Starting a new sermon series at First Pres, Boonville. This is part 1 of 5.
Does anybody here remember the Periodic Table? I’m taking you back to 6th grade science class on this one. It’s an oddly shaped chart of letters and numbers that’s somehow supposed to explain everything that exists. Personally, I always thought it looked like somebody started writing the alphabet and then got really confused. I’m told that students used to have to memorize the whole thing, but they did away with that by the time I got to Middle School (mostly because scientists were coming up with all kinds of new additions like Einsteinium and Nobelium, so the Table was getting bigger every year). These days, I think we’re up 118 entries. The Periodic Table is divided into metals on the left and non-metals on the right. At the far right, there are the Noble Gases like Helium and Radon. On the far left are the Alkaline metals like Lithium. Each individual unit on the Periodic Table is called an element. Elements are the basic units of chemistry. An element represents the most basic level to which a compound or molecule can be broken down using chemical processes. To go any father (i.e. protons, neutrons, and electrons), you’ve got to use nuclear means. So, they are called elements because they are the basic components of the science of chemistry. In the olden days, that same term was applied to the basic forces of nature: earth, air, water, and fire. These were called the four elements. These days, when kids get old enough to go to school, they begin at a basic and introductory level in an elementary school. An element is a basic component of some larger system or process.
Starting today and continuing for the next four Sundays, we’re going to be talking about elements in church. Now, we won’t be talking about chemical elements on the Periodic Table. No, for these five Sundays, we’ll be talking about the Elements of Worship. We’ll be looking at a kind of Periodic Table for the Church, if you will. Each week, we’re going to look at a different element and see how each element fits into the big picture of what we do each week in church. There are five Elements of Worship that we’ll be looking at. The five elements are as follows: Word, Prayer, Service, Sacrament, and Relationship. Everything we do in church, from the Announcements to the Benediction, is made up of these five elements in some combination and configuration: Word, Prayer, Service, Sacrament, and Relationship. Even though we’re only focusing on one element per week, it will quickly become clear that none of these exists in isolation from the others. They are all connected and intertwined with each other like a great big spider web. We can’t really think about one without touching on the others. Nevertheless, you’ve got to start somewhere. So let’s get going…
This week, we’re focusing on the element of the Word. By that, we specifically mean the Word of God. Now, I know what you’re all thinking right now: “I know what that is. He means the Bible. The Word of God is the Bible.” My answer to that is: “Well, yes and no.” You see, the Bible never actually refers to itself as “the Word of God”. In the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament), “the Word of God” typically refers to a particular message that came to particular prophet at a particular place and time. Thus, it says in Genesis 15, “The word of the Lord came to Abram”. Later on, in the New Testament, “the Word” mostly refers to Christ himself. Jesus Christ is the living Word of God. Thus, the Word of God is a person, not a book.
What then can we say about the Bible? First of all, the Bible is more of a library than a book. It is a massive collection of stories, poems, and letters composed and compiled over a period of many centuries. Thus, I like to refer to them as “the scriptures” (plural) rather than “the Bible” (singular). These writings chronicle the ongoing relationship between God and God’s people. Opening the scriptures is kind of like finding your grandparents’ old love letters in a trunk in the attic. When you read them, you get these insightful little snapshots into a romance that has spanned the ages. We treasure these fragments but we would never mistake them for the relationship itself. That is something that can only be experienced firsthand. Thus, the scriptures point beyond themselves to the deeper reality of a relationship into which you and I are invited. Marcus Borg calls the scriptures “a finger pointing to the moon.” If you’re looking at the finger, you’re looking at the wrong thing. Look instead to where the finger is pointing. Then and only then will you “get the point”. Jesus himself said as much in John 5 as he was debating with the Pharisees, a group of religious people who had worked very hard to preserve the scriptures in their own tradition. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” The scriptures point beyond themselves. They are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
In this day and age when the culture prizes knowledge that can be objectively verified and scientifically proved, people of faith often experience the temptation to find absolute certainty on historic and scientific facts documented in the scriptures. They believe that the authors of the scriptures were inspired by God in the same way that a secretary takes down a dictation. For them, the Bible (singular) is literally “the Word of God”. They see the Bible as a single book with a single author who can never be wrong.
Reading the scriptures in this way can provide a comforting level of certainty in these uncertain times, but it can also cause all sorts of problems. First of all, the words of the scriptures can be and have been used to justify all manner of brutality and injustice. Advocates for slavery, exploitation, genocide, racism, sexism, and homophobia have all used the texts of the scriptures to support their causes. A further (and bigger) problem that arises when we read the Bible as the literal Word of God is that our confidence in the book actually undermines our faith in God. We mistake that box of Grandma and Grandpa’s love letters for the relationship itself. We worship the Bible instead of God. It seems to me that the second of the Ten Commandments has something to say about that: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” The way I like to read that sentence is: “You can’t put God in a box.” I think the same holds true whether that box is a statue, a building, or a book. Make no mistake: worshiping the Bible in God’s place is idolatry.
Presbyterians, on the whole, do not tend to view the scriptures as a single, inerrant document. We see them collectively as the “unique and authoritative witness” to Jesus Christ as the living Word of God. For us, the scriptures are that “finger pointing to the moon” and we want to look (and go to) where that finger is pointing us. We want to get closer to Jesus. We want to grow in our relationship with God. For us, the stories, poems, and letters contained in the scriptures are a record of our ancestors’ relationship with God, centering around this amazing person named Jesus. They remembered, reflected on, and wrestled with everything his life meant to them. Finally, they wrote it all down in the best way they knew how, using the words and ideas they had available to them at that time.
And so we listen: we listen to these words of our fellow human beings with the ears on our heads, but we also listen for the Word of God with the ears of our hearts. We believe the Word of God still speaks to us through these human words, limited and imperfect though they may be. To do this, we need help. In order to take us from these human words to God’s Word, we need something Presbyterians call “the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit”. That’s why we stop to say a short prayer right before we read from the scriptures each week during worship. Go ahead and check it out in your bulletin. Right before the scripture reading, there is something called the Prayer for Illumination. We’re asking God to turn the lights on inside of us so that we can see things more clearly. We’re asking the Holy Spirit to help us find God’s Word in these human words. This event is central to our worship as Christians. When we come together, we prepare ourselves to receive God’s Word by gathering together, praising God, confessing our shortcomings, and making peace with our neighbors. We listen for God’s Word in the reading of the scriptures and reflection on the sermon. We respond to God’s Word by affirming our faith, praying for our needs, giving thanks for God’s blessings, and offering our whole lives to God’s service in the world. Finally, we follow God’s Word back out into the world, trusting that the One who meets us in this place will continue to guide us out there during the other six days of the week. It’s all about God’s Word, not a book but a person, Jesus Christ: God’s living Word. As the lights come on inside of us and we begin to hear God’s Word through the human words of the scriptures, our lives will begin to look more like Jesus’ life: the life of a radical healer, teacher, revolutionary, and friend.
I can’t help but mention the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, whose 83rd birthday just so happens to be today. Dr. King knew what we’re talking about today. During his lifetime, people from all over the United States, even pastors, used the words of our scriptures to put him down and keep African American people under the thumb of segregation. But Dr. King didn’t listen to those words. He opened the scriptures and heard the Word of God saying to him (in the words of the prophet Amos), “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The Word of God showed Dr. King how to dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In spite of being ridiculed, beaten and arrested, Dr. King heard God’s Word in the book of Isaiah, dreaming of that day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” On that day, he said, all God’s children: black and white, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, will join hands and sing together, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Through the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, these ancient scriptures became for Dr. King vessels for the Word of God. That same Spirit lives in you, illumines you. May the Word of God be a lamp unto your feet and a light unto your path. May you be able to say, along with Martin Luther King:
I’ve heard the lightning flashing, and heard the thunder roll.
I’ve felt sin’s breakers dashing, try’n to conquer my soul.
But I’ve heard the voice of Jesus telling me still to fight on.
He promised never to leave me, no, never alone.