knowing God, or knowing about God? by Pastor Noel

August 13, 2017        Proper 14A        10th Pentecost


      There is a big difference between knowing about God, and knowing God.

      A good place to encounter God is the Bible (no surprise!) And there are two main ways to read the Bible. They are very different—exegesis and isogesis.

      Exegesis is a process of studying the Bible. It’s an in depth, critical study of a passage.

      You look at the words and see if any are unusual, or how they have been used in other passages, and what they mean in the original Greek or Hebrew.

      Then you look at the setting of the passage, what was going on in history, what comes before and after in the Bible.

      Exegesis is a very thorough, intellectual way of understanding the Bible.  Exegesis is from the brain, not the heart.

      Another way of understanding a Bible passage is to ask “what does this say to me?” This is often called lectio divina, or isogesis. Exogesis is from the outside looking in, Isogesis is from the inside looking out.

      Maybe if I compare the Bible to a cookbook all this will be easier to understand.

      I love to read cookbooks. I love to learn about new herbs and spices, new ways of preparing familiar foods.

      I can really get my brain into a cookbook. This is like the exegesis method of Bible study.

      But, when I’m hungry, reading a cookbook won’t help.           

      When I am hungry, I need to experience food as food, and not just as pretty pictures and ideas. When I am hungry all of my senses want to be fed, not just my brain.

      When I am hungry I need to chop vegetables, stir sauces—touch the food and get involved with it. The same is true of our relationship with God and God’s kingdom.

      When we are hungry for God we need to let God into our lives, and we need to experience the kingdom and see how we can help feed others.

      This is like the isogesis method of Bible study.

      Some say that the words of the Bible mean just what they say. No need to study them. I think they are missing the boat.

      Some say that exegesis is the only real way to study scripture, to find the one, true meaning. They see the Bible as a puzzle to solve.

      If we can just wrap our brain around it, they say, we’ll understand. This may give us great information, but our relationship with God cannot based on information.

      Our relationship with God is about leading us to transformation, helping us feed the hunger we have for his love.

      What if the Bible isn’t a puzzle to solve, but a love story!

      God is showing us how we are loved, and how to show we love God and God’s creation in return.

      What if, instead of solid answers, instead of puzzle pieces that fit neatly together, what if some of the stories in the Bible are hard to grasp, like trying to hold onto a handful of water, or sunshine.  Or making perfect pie crust, or bread.

      What if much of what we read in the Bible gives us more questions than answers? (sort of like this sermon, I guess!) We have already encountered stories like that in the parables Jesus told.

      When we try to find one “right” answer to a parable, there are always more “right” answers.  You may have answers that are different from mine, and an even different answer next time you read it.

      Faith is trusting in that which we cannot see or understand in our brain—and this means trusting in God’s goodness and love for us even when we get only glimpses, even when it seems like trying to catch hold of sunshine.

      If I were to do an exegesis on this passage from Mt, I would find, for example, that “little faith” occurs 6 times in the gospels, and 5 are in Mt. I would find that a turbulent sea is the symbol of chaos in mythology. 

      I would find that Matthew has two slightly different stories about Jesus walking on water, and they both follow slightly different stories of Jesus feeding the crowds.

      These facts say that Matthew wants us to see Jesus as the new Moses. Moses who led God’s people safely through water, and got them manna to eat—bread from heaven. All they needed.

      Would those facts turn my heart toward God?  Maybe, but I know that I need more than that. I need both the book study and the heart study when I read the Bible.

      Exegesis is intellectual, isogesis is personal.

      Let’s look at the passage through isogesis.

      What is this saying to you? How does if feel to you? What difference can it make in your life? How can it feed your hunger for God’s love? Read with these questions on your mind.

      It’s pre dawn darkness, I am in a boat in a stormy sea. I can feel the salt spray from the high waves and feel the power of the wind move the boat around. 

      That is scary, but even worse, suddenly there’s something walking on the water!

      I would jump out of the boat, but I can’t swim!

      It is Jesus! He calls out so we hear his voice and he calms and soothes us with his presence. He is walking toward the boat, we can relax.  Jesus is here.

      Peter doesn’t relax.

      As usual, Peter questions and tests, “IF you are…” he says, like Satan in the wilderness. Jesus says, “I am” and bids Peter come to him over the water.

      In his head Peter has the idea that he can be like Jesus.

      He thinks that will feed the hunger he feels to be loved and accepted.

      When he feels the water under his feet, Peter experiences fear, terror, and shame, and he cries out for help.

      Immediately he feels Jesus’ hand firmly pulling him from the water. He is saved and then he hears Jesus’ voice chiding him, and also bringing peace and reassurance. 

      The “one size fits all” explanation for this story is “keep your eyes on Jesus and you won’t sink.”

      Now, that’s undeniably true, but there is so much more in this story that we can’t stop there.

      If we have allowed ourselves to experience what’s happening, we can feel the disciples’ fear at the storm and then seeing a ghost!

      And the peace they feel when the ghost is actually Jesus.

      We can feel what Peter’s up to, both his desire to be fed by Jesus, his trust, and his need to give in to his impetuosity, which seems to win out over trust.

      These are only a few of the many ways to understand this passage. So, if we are looking for certainties, if we are sinking  because we can’t find answers, certainty, clarity, comprehension, it’s time to reach out and let Jesus lift us up, and hold us.

      And that song we sing today about Jesus lifting us up, taking our hand, holding us. This is a powerful song, and a very popular song.

      It was Martin Luther King’s favorite. It is also a very personal song, written by The Rev. Thomas Dorsey after his wife and son died in childbirth.

      There are many times when we need that personal touch from Jesus—just for us alone. For healing, strength, transformation, peace, joy —all the features of the kingdom.

      But the kingdom is not for us alone.

      The kingdom is ours only as we open it to others. Thomas Aquinas said that we are “co-creators with God” and, as we follow Jesus, we co-create the kingdom of peace and justice, inclusion, abundance and welcome that Jesus lived.

      Or we co-create with the evil one and spread a culture of exclusion, fear, scarcity, judgment—not God’s kingdom.

      As I read news about white supremacists marching in Charlottesville,VA, I hear them fostering fear, exclusion, judgment. Or I read about the threats of nuclear war.

      Is that what we think God’s kingdom is like?

      Please pray for peace—in VA, and in every government in the world. Fear and threats and annihilation are not God’s plan.

      As we prayed in our Psalm, “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. Truly, his salvation is very near to those who hold him in awe, that his glory may dwell in our land.”

      May we open our hearts to know God, and may we be co-creators of that glory.

The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details