My wife and I have known Rick Webster for about five years now. For many years he blogged at Today at the Mission, where you can still read archived posts. More recently, he’s been pastoring at The Third Space, a kind of alternative church in downtown Peterborough, Ontario; but only this week did I learn there was a Third Space blog. When I read this post, I knew I had to share it with you, and rather than include it in yesterday’s links, I got Rick’s permission to reprint the entire blog post.
by Rick Webster
It’s a problem that I’ve been seeing more and more of lately. It’s everywhere. I first encountered it when reading the book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. The authors divide the bible into the various genres of writing – historical, poetic, apocalyptic, prophetic and so on. Each genre has to be interpreted according to its own unique quality – we can’t read the psalms in the same way we read the book of Acts. Okay, fair enough. But I soon discovered that this way of reading the bible divorced the Psalms from Acts and the connections between the two were lost. If there’s a narrative arc to the bible – if what Paul says in Romans is connected to what Adam did in Eden, and it is, then dividing the book into genres serves to break that arc and, in so doing, the story God is telling is lost. Instead we get, as the authors suggest, a book of rules and regulations, a book that is to “be read, understood and obeyed.” (their phrase).
Dividing the bible into an Old and New Testament, or even chapters and verses might do exactly the same thing. But we also have this incredibly common – some would say essential – part of our church life called a ’sermon’. In a sermon the preacher studies a passage of scripture and then makes a speech, from which the rest of us download information. In this process, however, we isolate a text and, as a result, draw conclusions that often simply aren’t supported by the larger context.
I used to read the story of the three servants and their talents as a call to evangelism – we must not hide our faith, we must enlarge the Master’s Kingdom. The parable of the 10 virgins was an eschatological admonition to be ready for the return of Jesus. The story of the servants who worked in the vineyard for a day getting paid the same as those who worked for an hour was about all of us sharing in our heavenly reward equally.
But in reading through Matthew this year I’ve come to recognize that these stories are connected to the sheep and the goats judgment of Matthew 25. When seen as a whole, and when connected to the sheep and goats Judgment it becomes immediately apparent that these stories are about economic justice. Why did the virgins not share their oil? Why couldn’t they share one or two lamps and make sure there was enough oil to last the night? Instead, they sent the others, selfishly, away. Why did the two wise, confident servants not help the frightened one with his investments? Why did they not pool their resources? Clearly, this is a case of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer. And in the story of the vineyard workers it appears that in the Kingdom of God the community is larger than the self, that we understand economic justice as what benefits us while God desires to distribute prosperity equally throughout the community. When we start connecting to the sheep and goats judgment the Sermon on the Mount becomes a document new and alien to our world; the house on the rock and the house on the sand take on a whole new meaning as well.
Every devotional, every bible study, every commentary I’ve ever read does exactly the same thing – subdivides the bible and thus, necessarily, fails us. But here’s the thing: every sermon we’ve ever heard, and every sermon I’ve ever preached, has done exactly the same thing. The limitations of the form require it. And there’s an awful, terrible, frightening truth in that. We’ve been going at this all wrong and some of us have dedicated our entire lives to this pursuit.
We need a new way to teach the bible. A way that allows for a long, long time to be spent dwelling in the text. Years, decades. A way that allows for long discussions and digressions. A way that places it within the hands of the community instead of a priestly caste of pastors and theologians so that the Holy Spirit may speak among us, and through us, without the filter that is one person at the front of the room. And my fear is that none of this can be done within the frame of church as we know it. In fact, this single belief – that the scripture must dwell within the community, and the community within the scripture – challenges everything we know and understand about the role of a pastor, the nature and organization of church, our way of being the body of Christ together. The fear this engenders is enormous. And this new way has not yet come to be in our evangelical tradition. It may never come to be. But I think somewhere, somehow, someone should at least try, someone should begin.