June 25, 2017
The scriptures are a rich resource for living into and through life situations.
Psalm 86:1-10 and Romans 6:1-11
As of last night, I find myself in a position that some of my friends call, “Taiwan Independent.” My wife left the country for an extended trip, and I’m here alone. She has gone to help her parents move to a smaller place. They have been in the same big American house for 30 years: 2 floors, full basement and 3-car garage. It’s full! A lot of the stuff was regularly used. But other is the kind of things we all acquire as we move through life; acquire and never get rid of. They either forgot they had it, or were emotionally attached to it, or thought they might use it later. Char’s sister has been helping them sort the full 2 bedrooms and one “sun porch” on the ground floor: furniture, book shelves, closets crammed with clothes and drawers that hadn’t been opened for decades. The full basement was full, too. The 3-car garage contained 2 cars: theirs and ours. The 3rd space was filled with lawn mowers machines, snow blowers, and all kinds of tools.
I love my wife’s parents. I admire them for how well they’ve lived on a limited income for many years. BUT, I’m glad NOT to be there as packing, moving, unpacking and settling into a new place happen.
In life we all acquire things, some of which may be useful, others “potentially useful, and others totally useless from the first time lay eyes on them. Any of us who reside in student housing will discover that the things you’ll have to deal with as you leave will far exceed what you brought with you when you arrived. For people of Christian faith, we have a book that we call the Bible. It is our rule for faith and life, but we only use bits and pieces of it here and there.
I.THE SCRIPTURE AS CANON
There are a lot of words we use for the Bible. The word “Bible” itself is related to the word for “book” in many Western languages. Sometimes we call it “Scripture”, which implies that it was written (scrip = scratch). When we say it is a rule for faith and life, we use the word “canon”, which means a standard measure, like a “ruler”, by which we can determine if something is straight or how long it is. Among the tools you have in your desk drawer, you likely have a ruler that you take out occasionally to draw a straight line or measure the size of something. It’s there, but you don’t use it a lot.
Last week I worked with a colleague to hang a large artwork in the library of Tainan Theological College. It’s 3.5 meters wide and 3 meters high. To hang it straight I put a hook in the wall for one end and laid a 4 meter pole on it. My colleague was on the other end, atop a ladder. To figure out where to put the hook that would hold the other end, I had thought to measure down from the ceiling equal distances at both ends. He just took out his smart phone, called up an app, laid it atop the stick, and moved his end up and down until the phone told him it was level. He marked the spot and drilled the holes. His “canon” for horizontal straightness is in his phone.
The Bible tells us that it is “canon”. In Psalm 119:9. A poet asks the question, “How can a young man keep his life pure?” and then answers it right off, “By keeping your commandments.” Here at Tainan International Community Church we sing a short Bible Song every week, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” We sing it for 2 reasons: 1) To give us a break between reading from the Old Testament and the New Testament; and 2) to remind ourselves that the Bible is a helpful tool as we make our way through life.
In a way similar to how a ruler is a good tool to have in the drawer and the apps we have on our smart phones can do many things for us, what we read in the Bible is helpful, even when it’s unclear to us, confusing to us, or seems to be of no immediate value for what we’re facing. We read a couple of those places today.
II, A GUIDE TO ST. PAUL IN ROMANS 6:1-11
From Romans we read what St. Paul wrote, responding to those who thought he was too free with assuring people of God’s grace and love. In chapters 4 and 5 he had argued that God’s grace, not human performance or keeping rules, is what ultimately saves us. Some hearing this made the logical conclusion that IF more sin was met with more grace, THEN the best thing people could do would be to sin more. After all, people like to sin, and God likes to love, forgive and be gracious. So it makes sense. But it’s not how things work. Salvation is by God’s grace, for sure, but sin isn’t the way to grace.
In verses 1-4 we learn some things about what it means to be “in union with Christ”. In the past, we’re told, we were baptized into union with his death, buried with him, and rose with him by the power of God, so that we might live a new life. That new life is free from the power of sin. Does that mean we won’t, or don’t get messed up in sin. NO. We are still far from perfect, which is why every week we spend time during worship 1) admitting our failing, 2) asking God for mercy, 3) reminding ourselves and each other of God’s love, and 4) hearing instruction from “our rule of faith and life” for how we are to live into the future.
The rest of these 11 verses are about our present and future reality. Though sin still troubles us, we are not defeated by it. Though we had once been slaves of sin, we’re free from it. Our sin didn’t kill us, it killed Christ, but he rose again. So we identify with him, and live in fellowship with God through Christ Jesus.
Do I understand that? Not very well. Not today. Could I understand it? Maybe. If I could, should I spend YOUR time mapping it all out for you? Probably not. Though it is TRUE, it’s not necessarily interesting today. BUT SOME OTHER DAY it just might be exactly what I need. So, I’ll keep Romans 6:1-4 in my Bible for when I feel particularly oppressed by my sin, and verses 5-11 to give me hope for my future.
Through human history there have been people who have “adapted” the Bible because of how they felt about what they were reading at the time. One of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, twice in his life (in 1807 and 1830) gathered up several Bibles and went at them with a knife. He cut out the parts he agreed with and pasted them into a notebook. If he thought something was not reasonable or helpful, he didn’t cut it out for re-pasting into “Jefferson’s Bible.” Decades after his death, the American government printed 9,000 copies of “Jefferson’s Bible.” After several years, the ones that didn’t sell were presented, one by one, to new members of the US Senate until they ran out.
In the second half of the 19th century First Wave Feminism in America and Europe met opposition by members of the clergy quoting Bible verses. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a number of other movement leaders went to the scriptures. They found the bits being used against women, and re-wrote them. They also found the bits that promoted equality and re-wrote THEM to strengthen their case. You can still find “The Woman’s Bible” in libraries or buy it on Amazon.
Neither Jefferson nor Stanton needed to do what they did to the Bible. All that was needful for them, and all that is needful for us, is to remember that in the Bible there is storage space for more than we can use at any one time.
III. A PRAYER FOR HELP
Believers through the ages have loved the Psalms. 500 years ago Martin Luther found them the second best part of the Bible, right after the Epistles of St. Paul. Personally, sometimes I get tired of all the complainers whose poetry is found in the Psalms. When I see a Psalm titled, like Psalm 86 that we read this afternoon, “A Prayer for Help”, I’m tempted to skip it. It just doesn’t speak to my present situation. But there are a LOT of prayers like Psalm 86 in the Bible.
In verses 1-5 the poet shows a belief in a “transactional” relationship with God. “I do this and You do that.” It’s like politics in many countries where those in charge of government, of the courts and of big business engage in “I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine.”
He starts out pretty well, in verse 1, “listen and answer because I am helpless and weak.”, but gets all whiny, self-important and demanding for the next 4 verses:
V.2: save me from death because I am loyal to you.
Save me because I am your servant and trust you
V3: Be merciful to me because you are my God
Be merciful to me because I pray to you all day long.
V.4: Make me glad because I am your servant
Make me glad because my prayers go to you.
V.5: Do all of these things because you are good.
Do all of these things because you love people who pray.
In everything after the “helpless and weak” part in verse 1, the tone is “off”. I won’t cut this one out of my Bible, I’ll use it to remind myself that nothing I do “scratches God’s back.” These verses model for me what kind of a praying person I SHOULDN’T be.
Verses 6 to 10 are more helpful. The poet begins again with a request to be heard, but for different reasons. It’s not about the poet’s own performance of goodness, but it is about the character of God: who is an answerer of prayers; who is greater than any other spiritual being; who is the creator of all the nations; who is mighty; and who works wonderful things. In contrast, I’m helpless, so I plead with God to hear and answer me.
These verses, like what we read in Romans 6, may not be of immediate need to us in our current conditions. But when we feel helpless and want to turn to God in prayer for help, they may be reminders to us of how NOT to pray, and of the character of the one to whom we address our prayers.
There’s an online education website, Khan Academy, where I spend a lot of time. Originally I took an Art History course; watch a video, read an essay, take a quiz. If you ask questions, anybody is free to respond. After watching videos and reading essays for about a year, I began to respond to other students’ questions. When I finished Art History I moved to English Grammar, not taking the course but answering questions.
Not infrequently someone will ask “Why do we have to know this stuff?” Usually it’s a young person who would rather do something other than learn new facts. He or she doesn’t want to spend the effort needed to remember it all. Sometimes as people of faith we are the same way, so we offload the need to know what’s in the Bible to our grandparents, to our Sunday school teachers or to our pastors. It’s just too much for us to keep in mind.
Sisters and brothers, you don’t have to know it all. Though Bibles come in all kinds of translations and many different sizes, they all contain the same stuff. Much of that stuff may be useless to any of us at any particular time, some of which you may never need or be able to believe.
The invitations to us are to be Christians, centered on Christ, and theologians, focused on God. We are not called to be “Biblians”, whose main focus is the Bible. This is a valuable tool, it is revealed by God to be our rule of faith and life. Like the closets, basement and garage at my wife’s parents’ house, it is full of stuff, much of which we’ll never use. Cherish it, use what you can, leave the rest in storage. Our title today puts it into 6 words. “Keep it All, Use when Needed.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN