Elements of Worship: The Word

Starting a new sermon series at First Pres, Boonville.  This is part 1 of 5.

The text is II Timothy 3:10-17.

Click here to listen to the recording of this sermon at fpcboonville.org

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.

God’s Living Word

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is I Thessalonians 2:9-13.

Click here to listen at fpcboonville.org

This coming December, my wife Sarah and I will celebrate five wonderful years of marriage.  Five years of growing in commitment and trust for each other.  Five years of facing life’s challenges together.  Five years of blessing, closeness, and love.  Incidentally, it also happens to be our seventh wedding anniversary.  I’ll let you do the math.

Why the discrepancy?  Well, I’ll tell you.  A couple of years into our marriage, I learned the secret to wedded bliss and it’s three little words.  These are the three little words that everyone longs to hear.  The depth of their meaning transcends history, culture, and religion.  The power of these words has sustained people through the very darkest hours of life.  They should be spoken as often as possible.  Let them be the first words out of your mouth when you get up in the morning and the last words before you turn out the lamp at night.  Say them when you leave the house and when you get home.  Hold each others’ hands, gaze into each others’ eyes, and mean them when you say them.  These are the three most powerful words in the English language.  What do you think they are?

“I love you”?  No.

It’s “You’re right, dear.”

(Pause for laughter)

I’m only joking, really.  All of my nearly seven years with my wife have been fantastic.  And Sarah is a wonderfully generous person, with an open mind and an open heart, who does NOT need to be right all of the time.  However, most of us, at some point in our lives, have probably known someone who DOES need to be right (or at least feel like they’re in the right) all of the time.  These folks can be very difficult to live with or work with.

Any personal relationship involves some kind of give and take.  It also involves things like change, risk, and trust.  None of that can happen when one (or both) of the people in the relationship is bent on being (or feeling) absolutely right all of the time.  Nobody is that perfect.

Most of us already understand this truth when it comes to our interpersonal relationships.  We know how to say “I’m sorry” when we mess things up.  We know how to forgive other people when they mess things up.  We don’t expect ourselves or other people to be perfect (or right) all of the time.  We know this.  And because we know this, we’re able to stay committed to each other in healthy relationships and grow together into the kind of people we’re meant to be.

Now, it’s pretty common for people to talk about their spiritual lives as a relationship.  They talk about their “personal relationship with God”.  I know of several Christians who are keen to claim that Christianity itself is “a relationship, not a religion”.  But the funny thing is that, in this relationship, one party (God) is expected to be absolutely perfect all of the time while the other party (the person) is expected to simply acknowledge and appreciate the perfection of the first.

Now the expectation of perfection in this relationship, while based in God, is not usually restricted to God alone.  Absolute perfection usually gets projected onto something or someone else that somehow reveals God to people.  This can be some supposedly perfect person (like the Pope), a supposedly perfect institution (like the church), or a supposedly perfect book (like the Bible).

I think people tend to make these kinds of projections because they desperately long for a deep, personal relationship with God, the source of all goodness and love.  However, God is also mysterious and intangible.  This mysteriousness can cause some people a lot of anxiety, so they direct their devotion toward the Pope, the church, or the Bible as a stand-in for God.  It’s more comforting to have a relationship with something you can see, touch, and understand.  The problem is that projecting God onto someone or something that is not God is the very definition of idolatry.  It would be no different if they built a statue of a golden calf and bowed down to it.

I think this is exactly what happened about a hundred years ago in the Presbyterian Church when a group of scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary felt their faith being threatened by developments in modern science and philosophy that called into question certain traditional Christian beliefs.  They took it upon themselves to defend what they considered to be the fundamentals of the Christian faith.  Referring to themselves as “Fundamentalists”, they developed the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.  The Bible, according to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, was to be read and interpreted as a spiritually, theologically, morally, historically, and scientifically accurate book.  Every single word of the Bible was absolutely true and came directly from the mouth of God.  Questioning a single word in the text of the Bible was tantamount to rejecting the perfect authority of God.  The absolute goodness and perfection of God was projected onto the text of the Bible.  Thus, according to the Fundamentalists, we imperfect people can relate to the perfect God through this perfect book.  But, as we’ve already noticed, worshiping the Bible in place of God is idolatry.  Also, it’s really hard to have an honest, personal relationship with someone who has to be absolutely right all of the time.

In case you couldn’t tell already, this is a big pet peeve of mine.  It really irks me.  So, I have to admit that I really struggled with I Thessalonians 2:13 in preparation for this week’s sermon.  It reads, “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”

At first glance, it seems like the Apostle Paul is setting himself up as an inerrant or infallible source of revelation, saying that his words are God’s word.  So I read over it, I thought about it, I struggled with it, and eventually I just sat with it.

What struck me after sitting with it for a while is that Paul hardly seems to be the type to set himself up as a perfect and absolute authority.  Paul is referred to elsewhere in the New Testament as the “chief of sinners”.  He calls himself, “least of the apostles”.  This strikes me as the voice of a humble person who knows he has been saved by grace.  If Paul is drawing any kind of connection between his voice and God’s, I doubt he is doing so in the spirit of an indisputable expert.

What struck me next is the language around this verse in I Thessalonians 2.  In this section, Paul is simply recounting the story of his ministry with the Thessalonians.  Paul does a lot of storytelling.  The story of his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus is told no less than three times in the book of Acts.  Paul is also a first-rate scholar who knows the stories of his Jewish heritage.  When Paul talks about delivering the “word of God” to the Thessalonian Christians in verse 13, I bet there was a lot of storytelling involved.  I bet he told them about his first encounter with Jesus in a vision (and how he walked around blind as a bat for days afterward).  I bet he told them about those early Christians, who were suspicious of him at first but eventually welcomed him with open arms.  I bet he told them how his newfound faith in Christ and assurance of God’s unconditional love changed his life forever.

If there is a word from God to be heard here, it seems that it must be found between the lines of the story of Paul’s life.  Furthermore, this word of God is not only to be heard in the lives of famous heroes like Paul, but, as Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians in verse 13, God’s word is also “at work in you believers.”  Paul is adamant in declaring that his story is not unique.  The word of God can be heard in their stories as well.

God’s word is not some dead text written on a page or carved into tablets of stone.  God’s word is a living word that sings and dances through the lives of all people.  Unlike an infallible text, the living word can lead us into an honest, personal relationship with the living God.  It can handle questions, doubt, and differing interpretations.  It allows our faith the freedom to trust, change, and grow into new forms of believing.  If we listen for it, we can hear God’s living word in the wind that blows through the trees and the river that rolls over the rocks.  We can hear it echoing between the stars and pulsing between the atoms.  Reading between the lines of the poet’s verse and the physicist’s equation we listen for God’s living word.

God’s living word can be heard in your life as well, if you know where to listen for it.  This can be tricky because life isn’t always pleasant.  I won’t go so far as to say that everything that happens to us in life is God’s will, but I will go so far as to say that there is no person and no situation that is beyond healing and redemption.  God’s living word is always present, even in the dark and chaotic times, growing us toward peace and proclaiming, “Let there be light!”

I believe God’s living word is even present in this message.  If you’re hearing this today, it’s not by accident.  Not that I am claiming to be perfect or infallible.  In fact, God’s word might not be speaking to you through me but in spite of me this morning.  Listen for whatever is going on in your mind and heart right now.  Listen for any thought or feeling of blessed assurance that inspires you to keep exploring the height, depth, length, and breadth of love in this world.  That’s the living word of God at work in you!

Finally, last but not least, lest you think I’m leading you to abandon the Bible entirely, we can and should listen for the living word of God in its pages as well.  The Bible is a sacred book.  For us Christians, it is our sacred book.  I believe it is blessed and inspired.  It holds an honored and central place in our tradition.  It can serve as a helpful guide on the spiritual journey.  We would do well to keep reading and studying it as best we can.  But it’s not a perfect book.  Everything God has to say is not contained within its pages.  Jesus himself said in John 16:12, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, [the Spirit] will guide you into all the truth”.  Personally, I like the way that comedian Gracie Allen says it, “Never put a period where God puts a comma.”  God is still speaking (as our friends in the United Church of Christ like to say).  Do we have ears to hear?