How To Read The Bible

Hello, friends, and welcome back. I’m the Rev. Sare Liz Anuszkiewicz and this is the Sunday Sermon. If you’re looking for the bits of the bible I’ve referenced in this sermon, you can find the link right here. For the nerds in the know, this is Proper 28, Track 2, Year C, and here’s the sermon I preached on Sunday, November 13, 2022.

Listen to the audio-only version of the sermon here, or read it below!

Good Morning! As I was studying the readings this week, preparing this sermon, I was struck with the deep desire to preach five different sermons, each about 25 minutes long. And I’m not going to do that (you’re welcome), but that’s how much good stuff there is in the readings and the collect this week. So let me give you something of an overview instead.

So, this collect, one of the opening prayers I read at the beginning of the service, but one that changes every week, this collect is the theme of the readings (as it always is). And the collect, or prayer, encourages us to ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest’ the bible. And I know how some of you feel about highlighting or writing in the margins of your bibles, but whether you highlight or not, I encourage you to think about this prayer, because it’s telling us we need to study scripture so that we can understand it in a deep way. And there are lots of ways to study scripture, and in our readings today, there are two opposite ways that are very helpful, so let me walk you through them.

The first way I want to highlight (and there are more than just two, but there’s only so much I can fit into a short sermon) is this idea of really closely examining the text, almost as if with a magnifying glass. To pick apart the words, go back to the original languages, parse the meanings and see if the original language can give more context, more clues about how to best interpret the reading. And in this section of Second Thessalonians, we have a good moment for this. Now, Second Thessalonians wasn’t written by Paul, it was written by one of his students, or an admirer, but what we have here is a section of the bible that social conservatives have used as justification that we shouldn’t help the poor. Because if you’re just going to be idle, it says it in the bible that you shouldn’t be helped. You gotta work. Now, aside from the fact that it wasn’t Jesus who said that, and it wasn’t even a first or second generation student of Jesus who said that, it was at best a third generation student (and the theology just gets sketchier and harsher the farther out you go from Jesus), aside from that… the original Greek word that gets translated into idle and idleness here… it also means a state of being that ignores the common good. And when we read this passage using that deeper, more complex meaning instead of the quick and short translation of ‘idleness’, we get a different, deeper, and more nuanced message. Paul’s student is telling the people at the church of Thessolonica ‘don’t be fooled by people who care nothing for the common good – don’t listen to them, don’t let them teach or sway you, and don’t use them as an example for your own life.’ So. Digging in super deep, looking so very closely in this passage reminds us of two very important things. The most important thing in a healthy community is that it is filled with people who care about the common good. The second thing we’re reminded of is that it’s not a passage that is instructing us not to care for a certain group of people (the undeserving or idle poor, for instance). It’s a passage that is warning us not to let people in power who care nothing for the common good to teach and sway us to follow their example. So it’s not about giving to someone else, it’s about receiving and being changed by a bad influence. And we can understand that more clearly when we dig deep and look closely.

Ah, but there’s another way to study scripture, and that is to back up at least ten feet away and squint. It’s like learning to appreciate a Monet, which you can’t do up close, because you’ll never realize what you’re even looking at, that it’s a beautiful garden, or a Japanese footbridge. It’s only when you back up and let your eyes glaze over that you can see all the impressionistic strokes coming together to form something heart-wrenchingly beautiful. And the reading from Luke this week is like that.

Now, if you look at this passage too closely, you can just get freaked out about the end times, you can get too focused on exact details and how it will happen, and what it will look like, and when, and so on. So back up instead. Back up and see that Jesus was surrounded by people who thought the Temple in Jerusalem was an invincible symbol of their invincible God… except that temple was going to be ripped down to the ground in forty more years and Jesus could see the writing on the wall. Back up and squint and see that Jesus was surrounded by people who desperately wanted to know exact details about the future so they could try to save themselves, but Jesus wasn’t biting. Back up and squint and see that Jesus is warning them that nothing in this world lasts, not even the things we think are invincible. Today we might hear a similar sort of message: good people will die and bad people will prosper. Wars will consume nations and warlords will rise and fall like the tides of the ocean. The planet will warm, sea levels will rise, everything will change. And still – Jesus might say to us now – still these will not be the signs you’re looking for.

When we back up and squint as if looking at a Monet, we see that Jesus is telling us that we don’t get to know the future, except that it will get worse before it gets better. We don’t get to know the future, except that we shouldn’t put our faith in the structures of this world, because they will disappoint us.

And so there we have it. Two very different ways of studying scripture, thinking about it deeply, and working to integrate it into your life. A close looking, almost surgical approach, and a far-away Monet type approach. Both can be useful.


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