Zephaniah 1:7,12-18               Psalm 90:1-8 (9-11)12            I Thess 5:1-11         Matthew 25:14-30

Were you listening to today’s collect?  It’s probably the most famous in the prayer book.   Thomas Cranmer himself wrote the first version of this prayer and it is so beautifully done that it has survived 5 centuries almost unchanged.  

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

How’s that whole ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ thingie going for you?

If it’s not easy, take heart.  You aren’t alone.  We Episcopalians tend to be proud of the fact that we read and hear more Scripture in church than many other Protestant denominations, but I’m not sure that we’re doing any better with the other three – marking, learning, and inwardly digesting. It’s a struggle for everybody, but then again, most things worth doing take some work.  As Martin Luther famously said, “scripture is the swaddling clothes and manger within which Christ lies.”  We all have to make our own way to the manger. 

Consider how we got the collection of books that we refer to as the Bible.  Many were ancient Jewish texts that had been studied for centuries in the synagogues.  Not all the ancient texts that were preserved and studied were eventually accepted into the canon.  The Book of Enoch is quoted in the Epistle of Jude, but it didn’t make the cut, probably because Enoch goes on at some length about fallen angels, and the church fathers concluded that a) he couldn’t know any of that, and b) it wasn’t relevant to worshipping God anyway. 

Our Gospels were a collection of memories - Jesus’s words were not written down in his lifetime.  Most of them were recorded after 30 years or more had gone by.  Do you remember what was happening in 1987?  Let’s see:

  • Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister,
  • the Unabomber blew up a computer store in Salt Lake City,
  • U2 released their album ‘The Joshua Tree’, and
  • The first two Starbucks opened in Seattle and Vancouver

If you remember any of that stuff, congratulations.  I looked it up, and The Joshua Tree was the only thing I remembered with much clarity and that’s because I bought a copy.  30 years is a long time – people’s memories are good but not perfect, and Jesus’s words had a context at the time they were spoken.  The words and context might have been separated in the recollecting.  The church spent about 300 years working out what Jesus probably really said versus what people thought they remembered.   The words that were tested and authenticated came to be the canon of the scriptures. 

The epistles are also not necessarily dictation.  Many of the letters attributed to Paul are considered authentically his, but quite a few of them may well have been written by other people.  This wasn’t meant to be dishonest, but to claim that the writer was continuing in the tradition of the person cited; it was a gesture of respect.  So I Thessalonians was almost certainly written by St. Paul but the evidence for II Thessalonians is sketchier – it may have had a ghostwriter.  Our Bible as we know it today was assembled from countless sources and affirmed to be the word of God.  

It took centuries, but it was worth it to pick and choose the books that ‘divinely inspired’.  The books that, over and over, made a difference to the people who read and studied them.  The fathers of the church struggled with scriptures too.  We all have to make our own way to the manger.

We 21st century American Christians seem to be a bit conflicted about the Bible.  The American Bible Society conducts a survey every year or two, asking a sample of around a thousand people from all ages, income levels, education levels, and denominations questions about the Bible.  It turns out that most people in the US believe the Bible is a book of holy wisdom, most households have at least one copy, and everybody has an opinion on how much influence the Bible has on modern society.  Around half of us think it’s too little and the other half think it’s too much.  The survey described ‘regular Bible reading’ as four or more times per year, by the way – not exactly full immersion, contact-sport daily tussling with the Scriptures.

The most interesting statistic they reported in the 2015 survey was in response to the question “Do you think politicians would be more effective if they regularly read the Bible?”  56% of us say yes – but that’s 75% of us older folks, and only 35% of the millenials.  The related question of “Do you think politics would be more civil if politicians read the Bible regularly?”  got about the same split. 

These are sobering statistics. We all have to make our own way to the manger, but it seems that we aren’t taking the next generation with us.  

The survey goes on to ask questions about morality and the Bible, and the answers they got indicate that many millenials think church is all about money, self-righteousness, and perhaps a bit of bigotry thrown in for good measure.  Given that there’s no more social pressure to go to church and hardly anybody is worried about going to hell, why would anybody bother with all this stuff?  Sleep in on Sunday then laze around reading the paper over a cup of coffee.  The Bible is just ammunition for controlling other people, right?  As Dana Carvey’s SNL character The Church Lady has said, ‘Counting other people’s sins doesn’t make you a saint.’  Leave all that religious claptrap alone and mind your own business.  And now you’re trapped here listening to me go on and on; more pressure, more guilt, more responsibilities.

We have these books that have helped people live for more than 40 centuries.  We believers tend to think there is something powerful in those pages but we aren’t convinced it’s STILL worth struggling for.  It might be too much trouble.

Manger?  What manger?

Brothers and sisters, I invite you to pick up your Bibles to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.  I do not do so in the hope of manipulating you further or to check off a box on my leadership to-do list. 

I invite you because there is a terrible rumor going around that a relationship with God requires the drudgery, obedience, and misery of a slave.  That everything about God, church, and religion is hard thankless work and a constant headache.  That this Christianity thing is elbow grease and worry, and people will still talk about you and think badly of you, and terrible things still happen and then you die.  Maybe some folks get to go to heaven, but considering the company, perhaps you’d rather not go with.  J

It’s not true.

The truth is that Christianity is the joy and wonder of being God’s beloved child.  The church is full of people who genuinely want only good for you and pray for you to be blessed and comforted.  The Bible isn’t simply a yardstick to tell you what all those other people are doing wrong.  It is full of hope FOR US.

The Bible is the story of how God and humans are family.  He spent the whole Old Testament telling us how He created us and made us special, then He explained in the New Testament how He sacrificed Himself for us because He loves us so much.  The entire Bible is full of grace and hope, and you should read it for yourself.  Don’t take somebody else’s word for it that fire and brimstone are the main themes – I am here to testify that the main theme is GRACE.

Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist writes “You ARE going to need some strong, comforting, hope-filled words, tested over the ages and made holy by the multitudes who have lived before you. You WILL need some strong, comforting, hope-filled words to navigate life – yours or someone else’s – sooner or later. What can you draw from the Scriptures, what can to take to memory and heart that will help you claim what you know to be true?  Do that.  St. Paul said, “For I am sure that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is true, completely true. Find some words from Scripture that will help you remember it and claim it in your hour of need.” 

And I would add, “Find the words that make your heart dance, the ones that remind you that God delights in you and finds you and all He has made Very Good.  Claim THAT too.”  It’s worth the work and struggle.

Today is the day when we make our pledge to God and the church for the coming year.  Next Sunday is the last Sunday of Ordinary Time – the following week is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the church year.  We in the church therefore get the early-bird special on New Year’s resolutions.  What is God inviting you to in 2018?  Can you find hints and breadcrumbs in your reading of the Bible?

After all, we all have to make our own way to the manger.   AMEN+++

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