Condensed Books – Br. Mark Brown

Br. Mark BrownExodus 2:1-15/Psalm 69:31-38/Matthew 11:20-24

I remember growing up my dad subscribing to the Readers Digest Condensed Books.  Several times a year you would be mailed a volume that contained abridged versions of four or five recently published books.  It was a very middle brow sort of thing and popular in the Midwest where I’m from. The “condensed books” would have all the “best parts” of a book, but leave out all the “unnecessary” parts—whatever that meant in some editor’s opinion.

If I were making a Readers Digest Condensed Book from the Gospel of Matthew, I just might leave out today’s passage about the woes and damnation of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. It simply doesn’t resonate for me the way The Sermon on the Mount and the Summary of the Law and the Passion story do. The Bible as a whole has passages that really sing to me and parts that I wouldn’t miss if they weren’t there.

The Scriptures are, after all, a collection of books, a library of books.  It’s a choir of different voices and they’re not all singing in the same key. And some even seem to sing the wrong notes entirely.  The story of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, for example, strikes me as having little value except perhaps to show the violence of a primitive strain of Israelite practice.  This very disturbing story is in the Book of Judges [Chap. 11-12].   Jephthah makes a vow to God that when he returns victorious from battle he will sacrifice whoever comes out of his house first to greet him; “whoever” turns out to be his daughter. Everyone is upset, but a vow is a vow, and so the daughter is sacrificed as a burnt offering.  Aren’t you glad that was then and this is now?

There are the parts of the Bible we could do without, if we had to.  But it’s also the case that there are situations in the modern world that don’t seem to be addressed at all in Scripture, at least not directly.  The Scriptures have nothing to say about technology and how to use it, or global economic systems, or the complicated ethical issues around end-of-life decisions.  We consider the Scriptures to be inspired and the Word of God (in one sense of that term), but they still bear the marks of the times and places in which they were written.

So how can we think of the Bible in our own day?

I find it helpful to think of the Scriptures as offering a framework—a framework for continued exploration of how to live faithfully in a changing world. It’s a framework we need to construct ourselves—we have the challenge of finding the right pieces and building this framework ourselves.  We do this without too much thought, actually: we do read selectively, we find that we resonate more deeply, more truly with some parts of Scripture than others.  The love of God in Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the commandment to love God and neighbor, the movement toward justice—these are some of the things that resonate deeply with us.  And other things we find in Scripture simply don’t: the cursing Psalms, perhaps, or the long genealogies of the Old Testament, or the minutiae of the Mosaic Laws.

The lectionary of readings in the prayer book, by the way, is a concrete example of this sorting process—a sort of Readers Digest Condensed Book approach. And if we take a 30,000 feet view of the teaching and preaching across the Episcopal Church generally, we’ll see that certain themes from Scripture come to the fore consistently—so much so, that we take them for granted: the love of God in Christ, our love for one another, the forgiveness of sins and the promise of resurrection, the vision of abundant life for all people, freedom from oppression, justice for all.  We actually have constructed a framework for continuing exploration, continuing conversation and debate. And I think there is some very “good news” in this, which I’ll come back to.

But before I do that, I’d like to draw a comparison that may be helpful in making my point.  I’ve just finished reading “The Quartet”, by Joseph Ellis. It’s about how four of the founding fathers orchestrated the political process that resulted in the Constitution of the United States.  Ellis’s quartet is George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, but he gives Thomas Jefferson the last word in the book—Jefferson, incidentally, did produce his own Readers Digest Condensed Book of the New Testament using two copies and scissors and glue.  “The Quartet” ends with these words of Jefferson:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.  They ascribe to the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.  I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it.  It deserved well of its country…But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered…institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. [“The Quartet, p219]

In other words, Jefferson, one of the “originals”, knew better than to be an “originalist” when it came to applying the Constitution—something certain Supreme Court Justices would do well to note. Now there are big differences between the Scriptures and the Constitution, of course.  But Jefferson’s approach has profound implications.

Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in the Supreme Court case that has brought marriage equality to this country is in this Jeffersonian vein—a quote from the Court’s majority opinion:

The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.  

“As we learn its meaning…”  The idea of liberty is enshrined in our founding documents, but we learn its full meaning over time. Similarly, the idea of “love” is enshrined in Scripture, but we learn its full meaning together over time.  Yes, there are big differences between the Constitution and the Bible, but there is a similar process at work: understanding the implications of these seminal texts develops and grows over time, sometimes in a messy process of trial and error.

But there’s good news lurking in this mess, some very good news. First of all, God trusts us.  God trusts us to be part of this process of continually unfolding truth. God trusts us to discover together over time the timeless truths that can guide us through the complexities of this life, to cull from the hodge podge of the sacred texts that which resonates most deeply and rings most truly.  As “people of the Book” God trusts us to discover within the Book timeless truths and build them into a framework and guide to address the challenges of our times: economies and medical ethics and other very complex things.

God trusts us to do this—and that is good news. And God sends the Holy Spirit to guide us—which is even better news.  In the Gospel of John Jesus tells his followers that they can’t understand everything at once, but that the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth, that is, in a process over time.  This process of being led into all truth is ongoing, and we’re part of its unfolding.

And, knowing that we will fall and lose our way in the messiness of life, God has sent a Savior—which is the best news of all.  A Savior who finds his lost sheep and carries them home, a Savior who has already atoned for any sin we might fall into along the way.  A Savior who, when we stumble, extends his hand to help us get up again.  And again and again.  The best news of all…

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