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People of the Book
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
September 15, 2019
A Reading from the Psalms
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.
Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.
Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.
Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you.
Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good.
See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.
A thing about me is that family vacation brings out my peak dad energy, never more on display that it was this past summer, when Sarah and Charlie and I were on our way out of London, just arrived at Saint Pancras station and waiting to change to our next train, when instead, I decided that we absolutely had to take a detour to go visit a library. “It’s a really great library,” I say to you, with the same peak dad energy I used to say it to them, “and it’s just next door,” and so we dragged our suitcases out of the train station into the street, where it was, in pure London fashion, rainy, gray, traffic-y, and muddy. We weaved ourselves through the rainy, gray, trafficky, mud, down the block, so that we could drop off our luggage, wait in the line, go through the security checkpoint, and arrive soaking wet, mildly stressed, and at least two-thirds deeply unamused, at the British Library, to go see my favorite book.
The public collection is astounding: handwritten notes from Jane Austen, composition notebooks from Ralph Vaughan Williams, not to mention one of the four remaining originals of the Magna Carta. But I did not drag my family through the rainy London traffic to see the Magna Carta. I came to see the Codex. One of the pillars of the collection is an archive of Bibles and Bible translations going back hundreds of years, and the fanciest one on the block is the Codex Sinaiticus, one of, if not the, oldest complete handwritten copy of the Greek Bible. It dates to sometime in the fourth century. Prior to this date, our written record of the sacred texts of the Gospels and the Epistles is shaky at best; Codex Sinaiticus is one of two major volumes that represent the earliest-known first best and best-documented attempt to put it all in one place. One of them has been behind locked doors at the Vatican Library for the past five hundred years. Codex Sinaiticus, on the other hand, is just sitting there, in the British Library viewing room, through the security checkpoint, in the back, under the glass case, and anybody can go gawk at it.
I know this because I have been in London maybe three times in twenty years and every time I make a pilgrimage go gawk at the Codex. I think I have developed a liturgical relationship with it, it’s a rite of obligation. Whenever I have the chance. I have to go. Even, apparently, if it means dragging my family through the mud and the traffic just to make it work. But it is a majestic thing. The book itself is a story. Prior to the fourth century, the best manuscripts we have are fragments, on papyrus, which is like putting sacred text on tissue paper. Sinaiticus, by contrast, is lavishly crafted, on heavy parchment, hand-written, letter by letter. It would have taken weeks to produce. It would have cost a fortune. And then it survived, for centuries. There may have been multiple copies, but this one made it, for most of its history, unknown to western scholarship, in the library of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, until European colonialists quote-unquote “discovered” it in the 19th century. I have a few books from college that look like they’ve been run over by a tank. Sinaiticus survived fifteen hundred years in a monastery library and is in good enough condition to make drastic contributions to Biblical scholarship.
It is one of the most important volumes in the world, which is what I explained to Sarah and Charlie with all of my peak dad energy, and they looked at me a little bit like some of you are looking at me now. And yet this is also a room where I think we are supposed to understand something about loving the book. “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes,” the Psalmist says. “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.” The Psalmist is not the first reader of scripture in the Bible, but she is perhaps the most expressive, and the most liturgical. After all, the Psalms are Israel’s book of worship; they are the words that Israel turns to express their own faith. And so in this bit of our own reading this morning we hear Israel putting the reading of scripture at the center of worship. “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes” — not just a plea from one stray psalm-writer, but the words put on the lips of generations of worshipers, generations of Israelites and generations of Jews and generations of Christians and generations of peoples of this book.
Generations of people of a sacred text, just like us. We are people who gather here every Sunday to listen to the Word of God. We even have our own particular volume, not perhaps as well-worn as the scrolls of Torah that Israel brings through generations or the pages of the Codex surviving through the centuries but every Sunday we bring in our own lectern Bible, our book, our sacred text, we gather around this book and we listen. We listen to the reading. Our worship rises and falls around the telling of these stories and the recitation of these verses and we have been carrying this book with us in some form for as long as we have been worshiping this God. We are people of a book. We are readers of a book. We are lovers of a book.
We love this book so much that sometimes it gets in the way.
A couple of weeks ago, a catholic school in Tennessee made a few unfortunate national headlines after the affiliated parish priest removed the Harry Potter books from the school library. Now, when the Harry Potter books first came out, they would occasionally get pulled from libraries because they had witches and wizards in them, subject matter that seemed less than wholesome or perhaps even unholy. But this new advance against Harry Potter is a bit of a different objection. The problem in the books now, at least according to this priest, is apparently not simply that the fictional world includes magic or wizards. The problem, is, in the words of the letter sent home to explain the decision, that “The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”
I have a couple of questions. First, how does this priest know that they are real curses and spells? If there is an encyclopedia of real curses and spells that priests get access to, it was not part of my seminary reading list and I’d like to correct that. Second, how is it possible that among the millions of people who have read Harry Potter, we have not heard about a single one of them accidentally summoning the forces of darkness — or as one community member and Harry Potter fan put it, “[Those books] came out decades ago! I feel like if it was really causing a lot of harm and really there was actual magic going on, somebody would have heard about that by now.” But the punchlines are easy. I think the more sobering version of this story is that it betrays so much of how we think not perhaps about Harry Potter but instead about this sacred volume that we gather around with love every Sunday morning. I wonder whether we think these words have power all by themselves. I wonder whether we think they have glory all by themselves. I wonder whether we think they have their own actual magic going on. I wonder whether we think they contain curses and spells for all occasions.
I remember in the fall of 2010 sitting in a meeting of the Presbytery of the James as three hundred commissioners jammed in one church sanctuary to figure out what to do about the proposed amendment to the Book of Order that would strip away obstacles to ordination based on sexual identity. It was a contentious moment. Some planning team had worked their best to choreograph the debate, equal time to both sides, speakers well-prepared with faithful arguments. But the temperature in the room was hot, and getting hotter, and as a long morning wore on, the arguments grew a little thin. And as they started growing a little thing, somebody started throwing scripture around. Eventually, somebody said something like “But Leviticus clearly states,” which is never a good sign, and then we were off. Genesis. 1 Samuel. Romans. 1 John. Deuteronomy. Song of Songs. Back and forth the citations went, flying, fast and furious, read with a conviction I now understand as the conviction that the Bible itself contained actual curses and spells, like if they found and used just the right one it would drain 80 health points and the other team would lose a turn, like the only difference between our presbytery meeting and the latest Dr. Strange movie was a bunch of sophisticated special effects, like our presbytery had become two teams’ worth of dark wizards throwing everything they had at one another.
I don’t think anybody prayed for illumination that day. I don’t think anybody took a moment before they opened the book to ask God for help. I don’t think anybody took a moment before they opened the book to ask the Spirit for guidance. I didn’t hear anybody praying the words of the Psalmist, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes.” Nobody joined her in asking God for understanding, because everybody in that room thought they understood exactly everything they needed to already, thank you very much. I didn’t hear anybody singing “Open my eyes, that I may see,” or “Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart,” or “Listen to the voice that began creation, listen even if you don’t understand,” not like those words either are magic incantations but even then nobody in that room saw fit to remind themselves wherein the word of God truly resides. Because it is not in these pages. It is not contained by old parchment somewhere behind the security checkpoint. It is not contained by mass-market ink sitting in a million hotel bedside tables. It is not contained even in the volumes carried into worship by acolytes just like ours, week in and week out. The Word of God is not contained in any of these things. Rather, it is a Gospel witnessed within the pages of these things. It is the Gospel of the Word made flesh.
This is what we believe. We believe in the Word made flesh, Jesus the Messiah, son of the triune God. We believe in the Word made flesh, who ate with sinners and joins us even now at the table of grace. We believe in the Word made flesh, who healed the sick and joins us even now at hospital bedsides and in the shadow of grief. We believe in the Word made flesh, who challenged the powerful and joins us even now in our protest against everything that is unjust, violent, and ugly. We believe in the word made flesh, who died alongside the persecuted and yet lives even now to show God’s triumph over death for every time and every place and for everyone born, even you, and even me. We believe in the Word made flesh, who taught his friends how to pray, who teaches us how to pray, who gathers with us when we pray, who reminds us over and over why we pray, who guides us and calls us and searches for us and walks alongside us and when we gather around scripture to read his story it is this Word made flesh who helps us understand. This is why we pray for illumination. Because we are people bound together by a book, but we are not people who worship a book.
So if you find yourself dragging your family, or your baggage, or your family’s baggage, through the mud and the traffic and the rain, to go genuflect before a book … you might need to pray for illumination. Thanks be to God.