Today’s collect always reminds me of my good friends +Robert Ladehoff, the eighth bishop of Oregon, and his wife Jean. They had a favorite story about Bishop Ladehoff’s early days as a circuit rider priest in North Carolina. It seems over a period of a couple years Bishop Ladehoff baptized two little boys from the same family, the first named Reid and the second named Mark. He liked to joke that he and Jean were a bit concerned as to what the family might name the next one….
Obviously, as today’s collect makes clear, holy scripture is important to us. As I know you know, Anglicanism is based on the three legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason. Indeed, the Bible is featured so heavily in our Book of Common Prayer it’s rumored some mis-informed Episcopalians have thought the Bible comes from the Prayer Book rather than the other way round. As important as it is to us, though, we Episcopalians are careful to point out that we take the Bible seriously, but not literally. One of the other legs of our stool, after all, is reason. I recall hearing our seminarian Brandon McGinnis describe going to his fundamentalist minister at one point to say that he really couldn’t believe the story about Jonah spending three days in the belly of a whale, to which the minister replied that if Brandon didn’t believe in that, then he didn’t believe in the resurrection. Brandon left crushed, fearing that maybe he wasn’t the faithful Christian he had always understood himself to be. After being invited by Loren Crow to try out St. Mary’s while he was a student at NCU, Brandon went to an inquirers’ class where Father Bingham, in the process of explaining our approach to scripture, made the comment that of course we don’t believe, for example, that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale. Brandon wept, knowing he had found his spiritual home.
This isn’t to say there isn’t much to be learned from the Book of Jonah, sometimes described as the one true comedy in the Bible, because there definitely is. For one thing the book addresses the utter futility of bull-headed stubbornness in the face of the will of God. The thing we have to keep in mind is that the Bible was written by people, for people, in a particular time and place. Consequently while there are broad concepts that are absolutely applicable today, the details of particular situations often are not. Take for example, Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians that women must cover their heads in church, which became a universal practice throughout Christianity. I never knew growing up where that hat rule came from, I just hated having to wear a hat, and was never so happy as when somebody suddenly decided women didn’t have to do so anymore. It turns out, according to Father Ted, that the issue was that in ancient Corinth prostitutes advertised themselves, shall we say, by the grandeur of their hairdos. The bigger and more elaborate their coiffure, the higher their standing among their peers. Believing that everyone is called to follow Christ, Paul wasn’t about to ban anyone from worshipping with the rest of the young Christian community, but neither was he content to have women of ill repute advertising in church. So, women were ordered to cover their heads during worship. While this hardly feels like a reason for me to have had to wear a hat to church growing up in the 1950’s, as with the Book of Jonah, there is still much in this part of Paul’s letter worthy of our attention. Most importantly we should take note of the fact Paul wanted everyone, even those who seemed least worthy, to feel they were part of the Christian community.
Clearly, even though we don’t take the Bible literally, there’s no end to what it can teach us. We hear selections from the Bible every Sunday, spread out over a three year cycle. That means we hear the same lessons time and time again, but not necessarily in the same way each time. In this regard the Bible, though much older, reminds me of the works of William Shakespeare. One of the things I found most intriguing about attending plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was that I never experienced a given play the same way twice. Partly this is because the Festival doesn’t automatically set the plays in the time and place in which Shakespeare located them. For example, the first time I saw The Merchant of Venice, it wasn’t set in Venice, but on the New York Stock Exchange of the 1920’s. Having grown up in the Northeast, in some cases in heavily Jewish neighborhoods, nothing could have made that play seem more real or more relevant to me than that. The second time I saw the play it was set in Venice, but that presentation placed much more emphasis on the anti-semitic aspects of the plot, which was in keeping with what was happening in the world at that time. Once again, I experienced the play as both powerful and relevant. Which interpretation was closer to what Shakespeare had in mind? I have no idea, and I don’t think it matters. The remarkable thing is that the play could speak so powerfully to me so many years after Shakespeare wrote it and so differently each time.
The Bible is many times older than the works of Shakespeare and even more eclectic. Frederick Buechner describes the Bible as, “a disorderly collection of sixty-odd books which are often tedious, barbaric, obscure, and teem with contradictions and inconsistencies,… an Irish stew of poetry and propaganda, law and legalism, myth and murk, history and hysteria,” that nonetheless speaks to us with extraordinary power. This is because, as Buechner goes on to say, the Bible is “a book about people who at one and the same time can be both believing and unbelieving, innocent and guilty, crusaders and crooks, full of hope and full of despair. In other words it is a book about us.” And it is a book that though written by people, was inspired by God. So it’s not at all surprising to me that the readings we hear as part of our three year lectionary cycle can impact us very differently depending on what’s happening in and around us when we hear them.
The last time we heard today’s lessons was in November 2015. I must confess I had to Google events of the day to remind myself what was happening on a world wide and national level this time three years ago. Things definitely weren’t perfect. ISIS was causing havoc in Europe, Paris in particular, and immigration was an issue, though three years ago 26 states were trying to prevent the President from offering work permits and other protections to roughly five million immigrants, rather than the other way around. All in all, as clearly as I can remember, I don’t think my sense of the world in 2015 made the talk of end times we find in today’s Gospel seem as pertinent as they do now. Things are a mess these days, both here and abroad. Pundits tell us that our nation is more divided today than at any time since the years leading up to the Civil War. That war, initiated by the South in an effort to preserve an economic system and way of life that was being fatally threatened by northern demands that slavery come to an end, cost nearly 620,000 American lives - more than any other war in our nation’s history. In the end the south lost, slaves were freed, and life went on. Heaven knows it was not easy, and we’re still struggling today with issues that harken back to those darkest of times, but our country survived. The United States is still here. The sort of nationalism that is being preached by some today in this as well as other countries was a popular theme in the 1930’s. We all know how that worked out. Fifteen million combatants and 45 million civilians died in World War II, but many more people lived than died, and the world went on. In most of the countries caught up in that horrific conflict life improved dramatically during the decades that followed. These are but two examples of times that had to have seemed to those living through them like our nation, if not humanity in general, was on the verge of being destroyed or destroying itself. And yet that didn’t happen. In each case those apparent signs of the end were, in Jesus’ words, merely the birth pangs of something yet to come.
The world is smaller now. Countries are far more interdependent than they have ever been. No matter from whence pollution comes, the whole world is effected. Even the wealthiest nations can’t afford to have a small nation’s economy fail, lest the whole house of cards that is world finance these days come crashing down. No matter how hard some nations may try to prevent it, migration, which has been going on for over two and a half million years, is going to continue. And just as was the case when homo sapiens walked out of Africa and into Europe, the land of the Neanderthals, 250,000 years ago, it is still true today that what is one group’s promised land is another group’s homeland. That has always been at best problematic. What makes population shifts even more challenging today than in the past is that there are vastly more of us than ever before trying to share this fragile earth, our island home. Add to a perceived insufficiency of resources a perceived loss of identity as racial distinctions blur because the once prevalent taboos against interracial marriage have all but disappeared from western culture, and it’s easy to understand why some people are terrified of what the future may hold.
Change is hard, and the unknown is frightening. But God did not abandon humanity during the most terrible of times in the past, and God will not abandon us now. Furthermore, God knew that humans tend to be self-serving, and that fear makes that tendency even more pervasive, so God gave us two guiding principles in the Bible that I believe we should take literally, and follow word for word. The first is the great commandment: Love the Lord your god with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. The second is the statement Jesus makes more often than any other: fear not. Fear is the most destructive emotion we feel. Fear is at the root of hate. We hate those we’re afraid may harm us. Fear is at the root of selfishness. Those who fear they don’t have enough not only won’t share what they have, they obsessively try to acquire more. Our only hope is to follow the great commandment, to dare to love even when our fear is screaming at us to do otherwise. If and when enough of us are able to do that, then perhaps in the words of de Chardin: “One day after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.”