Wednesday, July 13, 2011


The following sermon was written by the Reverend Scott Walters of Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with his permission.
Surely there’s no goal more virtuous for a Christian than to read the Bible from front to back. Even some Episcopalians (clergy included) have been known to stammer and blush when asked if they’ve ever read the whole thing.
But reading the whole Bible is nothing like reading, say, all of War and Peace. It’s more like reading The Odyssey, Aesop’s Fables, long lists of other people’s relatives on, The Naked and the Dead, all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a year’s worth of Dear Abby columns, four different books on the assassination of J.F.K., a shoebox of letters (some happy, some angry, none of them written to anyone you know), and, finally, the narration of one of Timothy Leary’s acid trips.
There’s a decent chance that some of that list sounds interesting to you, but a slim chance that all of it does. You see, almost no one wants to read the whole Bible. What people want is to have read the whole Bible. Like they want to have hiked the whole Appalachian Trail or to have gotten in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest handstand. For some of us, reading the Bible is a nearly impossible feat to be accomplished.
Another approach is to extract the Bible’s essential truths and life lessons. This sounds a little more wholesome. We’d like to know how to live better. We believe this is a holy book. So what does it mean? What does it recommend or require? What am I supposed to do if my ox gores my neighbor? Or if said neighbor walks over and strikes me on the right cheek and takes my coat, what should I do then?
In this approach, sermons are basically religious Cliff’s Notes. Preachers pull out and present the relevant stuff for our lives, leaving out the inessentials. There might be a little less of the visible agitation that begins when a sermon in an Episcopal church drags on into its eleventh minute if congregants considered how many pages of the Bible get distilled, culled down, and concentrated into these wonderful, engaging, life changing little talks we call sermons.
But Flannery O’Connor was onto something when she said that the best stories resist paraphrase. It’s not enough to read book reviews or plot summaries. It’s not enough to be told the moral of the story. We want to be told the story. I think even Phillip Martin would agree that it would be a real bummer to show up at Market Street Cinema expecting to see “Airplane”—which they are really showing on Tuesday, by the way—only to see Phillip Martin reading his 300 word review of the film instead.
So maybe it’s not enough to just get through the Bible. And maybe it’s not enough to get a synopsis of the Bible’s lessons for our lives either.
But maybe there is a third way. We can also read the Bible because we are—to use Stanley Hauerwas’s phrase—a ‘story formed people’. Some of us believe that we call ourselves Christians not because we simply believe certain facts about the mystery of God and our human condition, but because we share and are shaped by some essential stories. And we live our ordinary lives as part of a narrative that is still unfolding. The unfolding narrative of the Hebrew people, one that spread out and included us in the mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Maybe we only begin to understand the Bible, and what it means to be Christian in the act of living out and living out of this story.
Since a person presenting three options always recommends the third, let’s look at the birth of Jacob and Esau this morning as a story formed people. What might it mean to believe that the strange story of Abraham and Sarah’s family is our story too?
Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac has married Rebecca, who couldn’t have a child for twenty years after their wedding. Again and already, God’s promise to Abraham of offspring like the stars and the sand seems to be hanging by a thread. But Rebecca finally conceives and bears twins. Twins that begin to struggle with each other even before they are born.
I’ve known quite a few pregnant women; I’ve known one very well. So even I can sympathize when Rebecca prays, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” I always imagine her praying this in the terrible heat of a Little Rock summer. Robert Alter says the Hebrew is even terser. Something like, “Then why me?”

She’s carrying two boys, and they are at each other already. And Rebecca actually gets an answer to her cry of “Why me?” “Two nations are in your womb,” she is told, “and two peoples born of you shall be divided.”
Now if we are a story formed people because the Hebrews, our spiritual forbears, were a story formed people, we might ask why they would they keep this story alive? Let’s set aside questions about what really happened. Why keep telling this story? Hold onto this question as it unfolds.
One of Rachel’s sons is born red and hairy; the other is born gripping the older brother’s heel. Esau, the hairy one, grows up to become what some folks around here might call a man’s man. He hunts and loves the outdoors. His father, Isaac, loves the game he brings home and probably brags about Esau when he’s down at the barber shop swapping lies with the other patriarchs.
Jacob, however, was a mama’s boy, some would say. He preferred life in the tents. It’s cooler there, cleaner too. His skin was smoother, his beard was softer, he depended more on his wits than his skill with a bow to get along. Rachel loved him best, and bragged on his smarts and sensitivity, I’ll bet.
So one day Esau comes in famished from a hunt. And Jacob just happens to have put on a pot of stew—probably with fresh, local ingredients he’d gathered that morning at the farmer’s market. There’s a wonderful Hebrew midrash on this story that imagines that Jacob was making stew to win their father’s affection, since Isaac loved to eat what Esau hunted. But even without the midrash, this sibling rivalry is still clearly raging.
Jacob tells his starving brother that he can only have a bowl of stew if he trades in his birthright. Esau agrees. And the rest is history. Our religious and spiritual history, that is.
Now Esau, we’re told, was called Edom. And here’s where the question of why the Hebrews would keep a story like this one alive becomes really interesting. This, as we know is a story about beginnings. Jacob will eventually be renamed Israel. So Israel was in the womb with Edom, also the name of a nation. But not just any nation. Edom, generations later, was Israel’s enemy. Israel and Edom were often at war. And this is the story that Israel told. A story about being in the womb with their enemy. A story about Israel’s tricking his enemy out of the birthright that was rightfully Edom’s.
Sensitive modern people like us often look down our long civilized noses at the stories of the Old Testament. They’re crude and cruel with such uncouth descriptions of God. But what kind of stories do we tell about our beginnings? George Washington and the cherry tree, perhaps? We imagine a story in which our first president proves his honesty and character. It’s tidy, and moral and thoroughly untrue not just with regard to the facts of Washington’s life. The Hebrews understood and admitted a whole lot more of the truth about strange the workings of the human heart than whoever made up that little fable about the first president.
We tell stories that make us look virtuous and victorious. But Israel told the truth; maybe not the facts, but the truth. The truth about human nature and the mixed motives and dumb luck that are also part of the story that tells us who we are. And part of the truth of Israel’s story and ours is that our enemies in this world are also our brothers and sisters.Pick an enemy: Osama bin Laden or Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler, perhaps. Is it imaginable that we would tell a story in which one of our forefathers shares a mother with one of these? Forgive the anachronism, but let’s say it was George Washington, or better, Thomas Jefferson. Would we keep telling a story in which Thomas Jefferson tricked his twin brother Joseph Stalin? Would we say that our story as Americans unfolded from that strange, morally troubling moment? Would we keep telling that story throughout the Cold War? As a people, as a culture, do we have the kind of moral courage it takes to teach our children that we and our sworn enemy are brothers?
A story like that can change us. A story like that can form us. And to baptize children, as we will [name] and [name] in a moment, is to include them in our story and see what happens. Perhaps this story will form us as people who know deeply that we were made for unity. We’re meant for restoration, even with the people who have set themselves against us.
And if you do make it through the whole Bible, I think you’ll see that this story gets told over and over again. Restoration will happen between Jacob and Esau at the river Jabbok. Restoration will happen in the heart of the adulterous king David. Restoration will happen at the cross and in that vision of a heavenly city with doors in its four walls opened to people from every corner of the earth.
Maybe, just maybe, if we let ourselves be formed by stories like these, we’ll slowly become the people God means for us to be. Not necessarily nicer people, not necessarily people who never act with ulterior motives or who lead flawless moral lives. But people who see that the story that is unfolding in us, should be one of restoration as well. Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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