Sermon based on Hebrews 11:1-3, 6-19 at First UMC, Huntington on August 11, 2019.
Text: Luke 10:25-37
Location: First UMC, Huntington
Title: “A View from the Ditch”
I do not have a video hosting service for sermons, so, I will post them here for the time being.
There is a smell here of both hope and anxiety. It is a smell that is fresh but acrid as it attacks my nostrils, triggering memories of days gone by while making my eyes water as I focus on the days to come. It is a smell that carries weight itself even as it gets weighed down with the possessions of life. It is a smell accompanied by promise, even as it is locked tight with the screech of tape rubbing against its surface.
It is the smell of cardboard. My house is filled with its aroma.
I’m an itinerate preacher in the United Methodist Church. This year I join with thousands of colleagues around the connection as I pack my belongings and prepare to move to the place my Bishop has assigned me to go. On the surface, that seems like a simple thing: Jobs change. You pack the boxes and you move. This is life.
I have a friend in the Army who has moved 19 times in 31 years. I don’t envy him. I don’t even want to think about moving that much. However, I think it’s different for him. Sure, we both signed up for an itinerant life. But there appears to be so much less understood about the preacher that moves her or his family from town to town than there is about the multitude of soldiers who move from base to base. And maybe that is part of it. When soldiers move, they are almost always leaving with others or arriving with others. They are moving out of and into a community of “movers.” Preachers and their families move from and into communities of “stayers.”
The ones I am leaving behind have been taught by me, frustrated by me, and joined me in the worship of Someone much bigger than all of us. I know their stories. Some families have been here so long the roads and buildings have their names on them. And they know each other. Their houses are known not just by the community of faith but the whole community. Their place is here. My place will soon be “not here – but there.” And the folks there have more than likely been there a while as well, rooted in the area and each other. Familiar with worship, with one another, with the jokes that have gone on for generations. Sure, they know we are coming, but what does that really mean? They’ve had preachers arrive before. They are watching one leave now. How does that affect everything? I feel for the loss at both places. But the smell of cardboard reminds me that I am the one moving. I am the one without a place.
I take one of the old boxes that I have used to move before, unfold it, and let the dust assault my senses. I fix the box for filling and start packing in the contents of life. But it is more than stuff that is going into these boxes. It is memories. This is the place my two youngest graduated from high school. This is the home they left for college, and left again for grad school. I will fill the boxes with some of “their” stuff and even more of “our” stuff but when they get to the new place, something will be very, very different. And when I smell the low-grade heat of the adhesive tape locking away that stuff, I smell that which is getting left behind.
Sometimes I take a box and start filling it with my life, and the aroma that arrives is one that reminds me that there are new things headed my way. New challenges. New friends. New experiences. New mistakes to make. New. New. New. It is hopeful and promising but just like holding one of my newborn children there is something frightening in all that newness. The responsibility of it all. The knowing I am going to a place where everybody knows my name, but I don’t know theirs. The new routes I will have to learn. The new celebrations I will share in. The new ministry that will take place. The hope of all this newness is weighty, even heavier than the cardboard filled with the dishes from the china cabinet.
Sometimes I prep a box for packing and the aroma that reaches me gives my mind a shot of racing fuel in the form of adrenaline. Are the movers sure they can do this job? Are they really going to show up? Am I going to get to say good-bye the way I want, to everybody that I want to say good-bye to? Is my spouse packing that stuff or am I? And who is sorting through that part of life over there? Will this break en route?
Will anyone be here to say, “So long. We love you.”? Will anyone be there to say, “Welcome. We love you.”?
Sometimes I get a box from the stack of recycled moving materials and even though it is empty, I have trouble moving it. A dense and heavy fog surrounds the box. The fog interrupts normal conversation modes between my spouse and me. It makes me tired, oh, so tired. It overwhelms me. To borrow from an all too popular show on TV: Moving. Is. Coming. And with it comes the change in the relationships even in my house. Excitement. Grief. Excitement. Grief. It wears on any marriage. I’m just fortunate enough to have a spouse who patiently keeps on packing, even when it seems it will never end. Because in the end, we want to be together. We choose each day to love each other and no tension, not even the tension of finding the right box for “that” will end that choice.
My house smells of cardboard. It is hopeful. It is anxious.
It is dust – held together by pressure and glue. Someday it will be dust again. Then again – so will I.
So will we all.
My house smells of cardboard – a holy smell leading me away from and towards the place that is not quite home.
I have read (and used as teaching tools) two of Enns’ previous works: The Sin of Certainty and The Bible Tells Me So. Thankfully, I was able to receive an advance reader copy from HarperOne of How the Bible Actually Works in exchange for writing a review and being a part of the launch team for the book. And even though a well-meaning colleague (and supervisor for that matter) called me a heretic for carrying around the copy, I am more than happy to fulfill my obligations before being burned at the stake.1
However, it was with some other fear and trepidation that I approached this particular work of Enns’. The subtitle set off little alarm bells in my United Methodist self – “*In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather than Answers – and Why That’s Great News.” The word “ambiguous” was one that I do not believe that I had ever heard in serious Biblical Scholarship before. I chalked the subtitle up to Enns’ tendency toward the sensational and sometimes sarcastic and dove right in.
I have no problem seeing the Bible as either “ancient” or “diverse”. I have known for quite some time that it is important for us to understand the context of the Biblical writers and realize that the Bible does come from divergent opinions. I must say, however, that Enns breathed new life into the whole historical critical study method in several ways in How the Bible Actually Works. By nailing a third leg to this milking stool for the Bible, namely the thought provoking word “ambiguous,” Enns is able to show how to use the ancient, diverse text in new ways.2
Many people, including the most traditionalist of Bible readers, make the claim that “the Bible proofs itself” and that we should only judge “Scripture with Scripture.” Very few mean it. Peter Enns, however, doesn’t just mean it, he encourages us to start and finish our work with it. By using the way the Bible itself is structured, he challenges those of us who wish to take The Book seriously to read the Bible in the same way it written.
In an adroit manner, Enns prompts us to see a link between revelation (the act, not the last book of the Bible) and imagination3. Since biblical authors came from different times and were experiencing faith in sometime very different situations than previous people of faith – one just doesn’t know how important the Babylonian exile can be to faith until they read this book – what was revealed to their imaginations about God were quite different over time. Enns rightly calls this process of taking what was previously learned about God, adding the current experience, and working out what God is saying to the Biblical writer for that time, an act of wisdom. (Note to Enns and publisher…kill the capitol on “wisdom” in the subtitle…that usage makes it seem like the whole of Biblical writing is pointing back to the genre of Wisdom literature.)
But that is not the great news he has for us in this book. No. The great news is that by following the pattern of Biblical writing into current day Biblical interpretation, we are invited to continue the act of finding wisdom in the Bible rather than twisting and proof texting to some absurd level to try and make the Bible into some book of rules that should be followed. The living Christian faith is not basketball and we should not treat our bible the same as the rules for basketball. Yeah, Enns is stuck on baseball and that pinstripe wearing team of hackers from New York City, but we all know the best sports analogies come from basketball.4
As I said earlier, I read and taught from two of Enns’ previous works. At the end of them, I, along with others, were wondering, “Okay. This is good, but ‘what’s next?’” How the Bible Actually Works offers that “what’s next” and opens up the whole of creation for the human endeavor of understanding God as revealed in and through the Bible.
Is this book perfect? Far from it. Some, but not me, will indeed be put off by the lack of “scholarly sounding” writing. Others, like me, will tire of Enns promising “more on that later” – which I would humbly say is a real fault in his writing style. I didn’t go back and actually check, but I do not believe Enns came back to every single thing that he said he would. If I am wrong, I apologize, but it makes my point for me. There were too many of them to keep up with and I’m just short of being compulsive enough to go back and check each one. May those with eidetic memories make the proof that is needed!
Even with those slight problems, this is a great book. It needs to be read and reread often by those who take seriously the Bible and especially those of us who regularly teach and preach from the Bible. We have abdicated through laziness the effort that is really needed to understand such a holy book and Enns has offered us the possibility of recovering not just the proper discipline we need, but the hope that using this discipline will break us out of our sloth and allow us to find new ways to unify the ever splintering Christian kingdom on earth.
May wisdom be with you. (Yep…I crack myself up.)
The book is released on February 19, 2019 so go ahead and preorder your copies. (Yes, you will want extras to give to someone else so that you can talk through some of this stuff.)
1 – I must add that no real harm should come to this reviewer. Said colleague gladly accepted the loan of the previous works…then again…that could be in preparation for my trial. Hmmmm.
2 – Okay. This may not be all that new even according to Enns. He acknowledges the existence of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral towards the end of his book. May I just say, “Glory be!” and refer you to note four on that response.
3 – There is a fair amount of use of the words “imagining” and “reimagining” in this book. Some may find it a bit too human of an endeavor for reading the Bible and understanding God. My only response is, “What else do we have left to use?” Imagination and revelation are “pneumatically” linked in humanity. Either that or we are all drunk. Just read Acts 2:15.
4 – Sarcasm. (Yeah, this note may be seen as plagiarism. So noted. They wanted me to write the
review. Consider this an instance where this writer wishes he had thought of this idea first and didn’t have to “borrow” it.)