Today’s Scripture lesson included a verse some of you may have heard before; I learned it first in a youth group song:  “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”  Another translation says it this way:  Psalm 119: 105:  “By your words I can see where I’m going.” (Psalm 119:105 The Message)  In life, we want to know where we’re going, and we want to know that if we get lost, we can find our way back.  This is the promise of Scripture:  that in God’s Word we find guidance for life—to lead us and to help us find our way when we are lost.

The Bible has played this role in countless lives for thousands of years, and has played this role in my own life.  But often the wisdom of God’s Word is hard to see.  Sometimes this is because of our lack of attention.  Other times it’s because we find in the Bible things that we don’t like, can’t agree with, or even worse, find awful.  Thanks to your questions, this fall I’ve planned to address some topics in the Bible that make many of us uncomfortable.  Later this month, we’ll do that, focusing one week on some things the Bible says about gender and sexuality, and the other week on passages that are especially violent, and that speak uncritically of slavery and hell as particular forms of violence.  In order to do that work well, we have to begin by talking about our relationship with the Bible.  What do you really think of this book anyway?  What place does it have in your life?  These questions are about what the theologians call biblical authority—(that sounds fun, doesn’t it?).  I will admit that doesn’t sound like the most exciting subject for a sermon, but in order for us to get to the meat and talk about sex, violence, slavery, and hell, first we have to eat our vegetables.  So today, biblical authority.

This morning I’m going to address three ideas in reference to biblical authority.  First, I’m going to define the term itself, second I’m going to talk about what it means to faithfully disagree with the Bible.  Finally, I’m going to talk about how we strengthen the kind of biblical authority you might want in life, the kind that makes God’s Word a light to your path, that helps us to see where we are going.  I hope when we get to talking about some more specific disagreements you might have with the Bible, that you’ll find those sermons consistent with this one.  Perhaps you’ll also find that you want to think some more about the role of the Bible in your life.
Let’s start with what biblical authority is:

When it comes to the Bible, authority is not the same as simply following rules.  Biblical authority is about a relationship we have with the Word of God.  Some relationships with authority are simple.  I understand the rules of golf, and am willing to abide by them; I accept their authority.  When I hit the ball in the water, I accept my stroke penalty.  It’s a rule.  The Bible is different.  There are rules in the Bible, and plenty of them.  But I have to think about them as I apply them to my life.  When the Old Testament says not to wear clothes woven from mixed fibers (Lev. 19:19), I may want to know why.  If I have to work on Sundays to feed my family, I may want to know what it means to “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” (Ex.20:8).  To some, this might sound like I don’t take the rules of the Bible seriously, that I pick and choose which rules I want to obey and when.  I think of it differently.  When I seek the wisdom of the Bible, I am required to engage with the text and participate in a decision about how it will shape my life.  And quite often that authority comes through something that doesn’t sound like a rule at all, but from a story in the Bible about a person who acted generously, offered forgiveness, or showed kindness.  So you see rather quickly that biblical authority is different from the rules of golf.  If I’m going to apply the Bible to my life, if I’m going to say that it is authoritative, it requires a lot more of me.
So, biblical authority is a relationship, one in which I hope to have

a personal investment.  But what happens when I find something in the Bible with which I disagree, perhaps even something I find morally repugnant.  Like a lot of things in life with which I disagree, when it comes to the Bible, I have to do more than just complain.  I can’t stop there, but must seek to understand as much as I can about this part of the Bible I do not like.  Why is it there?  Who wrote this part of the Bible?  What was their agenda?  What was their life experience?  What is the cultural context of the audience to whom they were first writing?  And what kind of literature is it?  Am I reading a saying of Jesus or a story he made up to make a point, or a poem describing one’s feelings toward God?  These things make a difference.  And I will tell you, as an ordained minister who tries to be true to my vows, that I think it’s okay to disagree with the Bible—when I’ve done the work to understand it.  I believe that its better to disagree with the Bible out of a place of deep engagement than to thoughtlessly go along with whatever it says.

My second point on disagreeing is perhaps the harder one.  Sometimes I do my homework and come up with faithful reasons to disagree with the Bible.  But other times, I avoid doing my homework because I know what the Bible says is right, but don’t wish to be challenged by it.  Here I have to work to be consistent.  I have to be honest about things in the Bible I may not like, but still need to think about.  An example:  I disagree with what the Bible seems to say about homosexuality—we’ll talk about this in a couple of weeks.  Christians have devoted an incredible amount of energy and caused an extraordinary amount of damage arguing about the handful of places where the Bible might say something about what we call homosexuality.  By contrast, the Bible is filled to overflowing with clear and important lessons about economic injustice and God’s demand that we correct it.  Many of us give much less attention to this expansive biblical witness because it would force us to do things we don’t want to do.  We have to allow ourselves to be challenged by the Bible’s words we would prefer to ignore.

But how do I know the difference?  How do I know if I’m disagreeing faithfully, or if the Bible is right and I just don’t want its guidance?  This can get complicated, but I will suggest two things that our tradition says about it.  One is that I should ask if a particular part of the Bible aligns with the Bible’s overall message:  does it encourage love, justice, and peace?  Many have suggested, for instance, that some of what the Bible has to say about homosexuality does not advance love, justice, and peace, and so they faithfully disagree.  On the other hand, much of what the Bible has to say about money does advance love, justice, and peace in the world—even if I don’t like how it might impact my lifestyle.  We ourselves need to be consistent; we should demand the same of the Bible.  The second suggestion I’ll make about knowing the difference is that this is why we read the Bible prayerfully, and in community.  We trust one another as siblings in faith, to argue about which of our disagreements are faithful, and which ones we should allow to challenge us.  I hope you’ll see me employing these methods as we return to some disagreeable Scripture passages later this month.
Of course, all of what I’m suggesting takes so much work!  Why in the world would I want for the Bible to have authority in my life?  I won’t be giving the most poetic or inspirational explanation for that today, but I think it ties back to where I started—the desire for guidance and wisdom in life—the desire to see where I’m going, especially when life is really hard.  It’s been my experience that God’s Word will provide it.  When I’m willing to do the work, my experience has been that the Bible is an endless source of exactly the kind of wisdom I need.

Biblical scholar and bestselling author N.T. Wright describes the Bible this way:  “It’s a big book, full of big stories with big characters.  They have big ideas…and make big mistakes.  It’s about God and greed and grace; about life, lust, laughter, and loneliness.  It’s about birth, beginnings and betrayal; about siblings, squabbles and sex; about power, and prayer, and prison, and passion.  And that’s only Genesis.” (Wright, Simply Christian. 172)

In all of these big things of life, we are less alone when we realize there is this amazing story we can claim as our own and come to know better if we are willing to let it have some authority for us.
The question that remains, I suppose, is how does one get started?  How do I get access to the good kinds of biblical authority that I want?  The most honest answer I can offer to you, at the end of this somewhat academic sermon, is that you have to pray about it.  I have found most often that the ways we grow closer in our relationship with God’s wisdom is not by thinking harder, but in prayer, and through time.

The good news is that prayer does not need to be hard, and is available to us all.  We all need spiritual practices in our lives, and you don’t have to be a monk or a nun to engage in them.  When I wake up each morning, I try to begin my day with a simple prayer practice—I have an app for it.  I take a few minutes to be guided through a brief prayer, consider a question about how my spirit is doing at the start of the day, and to read a short passage of Scripture.  It takes less than 10 minutes, which is great because by then one of my children is usually asking me for something.  And I try to do it before I look at email or the news or engage with anyone else.  And I find that when I take that little bit of time, it sets the stage for a much better kind of day.  I would be happy to tell you about the resource I use, and I know other pastors on the staff do similar things.

This is not the only way.  A growing number of you participate in the prayer and spiritual development small groups and classes we offer here at Knox, they are always open to new people and we offer new opportunities all the time.  Many of them offer ways for us to come to the wisdom of the Bible in a posture of prayer and invite God’s authority into our lives.  These are easy ways to continue or get started, enriching our relationship with God.  These are ways to invite God to be a lamp to your feet and a light to your path—to help you find your way.  Amen.