"Talking the Walk" (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Matthew 4:1-11)

Rick SpaldingRick Spalding, November 26, 2017
Part of the Pentecost series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

Deuteronomy 30:11-14 November 26, 2017

Matthew 4:1-11 1st Congregational Church,

Williamstown, MA.

Talking the Walk

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

~Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

A few weeks ago, during a conference in New Haven, I found myself standing face to face – or, really, face to page – with Yale’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible. In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Beinecke Rare Book Library had assembled in a single subterranean room several dozen extraordinary volumes to demonstrate the power of the Word in the movement that permanently changed western civilization at the beginning of the Renaissance. (“Renaissance,” even, was a word coined to celebrate the rebirth of learning and imagination when words were unbound from the narrow prison of scholasticism and laborious copying and let fly all across Europe, powered by printer’s ink.) I felt those pages at Yale conducting some of the same electricity that lives permanently in Chapin Library, for me, when I come face-to-page with the printed folios that first put Shakespeare’s words into the hands and imaginations of the general population of his day. I knew to expect that same kind of thrill from the Gutenberg Bible, that mega-star of bibliophilia. But I wasn’t expecting to be as moved by some of the other volumes of more modest reputation that were also open on the table in front of me. There was the Computensian Polygot Bible of 1514, which reproduces the Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Aramaic versions of the Old Testament in side-by-side columns – so that on one page, in a single eyeful, you could see the power of a translator to shape the experience of the words. And the first version of the Bible in English, translated by John Wycliffe as part of the first wave of Reformation zeal in the late 1300’s, fuelled by the notion that people ought to be able to read the words against which they measure themselves and their world with their own two eyes and in their own mother tongue. And the first printed edition of Martin Luther’s translation of the towering words of scripture into everyperson’s workaday German, complete with woodcut illustrations by Lucas Cranach. You couldn’t see these books and not think about the labor in each page: the pots of hundreds of tiny little letters, composed into words one letter at a time, word by word, printed and drying sheet by sheet, hundreds for each single book, and hundreds of volumes in the making… You couldn’t not think about the world’s sudden new voracious appetite for pages, with more and more people able to read them for themselves, and to consider their implications for themselves…

And then, there was one volume among the others with no particular star-power that suddenly brought me to a standstill: an edition of the Bible, published within the first century or so of “mass-market” availability of the printed text of scripture – this book with one section of each page devoted to a few verses of the original Hebrew or Greek text, formatted so that the words of scripture are surrounded by commentary. Who thought of that? How long did they have to ask themselves whether it was sufficiently reverent of sacred text to print the words of ordinary contemporary people alongside of it, to make it accessible, intelligible, before they took the printed plunge? Think about that: within a few decades of the time the words of sacred scripture themselves began to become widely available to the public, it was felt appropriate to print right alongside of them, and to bind and publish right along with them, the words of fallible human beings which were deemed necessary, or helpful, in understanding their meaning. It took a few minutes to dawn on me, but I came to realize that it was that volume, really, that conducted the electricity of the Reformation for me: that book, constructed around the premise that we have a right and a responsibility, as people of faith, to work out and give voice to our understandings of the meaning of these sacred texts – indeed, that the experience of those texts is not complete without our efforts, and that space needs to be opened up to post those efforts in the public eye as well, not because they are as sacred as the scripture themselves, but because the effort to understand is, in itself, a holy enterprise. It is in the nature of faith to ponder what the words mean.

Through the winding weeks of this fall, Mark has painstakingly re-introduced us to layer after layer of the legacies of the Protestant Reformation – from the re-evaluation of institutions (as a result of things like the selling of indulgences) to the reimagining of holy mysteries (like baptism and the Eucharist) to the reorganization of civil society (like Calvin’s Geneva) to the recalibration of science (thanks to Copernicus) to the nature of spiritual leadership – and the legacies, too, of the counter-Reformation, from the Christ-centered service of the Jesuits to the spiritual courage of St. Theresa and St. John of the Cross. Often we’ve been tempted to reduce all that intellectual, political and spiritual ferment to the emergence of various denominations flavored by their particular convictions about the meanings of the sacraments or the structures of church government. But really the legacy of all of that realignment was a renaissance of empowerment: people taking responsibility for their own practice, their own understanding, their own relationship to the world around them – for Protestants and Catholics alike. So it seems fitting that these weeks of reflection prompted by the Reformation anniversary would finally land us back at the basic question: what is our relationship to the words that are so much at its epicenter? Sola scriptura had been the motto of the reformers: only the Word of God deserves to be held in final authority – and even the Word must be interpreted to be understood. Living by Word is within reach of human beings. It is not too hard for us – nor is it too remote – nor is it too arcane. Indeed, it is the central project of faithful life.

It’s no accident, then, that the architects who planned the renovation of this room about a century ago – who, as you know, went to a great deal of trouble to re-configure the ponderous Victorian building that used to stand here so as to recall the heyday of a certain kind of somber Protestant fervor – decided to nudge the Communion Table downstage in order to give pride of place to the Word. To listen was the essential act of discipleship: the first thing you had to do in order to hope to do all the other things. You can almost hear Jesus taking on the Tempter in the wilderness of Palestine (or New England): “We do not live by bread alone,” he said, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” You could tell by looking at the holy place they designed that what it meant to be fully alive was to attend to the Word – just as you could tell by looking at the first pages they ever printed that what it meant to honor the holy text was not to just have it but to think about it.

Over the weeks of this fall Mark and I have been talking about rediscovering the Reformation – and one thing that has kept striking us is how many things were going on in human consciousness in the lifetime of just three or four generations: changes in the understanding of the relationship of the planets to the sun; in the relationship of Europe to the ocean and to the lands beyond it; in the relationship between people and printed literature; in the relationship of people to authorities like church and monarchy … and the bubonic plague; and the flowering of Renaissance art; and the plays of Shakespeare! (The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick film about the Vietnam War happens to have been on PBS during this time, too, and it made you notice how much was going on in human consciousness in those few years: the war, the expansion of nuclear weaponry, the dismantling of colonial empires, the civil rights movement, the assassinations, the exploration of space… Some of you lived through every minute of all of that!) In times when it seems almost everything is changing, and almost all values are up for renegotiation, it’s understandable that the reformers felt a need to find some bedrock, some piece of cultural architecture reliable enough still to stand on. For them it was Word. They put it at the center, and tested themselves against it – and gave us a paradigm for thoughtful, engaged, critical, nuanced, articulate relationship to it.

And how do we live with Word today? Our words are composed, not of tiny bits of wood or lead assembled into lines and pages hanging up to dry, but of infinitesimal ones and zeros in electronic streams that flow at the speed of light. We live in a world that is gorged on text: text invisibly saturating the air, pouring out of cables and gushing out of screens, text trying tyrannically to claim our every waking minute. We live in a world gorged on text that still seems utterly Word-starved. We do not live on text alone – but we hunger for the reliable architecture of a living Word that can call us to our better selves, a living Word to re-sort our tangled values. We hunger for a living Word that will insist that we carry hope into the future, a living Word to remind us to tell the truths that must now be told and to call out the lies for what they are, a living Word to remind us to take up figure out what the work of love and justice is that must now be done, and to call us relentlessly to do it.

Where will we turn for the Word we need? – the words that name the truest things we know – the words by which we can anchor ourselves in a world whose values seem to be up for grabs – the words by which we can change the shape of that world? Where do we learn to say the words we need – words like: “I promise…” or “I will be there” or “Don’t be afraid…” or “I forgive you…” And where will the words come from by which we tell the hardest truths? Words like: “I am responsible” or “This is unjust” or “I was mistaken” or “It is time for a change” or “Something is wrong here…” What winds bring words like those into our mouths? Where can go looking for a conspiracy – a con-spiracy – of God’s breath and our breath to give life to such words?

And what if the words remain unspoken? What happens to the truths that need to be told when instead the words suffocate – what happens to the words we choose not to speak? And what happens to us when we stifle words that need to be spoken?

These may sound like abstract or poetic sorts of questions. But, when you think about it, they’re really the kinds of questions Jesus inhabited with us. Questions like “Who is my neighbor?” and “What profit is it to gain the whole world but lose one’s soul?” The Word came to dwell among us – the Word was, and is, very near to us – to help us find words, and ways to live the words. These kinds of questions are the bread we live by, day by day in these changing times. And religion offers no safety from them. Whatever sanctuary religion offers is built of the beams and joists of the words we use to tell the truth, to say what must be said, and over and over again to take the measure of ourselves and our world – or else the sanctuary has no integrity and offers no shelter at all.

Where shall we turn for the words that need to be said? Where shall we go to find the courage to say these things? Where shall we come, not only to have the Word but to think about the Word? Where shall we come so that the Word will be very near us, in our mouths and in our hearts, so that we can practice speaking the words of life and hope – and where shall we come to take the measure of ourselves against the Word, and hear the encouragement to live on into it?

I’d come here.

The Rev. Richard E. Spalding
Chaplain, Williams College
Williamstown, Massachusetts

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About Rick Spalding: As Chaplain to the College at Williams, Rick Spalding oversees religious and spiritual life at the college, especially students affiliated with under-represented traditions and students who are exploring spirituality generally. He is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church, USA.

Deuteronomy 30:11-14

11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (ESV)

Matthew 4:1-11

4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (ESV)

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