Sermon: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning, we’re going to talk about the way we read scripture. Yes, contrary to popular belief in some quarters, Episcopalians really do read the Bible! This is an important truth to clarify, especially in light of some of the heated discussions currently going on in the wider church.
So, first of all, think about our typical Sunday morning worship. Whether we are celebrating Morning Prayer or Holy Eucharist, we not only read significant portions of both the Old and New Testaments; but most of the other prayers and responses we use are biblically-based as well. This has been true since Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and his advisors put together the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and it is still true today. Our liturgy has deep roots, and they are wholly biblical.
Then, believe it or not, many Episcopalians-- even some right here in this very church-- actually pick up a bible during the week, as well! In addition to personal devotional reading, we have an ongoing Bible Study group that meets at Calvary, and another short study series starting next week at St. Paul’s. There were also people in all four of our regional churches who made the effort to read “The Bible in 90 Days” earlier this year. And that doesn’t count the unidentified number of folks who read on their own.
Now, this is not to say that is sufficient. There are those of us who are perhaps less intentional about reading the Bible than we could be. It can be hard, I know. There are a number of reasons for that, of course; but I would suggest that often, the problem is that we try to read in isolation. That can mean two things: either (1) reading only select bits and pieces, or (2) reading scripture all by itself, without relation to other contexts.
Today’s Gospel is a fine case in point. Picture, if you will, that you decide you are going to be more intentional about reading the Bible. So, you trot down to the local bookstore and pick up a nice new copy, in a good, contemporary translation. Then you head home, pour yourself a glass of your favorite beverage, sit down in a comfy chair, turn on the reading lamp, adjust your glasses, and open the book to this:
"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Whoa! What in the world is that supposed to mean? Imagine, if one were to try to take that literally, the kind of thought process that might result.
Is Jesus actually saying that I am to hate my siblings? Is he telling me to abandon my family? To commit suicide? That verse, taken all by itself, could lead to some unhealthy or even tragic actions taken “in the name of God.”
On the other hand, it would be hard to blame someone who chose to shut the book and pitch it in a corner, and never darken the door of the church again. I mean, if that’s the kind of stuff Jesus were teaching, I’d want no part of it either!
Fortunately, “in isolation” is not the way we approach scripture. It never has been. One of the hallmarks of our Anglican tradition is that, just as Jesus did in his teaching, we have always encouraged a multifaceted approach.
One of the architects of Anglican theology was Richard Hooker, a 16th century priest and theologian. He maintained that it was important to recognize that the Bible was written in a particular historical context, in response to specific situations: "Words must be taken according to the matter whereof they are uttered.” He also argued that reason and tradition were important when interpreting the Scriptures. These three things-- scripture, tradition, and reason-- are often termed as foundational pillars of Anglican thought.
So, back to today’s Gospel reading. What happens if we keep these pillars in mind? Well, we start with the scriptures. We might first go back to the Greek, and discover that the word here translated “hate” does not, I am told, always carry the emotional sense of loathing that we think of when we hear the word. Instead, it can indicate more along the lines of detachment, the opposite of intimacy. Well, that’s at least a little more palatable.
But we also need to consider more of the Bible beyond this passage-- not only what comes before and after this particular section, but what other portions say that might be pertinent to the issue. In Matthew’s gospel, for example, the parallel teaching says
"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Going further, we might consider in comparison the many times that we are told to love: to love one another, to love our neighbors, and even to love our enemies. That happens over and over. In Luke’s gospel alone, it occurs more than a dozen times, where this contrasting instruction to hate only happens once-- and the few other references to hatred have more to do with how we are to react when encountering hatred from others. So, the preponderance of scripture leans against a literal understanding of this passage.
Next, let’s consider tradition. Nope-- no hatred encouraged there, either. Many of the early church fathers instead interpreted this passage more like the following:
Even those affections which are in themselves worthy, praise and commendation must be controlled and kept in order, so that godliness may have the upper hand and have preeminence.
Then we come to reason (though we’ve been using reason all along here, I hope!) . Let’s take what we know of God, and of human relationships, and think about it. Does it not strike you as illogical that a God of love would tell people to hate one another, in that way? And if our life is a gift from God the Creator, how could it be something we should despise? That just makes no sense. Far more reasonable is the interpretation which says that God, being God, is more important that anything or anyone else. The Creator takes precedence over the created.
There you have it. A verse of scripture, if taken in isolation and read “literally,” clearly says one thing. But when we read more carefully, in light of the rest of scripture, and the traditions of the church, using our God-given abilities to reason together, it says something entirely different. Heard properly, it offers a warning against idolatry, and a reminder of where our priorities should lie.
Oh, sure; it would be much easier to not work this hard. “God says it - I believe it - that settles it.” The only problem with that... is that it doesn’t.
So, continue to read your Bibles, my brothers and sisters. Listen to the proclamation of scripture on Sunday morning, and attend studies as you are able, and read on your own. But never be afraid to question, to dig deeper, and to refuse to take the words at face value.
That’s what discipleship is all about.