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 ancestry.com, 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.