Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s been quite a few years now since my own last first day of school. Still I can’t help but get caught up in back to school spirit whenever September rolls around. As school bus sightings become more frequent on our morning commutes, as the kids pop on their backpacks or debut a new lunchbox… I wonder if there’s a little part of you, too, that can’t help but think back to the last time you got really excited about freshly sharpened pencils, clean notebooks, and a new box of crayons. There’s something about this time of year, I think, that can inspire us with as many new years’ resolutions as the month of January. A whole new year lies ahead. Who will we befriend? How will we spend our time? What will we learn?
So I love this tradition of the backpack blessing we offer our children here at church, a reminder that God accompanies us into every new school year. After all, God is the one who gave us kind, open hearts to build new friendships, and curious, creative minds capable of learning new things.
It’s also in this back to school spirit that I’ve decided this fall to really embrace my role as Teaching Elder.
Let me first explain the terminology. In the Presbyterian Church, we have both ruling elders and teaching elders. Ruling elders are our Session or church board members. They’re rulers because they govern us, making important decisions for us as a congregation (decisions about money, staffing, worship, programs, facilities, and so on). They are also rulers in another sense. Think about a ruler as a tool of measurement, the physical object, the ruler, you used to keep in your pencil case in school. Session members are rulers who measurehow we are doing in various areas of church life. They plan and assess, decide, implement, and check in.
Meanwhile pastors in our tradition are understood to be teaching elders. While your other Session members focus on things like fellowship programs and building repairs and church finances, Justin and I as teaching elders do all we can to ensure that we as a congregation are a community of learners. We offer classes, Bible studies, book discussion groups. And of course we preach, trying our best to bring ancient Scripture texts into conversation with our own 21stcentury world. We encourage and challenge our whole church family to better understand God’s Word and to listen carefully for God’s voice. We do this because as this morning’s texts remind us, we are commanded to “keep these words in [our] hearts. [To] recite them to [our] children and [to] talk about them when [we] are at home and when [we] are away, when [we] lie down and when [we] rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7) We do this because we believe that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful, for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
The best teachers are themselves lifelong learners, so it’s part of my responsibility and privilege as a teaching elder to seek out new insights and new opportunities, intentionally positioning myself where I can be a student. I attend preaching workshops from time to time, for instance, and I try to read widely, and over the last year I’ve also been auditing classes at one of our local seminaries. I’ve greatly enjoyed interfaith opportunities for learning, too, through a local mosque, and a local synagogue, and my interfaith women’s clergy group. Just in the past month, I even attended a Torah study group a couple of Saturday mornings at Temple Beth Am, a synagogue not far from my home. This is a Jewish Bible study group that has been working their way slowly through the entire Torah, or first five books of what we call our Old Testament. Seven yearsin, they’ve made it halfway through book 3 out of 5, which gives you a sense of the level of in-depth study we’re talking about here! They’re currently focusing, verse by verse, on priestly sacrifices and rituals in the book of Leviticus. Never in my lifetime in the church, never in all my years of Christian Bible study or even in my Old Testament doctoral program, had I ever looked so closely at the book of Leviticus. If we’re honest, Leviticus is “fly over territory” for many of us Christians. Who knew you could have a completely fascinating, utterly engaging conversation week after week on that particular part of the Bible? What a humbling experience it’s been to discover how much is there. It turns out all I needed was a teachable spirit and some capable tour guides to help me through. I’m discovering anew this year that “all Scripture is useful” (2 Timothy 3:16) and finding a new repertoire of passages to add to those I “keep in [my] heart.” (Deuteronomy 6:6)
As I challenge myself to continue studying the Bible in new ways in order to come away with new insights, I’ll keep inviting all of you to do the same. Join a Bible study or book group this fall, if you aren’t already involved in one, or start your own. Pick up a new resource to help you in your personal study of Scripture. Start reading a book of the Bible that maybe you haven’t ventured into before. Ask each other for reading suggestions; ask me; ask Pastor Justin. Invest in a study Bible that offers notes and helps as you make your way through unfamiliar passages.
It occurred to me that one way I could help in our collective effort to get back to school this fall is by putting my teaching elder’s hat firmly on my head. I’ll be introducing you to a subject I dearly love, which most of you probably haven’t had an opportunity to study yourselves, and that’s the biblical Hebrew language. I know I’ve introduced a word or two here and there, and some of you have heard or learned a little bit of Hebrew with other pastors or in other settings too. But I’ve never taken sermon time to offer an orientation to the language as a whole, so this is a new thing I’ll be trying this fall. I’ll be sharing with you aspects of biblical Hebrew – how it’s structured, how it works as a language - that can help us better understand the richness of God’s Word.
For those of you who don’t enjoy language study for its own sake like I do, fear not. There will be no tests, no quizzes, and no memorization required! My aim is to package each sermon study time in such a way that you can follow along perfectly well in English and leave with a useful takeaway. We’ll also talk regularly about the theology of it all. Because while it’s nice that I happen to think Hebrew is a beautiful, fascinating language, there’s really no point going through this exercise here in worship if it’s not going to make a difference to our life of faith, right? So that’s my goal for us – language study that matters.
Presbyterian pastors are required to study biblical Hebrew and biblical Greek as part of our preparation for ministry. I love that our tradition emphasizes the importance of studylike this. After all, Jesus, referencing today’s text from Deuteronomy, called us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. (Matthew 22:37)
Our Presbyterian tradition also recognizes the importance of reading with literary and historical understanding. All Scripture is useful (2 Timothy 3:16) only if we use it with care. Our Confession of 1967, one of the creeds of our church, offers care instructions, if you will, when it explains:
"The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless words of human beings,conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding."
This is why we try not to “proof text,” plucking a single Bible verse or phrase entirely out of context.
You may have heard the story about the gentleman who believed that he could open up to any page of the Bible and there would be a word from God that spoke directly to him in that moment? He closed his eyes, opened at random to Matthew 27:5, opened his eyes and read: “Judas went and hanged himself.” Oops. Not quite what he had in mind. So he tried again, closed his eyes, flipped through a bunch of pages, and opened them again to see Luke 10:27 “Go and do likewise.” …This wasn’t going especially well, but he was convinced this was how God spoke through the Bible, so he gave his method one final shot. “What you are about to do, do quickly” he read in John 13:27. Clearly it was time for a new approach!
I keep a cartoon on the bulletin board above my desk here at church that shows a preacher at work with a sign posted right on the front his pulpit: “If this pulpit is being operated in a reckless or dangerous manner, call 555-4678.” It’s the same idea. All Scripture is useful, if we use it with care. We need to remember the care instructions. We need to approach each text with historical and cultural understanding, and to read texts alongside one another, in context, allowing Scripture to help us interpret Scripture. This is critical so we don’t wander off irresponsibly as interpreters, and find ourselves insisting on points a given text had no intention of making.
You may also know that translations are themselves interpretations. There are things we pick up when reading texts in their original languages that we might otherwise miss. If we take seriously that the Bible is God’s Word to us, presumably we want to miss as little as possible. This is why learning biblical languages is so important for teaching elders and preachers like me. And this is why I’m so excited to pass onto you what I’ve been learning.
The good news is the very things that are required of us to be responsible interpreters of Scripture also happen to be a lot of fun. So I invite you to pull out your metaphorical pencil pouches, to treat yourself to symbolic new notebooks in the color of your choice, and to get ready to try something new as we all head back to school.
As I mentioned earlier, we have guest speakers coming next Sunday, but two weeks from today we’ll kick off Magnolia Theological Seminary with Biblical Hebrew 101. May it be a meaningful year of learning for us all!