Living Encounter with the Living Word

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on the Collect for Proper 28.

Every time Proper 28 comes up in the lectionary year, I always think of it as “Holy Scripture Sunday.” That’s because in our Collect this morning we give thanks to God who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. And we ask God to help us hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest those Scriptures. And we say that our reason for doing these things is to embrace and hold fast the hope of life. Our prayer today is about helping us relate to the Bible in a way that it can be more than just a book, but it can be a living encounter with the living Word of God.

And I think that living encounter with the living Word is absolutely central to the mission of the church – or, more properly speaking, the mission of God in the world with the church. I get the impression sometimes that non-Christians think the main way we Christians use the Bible is to hit people over the head with it. We seem too often to use the Scriptures as a weapon, a way to condemn people, a way to make rules and regulations to control people, a litmus test for who’s in and who’s out of God’s favor.

At the same time, we hear a lot of research and see a lot of surveys that indicate that “unchurched” people are very interested in Jesus, very interested in spirituality, very interested in experiencing the Way of Life that Jesus taught. They just don’t think that most Christian churches use their Scriptures to experience that Way.

And that’s where hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest comes in. Those are the steps in experiencing Scripture. Those are the things that open up the book into a Way. If we could learn to share those things with others, then we’d be sharing the mission.

So how do we do that? First, we have to hear Scripture. That means we have to share Scripture in community. You know, in the earliest church, hearing was the only way most people encountered Scripture. Books were expensive; handwritten copies of a letter from Paul or the Gospel of Mark were rare; and almost nobody outside a synagogue could afford a whole library of scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures. And in those days, most people couldn’t read anyway. The only way to get any Bible was to get it in church, listening together, hearing it addressed to all of you at once. Saying we must hear Scripture first is a way of saying we never encounter Scripture all on our own, but we always come to it within a community of hearers, a community of interpreters, a community of responders. Hearing Scripture is having a dynamic relationship with Scripture that we always share with others.

But we must also read Scripture. After we have heard it in community, then we have to get closer to it, we have to dig deeper into it, we have to read it for ourselves. One of the most important principles of the Reformation was that the Scriptures should be available in a language and a text that all Christians could understand and interpret for themselves. Reading brings together areas of our brains that usually don’t work together, the visual cortex and the speech centers; reading engages our whole selves with what we read. Every time you read a word, you bring with you all the memories and connections and meanings that word has just for you, in just your experience. Every time you read a story, you don’t watch the story outside yourself, like you would on a video screen, but you bring it inside, you co-create it in your own mind’s eye. When we read Scripture, we don’t just treat it as something external to ourselves, but we weave it into our own thoughts.

And then we have to mark what Scripture says. The word “mark” here is an old-fashioned and poetic way of saying “pay attention.” When we pay attention to what Scripture says, we let it touch us in a deep way; we let it bring up feelings and hopes and dreams and fears and promises; we let the Scriptures make our train of thought jump its usual tracks and take us into new possibilities and unexpected places. Sometimes you can read something over and it doesn’t make any impression on you, you can barely remember afterwards what you’ve read. But when we pay attention, when we mark what Scripture says, we let it make an impression on us, we let it leave its mark on us, and we begin to be changed by what the Scripture tells us.

We begin to be changed – but then we have to make the change a part of who we are. And that’s what it means to learn Scripture. I think “learning” Scripture means more than just memorizing Bible verses – although memory exercises can be a great way to get Scripture into your mind. But “learning” in this sense means also something deeper: it means getting to know Scripture, it means incorporating the truths of Scripture into our habits of thinking, it means becoming so familiar with Scripture that we can spontaneously see connections between the stories of God’s faithful people and the way we are living here and now. When we learn Scripture, we can see that we are not living our lives in narrative isolation, but we are continuing the very same story we find begun in the pages of this book.

Finally, we must inwardly digest Scripture, and that means really making the Scripture our own. When we digest food,our bodies incorporate it and assimilate it and transform the food into our own living tissues. Likewise, when we inwardly digest Scripture, we don’t just let it sit there, but we interpret it and meditate on it and apply it, so that it is transformed into part of our own living spirits. There’s a whole category of prayer designed to do that: it’s called Ignatian meditation, and it was pioneered by the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola, and it is a way of reconstructing a scripture story in your mind, making it vivid in every aspect of your imagination, seeing, hearing, touching, smelling – and then entering the story, inhabiting the story, becoming a character in the story – even talking to Jesus in the story, so that dialogue with Jesus in imagination opens up into prayer in reality. The story becomes a living part of you, and the experience guides how you grow from that moment on. When we inwardly digest the Scriptures like that, we make them a part of the way we live.

And when we do all those things – when we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest – then I think Scripture becomes for us more than just a book. It becomes more than a set of moral rules and regulations for how to control lives. It becomes more than a litmus test to hit people over the head with. It becomes more than a collection of symbolic stories about some ancient people’s encounters with God. When we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it, then the Bible isn’t just literal, and it isn’t just metaphorical either, and it isn’t even just a text – but it can be the living context where we can encounter the living Word.

And that is the hope we pray for today. That is the hope we are sharing with Ellis in her baptism today. That is the hope we act out in mission out in our neighborhood. That is the hope that sustains us even in the face of terror, like that we saw in Paris this weekend, and that gives us strength and courage to work for genuine justice and peace in the world. Because when we encounter the Bible in this living way, then what it gives to us is good news of everlasting life, the life of God so much bigger than our own, that takes us into communion and holds us in love and will not let us go. And I think after all that is the most important thing the Bible has to say.

And it is that for which we pray: Blessed Lord, grant us grace so to hear the Scriptures, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.