Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

No Need to Wait – Br. Mark Brown

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20/Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24/Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16/Luke 12:32-40

One of the things I enjoy most about Scripture is when it says one thing in one place and the opposite somewhere else–which may be a slightly perverse pleasure.  Take for example, Genesis Chapter 1. God creates the world in six days and rests on the seventh in a familiar sequence: light, waters, dry land, vegetation, animals and, finally, the crowning touch, human beings. 

Then Chapter 2: a different and contradictory story.  Creation happens in one day and it’s a completely different sequence.  The earth and water, then a man (Adam), then plants, then animals, then, the crowning touch, the woman (Eve).  These two stories cannot both be “true”, in the factual sense. Where is the Word of God in these contradictory accounts?

Or, take the reading from Isaiah we heard earlier. The sacrifices of the altar and the keeping of feast days are commanded in the Torah—“This is a statute forever in all your settlements throughout your generations.” [Lev. 23]  But now we hear the otherwise: God does not like burnt offerings, he does not like the blood of animals, he hates incense, he can’t endure solemn assemblies and the appointed festivals.  The reason: the land is filled with iniquity and oppression.  In that context, worship is an affront to God.

The genius of the Hebrew Scriptures—part of the genius of the Hebrew Scriptures—is the preservation of disparate voices, even contradictory voices. Like in Genesis and Isaiah.  The Bible contains many contradictory texts and texts that are dissonant in some other way.  Texts that are impossible to reconcile with a 21st century worldview—at least if read literally.  Texts that are morally repugnant: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.” [Ps. 137]  Texts that just don’t say what we think the Word of God ought to be saying.

Where is the Word of God in disparate voices, in contradictory voices, in otherwise dissonant voices?  Well, right here, of course.  The Word of God, the Living Word of God, the Spirit of Christ hovers over the contradictions and dissonances of the text—much as the Spirit hovers over the face of the waters in creation.

The Living Word of God can speak to us from “comfortable” texts, of course. But the Word can speak to us just as well, perhaps even more eloquently, from a difficult text.  The Living Word hovering over the contradictory stories of creation in Genesis, for example, might open for us poetic and metaphorical ways of engaging the text. Since the contradictions make a literalistic reading untenable, the Word, the Spirit can open our hearts and minds to a fuller, richer, more nuanced engagement with the text.

And in reading Isaiah, rather than being nervous or confused about the contradiction with the Torah we might discover that for us today this is not an “either/or” proposition.  We don’t have to choose whether to worship God or seek justice in human society—we can do both.  We can have our “solemn assemblies” (even our incense!)–and our lives can embody the prophetic witness of Christ, his concern for the well-being of all people.  We can find our own synthesis. Shall we be priest or prophet?  We can be both, as God gives us grace.

The Living Word of God, the Spirit of Christ meets us in this difficult text, as in any other. The Living Word plants in our hearts both the desire to worship “in spirit and in truth” and to do justice and care for the orphan and widow. It is the Living Word that helps us find our own particular synthesis.

.“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…” (Heb. 4:12). The ancient texts are static. But the Living Word of God is active.  The ancient texts continue to speak to us in new ways precisely because the Living Word of God keeps company with us.  With the Living Word of God at our side our engagement with the ancient texts is fluid, dynamic, creative, generative, open-ended.  We never get it nailed down, once and for all.

One of the fruits of this fluid, creative, generative, open-ended process is diversity: we’re not all going to read the Bible the same way at the same time. The fruit of this open-ended, generative process is a kind of religious bio-diversity.  A religious ecosystem characterized by great bio-diversity.

What is healthy in nature is healthy for the people of God.  A wide range of understandings and interpretations is a sign of good health in the religious eco-system. (By the way, the disparate voices and contradictions of the Hebrew Scriptures probably point to a religious eco-system with bio-diversity in ancient Israel.) Bio-diversity in our religious ecosystem can help us curb the excesses of unchallenged points of view.

Religious bio-diversity may help us to embrace a certain religious modesty, realizing that the full truth is beyond anything a text could convey, beyond anything a human mind can comprehend.

Problem texts, texts with contradictions or harsh dissonance can be frustrating, embarrassing, confusing.  But the absence of clarity and certainty in the texts can also be God’s way of drawing us away from easy pieties and premature certainties—away from these untruths and to himself, the Living Word.  Problem texts can actually be effective pointers—pointers to the Living Word himself. The Living Word through whom all things came to be; the Living Word in whom we live and move and have our being. The ever-present Living Word of God.

The Gospel today speaks of the coming of the Son of Man at an unexpected hour.  But he is here already; we don’t have to wait any longer.  He is already here and stands ready to serve us at his table.  At the table of the Living Word; at the table of the Body and Blood.

I’ll close with words from one of our hymns [#633; Hymnal 1982]

Word of God, come down on earth, living rain from heaven descending;
Touch our hearts and bring to birth faith and hope and love unending;
Word almighty, we revere you; Word made flesh, we long to hear you.
Word that speaks your Father’s love, one with him beyond all telling,
Word that sends us from above God the Spirit with us dwelling,
Word of truth, to all truth lead us, Word of life, with one Bread feed us.

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10 Comments

  1. John David Spangler on August 10, 2014 at 05:43

    Dear Brother Mark, I will begin by echoing most heartily the message sent by Joe Stroud, adding my gratitude to his. Having done so, I must say that I find your conclusion to this sentence naive: “The ancient texts continue to speak to us in new ways precisely because the Living Word of God keeps company with us. With the Living Word of God at our side our engagement with the ancient texts is fluid, dynamic, creative, generative, open-ended. We never get it nailed down, once and for all.”. Alas! There are people, many in fact, who do believe that they have the ‘Living Word’ or least the words of Holy Scripture nailed down. Sadly, they go on to pronounce them with conviction and with a loud voice, misleading people. There is an inherent danger in Religious bio-diversity. It ceases to be the Religious bio-diversity that helps “us to embrace a certain religious modesty, realizing that the full truth is beyond anything a text could convey, beyond anything a human mind can comprehend.”. It becomes a hazard in the hands of those, the undies as Anne Coke put it, who have it nailed down. In writing this, I admit that I too am in danger or guilty of “nailing things” down without knowing the full truth , but I believe it is worth the risk for me to express a word of caution. My understanding of the “Living Word” is based on the opening words of St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory . . . full of grace and truth.”. The Word sent us the Holy Spirit, the third part of the “Living Word”. Peace to you and all the brothers! David

  2. Paul Teed on August 8, 2014 at 11:25

    Dear Br. Mark,

    I am new to your writings, but after reading this beautiful and honest essay I can’t wait to read more! The religious world needs to hear more of this humble and highly mature approach to scripture. Thank you.

  3. Joe Hughes on August 8, 2014 at 10:56

    It is interesting to consider how many fresh and vital, Spirit-given insights we miss in tuning out divergent points of view. On some things unity is essential. On other things maybe not so much, perhaps there are new things to discover that could inspire and encourage us on our faith journey. Thanks for wading into these troubled waters. It occurs to me that the readiness to listen to those who may not agree with us is a sign of one’s own spiritual maturity.

  4. Anne Coke on August 8, 2014 at 10:13

    What a delicate and respectful way to confound the Fundies.

  5. Ruth West on August 8, 2014 at 10:09

    Thank you, Brother. As Christians, we have a tendency to pick and choose scripture, much as one would do at a buffet. The positive lovely ones are our favorites. But we must accept the whole menu, whether it is to our liking or not. I must add, however, that Jesus said, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you…” As you said, the Hebrew scriptures are static; the Living Word, Jesus is active. He injects love, the fruits of the Spirit, a partaking of Himself which give us a whole new perspective.

  6. Mark Larson on August 8, 2014 at 05:41

    Thanks Mark. This reflection is a timely a addition to the conversation I am having with a friend about absolute truth and the limits of human understanding of that truth as revealed through scripture and the living GOD.

    Next year in Jerusalem!

    With Love and Brothers in Christ,
    Mark Larson

  7. Joe Stroud on October 3, 2013 at 12:25

    Br. Mark: You have done it again! Thank you for a wonderfully thoughtful and thought provoking meditation.

  8. Judy on October 3, 2013 at 11:26

    love the term “religious modesty”

  9. Robin on May 25, 2013 at 07:54

    “Religious bio-diversity may help us to embrace a certain religious modesty, realizing that the full truth is beyond anything a text could convey, beyond anything a human mind can comprehend.” What a wonderful reminder! Thank you, Br. Mark for these timeless words.

    • Damon on August 8, 2014 at 08:44

      This is timely. I recenty attended a UU service on cape code and was very pleasantly surprised. Their approach is a different kind of religious bio-diversity. Does anyone want to comment on this?

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