The Last Sunday after Pentecost
In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come. Amen.
I remember growing up, when I would visit my grandparents, and go to Sunday School classes or Vacation Bible Schools at the little Southern Baptist Churches where my parents grew up, I always felt a little bit shamed by my lack of knowledge about the “facts” of the Bible. The expectations of my peers in those situations was that one should be able to rattle off any number of “things” about the Bible: all the books in the correct order that they’re printed in the Bible; all the books in alphabetical order; who wrote each book; where to find any given book on a moment’s notice, without consulting the table of contents. And there were “memory verses” – things that you were supposed to be able to recite at any time: the 10 commandments, in order, of course; the beatitudes; lots of the “one-liners”… We were expected to know them, chapter and verse, inside and out – repeating them word for word, regardless of whether or not we knew what they meant.
Needless to say, I was always at the back of the class. And, like I said, it always left me feeling a little bit ashamed. That just wasn’t the focus of the United Methodist Church of my upbringing. We had Sunday School and Vacation Bible School – but we didn’t do the kind of “drill” exercises that were common with the Baptists.
Now, all these years later, here I am – a priest, and I still have to consult the Table of Contents if someone calls on me to find a passage in Habakkuk. Truth be told, aside from the 4 Gospels and Acts, the Psalms, the Torrah, and Revelation – I’d be hard-pressed to find anything in the Bible without checking the instructions.
The assumption that was thrust upon me as a child was, because I didn’t have the whole thing memorized – or at least the parts that the Baptist Church told me were important – then I must not be taking the Bible seriously enough.
While we don’t focus on those kinds of memorization skills in the Episcopal Church, our patterns of worship show that we do, actually, take the Bible – and its lessons for us – very seriously. The fact is, if you’d come to church every Sunday this year, and for the few extra main services that we had on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and the services of Holy Week, and the couple of funerals we hosted here this year – you would have heard at least 236 Bible readings in worship over the course of this liturgical year. That’s to say nothing of the Thursday healing services and the nearly daily Morning Prayer that happens in the chapel each week. While our focus is different from some other churches, there is no doubting that we take the Bible seriously in this church.
That came to mind for me last week as I was reflecting on a spiritual exercise that we did at the beginning of the Vestry Mutual Ministry Review last weekend. We were called to consider where we see ourselves in the stories of the Bible. We asked ourselves, what was some character in a parable, or in the life of Jesus, or somewhere else in our sacred texts that resonated with us and our own experiences of life? Where could we find ourselves in this story we take so seriously?
In reality, that’s some of what I’m trying to do every week here from this lectern – I’m trying to guide us through a process of seeing ourselves in the story; of seeing that these stories – no matter how old or from how far away – still hold truths for us as Christians, even today.
But Pontius Pilate tried to turn that process upside down. “Are you the King of the Jews?”, he asked him. He was trying to figure out how Jesus fit into his story. It couldn’t have occurred to him to wonder how he fit into the story of Jesus. Jesus’ answers could be heard as sarcastic – as if he were avoiding the question, if that’s how you wanted to hear them, but I’ve always heard his answers with a tone of patience and compassion. He wasn’t so much trying to avoid answering, as he was trying to get Pilate to see the different frame he represented.
“My kingdom is not from this world.” Our understandings of kingdom and rule and freedom and punishment, and even death are simply fundamentally different from one another.
Jesus came, not to find his way into the stories we’ve written, but to write a new story altogether. The point of Jesus’ life and ministry was not to help us fit in better, in the narrative of the world, but to rewrite the narrative in a way that would help our own lives fit in better with the imagination of God.
Now, as we end another year of reading and hearing and studying and reflecting, it’s worth taking a step back and asking, where did you see yourself this year? We keep going out of our way to encounter these stories because we do believe that they’re still important. We believe that we are among those people that Jesus talks about as “belonging to the truth”, and so we keep listening.
Every Sunday, one of the real gifts I have in serving as your priest is standing at that altar and leading us through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. At the words of institution, I raise the elements, first the bread on its paten, and then the wine in its chalice. As I lift that cup each week, I’m blown away again every time, when I realize that I can see myself in it, along with the other ministers of communion standing at my sides. I always imagine what it must look like from the other sides – reflecting each of us, in our own ways from our own positions and perspectives – but all a part of the common cup; all a part of the common blessing, and the common story. When we lift the things of our communion up to God, we’re lifting ourselves up to God, too.
It's a physical representation of the spiritual truth found in our worship each week.
I can’t imagine that I’ll ever ask you to memorize chunks of the Bible. I won’t quiz you or drill you on how quickly you can find obscure passages. The fact is, I’d be willing to bet that many (if not most) of you could beat me in those games. But what I will ask of you is to take these stories seriously. To practice seeing yourself in them, until it comes as easily as seeing yourself in the mirror-finish of the chalice.
As we begin another year, remember that you’re in there, too – in every passage we read and every story we tell. Whether or not you’ve memorized the words, God has written you in. Amen.