God-Breathed: 2 Timothy 3:14-17 & Genesis 32:24-31
How do you see scripture?
What does scripture mean to you?
I love libraries. In high school, as soon as I was old enough actually like 14 years old, I started volunteering at my local library back in Austin where I grew up. I stayed in Austin for college and was even a summer intern at that same library, helping set up kids Storytimes and summer activities. Libraries are these amazing places of community, connection, and stories. In them are books that I have stayed up until 3am reading and bawling my eyes out, like The Time Traveler’s Wife. They have books that tore me apart and put me back together again, like Song of Achilles. They have fun, zany books like Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. They have histories, trashy romance novels, true crime, kids books, poetry. In a library, there will be books you hate and books you love. There are books that will challenge your worldviews and perspectives, books you struggle with, books you learn from. And when my Old Testament professor in seminary described this, the Bible, not as a book, but as a library, perhaps the most compact library in existence but a library none the less. When he described it as a library, something within me clicked, and it was like pieces of a puzzle started falling into place.
You’ll see it frequently listed as the number one best selling books of all time.
Has been used and abused over the past thousand or so years. People have abused it to condone and defend slavery, to start all manner of wars and conflicts across the globe. It has been abused as a tool of oppression for women, people of color, indigenous folks, queer folks, and all kinds of people and groups. It has also been used to help liberate and dismantle racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. Its words have been beacons of hope, justice, and love.
This week we begin a sermon series on scripture itself, taking from and inspired by the book Inspired by Rachel Held Evans, among other sources. Over the rest of August and September, we’ll look at types of stories in the Bible, origin stores, stories of deliverance and liberation, stories of good news, and stories of the church. And today, we prime our canvas. We lay down a base coat and talk about the nature of scripture itself. And this conversation is important, it’s crucial, because how we understand and approach scripture as a whole impacts how we encounter and interpret its different parts. Over the years, I have heard scripture described as a Magic 8 Ball, an owners manual, and an acrostic spelling out the word Bible, Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. And if you resonate with one of those descriptions and are able to have a healthy relationship with scripture and healthy theology and faith from that understanding of scripture, awesome. However, how I usually encounter those descriptions, they do not feel healthy or life giving. Scripture is anything but basic. Revelation has swords, candles, thrones, and beasts. The entire book of Ezekiel starts with a vision of four human Like figures in a fiery cloud that have faces like lions and oxen. And if it is an owners manual, well maybe it is kind of like IKEA instructions, it would be the most complicated owners manual of all time. But when I think about scripture as a library, things fit and fall into place.
Like a library, this book actually contains dozens of individual books, all of them with different genres and written by different authors. There is poetry and prose. There is history and letters, prophecy and parables. Just like we read the book Outlander as a work of fiction and not a how-to manual for traveling back in time and falling love with a fiery Scotsman, we read different genres of scripture, the different books and parts of scripture, differently. For instance, in Matthew 22 Christ says, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ In those words Christ tells us what it means to live out our faith. We have to work out the details, but Christ offers us instruction on how to live. However, if we take Psalm 137, we do not find instruction. We find an author who has been violently displaced from their home. The author pours out pain, grief, and anger onto the page in the poem, “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! 9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Like different books in a library we read, engage with, and encounter different parts of scripture differently because they are of different genres and written for different purposes.
Also like a library, scripture invites us to come and spend time in it. “But as for you,” Paul wrote in the letter we know as 2nd Timothy, “continue in what you have learned…all scripture is inspired by God.” The use of the english word “continue” is fine but the greek word has more layers and also means to remain, to stay, and to abide. In one of the few passage of scripture that refers to scripture (even though Paul is really talking about the OT because the NT didn’t exist back then), Paul calls us to abide, remain, stay in the things scripture has taught us. It isn’t an owners manual you pull out of your glove box when you need to figure out how to change your passenger side blinker. It isn’t a magic 8 ball you dust off to ask if Michelle or Anna or Michael or John like like you, come on fellow elder millennials. Scripture, this library, is designed for us to spend time in, to take off our shoes, grab a cup of coffee or tea, and abide in. Abide in its comfort and hope, and even its messy ness and discomfort. In our passage from Genesis, Jacob becomes Israel, Jacob is blessed, but only after a night of wrestling with God. Because, like a physical library, this compact holy library contains things that will and should challenge us, things we will and should struggle with, wrestle with, have questions about.
Look y’all, I wish I had easy answers. And, I’m not going to lie, there are other churches and denominations out there that will offer you quick and easy answers. They will. But in my experience, their answers are frequently far from loving, far from what I believe Christ taught, and far from what I believe scripture actually offers us. Paul called scripture “inspired by God’ or, literally, God-breathed. God inspired the writers of the original text thousands of years ago. That inspiration continues through us, as we read, consider the original contexts and genres, and discern how God calls us through those words to live here in 2022. At the dawn of creation, God filled simple earth and dust with God’s breath and brought forth humanity. That same breath fills the words of this library, infusing it, bringing it to life thousands of years ago and making it alive for us, here and now.
So, in this week and the coming weeks, I can’t promise you an easy journey with scripture. But I can promise you that the messiness and critical thinking is worth it. Because through that wrestling, we get down to the heart of it all, to God’s breath and presence within it all. A breath of hope, a presence of grace, a breath of love. Through scripture may we journey into God’s love together.
Rev. Stefanie Hayes