I got a phone call this week from my Uncle Hal. He’s a Baptist pastor who is no longer working for the Church, and he called to offer me a complete collection of the Interpreter’s Bible, a multi-volume Bible with tons of helpful commentary. It’s the same set that both he and my grandfather used to write sermons many decades ago.
At first I resisted. I thought, “This gift will be heavy and bulky, and I’ll have to find shelf space for it. Besides, there’s a newer version of the Interpreter’s Bible out there that matches the translation we currently use in the Episcopal Church; that version would be much more useful to me.”
Then I thought more about my grandfather, Harold Fremont Smith, a Baptist pastor and a vital force in the American Baptist Church in the Pacific Northwest from the 1930s into the 1960s. He died in a car accident five years before I was born. To use the same books he used would be quite an honor. So I accepted the gift. See, it’s more than just words on a page. It’s the Word of God. I’ll take the books with me to seminary in Virginia this summer. I can imagine myself sitting there, writing papers or sermons with my grandfather right there at my shoulder, whispering inspiration into my ear. I hope I’ll be ready. I hope my ears will be open.
When I get ready to tell a Godly Play story with kids, I tell them, “You have to be ready! How do we get ready? Eyes open, ears open … mouths closed.” We adults could use the same advice in church on Sunday mornings. This is important stuff! We are gathered together to hear the Word of God: the family stories, the stories we tell again and again.
First we hear a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, a/k/a the Old Testament. Usually it’s something from one of the prophets, or a formative story of the people of Israel. Next we join with the choir for a psalm, one of the hymns of ancient Israel. These are so varied, and their themes so universal, that we still use the same 150 psalms today. Following the psalm is the Epistle: a reading from the Christian Scriptures, a/k/a New Testament. This is usually a letter written in the earliest years of the Christian Church to communicate something of vital importance to a budding Christian community.
Next we hear from one of the four Gospels, the stories of Jesus. We stand for this reading because the Gospels are at the center of our faith. “Gospel” means “Good News.” And could once a week possibly be too often to hear a piece of Good News? Finally, we hear a sermon, an original reflection that opens the Scriptures to us in our own place and time.
The Liturgy of the Word is a time to open our ears. You may think we tell the same stories over and over again in church, but that’s not exactly true. The difference is you: you are different now than you were the last time you heard the story. If you open your ears, you may well find that the words mean something very different now than they did earlier in your life.
Although I never met my grandfather, I am different now than I used to be. Had my uncle given me these volumes when I was 12 or 18 or 25 or 35, I might not have been able to appreciate such a caring gift. Now it will mean much more to me.