Sermon Text: The Testimony of a Reader
Reading is a subversive activity.
From the time I was a little kid, I have been a reader. I read because I loved it more than any other activity on earth. And books think for me.
I am grateful for my elementary school teachers for the ways they encouraged me to read. And I am grateful that in my little home town, where everybody knew everybody, the town librarian never batted an eye when I picked out books that some people might think inappropriate for a child. I read widely and voraciously, and I read whatever I wanted to read.
Oddly enough, when I was a little kid in church, they did NOT encourage us to read the Bible. The idea was that the Bible is hard to understand, and we might get wrong ideas. The church authorities preferred us simply to listen while they told us what to think and what to believe.
The idea seemed to be that reading the Bible can lead to bad things, like, you know, Protestants.
So when I was about 13, I decided to read the thing, cover to cover.
Boy, was I surprised! The God of the Old Testament was not a very nice person.
As I read about that God in Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, I saw he had two things: a lot of power, and a lot of anger.
He — and in the Old Testament, God was definitely a “he” — was jealous and proud of it. He was vindictive. He was sort of bloodthirsty. He talked about wiping out entire nations and peoples he didn’t like. He regarded women as low-status, kind of like service animals. He certainly hated what we now call gay people.
My catechism teachers told me I was supposed to love this God. They said, “God loves you, very, very much. And if you don’t love God back, God will torture you in flames for all eternity.”
I also noticed that a lot of churches — Roman Catholic, born-again Protestant, and others — were really angry and touchy about some things. Like you had to believe just right, or you were in trouble. Like you had to be straight, not gay, and married if you were not going to be guilty about being together as male and female. Lots and lots of guilt and judgment.
We did have a Gospel reading every Sunday, but I didn’t know much about Jesus. I liked the Gospel readings. But what my teachers told me about Jesus was more along the lines of how they talked about the God of the Old Testament. Jesus was God. Jesus was the Second Person of the Trinity. The mother of Jesus was sort of God’s wife. Jesus was going to whack his enemies at the end of time. It was all very puzzling.
So I decided to read the Gospels for myself. And I was amazed. Jesus rebelled against many aspects of the Old Testament nastiness I’d already read about. He publicly advocated niceness, and seems to have been one of the first to do so. He was talking to people who had been raised to fear the vindictive God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So when this young preacher named Jesus — which is the same name as “Joshua”, meaning “God is our salvation” — when this charismatic young preacher comes along and teaches generous forgiveness, he must have seemed like a dangerous radical.
But I was not a sophisticated theologian. I was just a kid who like to read books. And this Jesus was such an attractive character, and way better in my eyes than that angry God of the Old Testament. I ended up giving my heart to him.
Years later now, as a priest of the church, I sometimes think about how ironic it is that we are part of an institution claiming loyalty to this radical Jesus, but which so often acts like the rigid, judgmental religious leaders he opposed, and who eventually killed him. Having the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John around is like storing a bomb in the basement of the church. You never know when it will explode and change everything.
I learned all this not so much from church school classes or seminary. I learned all this mostly by reading. I’m a reader. And reading is a subversive activity. Books think for me.
In our Gospel text today, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give you: love one another.” It’s a new commandment when he gives it. It doesn’t sound to me much like what the God of the Old Testament would say.
This is a challenge to the Christian Church, which so often has been narrow, judgmental, and harsh. “Love one another.”
But it is also a challenge to culture in general, which so often trivializes love and makes it just a feeling of romance. “Love one another.” Jesus is not talking about the love they sing about in rock, hip-hop, or country songs. That kind of love is a feeling and an infatuation, and it wears off.
The love Jesus is talking about is not a feeling, but a commitment. Jesus cannot command us to feel something. We can’t control what we feel. We can control what we do. And Jesus commands us to do something.
When Jesus commands us to love one another, he means we are to act for the welfare of others, as we do for ourselves. I love myself in this sense not because I have warm feelings about what a lovely fellow I am, but I love myself by making sure I have food, clothing and shelter. And I love others by helping insure they, too, have food, clothing and shelter. That’s love in the Bible.
Reading is a subversive activity. From the time of my early childhood, I have been a reader. I read because I loved it more than another other activity on earth. Books think for me.
Although I graduated from seminary, I am not a sophisticated theologian. Instead, I’m a reader. And my reading gave me a lot of trouble with that angry, vindictive God described in some parts of the Bible.
But my reading also led me to the human, compassionate face of God — in the one we call Jesus Christ. I gave my heart to him....because I was a reader.
Someone has said that books in libraries and bookstores should have warning stickers: “Books can be dangerous. The best ones can change your life.”
It happened to me. And this is my testimony as a reader.