Reading for the Road (161)

Some of you are probably familiar with the story of Paul Kalanithi. Just a few years ago, as he was nearing the completion of his neurosurgery residency, he began feeling ill. At the same time, he was also a neuroscience research fellow. Before going to medical school he had completed degrees in literature and philosophy. Kalanithi was already an immensely credentialed person, but the completion of his residency meant that he would soon have his choice of his choice of prestigious job offers. He would have a handsome salary and more realistic hours. If he could just hold things together physically and emotionally for a little while longer, things would change. However, his symptoms persisted, and it became clear that his health problems weren’t simply due to the exhausting hours associated with his top-flight medical training.

You can read the full account his experience in his marvelous little book When Breath Becomes AirThe short version is that Kalanithi was diagnosed with a very serious cancer. In a matter of months, his life changed dramatically. His challenge shifted from reaching the peak of the medical profession to survival. Kalanithi struggled mightily with the question of what to prioritize. He was blessed with an exceptional oncologist who encouraged him, even in this new reality, to keep investing himself in things he found meaningful. She said that if he ever wanted to just be a patient and let her be the doctor, she could that for him. There came a point when this was exactly what Kalanithi needed: to be a patient and not a doctor.

I don’t want to make light of the seriousness of situations like Paul Kalanithi’s, but the need for this distinction between being a patient and a physician is worth thinking about. As far as I know, mechanics can fix their own vehicles, investment managers can manage their own money, architects can design their own offices, chefs can cook their own food. And yet when it comes to our own bodies and our bare survival, it must be the case that self-interest does funny things. If I was a surgeon I think I would be tempted to do little procedures one myself all the time. If something didn’t feel right I’d want to tinker around with it. I had a friend in high school whose dad was a veterinarian. I think he treated himself—and his family. The rest of us were jealous of the convenience.

Today I would like us to think about scripture and to reflect a bit on what it means to read the Bible as Christians. It might seem like quite a leap from the story of a neurosurgeon becoming a patient, but I think there are important connections. For Christians the practice of reading scripture is close to the heart of our faith. The word ‘practice’ is important. Like medicine, reading scripture is something we learn to do. And like medicine, reading scripture is a practice made possible by a community. Without the reading of Christian scripture we have no church; without the church we have no Christian scripture. Both practices involve difficult decisions and judgement honed over time. Neither can be done well alone. You can’t read the Bible in a Christian way without the church. You might be able to read the words of the text, but the solo reader doesn’t read scripture. Part of this is because in the church community we are sometimes care-givers and sometimes patients. We need trusted companions who can help us read scripture as our lives unfold into shapes we would not have predicted.

One of our readings this morning was from the gospel of John. It’s a well-known passage about being connected to Jesus who is the true vine. It’s the other passage, though, that I want us to spend the most time with, the reading from Acts 8.

This is the story of one traveler’s encounter with scripture. In its literary context, the story is meant to show how the good news of Jesus spread quickly. But it also illustrates how reading scripture well requires training. Our own reading, especially when it applies to our own lives, may well be wide of the mark. Paul Kalanithi needed a doctor who would let him be a patient as his life took a new turn. Travelers like ourselves need companions who will help us read and understand scripture in our ever-changing lives.

The traveler in Acts 8 is identified in two ways. First, he is described as an Ethiopian. On our side of the Atlantic Ocean we sometimes forget that the story of Jesus has been in Africa since the beginning. For some reason, we often think that the story made its way to that continent after going through Europe, or even worse, after making its way to our own shores.

The Ethiopian in Acts 8 was a powerful government official. He was the head of Queen Candace’s treasury. Some ancient interpreters believed this Ethiopian to be the same man mentioned in Acts 13, where he is referred to as “Simeon who was called Niger.” Simeon was thought to be a dark-skinned man who had been drawn to Judaism and then to the way of Jesus. But things like this are hard to know.

The second way this traveler is described is as a eunuch. This may have been literally true. In some ancient countries men who served as upper-level government officials were castrated so they wouldn’t have their own family interests in mind. One can imagine that this might have reduced competition for public-service roles—but that probably isn’t what we should get out of the passage.

If the Ethiopian traveler was literally a eunuch than he wouldn’t have been permitted to worship in the Jerusalem temple. That was directly forbidden in Deuteronomy 23. However, some biblical interpreters have noticed that the term ‘eunuch’ isn’t always used literally. For instance, Jesus probably isn’t using it that way in Matthew 19. Some of these scholars like to suggest that this Ethiopian official was gay. Again, we don’t really know. What we do know is that he, like us, was a traveler.

The Ethiopian had come north to worship in Jerusalem. Our reading catches up with him as he is returning home. I don’t think this is true of most government employees, but this one had a driver. They were headed down the road toward Gaza, perhaps to catch a boat in Egypt going further south. Since he didn’t have to drive, the Ethiopian was reading. Apparently he was wealthy enough to buy a copy of the scroll of Isaiah.

As they traveled he read from the scroll, and like many others who have picked up a part of the scriptures he was puzzled. He was reading from Isaiah 53 lines like these: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter . . . . In his humiliation justice was denied him.” What did this mean? Who was the writer talking about?

As the Ethiopian puzzled through the scroll, a man ran up beside his chariot. He began asking him questions about the text. The runner was Philip. Philip asked the Ethiopian if he understood what he was reading. He didn’t. The Ethiopian invited Philip to join him in the chariot to make the conversation easier. They talked about the scriptures. Just as Jesus had done for the travelers on the road to Emmaus, Philip helped the Ethiopian understand what he was reading. It was a new perspective. The Ethiopian’s heart was moved. Something inside him changed.

This story is a good reminder of how important scripture is. One of the most significant Anabaptist theologians of the last fifty years or so was a fellow named Jim McClendon. What he draws our attention to, in one of his fat theology books, is the fact that, when we read the Bible in the company of the church, “sometimes it flatly defeats the tales we tell ourselves about ourselves.” This is surprising because reading the biblical collection of texts as scripture requires us to assume we already know something about it. The way we describe the origins of this peculiar possibility is to say that the Christian scriptures are “inspired.” By this we mean that we believe God’s Spirit breathed upon the authors, the editors and the collectors of these texts. And what we witness again and again is that God’s Spirit breathes on us as we listen to them.

There is nothing foolproof or magical about this. The Bible has often been interpreted terribly. For instance, in the spring of 1637 Puritans in New England massacred indigenous villagers and claimed passages from Joshua and II Samuel as precedent. So simply appealing to scripture isn’t enough. We need to learn to read it in a Christian fashion, with the stories of Jesus at the center. This is what the Ethiopian traveler learned. One of the ways we abide in Jesus is having Jesus abide in our reading of the Bible.

The Bible is a very human book. It is shaped by culture and history. Yet what the long tradition of biblical reading tells us, what we hear from people over and over again, is that this book is a witness to God. It is a witness to God’s way with creation. It is a witness to God’s way with the marginally faithful—ancient Israel, the disciples, ourselves others. Most of all, it is a witness to God’s True Vine. To say that the Bible is true is simply to say that it truly bears witness to God’s self-revelation. That’s all. But that changes lives.

Jonathan Franzen, often writes for The New Yorker. Several years ago he wrote a piece called “Farther Way.” It’s a long essay describing his visit to a small, uninhabited island in the Pacific. The island lies 500 miles off the coast of Chile. Its neighbour served as the setting for story on which Robinson Crusoe was based.

Franzen wanted to go to this isolated island. He wanted to go because he was worn out. He wanted to be as alone as he possibly could be. He wanted time to grieve a friend’s death. He also wanted to see a rare species of songbird known as the Masafuera rayadito.

Getting to the island required several flights and boat rides. It is easy to imagine that this would be too much for a regular contributor to The New Yorker. It was. Franzen was overmatched by the island’s isolation and its weather: the only time it wasn’t socked-in with fog was when it was blasted by winds off the pacific. He didn’t see the bird. He didn’t enjoy being alone. His GPS unit ran out of power. His tent got torn by the wind. His clothes got soaked. He was nearly blown off a cliff into the sea.

As he reflected on the death of his friend, on the story of Robinson Crusoe and on his own life, he was reminded of how important it was to get outside himself. He was convinced that he couldn’t survive on himself, or even on an online projected version of himself. Wandering around looking for the next stimulating experience wasn’t going to do it. He needed to get off his island, figuratively and literally. More than ever, modern people like ourselves need to get off our islands. Strange, ancient, otherworldly words can do this.

The Bible, with is curious and perplexing stories, is at its best as reading for people on the road, especially for those who need a word from somewhere else. The Bible is not really a roadmap. We face many practical questions in our lives for which the book has no direct answers. But it is a book for travelers nevertheless. From the vantage point of each new situation we find ourselves in, we see new things in scripture.

If we learn to let it ask us as many question as we ask it, God’s Spirit will breathe new life into us, over and again. It might be frightening. Sometimes God’s speech is like that. It might be soothing. Sometimes God’s speech is like that.

One of the great gifts I receive being a pastor is hearing people’s stories. Rarely do I hear complete narratives. Rather, the stories come in chunks. I learn where someone grew up. I learn that someone once served in the armed forces. I learn that someone else was once nun or a conservative Mennonite. I learn that someone was born on the other side of the Atlantic, someone else on the other side of the Pacific. I learn that someone lost a spouse. I learn that someone has a painful relationship with his father. I learn that someone lost a child. I learn that someone has a health concern she hasn’t told anyone about. I earn that someone was once a champion tennis player. I learn that someone else farmed in an area so remote his family only got groceries once a month. What I learn that lives like yours have unfolded. Your life is like a fiddlehead uncurling, from one intriguing shape to another, the beginning hardly predicting the end.

For travelers like you with lives unfolding, I think the Ethiopian would recommend the Bible. It’s complex, beautiful and ugly, dark and bright, mysterious and blunt. It comforts and afflicts. What people say—people like the Ethiopian and thousands, no millions of others—is that it is useful. Travelers going to destinations unknown need companions, they also need reading for the road.


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