As you know, our world is reeling from horrific violence as Islamic extremists set off bombs and massacred scores of people in Paris this weekend. Bombs and carnage are a daily fact of life in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere.
We must acknowledge that these are acts perpetrated in the name of God.
It is tempting, as one of my oldest friends did yesterday, to blame all religion for propagating extremist ideologies that lead only to hate and evil.
My friend argues that the world would be better off without religion, better off without the myths and stories of Bronze Age warrior people.
He is right to point out that Christians, Jews and Muslims in the name of God have spilled far too much blood, century after century.
I have to say, I get his point.
The common thread to these acts of horror is they are perpetrated by people who, in all sincerity, believe that their sacred text orders them to do it, be it the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian New Testament, or the Koran.
So today I want to step back a few paces, and look at how we hear these ancient stories written by ancient people. What makes them sacred? Why read them at all?
Can religious people – Jews, Muslims, Christians – the people who all claim a common ancestor in Abraham – can these people of Abraham find a way to reclaim their sacred texts not as manifestos for violence but as charters for compassion?
A good starting point might be our opening collect today. Stay with me here.
Each Sunday, we open our worship with a prayer, or “collect,” which is an English word that means “collect” – as in a collection of our petitions to God.
There is a different collect for each Sunday of the year, a practice dating to the time of Thomas Cranmer and the founding of the English church in the 1500s. Cranmer wrote many of the collects that we still use.
Each of the collects has its own theme, largely drawn from Scriptures and lessons about faith.
Today, though, we get the only prayer of the year that is about the Bible itself.
I’d like you to hear this prayer again because it has everything to do with how we might recover sacred texts as sacred:
“Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them;
that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”
“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, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”
This prayer is another way of saying that it takes interpretation to understand Scripture. The meaning of Scripture is not always clear, and the meaning can change for us as we wrestle with it.
To go a little further, I will take a page from the contemporary theologian James Alison, who is a former Dominican monk.
In one of his books, Alison writes that the Bible is like a Lego set. For those unfamiliar with Legos, it is a childrens toy with thousands of pieces that fit together.
You fit the Lego pieces to make a bridge or a house or whatever strikes your imagination in many shapes, colors and sizes.
Think of the Bible as like a Lego set. You can take the pieces and fit them together to support whatever preconceived ideas you may have.
There are familiar, conventional ways of putting together the Lego set. One way of building the Lego bridge is to pick out all those passages with wrath a judgment, like this one from Exodus: “Let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” .
From the Gospel of Mark today we hear Jesus talk of the destruction of the Temple: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
And this: “Nation will rise against nation.”
We can take those Lego pieces and build an image of a wrathful, vengeful God who must be endlessly satisfied.
To protect ourselves, we must exclude people who aren’t the right kind of people or we might get punished. You see where this is going.
That is the way much of the religious world builds a Lego set out of these biblical pieces and others like it.
It takes only a few pieces to get to the bombs of Paris in 2015 or the pogroms in Poland in 1939 or the Inquisition of the 1400s.
But is there another way of building this Biblical Lego set, another way of hearing these biblical passages?
Let me suggest that we might build a Lego bridge that is a little closer to how Jesus intends us to hear the Word of God.
Elsewhere in Mark you can hear Jesus’s frustration with his disciples that they are being too literal with his words. He tells them his own body is the Temple, not the one made of stone. His body will be cast down so that it might rise again.
His talk of destruction is about the crucifixion that he will endure, and how by his own death that will lead to new life for all.
To explain this, he is stretching the limits of human language to tell us that all of those things that hurt and harm us will be cast down, and we will be raised up new, whole, healed.
The God of Jesus is the God of hope and healing, not revenge and violence. The God of Jesus brings mercy and new life. “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers” – that is what he is about – that is the foundation of what makes our text sacred.
How we hear the stories of the Bible says a great deal about us, and how we view our relationship with God.
What then is our answer to religious extremists of all stripes? Our answer comes in how we live our life with compassion, forgiveness and mercy.
The Letter to the Hebrews encapsulates all of this as nothing less than the mission of our life, and I close with these words: “Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith… Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”