It is the practice for preachers in the Episcopal (Anglican) tradition to preach on the Propers of the Day, which include the appointed lessons in the Lectionary in the back of the Book of Common Prayer. Normally, I would not be able to resist preaching on the luscious first lesson today from the opening of the First Book of Samuel, which leads into the great and wonderful King David Story.
However, there is another little used practice, which has been much out of favor for some time, and that is preaching on the Collect of the Day. And that is what I am going to do. Let us pray:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, 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; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This Collect was written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the First Book of Common Prayer in 1549. It is a prose poem which expresses Cranmer’s love of scripture and his desire for the Bible to be accessible to all. One of the foundations of the English Reformation was to have the scriptures and all worship in the language of the people. The Bible was to be read, aloud, in church for all to hear in a language all could understand.
From the time of that first Book of Common Prayer until our revision of 1979, this collect was prayed on the Second Sunday of Advent. There was a time when the Second Sunday in Advent was called Bible Sunday because of this collect. So, this sermon is the old bishop’s Bible Sunday Sermon.
When the Authorized or King James Bible was published in 1611, sixty-two years after this collect was written, it was not the first English translation of the Bible, but it was translated specifically for the purpose of reading scriptures out loud. The key phrase in the collect is “Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,” not just “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” During the translating of the Authorized Version, textual accuracy occasionally was sacrificed in order to make a phrase sound better to the ear. (Regarding the translating of the The King James Bible, I highly recommend to you God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicholson.)
As a reminder of how seriously Anglicans take scripture, The Book of Common Prayer itself is said to be 85-90% quotes from the Bible or alluding to scripture, including the entire Psalter. As someone once said, “I’m amazed how often the Bible quotes the Book of Common Prayer.”
The Lectionary for the Sunday readings insures that we almost always have four readings from the scriptures every Sunday: Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel. If you attend church regularly for three years you will hear most all of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, interspersed with readings from John; extensive readings from the Old Testament; and readings from the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles and the Book of Revelation. Thus, Episcopalians actually are much more familiar with scripture than they realize. And, as I said earlier, clergy will normally preach from the assigned lessons. You will hear lots and lots of Bible read in church and you will be spared from only hearing the preacher’s favorite passages or topics. The preacher is presented with the opportunity to preach on the challenging bits. He or she may or may not accept that opportunity.
How do we as Episcopalians consider the Bible in order to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scriptures for our daily living? Let us review the bidding.
First, the Bible is not a book. It is a library of books. Written and edited over some 1500 years. This library is a collection of stories, genealogies, rules, poetry, letters, and visions. Written and rewritten and then edited by different authors and different editors. And then translated into yet other languages.
As Episcopalians, we take the Bible seriously, though usually not literally. As it says in the Epistles, “All scripture is inspired by God.” (II Timothy 3:16) Inspired by God, not written by God. Further, the Bible is not a science textbook.
When we tackle a difficult moral or theological question, we consider scripture, reason (which includes prayer), and tradition. We call this formula the “three-legged stool” – built with three equal legs. (Others say that the three-legged stool is actually a tricycle, with the large front driving wheel being scripture and the smaller balancing wheels being reason and tradition.) So, first we read scripture. What does the text say? Then we apply reason and prayer. We ask what was the context when this passage was written? What do our prayers tell us? What does our experience tell us? Then we ask how have we used the Bible in the past to shed light on this or some similar question.
We do not worship the Bible. We worship God.
We don’t worship the text. Do not let one or two or four or five specific texts on a particular subject trump the overall direction or spirit of scripture. As St. Paul himself writes, “the law kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (II Corinthians 3:6)
We don’t worship the culture. That is, we don’t see something in the culture we do or don’t like then search scripture for one or two passages that prove us right.
Finally, for me, a little humility helps when reading the Bible. We must remember that in scripture the law, the text, is on the side of the slave owner. Some of our ancestors owned slaves and would have been quick to quote the Epistles, “Slaves be obedient to your masters.” (Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22, and I Peter 2:18) The letter of the law is on the side of the slave owner. The spirit of the gospel is on the side of the slave. The law kills, but the Spirit gives life. You do not treat people that way. Slavery demeans the humanity of the slave who is a child of God, created in the image of God. Slavery hardens and corrupts the soul of the slave owner. This fact is as true today as it was in the ancient world.
In conclusion, we remain with a question; why did God give us the scriptures? It’s all for love. Because God loves you, exactly as you are, without reservation, more than you can ask or even begin to imagine.