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Eat This Scroll

Ezekiel 2:9-3:3 I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. 10 He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe. He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. 3 He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.

During this season of Epiphany, we’re considering some of the locations where God reveals God’s self to us. These aren’t the only places and the only ways that God shows up and let’s us know they’re showing up, but just like an artist limits themself to the shape of their canvas or an athlete has to limit themself to the dimensions of their playing surface in order to act out their freedom, we have these practices where we show up and ask the mystery of the divine to make itself known. Two weeks ago we talked about how the very act of showing up is at the heart of God meeting us, and last week we talked about the practice of prayer. Today, we’re going to consider how God shows up for us in Scripture.

And just like last week, where I encouraged us to pray, I want to encourage us to practice reading the Bible, too. (If you start reading a Psalm every day, it’ll be two birds with one stone.) This is another one of those practices that might sound odd coming from this pulpit because, just like with prayer, we read the Bible together here, we work with these stories, we’ve done a number of Bible studies over the years, so I don’t think we could deny that the Bible is important here, but also maybe that importance is not something we talk about very much.

And again, we know why this is the case. Many of us have come out of settings where leaders held having a “quiet time” over our heads, and even if that was something we kept up with, well we could always do it better, you could always be getting up earlier in the morning, you could always be spending more time in the Word, you could always be memorizing more Scripture rather than just reading it. And those pressures created a certain kind of reading posture, where we were supposed to read with submissiveness and obedience (which we were told was what faith looked like).

So, when we came up against passages of the Bible that seemed odd, or just wrong, we knew that we were the ones who were wrong. And so when the Bible tells women to keep silent in church, we’re supposed to accept that on faith. When the Bible seems to condemn same-sex acts, we’re supposed to accept that on faith. When the Bible tells masters to be kind to their slaves, we’re just supposed to accept slavery’s place in the world on faith. When God tells the Israelites to commit genocide against the Canaanites, we’re supposed to accept that on faith, and oh by the way also accept on faith that God is calling the United States and Israel to conquer and establish a holy nation.

It has seemed like this high view of the Bible as “the word of God” comes with a pretty monstrous and thoughtless ethic of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” and so as people move away from that kind of faith it seems natural to move away from the Bible, too. We historicize it, saying “Oh those things that make us uncomfortable are just relics of another time.” Sometimes the lectionary just cuts out things that are offensive—there’ll be a gap in the middle of the passage and it’s like “Oh that’s where God was calling for murder again.” We find ways of distancing ourselves from what we find unpalatable.

I wonder about that instinct, too. Obviously I think it’s good and important to be able to say, “Hey, there’s some stuff in here that’s not ethically binding.” But at the same time, there’s this slipperiness when we start talking about an essence of Christianity or an essence of the Bible that lets us identify with the good and noble stuff and feel like we’re above the gross stuff. That’s less about ethics and more about feeling superior. Like, it’s perfectly possible for nice liberal Christians to say, “Oh all that stuff in Joshua about conquering Canaan is just a historical relic from a more primitive time” while getting very pious about Israel bombing Gaza as we sit in churches built on land stolen from indigenous peoples or, as in our case, received from slaveholders. I want us to have a better ethic, but I’m not sure I’m superior to much of anything. That self-righteousness where we convince ourselves we’re above implication is just the mirror of the self-righteousness that says “I believe it, that settles it.” Either way, an idea of the Bible becomes an instrument justifying the way things already are.

But I wonder if our Scripture that we read a moment ago gives us a different way of approaching these texts we’ve received. In this story, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision from the Lord where a hand holds out a scroll to him. And the scroll is full of words of lamentation and woe. It is a bitter message, an uncomfortable message. But a voice tells the prophet to eat the scroll. Don’t just read it, don’t memorize, don’t interpret it, don’t sift it to take the parts that flatter who you think you are and castigate your other—eat it, ingest it, take it inside yourself so that it becomes one with you and you become one with it. And the prophet eats those bitter words, but in his mouth he finds that they were sweet like honey. There was something he didn’t expect there but it only became available to him when he took the scroll into himself. The sweetness wasn’t available at an arm’s length, but only through immersion in the experience itself.

Sometimes people like to flatter themselves that noticing those monstrous parts of Scripture is something modern people learned how to do, and ancient people just accepted all of it because it was normal to them. But if you read the early church writers, you’ll find that they’re utterly preoccupied with this problem. A writer named Augustine, who is probably the most influential theologian in the history of the church (definitely in the West), he didn’t convert to Christianity for a long time because he read the Bible and was like “This is messed up, I’m not worshipping that God. They might be evil.” Another even earlier writer named Origen struggled with the same thing. And ultimately Origen argued that yes, the Bible is still the Word of God, but God put in all the mistakes and the morally dubious stuff so that we would have to wrestle to find the truth of God in the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit. So the Bible is inerrant, as in God put in all the mistakes on purpose. Yeah we read with faith, but faith is less like submissiveness or assurance of my superiority than it is a defiance and a hunger for a better life.

It’s like the stories and the words of Scripture are there to hold a mirror up to our world and to ourselves, so that we have to see ourselves as we really are, as image bearers of infinite worth and value and as sinners who in the wrong circumstances with the wrong norms making the wrong things normal are implicated in all kinds of awful violence. And it’s there, looking into that mirror without evading or fantasizing about ourselves, without making the world seem prettier than it is or totally inevitable in it’s ugliness, that what we call the Spirit meets us. The Spirit is the name we have for that mystery stirring us up to say, “Yeah that’s awful, but look at how it’s still happening. Yeah this is awful, but I’m not going to accept that anymore. I don’t think God wants things to be this way, so I’m not going to be content while the world and our lives are like this.” And that’s where the defiant, rebellious, rowdy kind of prayer where we say “God, what the hell?!” is essential for reading the Bible, too, that’s the Spirit reading with us.

The Spirit is in that feistiness, which is a form that faith and hope take. For years, European empires would teach the Bible to colonized people, thinking that it would “civilize” them, and time and again, the colonized read it and were like “Oh yeah, I think this is saying we should revolt.” This is why slaveholders eventually made their own Bibles that cut out the book of Exodus and a lot of Jesus’ words, too. Because when the Spirit of God meets us in these words, it’s dangerous to those in power. Because these stories we gather to tell don’t hold back, they don’t shy away from things that the powers of this world would teach us to shy away from. Like, the most noble kings of Israel were also awful, so maybe let’s cool it on the idea of a holy nation. The faithful are constantly grumbling. The apostles are constantly falling asleep and making fools of themselves. If you’re looking for hero worship, the Bible is not the place to go if you’re paying attention.

That’s why I want to encourage us to read Scripture, together but also as a practice between our meetings. Not so that we’ll be submissive and not so that we’ll be superior, but as a reminder that we’re in the thick of things and God is in the thick of things with us. This world is messy and uncomfortable and unjust and we’re implicated in all of it, but the Spirit is hovering over those waters, the waters of the world and the waters of our souls, working out a new creation. And so we read these stories to prick our consciences and give us a hunger for more. There is revelation in the dissatisfaction, in the discomfort we feel when we read these stories, and that discomfort isn’t the Spirit telling us to just accept it or narrate it in a way we feel good about, it’s the Spirit stirring us up to work for a new creation, too, to join each other in hovering over the waters wherever anyone is hurting or taken advantage of. We read these stories to call each other to take up and ingest the woe and the lamentation we experience and find the sweetness of love in our solidarity and our rowdiness as we press back against the powers of this world. It’s in that courage, that faith, that hope, that defiance, that we find what we call the Spirit, and the Spirit reveals to us how to read these words as Scripture. Amen.

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