MESSAGE – THINK ON THESE THINGS
Sunday Message, 05.02.21
Fifth Sunday of Easter
By calling ourselves progressive Christians,
we mean that we are Christians who commit to a path
of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
Progressive Christianity, Unit 8
SCRIPTURE: Ecclesiasticus 6:32-37, Philippians 4:8-9
Ecclesiasticus –a long name that may not quite fit on the screen, so you may see Sirach instead. They’re the same book. Neither of them are Ecclesiastes, but they are a part – that is to say this book, and Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs and Wisdom and several others – are a part of a long tradition in Scripture of what is called Wisdom Literature.
Dr. Robert Coughenour, one of my favorite professors both in college and in seminary, has written extensively on Wisdom Literature and its role in Hebrew, Jewish, and Christian thinking down through the years. So this is something I’ve heard more about than many people in most churches have.
It’s kind of interesting that this book is found in both Greek and Hebrew versions. We have manuscripts of each of those. It is included in the canon of many Christian denominations, sometimes called ‘deutero-canonical’, but is not in the canon of either the Jews in their Hebrew Bible, or of most Protestant denominations.
It is kind of interesting how that happened, because when Martin Luther began his great effort to put the Bible into the contemporary language of the people that he ministered among, he decided that the received text had been so corrupted by the authorities and those with an agenda and an axe to grind, that he went back to the Hebrew version of Scripture.
That, in part, is a product of the fall of Constantinople and the flight of scholars from that part of the world into the west, and all of the sudden we had access to both Hebrew and Christian manuscripts, Greek versions of them and so on, in ways that we had not had for centuries.
So Martin Luther said, “Aha, we are going to go back to the Hebrew for our Old Testament.” And lo and behold many of these books like Ecclesiasticus were not in the Hebrew version.
But there’s a great irony there.
One of the reasons, probably, (this is all conjecture of course, but it seems to fit) one of the reasons that some of these books were not included in the Hebrew canon of scripture was because they were widely used by early Christians to proof text their point about Jesus being the Christ, the Messiah, the promised sacred son of God who was going to bring redemption to all people.
And so when a council of Rabbis met at a place called Jamnia in the late first century to decide what was scripture and what wasn’t from this vast collection of writings that they had, most of those things that were most widely available in Greek translation were thrown out, because, you know, God only speaks Hebrew.
Sort of like in my tradition there are many people who have believed that God only speaks King James English; to go further back amongst my ethnic peers, God only speaks in Dutch.
But here we have it, this very interesting book, which is a part of a strong tradition in scripture. And the prologue to the book reads this way:
“Many great teachings have been given to us through the Law and the Prophets and the others that followed them, and for these we should praise Israel for instruction and wisdom. Now, those who read the scriptures must not only themselves understand them, but must also as lovers of learning be able through the spoken and written word to help the outsiders.”
It is in that prologue that we also find the one who claims to be the translator of the book into Greek attributing it to his grandfather Yeshua ben Sira, or Jesus Ben Sirach, which gives us all of these different names for the book.
Now one of the interesting things about this Wisdom literature tradition is that it strongly proclaims, “All truth is God’s truth.”
And that sort of is coming from a different direction. It’s something I have always appreciated. You know one of the guys that I really admire is Neil deGrasse Tyson, and, I’m paraphrasing here, but one his favorite sayings that I’ve seen many times goes something like this: The cool thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe it or not.
You see truth in the Biblical tradition is something that can be known.
Maybe not in full, but at least in part, and that we should strive toward and work toward.
All truth is God’s truth.
Another way of saying that is to say that God is always on the side of truth. So if we jump into the beginning of today’s reading, and Shirley, thank you for sharing it with us. It says,
If you are willing, my child,
If you are willing you may be disciplined, and if you apply yourself you will become clever.
If you love to listen you will gain knowledge.
You see there is not an inherent gulf, a divide, between science and scripture.
In fact, if we interpret scripture to say, this much we know and no more, it must literally be what we find on the page, we are in fact working against the great scriptural traditions of both Judaism and Christianity.
“…let your foot wear out his doorstep of those who are wise.”
Strive to interpret and understand and sort out and to gain new insight from what has been passed on to us.
Because you see this is the cool thing about science, in my estimation. It is not a collection of dogma, of facts, it is a way of wrestling with the information available to us to come to truer conclusions. Always ready to be revised upon new work, new information, new study.
In that, it sort of lines up with something that was said by one of the foundational thinkers in congregationalism. We trace our history to the early pilgrims who came across, and in his farewell address to them, John Robinson said, “God has yet more light and truth to be revealed.”
In other words, God is still speaking, so that UCC slogan is in fact a very ancient thing, not a new thing.
The problem of course is that the idea that things can change, that we can come to understand things differently, that what we assumed to be ‘the ways things are’ once upon a time might need to be amended and changed, that makes us uncomfortable.
We want to hang on to what was: a way of thinking, a way of doing, a way of structuring and organizing society, we want to hang on to that at all costs.
But that in fact, contrary to what many of the well-known TV and internet preachers may be saying, is inimical to the Christian tradition.
God has yet more light and truth to be revealed from God’s holy word.
God is still speaking.
And I chose for us to hear this passage from Ecclesiasticus today because I thought it captured that sense.
Strive to understand. Struggle toward it. Work with it. Revise your thinking as new insights and information become available.
And the reading from Philippians sort of underscores that, doesn’t it?
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing,
if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
So we are in a sense in our Christian walk on a treasure hunt searching out truth, looking for that which stands above the ordinary, that ought to be commended. The bottom line for that is that we learn it from God.
That is to say, we learn it from scripture, but even more so, we learn it from the Word of God, from the example and the teaching of Jesus Christ.
Listen to that. Pay attention to that. Strive to uncover that which we do not yet know.
Welcome the new thing so long as it builds upon that foundation of eternal truth.
Welcome the new thing, and as Paul put it in Philippians, and the God of peace will be with you.
In the name of God,
our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.