Sermon for the Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost
November 17, 2013
The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
I will betray my ignorance. Even though I live in Texas, I know nothing about cattle. Well, I take that back, I know a couple of things. I know that brisket is delicious. I know that some maniacs ride angry bulls at rodeos. And I also know that my University mascot is, of course, a steer. Hook ‘em Horns.
But really, when I drive by the cattle next to Klein Oak High School, I have to admit, I don’t know anything about them. Until one day recently, I decided to teach myself something. Thanks be to God for Wikipedia.
So, I was blown away that cows have a totally different stomach structure than we humans do. They chew something, swallow it, kick it around their stomachs for a while, cough it back up, chew it again, swallow it, and on and on. That sounds disgusting. There is a word to describe this process of inward digestion. “Ruminating.” The same word we use for heavy thinking.
The opening prayer this morning, the collect, is one of the most famous collects in the Episcopal Church. “Blessed Lord who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them…” Inwardly digest them. When this prayer was composed, chewing the cud was in mind. The idea is that we, as faithful Christians, ruminate on the holy scriptures. We chew the cud. The holy scriptures live inside of us, kicking around. And sometimes we cough them back up, chew on them some more, swallow them down. It may take days, weeks, years, to receive nourishment from the holy scriptures. And if it doesn’t strike you as disgusting, perhaps it is a little disheartening. There is no “instant gratification” from the holy scriptures.
When I was younger, though, that’s exactly what I wanted. I would flip open the Bible, expecting God to guide me and show me exactly what I had to read for that day. I wanted to learn something instantly. But that method only confused me. Because when you’re sixteen years old and you open up to the story of Moses’ wife waking up in the middle of the night and circumcising their son so that the Lord doesn’t kill him, you get a little weirded out. So I have to admit, I avoided the Bible. It was filled with bizarre stories about people whose names I couldn’t pronounce and written in a language I didn’t understand.
For somebody who didn’t particularly like reading the Bible, I somehow decided to go to seminary. Yes, I learned a lot about the Bible at seminary. But more importantly, I learned how to read the Bible. I learned that I had to chew the cud.
The first thing I learned is that the holy scriptures are tough enough to chew on. Bibles are not paperweights or fancy home decor. Bibles should be worn out, marked up, taped together, and beaten up. Like you’ve really been reading it. But deeper than that, God is big enough to take your questions, your dislike of some of the unsavory stories. I learned that we can faithfully be uncomfortable with some parts of the Bible. I also learned that reading the holy scriptures is a lifelong effort. Like cows that graze everyday for sustenance, the same with us; continual nourishment and chewing on God’s holy stories.
But most importantly, I learned that I could not read the Bible alone. I learned that Christians are like cows. Did you know you’re like a cow? I know, that’s not very flattering, but bear with me. We do much better in a herd than wandering off by ourselves. We must, we must, read the Bible as a community. When we strike off by ourselves we end up getting lost or bogged down in the mire. And, when we’re by ourselves and stuck, there is no one to help.
This passage from Luke is a perfect example. By yourself, you read about Jesus talking of “wars and rumors of wars. Of nation rising against nation, earthquakes, plagues, famines. Of persecution.” And then we flip on the television news and say, “Oh my God! This is exactly what Jesus was talking about it!” Civil war in Syria! Typhoon in the Philippines! Church bombings in Egypt! This must be the end of the world!
Hold on a second. Let’s read this as a community, let’s chew the cud on this one. The Church has been reading this same passage for two thousand years. In those two thousand years, there have been wars, rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, earthquakes, plagues, and famines, and persecutions. Yet we are all still here. Last time I checked, the world has not ended, even though we’ve been reading this passage for two millennia.
Let’s chew the cud again. Jesus is a first century Jew talking to other first century Jews. We can logically assume that Jesus is talking about first century Jewish problems. Not twenty-first century American paranoia.
In fact, what’s going on in this passage is that Jesus is warning his disciples that soon, the Jews will rise up in rebellion against the Romans, the Romans Empire are going to destroy the Temple, and the disciples will be persecuted in the midst of the chaos. And guess what? That all happened, not more than forty years after Jesus said it would.
The lesson here is that we have to read the Bible as a church community. A community of Christians serves as a corrective, a guiding influence. The church helps us chew the cud of the Holy Scriptures. With the church’s help, we ruminate on the scriptures. By ourselves, we want a quick snack of spiritual enlightenment, so we easily jump to hasty conclusions. Instead of ruminating on a nutritious meal, we go straight for the Pringles. The church calls us back, in her own timely way, and bids us to chew the cud. To think ever more deeply as to what is going on in these holy stories.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I expect all of you to live like monks and nuns. I really don’t expect any of you to sit quietly for hours upon hours, ruminating on the holy scriptures. Believe me, I get it, we live in a fast-paced world and the demands of our families and jobs are always pressing.
But this is what I do expect. I expect that each of you hold back from jumping to hasty conclusions. I expect all of you to use your God-given skills of logic, reason, and insight. The same skills that you use everyday at work and at home.
I also expect you to make an effort at coming to bible study, or Sunday school, or reading at home. Geez, we even do a bible study on YouTube, it can’t get much easier than that. And if you don’t know where to start, please, please, do not crack open the first page of your bible and start with Genesis. Guaranteed – you’ll be lost within fifteen minutes. Maybe you should start with something a little easier. The Gospel of Matthew is a great place to start.
But whatever you do – hear the holy scriptures, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. Be more like a cow. Chew on them. Stay in the herd. By your endurance, you will gain your souls.