This past week, I was in Surrey for a few days, serving as Chaplain for the Candidacy & Admissions Board of BC Conference. This is the body that interviews those who are preparing for ministry in the United Church of Canada, and determines whether or not people have the requisite gifts. My spouse Don has served as an interviewer on the Board for a number of years now, and he can tell you more about their work.
The role of the Chaplain is to offer an opening worship for the meeting, to provide pastoral support and care for those being interviewed, and to lead a liturgy of celebration for those who have completed their interviews and are preparing for ordination, commissioning, or recognition at the Annual Meeting of BC Conference next spring.
Since the members of the Board have as their task discerning whether those who come before them have the gifts for ministry, I thought it would be a good idea in the opening worship to reflect together on the second reading that Leanne read for us this morning, from Paul’s second letter to his protégé, Timothy. I thought it was especially appropriate since this text focuses on Scripture and its role in preaching, teaching, and training in the way of Jesus.
Now to back up a bit, let me say that this is a text that we often stay away from in the United Church, in part because Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians rely on this text to argue for the inerrancy of Scripture, an idea that we are uncomfortable with. The key verse is 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” This verse undergirds the notion of the authority of Scripture, and that is something of which we remain somewhat suspicious in our tradition. When we talk about the authority of Scripture, it means that Scripture functions like a law or a code, a rule of life that we are, to some degree or another, obliged to follow.
So, knowing that we have this suspicion, maybe even some discomfort about the authority of Scripture, I didn’t know what to expect when I asked this group to share their thoughts about the role of Scripture in the life of the church, and in the vocational life of church leaders and pastors.
What was shared around the table were a diversity of responses, many of which were captured by a single word. “I think about alignment,” one person said, and described Scripture as a kind of guide or template for how we are meant to live our lives. Scripture sets out a pattern to which we are meant to conform; on any given day, at any given moment, our lives are more or less in alignment with Scripture, and we are meant to seek to be in alignment.
Another said, “The word that comes to mind for me is mediation,” and spoke about how texts of Scripture can be dangerous if taken on their own, read at face value, without a sense of how they fit into the big picture, the broader, overarching story that the Bible as a whole tells.
We can probably think of texts, stories or even single verses of Scripture that on their own say very strange or disturbing things.
Another person spoke about the importance of context, not only in terms of the biblical context in which a story is placed, but also in terms of our context, helping the congregation understand how a particular text speaks to us, how the text is addressing us, what it wants from us, how it wants us to respond.
A fourth person spoke about integrity, the idea that preachers and leaders are able to be clear and honest about the intersection of their own lives and beliefs with the Scriptures on the page; to go back to that earlier word, to be able to say where the preacher’s life and beliefs are in alignment, or out of alignment, with Scripture. So that our preaching has an integrity about it. I have to say, I thought these were all great responses that say a lot about our approach to Scripture and to preaching in the United Church in BC Conference.
Now my original plan for today was to reflect on these ideas with you, with reference to the Scripture text, and to the writing of one of my teachers. But then I decided to do something different. I’ve decided to go confessional, and to share with you my own personal thoughts about Scripture and preaching, and my approach to these topics.
So to begin with, this notion of alignment, the idea that Scripture offers a pattern, a template, a guideline for how we ought to live our lives. I believe that. I believe that Scripture is an authority for us as Christians, that it has some authority over our lives. I believe that the pattern of life described by Scripture constrains our choices; it sets limits on our freedom to do whatever we want to do. Scripture tells us that some choices are better than others in the eyes of the loving God who created us.
I understand that this is a hard concept for us to accept in a culture that values freedom of choice almost above everything. But there it is: I believe that Scripture invites us into a particular pattern of living; it sets limits on our choices.
The second word: mediation. If you have even basic familiarity with the Bible, you’ll know that there are some pretty scary things in its pages. We recoil at depictions of violence and misogyny, and other forms of reprehensible behaviour. We know too, that over the history of the church those stories have often been used to justify yet more reprehensible behaviour by Christians. Even this week, Scripture was invoked to defend a US presidential candidate against allegations of abusive conduct towards women.
This is what leads us, particularly in the liberal church, to want to do as Gretta Vosper suggests and put the Bible up on a shelf, to demote it and say that it is no longer an authority in our lives, because it contains such awful stuff. This is an approach that I believe is wrong. I believe it’s wrong because I believe the Bible is a foundation stone of the Church. Without the Bible, we stop being the Church and become something else. We become some kind of secular humanist society, a post-theistic church gathered around shared values, as Gretta proposes. And maybe that can be a good thing, an organization that does some good in the world. But it is no longer the Church.
The text for today warns us about having itching ears, and wandering off in search of teachers to suit our own desires. Rather than do that, I believe we need to continue to wrestle with the Bible, because it is our text. We don’t have to have to always agree with every word of it; we don’t have to claim to understand all of it, and the mysteries it describes. But as a Church I do believe we have to live with it, to struggle with it, to live within it in some way.
And yes, we are allowed to question and doubt, and even roll our eyes, or shake our fists; but we can’t do is set it aside, and replace it with something else. My job as a pastor is to do some of that mediation work, helping us a community to engage with Scripture, to learn about its overarching story about God and God’s love for us, and how that love is made known to us.
That brings me to the third idea: context. This is not a seminary classroom; we are not here primarily to learn about the ancient world, and its customs and beliefs—though it was a treat for us today to hear Leanne read the Old Testament Scripture in the way it would have been heard by Jesus!
We are here to discover what Scripture has to say to us in our lives today, trusting that Scripture is not locked in the past, but still speaks to us. I believe that Scripture, particularly the Gospel around which we gather as Christians is inherently relevant. It has something to say to the way we live now; it speaks to our politics, and our economics, and our social relationships.
Right there, in the pages of Scripture, in the stories of Jesus you’ll find all you need to know to combat racism, sexism, economic inequality, the catastrophic dangers of climate change, and all forces that attack and undermine the goodness of creation and God’s intentions for humanity. We don’t need other models or plans or techniques or technologies; we just need to follow the example, the pattern laid out for us.
And finally the fourth word that was shared around the table this week: integrity. The idea that a preacher needs to be able to do what I have been doing here today: saying what I believe and what I don’t believe, testifying to how I think Scripture ought to operate in our community, and in our lives.
There are a couple of things I want to say about this, that I think are important in light of some of the things I have heard from some of you in recent months. So I want you to listen closely now.
I have heard some of you say that you have concerns about my theology. I have had some people say to me things like, “Since you have been studying in the US, your theology has become more American.” I think that is United Church of Canada code for evangelical, or conservative, or even Fundamentalist.
This is something we need to check ourselves on, because it is a liberal church stereotype of evangelical churches. Like all stereotypes it is based in some truths, but, like all stereotypes it is also harmful, because it paints everyone with the same brush, and denies the diversity and humanity present in other traditions. It’s also harmful because it leads to a sense of smug superiority which is not consistent with the core Christian value of humility.
I can tell you that as an openly gay man studying in the US South, I have experienced zero discrimination from my colleagues, whether Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Catholic, or Fundamentalist. We need to remember this: we do not have a lock on respect for diversity in the United Church of Canada. On some measures—such as our openness to traditional or evangelical expressions of Christian faith—we are actually not very tolerant or inclusive.
There is a lot more that I could say about my own theology, but there isn’t room in this one sermon. What I will say today is that studying at Duke has not changed my theology. All my life, since my childhood in the church, and through my time of preparation and my ordination to ministry in the United Church of Canada, I have always had a fairly orthodox theology. By that I mean that I have always accepted the traditional teachings of the church expressed in the ancient creeds, and the doctrines of the church which find their way into the core doctrines of the United Church of Canada. Our church, when it was formed in 1925, affirmed the ancient creeds of the church, and the doctrines of the Evangelical Reformation of the 1500s.
Those teachings remain at the heart of our tradition, supplemented but not replaced by later statements of faith, such as the 1940 Statement of Faith, the 1968 New Creed, and the 2006 A Song of Faith. Personally, I can live with all of these statements. Again, I don’t claim to understand them all, but I can accept them all.
The last thing I want to say about this is perhaps most important. I do not believe that my theology determines your theology; and I do not believe that your theology determines my theology. I don’t get to impose my theology on you, and you don’t get to impose your theology on me. It’s okay if you don’t believe the same things I do, and it’s okay if I don’t believe the same things you do.
My job as your pastor, as your designated preacher, is to stand up here and witness to my faith as together we explore the Scriptures before us. It’s important that I am able to do this with integrity: that I say what I believe, and that I don’t say things that I don’t believe. You don’t have to agree with me. I don’t claim that I am always right.
I pray that I am always faithful. Faithful to my calling; faithful to Scripture; faithful to my walk with God, and to my walk with you. I trust that God speaks in all of our lives, and that sometimes one of you may have a better idea about what is revealed in Scripture than I have. And that’s okay, too. We are learning together.
Doing my job well means paying attention to those other factors we’ve talked about today: mediation, wrestling with the text and setting it in context; sorting out what the text is calling us to do today; and always being willing to acknowledge the authority of the text, even when that is a struggle for us.
Friends, I pray that what I have said today has been illuminating for you, and that it supports our ongoing mutual journey of living into our calling as a Scripture-formed people.
Rev. Jeff Seaton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.