"The Words of this Book"

Sunday sermon from Trinity Sunday, May 26, 2013
Texts: 2 Kings 22:1-13; Galatians 2:15-3:14
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

A few years ago I was wandering through an airport terminal on the way to my gate. I don't remember which airport it was, what my destination was, whether I was with anybody, what airline I was on; apparently there was nothing memorably about this trip except for the moment when my eyes wandered past the display case of one of those airport bookstores and the title that greeted me was called The Bible Cure for Diabetes. Now, this project struck me as being beyond strange on a number of levels. First, though I claim no expertise in some of the Bible's more labyrinthine passages, I'm fairly sure that nowhere in the text is there something like a patentable scientific or pharmaceutical discovery. Which is not to say that nobody in the Bible had diabetes, but then, the only Biblical instances of something like medical healing would be Jesus' driving out of the possessing demons. Which, even if it worked on diabetes, would surely be hard for someone to implement in an airport concourse unless you actually were Jesus. At which point you surely would not need the paperback.

Part of me wanted a great deal to sit and leaf through this book and compare its contents against what at this point were the vivid contents of my imagination. But the other part of me did not want to be seen, even in the relatively anonymous space of a major airport terminal, purchasing and carrying and God-forbid-reading a copy of a book called The Bible Cure for Diabetes, and so I have to admit to you that I do not today carry with me knowledge of its finer points. I can, however, tell you that it is part of a remarkable series. The Bible Cure for Arthritis. The Bible Cure for Heart Disease. Even The Bible Cure for Cancer. And of course there's a part of me that desperately wants to believe the promise implicit in those titles, and I would not fault anyone for so believing. But there's another part of me that is somewhere beyond skeptical and something closer to offended. I'm offended on behalf of the countless number of scientists, who have worked countless years at the cost of countless millions of dollars for the cause of actually curing cancer or actually curing diabetes - who now have themselves to walk past a book making the insulting claim that the answers were there in front of them the whole time, if only they would have opened the Bible to the right page. And I'm just as offended on my own behalf, on behalf of Christians everywhere, on behalf of all of us who believe in the particular power and uniqueness of this book; I'm offended to see the Bible turned into a kind of cheap panacea, like one of those old tonics that could supposedly heal anything. I have it as a central conviction that the Bible is something more complicated than a cure-all and that what we proclaim to the world is somehow more profound than just the current price of snake oil.

But it does present a question. Which is to say, the deep-down premise of The Bible Cure for Diabetes seems to be, as you have undoubtedly heard it said elsewhere, is that there is no problem so intractable that its answer cannot be found in the pages of Scripture. That there is no obstacle in our own lives - no disease, no bad relationship, no personal demon, no natural calamity - nothing that cannot be solved with the right attention to Scripture; that, when perfectly read, the Bible teaches us how to live perfectly. And if the Bible isn't that - if what we have here isn't just the first edition of Life's Little Instruction Manual - then what are we doing reading it? What are we doing carrying around this old collection of ancient manuscripts, picking through them with a million fine-tooth combs? What are we doing with these stories of people with no connection whatsoever to the lives we live? Frankly, if reading the Bible can't cure diabetes - and while I'm no medical doctor, I'm fairly confident that it can't - if the Bible isn't just a cure-all for whatever ills we present before it, then why bother?

Today's two scripture readings seem at first glance to present two drastically different answers to the question. In the Old Testament reading, we find ourselves buried in the history of the Jewish Kings in Jerusalem before the period of the Babylonian exile, specifically during the reign of a king named Josiah. Josiah is remembered, and not only in this particular text, as a good King, a wise King, something of a reformer and a crusader, a King who lived and ruled according to the best ideals of the day. But the starting-point for Josiah's reign, the inciting event of his reforms, is today's story of the rediscovery of the Book of the Law. Josiah has dispatched workers to make accounting of the sum total of wealth stored within the Jerusalem Temple. And during the course of their work, one of the workers stumbles upon a scroll that in all likelihood resembles what we call the Book of Deuteronomy, one of the major books of the Jewish Law.

A reasonable question to ask of this text, given the central role of the Jewish law in Biblical history, is how is it could have come to pass that the Law itself, the physical scroll itself, could have been lost underneath a pile of coins? And yet I suspect we are no less guilty of the same behavior: for as often as our culture talks about Biblical values or uses selected verses to argue for the preferred social policy of the day, for as central a role as something called "The Bible" has in American society, for as many airport bookstores stay open simply on the promise of selling things that claim some vague association with the Bible, we actually don't really read it that much. We don't read it that carefully. We don't read it that well. We may have buried it just as deeply underneath our own pile of coins. But the more pressing question of this text is not "how did Jerusalem get to this point?" but rather "What happens now?" And what happens now is panic. The contents of the Book are nothing short of startling. As Josiah is presented with this long-forgotten Scripture, as he holds the Law up and against the real problems of His Kingdom, as he hears all of the covenantal rules and obligations that his people have so flagrantly ignored or defied, as he realizes the total accounting of their transgression, he concludes that the day of God's destruction must surely be at hand. The text says that "when the King heard the words of the book, he tore his clothes," which is what you do in the Old Testament when the end is near.

It's panic. And it's panic because the Jerusalem Kingdom understands Scripture to be fully and completely about law, fully and completely about telling God's people how to live. Which, if you've ever tried to read Deuteronomy through from one end to the other, makes total sense: the book is largely composed of legal codes for every aspect of community life, wrapped in only the thinnest veneer of a narrative. It promises God's protection especially to those who obey His commandments; it weaves God's actions and reactions into the everyday lives of ordinary people; if there really is a Biblical understand of diabetes, it is surely somewhere in the Book of Deuteronomy. But Josiah's response is not the only understanding of Scripture that we find in Scripture. Remember again the argument from today's other text, from Paul's somewhat testy letter to the Galatians. The early Christians in Galatia were not Jewish converts; they had no ancestral connection to the Jewish people nor any social history with the Jewish law. More than likely, they were worshippers of the Roman emperor. But when they converted to Christianity, they adopted the Jewish Scriptures as Law, as rules to live by, as the ultimate cure-all for whatever ailments befell them, as the ultimate arbiter of who could be included in their new Christian community.

Paul, of course, will have none of this. Paul, himself raised Jewish, notes that those who have become followers of Jesus have not done so because of any legal code but because of an act of faith, and therefore that that the Galatians have no business using the law as a blunt object against others who have similarly come to believe. "Having started with the spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?" Now, I should note that Paul elsewhere presents a much more complicated argument about the role of the law, but even here, even in his most severe critique of the relevance of the Jewish Law for Christian living, Paul is nonetheless reading Jewish Scripture. He uses the Biblical story of Abraham, who came to believe in God before the existence of the law, and before God required any particular work of him in return. Paul's using the Biblical story even as he is undercutting the importance of Biblical law - he's including his Gentile audience in the Biblical story of Abraham even as he sets aside the importance of Biblical law - which means that, for Paul, reading Scripture wasn't just about learning the rules. It's not just about learning codes and commandments and principles and practices that would supposedly make us into good people or give us better lives or answer our questions about the world or cure our diabetes. It's about connecting us to the long history of God's people - much like, in his own way, Josiah's rediscovery of the law connects him to his long-lost ancestors, his too-young-departed father, and the long history of his own people. So for Josiah as for Paul, Scripture isn't first about telling us how to live. It's about telling us who we are.

I've seen two episodes of a new comedy on HBO called Family Tree, and I'm kind of in love with it. Unfortunately my free HBO trial period just ended. But nonetheless. Family Tree is a half-hour fake-documentary style comedy about a British man named Tom, somewhat adrift around his thirtieth birthday, whose great-aunt dies and leaves him a trunk full of old family oddities. At first it seems like nothing but the most random collection of trash, like all of the antique dealers in London conspired to offload the rubbish at the bottom of their desk drawers, like someone took the leftovers from a two-day church rummage sale and packed them all into a single compartment. But it turns out that some of the pieces in the trunk are actually connections and relics from parts of Tom's own family that he barely knew or never knew existed. A simple photograph piques his curiosity, and sends Tom on a quest to discover a grandfather he never really knew; each subsequent piece ends up sending Tom onto some new chapter of discovery. It's a comedy, because Tom's family is just as full of bizarre, off-kilter relatives as any of ours are, only moreso, because it's television. But my hunch is that the show is just as much coming-of-age drama as it is comedy; that the real story is Tom's journey to weave together not only the disparate pieces of his own family but also the disparate pieces of himself, of his place in the family that brought him into the world, of his place in the story whose next chapter is his to write.

And so one of my priorities for our life together at Amherst Presbyterian Church is that we read Scripture together. Not just in the Sunday-morning sense of it, where I read Scripture during worship and we all kind of tune out until the sermon actually starts - yes, I know how church works -; no, my priority is that part of the lifeblood of our gathering is in the reading and recovering and rediscovering of Scripture. Which means that this summer two different things are going to happen. On Wednesday afternoons at 1:00, for anybody with an hour of time and a drop of curiosity, I am going to host here a very informal Bible study. We will quite literally begin at the beginning, reading Genesis together in a spirit of discovery and with plenty of room for questions and uncertainty. Bring all your doubts and all your wonders and all your hesitations; bring a late lunch if you want; bring a Bible if you want, though we have some around here as well. Then, on Sunday mornings this summer, I will likewise be reading and preaching through the first major section of the book of Genesis, the first eleven chapters - creation, Adam and Eve, Noah - the so-called primordial narratives before Abraham and Sara enter into the picture. My hope is that by concentrating on this one corner of the Biblical story, that by settling down for the summer instead of jumping each week from place to place, that reading together can begin to seep into the lifeblood of who we are.

And it seem to me that there are two ways this can go. If we read Scripture as Life's Little Instruction Manual; if, like Josiah, we expect to discover in the words of this book all of the things we've done wrong and all of the things we should be doing right; if we treat the Bible like the the ultimate how-to guide for successful Christian living, then we will soon find ourselves, much like Josiah, bogged down in a panic. But I think there's another way, and my hope for our time together is that we can read Scripture not to find out how to live but to find out who we are. To sort through the oddball trunk of stuff that we call "The Bible" and find those pieces that pique our curiosity. To discover the threads that connect us to the people and places and off-kilter characters that populate its pages. To find ourselves woven into the story of God's people and the story of God's faithfulness. So come with me, and let's read together. Let's read with wonder and imagination. Let's read with skepticism and doubt. Let's read with intelligence and grace and faithfulness and love. We will not find a cure for diabetes. But we might find out who we are, children of creation, children of God, children of the story of God told in the words of this book, children of the story whose next chapter is waiting to be written. Amen.