        It denies the need for the family of God to wrestle together,
            and risks making a god out of the written word,
            instead of worshiping the Living Word who inspired it.
    The other puts all the authority
        on the individual present-day reader.
        It denies the need to collectively discern truth,
            and fails to adequately respect those who have gone before.

That is why I say we should dust off the family Bible,
    the Bible of the oikos.
    And that we should do the hard work of discerning God’s will
        as a family of sisters and brothers united in Christ.

Jesus himself saw the need to contextualize scripture,
    and let it speak in new ways, in a new context,
        read and interpreted communally.

Jesus participated in the Jewish rabbinical practice
    of going to synagogue every day,
    reading the text of the day,
        and then discussing it, parsing it out,
        seeking the truth it had for this reading, in this time and place.

We heard the story in Luke 4.
    Jesus went back to visit his hometown of Nazareth,
        and went to the synagogue,
        and as a visiting rabbi, was invited to read the day’s text.
    So he read from the prophet Isaiah,
        and then sat down, as was customary,
        to give his commentary on the text.
    It was a nine-word commentary,
        “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
    And they were all amazed and drawn in by his words.

    But then he started to say other things,
        started spelling out some implications of the scripture,
        that pushed the edges of the community,
        namely, that God might care just as much about the Gentiles.
    That turned out to be more interpretation than they wanted to hear,
        so they turned against Jesus,
        and almost killed him in a town riot,
            that took him to the edge of a cliff.

But Jesus was following a standard practice,
    he dealt with scripture according to their tradition.
    That is, he read it amidst the community,
        and then engaged the community with the meaning.
    Like any good Jewish rabbi, he stirred up a good argument,
        as to what the sacred text meant, here, and now.
    That’s the way the Bible was always read.

I suggest that reading the Bible that way today
    will be no easier,
    and will be no less fraught with potential conflict.
    Certainly, we should be able to avoid riots,
        or trying to throw people off cliffs.
    But the work of communal, family-based,
        biblical interpretation,
        and biblical obedience,
            applied to our current time and context,
        will be hard work.
    And it is work that must be done
        if we want to be faithful to our Confession of Faith
            that tells us to do it,
        and if we want to be faithful to the biblical tradition itself.
    To do otherwise, is to cave in to our individualistic secular culture.

So I invite us, today, and every day,
    to dust off the family nature of the Bible,
        grow in our familiarity with it,
        and our willingness to wrestle with it.
    It is worth the struggle.

The Anabaptists of the 16th century
    certainly wrestled mightily with it,
        and with each other.
    The conclusions they came to from their wrestling
        sometimes led to persecution, and even death.
    But they found the Bible to be necessary for life.
        They found it to be a solid foundation to build on.

Some of them wrote poetry based on their experience with scripture.
    That poetry ended up in a tiny little hymnal called the Ausbund.

    Translated from the German, one of the poems goes like this:
        The word of God is solid ground,
            our constant firm confession,
            no source of freedom more profound,
            no purer a profession.

    And keeping in mind they were being imprisoned and executed,
        listen to this stanza:
        What powers can our faith constrain?
            What ironclad restrictions?
            No self-deceiving rule can chain
            our conscience and convictions.

Let’s sing this poem together, HWB 314.

—Phil Kniss, October 25, 2015

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