Some of you may know that one of the great privileges of my first year of service at Trinity is to shepherd our Catechesis class, which is a 20-week long immersion in the Christian and Episcopal traditions. And this past Wednesday and the coming one, we’re studying Holy Scripture: the Old and New Testaments. From a teacher’s perspective, that’s a flat out sprint. Nothing like having all of three hours to cover three thousand years of holy writ!
But in preparing for these classes, I’ve found myself thinking even more than usual—and I confess I think about this a lot already—about how we read the Bible in the Episcopal Church. Or better said, how we hear the Bible in the Episcopal Church. Because ours is really a listening tradition. Dating back to our Jewish and earliest Christian origins, our sacred stories and wisdom and laws have been told and recited in community far more frequently than they have been read in a book by an individual. Which profoundly impacts the way we experience and internalize them; not the least in terms of how we understand God acting through them. When we listen to ancient texts read aloud, we can hear the voice of the living God within them, irrespective of who we think wrote them or when.
How do I know when God is speaking to me through Bible? A pretty reliable measure for me is when the scriptures call me up short, and demand that I change. Which is a profoundly uncomfortable business, and surely not something I would choose to do, except that I trust the God whom I know to be challenging me through the text.
And challenge we have aplenty this week: if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment… anyone with lust has already committed adultery… do not swear, ever. Whew! By the sound of it, I’m in plenty of spiritual trouble. Time to sit up and listen anew to God.
So what might Jesus be teaching us here, all we who have committed one or many of the sins enumerated in today’s Gospel? Today we heard just a portion of the magisterial Sermon on the Mount, which begins with a vision of the blessed community of God and then reminds us of the Jewish ethical teachings—the law—that were intended to make it possible. But here Jesus doesn’t just demand righteous actions; he expands the scope of the law to cover intentions. So now it’s not enough just to refrain from murder, we also have to avoid even the thought of doing harm. It is not enough to avoid physically committing adultery, we have to forego objectifying people altogether. It is not enough to follow the letter of the law regarding divorce. We have to make sure that the most vulnerable—who in Jesus’ culture were unmarried women and children—are provided for. It is not enough to forego swearing falsely or lying to others. Our words and actions must be transparently truthful.
Jesus is not asking just for changed behavior, he’s asking for changed hearts. Which is a genuinely hard ask: not only because it’s virtually impossible to effect this kind of spiritual transformation by force of will, but also because the behavioral rules—even the hard ones—are actually kind of comforting. If we just do the right thing or avoid the wrong thing we’re good, right? As for those of you who do the wrong thing or shop for the wrong brand or vote the wrong way, well… bless your hearts. Which is polite southern vernacular for “You fool!” But that’s not what Jesus said. Listen again. He said “be reconciled.”
This business of listening to God and opening ourselves to change is not for the faint of heart, but it does get easier with time and experience. And scripture can help us with this, too, because it’s filled with stories of people who have heard God and been changed. Our own memories can be our teacher as well. I wonder, when have you had to change, really change, your way of understanding someone or something?
Some years ago when I was doing some serious soul work in preparation for ordination, a spiritual director told me point blank—meaning that he left no room for negotiation—that I had to forgive someone who had wounded me very badly. I had no idea how to do it, and I left his office crying, proclaiming that I couldn’t possibly. But under the gentle and unrelenting guidance of prayer—another way of listening for the voice of God—I eventually relinquished my insatiable desire to change the past. My judgement, justifiable though I’m sure it was, was the gift I had to leave at the altar in order to be reconciled to God and to myself. And—yes—to be reconciled to the person who had hurt me as well.
Today we mark 208 years since the birth of Abraham Lincoln. A man who, among other extraordinary leadership gifts, was profoundly conscious of the need for God’s reconciling grace. Within himself as much as in the nation. And from that stance of humility, he delivered his second inaugural address—to aggrieved belligerents in the waning days of a devastating war—without blame or triumphalism. Both sides dreaded and sought to avert war, he reminded Unionist and Confederate alike. “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes [God’s] aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.”
In our own conflicted national community, I suspect a lot of us are wondering about unanswered prayers right now. If you are giving thanks for the recent appellate court decision upholding the stay on the immigration order, I suspect you were grieving the presidential election results. But take a moment to look around you. I assure you there is someone sitting not far from you who is giving thanks and grieving for the inverse. And all of us have real and valid reasons for the positions we hold. We want to be safe. We want to honor our sovereign integrity. We want our children of all colors to have a chance. We may disagree profoundly on the strategies necessary to achieve these ends, but we still have something to learn from each other about our deep longing for what is good and right.
Each of our life stories are holy texts in our own right, and—like our scriptures—we are a mixture of the good, the bad and the truly mixed up and messy. That doesn’t mean we can’t hear the voice of God in and through each other, but it may mean that we have to listen in ways that are uncomfortable. But remember, this kind of work gets easier with experience, and the blessing of a community like Trinity is that we can be a laboratory for practicing the discipline of holy listening that has always been the property of people of faith.
There are some good habits that help us. We can WAIT, the acronym my friend Samantha uses to ask herself “Why Am I Talking?” We can speak from our own experience, conscious that it is particular to us; we can avoid making declarative statements on behalf of the whole community, and—when we hear something that triggers us—we can do our best to say “that hurts or scares me, but tell me what it means to you.” And perhaps most significant of all, we can do all this over shared meals and service to the poor and vulnerable. We hear each other more clearly and more compassionately, I think, when we are carrying out the mission of the Church. Which is—as our catechism reminds us—to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
This was the deep hope of Abraham Lincoln, when gave voice to the vision that combat-weary Americans most needed at the end of the Civil War. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”