In the 12th-century, St Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the great Cistercian reform of Benedictine life described Holy Scripture as:
a vast sea in which a lamb can paddle and an elephant can swim.
When it comes to our encounter with the Bible through a regular practice of reading Holy Scripture, most of us will be lambs paddling. Yet maybe some of us if not already elephants swimming the depths will be encouraged to grow in that direction.
In 2015 St Martin’s engaged with a process called RenewalWorks. Our first strategic priority emerging from this engagement became and remains embedding the Bible in parish life. This is a tough sell because Episcopalians have come to share the Liberal Protestant dis-identification with the importance of reading the Bible.
Our dis-identifcation takes two forms. The fruits of 150 years of what’s known as Biblical Criticism has left us feeling that the Bible is for experts, scholars, and clergy trained to be able to unpack the sitz im leben, which simply means the ability to interpret the text guided by the historical, cultural, and theological settings in which the text was originally written. This has led to a propensity among Episcopalians to encounter the Bible through the lens of commentary. Thus learning about rather than engaging with the text keeps us in our detached comfort zone.
The second form of dis-identificaiton from the reading of Scripture resides in the attitude that the Bible no longer belongs to us because it has been appropriated by them – them – being a reference to the fundamentalists. We not only find literal interpretation uninteresting, but we deeply reject many of the social and theological attitudes such an approach fosters.
Yet our Anglican Tradition speaks in the imagery of the three-legged stool in which Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are held in a mutual tension of equal relationship. We still honor Scripture, but we now only hear it within the context of worship. Outside of the formality of liturgy, we attempt to sit on a two-legged stool of Tradition and Reason. Straddling a two-legged stool requires considerable acrobatic dexterity.
St Martin’s is a community where few of us find it possible to accept faith as a matter of unquestioning obedience to the literal interpretation of words on a page. We are a community where faith depicted as an allegiance to a major life shaping narrative now finds deeper resonance and is taking root. Many of us enjoy the way meaning is conveyed through language that is complex, and nuanced. We are beginning to understand the way story shapes us individually and communally. We believe that metaphor more effectively conveys truth-plus, and that truth is poorly conveyed when limited to the face value of the words on the page.
The language of the Bible is such that meaning is conveyed imaginatively. Meaning is fluid and open-ended able to speak to the challenges encountered in our lived experience. Stimulated by the power of curiosity we are encouraged to explore beyond the simple meaning of words on the page. A rich appreciation of metaphor allows us to echo the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, Lord God Almighty.
Approaching the text for Easter 4 can we discover our experience revealed as truth-plus through the way text uses of metaphor and poetic figures of speech?
The Fourth Sunday after Easter conveys the arresting metaphor of The Good Shepherd conveyed through the powerful imagery of the 23rd Psalm and John 10. In 2015 when I last preached on these texts I drew upon what for preachers can become a clichéd contrast between biblical and contemporary images of shepherding. However, coming from a country where sheep outnumber people by 40-1, I am very familiar with the contemporary experience of shepherding sheep.
In 2015 I spoke about my nephew Hamish who on his sheep station in The Lord of the Rings high country of N.Z’s. South Island, shepherds his Marino sheep either from the seat of an ATV or the saddle of a horse, depending on the terrain. In response to a complex set of whistles and verbal commands from Hamish, his dogs dive and dart among the sheep barking and nipping at their heals. With his dogs, he drives his sheep before him in the direction he wants them to go. Hamish and his dogs, together with all New Zealanders regard sheep as animals gifted by the Creator with a double dose of stupidity.
How often our human relationship with God is depicted as a version of modern New Zealand sheep herding; God in the rear driving us on with the dogs of guilt barking in our ears and fear nipping at our heals. Yet, contrast the words of Psalm 23 in which God is the shepherd and we the sheep. God as the Good Shepherd does not drive us before him, setting his dogs upon us whose bark frightens us, and whose teeth nip us into line. Instead, he leads us beside still waters so that we may lie down in green pastures. Even through the valley of death, he accompanies us so that we need not fear any harm befalling us. His rod and staff are not symbols of discipline and control, but of protection and comfort. The Biblical image of sheep is one of cherished objects upon which the shepherd lavishes love and concern.
Again, a contrast between sheep and people reveals that it is not sheep who are created with a double dose of stupidity. Jesus, teaching in poetic metaphors discovers again and again that it’s the human beings that fail to hear his voice. The biblical image draws a distinction between the sheep who hear his voice and the people who are deaf to his voice. Hearing in this sense is a metaphor for knowing, for recognition.
In John 10 Jesus uses a number of figures of speech centered on the notion of the sheepfold. He speaks of robbers, identified as those who do not enter the sheepfold by the gate. His metaphor for the entrance shimmers between images of gate and gatekeeper before Jesus finally identifies himself as the gate. Jesus is not some arbitrary gatekeeper but with his body becomes the gate across the entrance of the sheepfold, so that those who seek to enter to do us harm must first encounter him.
In response to hearing his voice, the sheep come and go, responsive to the shepherd’s voice, in pursuit of the green pasture. The mention of green pasture is a metaphor for life lived to the full takes us full circle back to the imagery of Psalm 23.
As lambs paddling on the edge of a vast sea of Scripture we begin to hear in the imagery of the Good Shepherd’s voice our own experience of the world as a place of both safety and danger. Both in Psalm 23 and John 10 danger surrounds the green pasture and still waters. Beyond the safety of the sheepfold lies the valley of death where we risk being catapulted to the precipitous heights of the illusion of self-sufficiency or cast down to the depths of isolation and despair.
As elephants swimming beyond the safety of the shore we face the prospect of no longer living in a place of security, but with a trust in God’s leadership –we swim heeding the sound of God’s voice as we follow with confidence and trust into the more turbulent waters of life’s sea.
But how can we know God’s voice when we have not learned to hear it? The narrative of faith provides a safe space within which our lives can be shaped in the direction of living with confidence and courage. Yet the shepherd does not keep the sheep penned up in the fold. He leads them out, but they can only follow if they follow secure of being able to recognize the sound of his voice.
As we count down the days until we launch The Bible Challenge to guide the next phase of our deepening engagement with Scripture on May 21st -22nd, I would like us to understand that rather than ceding control of the Bible to either scholars or literalists, we recommit ourselves to an older and more venerable tradition of engaging with Scripture through concepts of story rich with imagination stimulated by poetic figures of speech.
The ancient tradition of reading the Bible shared by Benedict and Bernard, that reads text through the images of allegory and metaphor invites us to a similar kind of engagement with reading the Bible. Despite the great distances of time, place and mindset separating us from Bernard of Clairvaux, John the Evangelist, the prophet Jeremiah, and the psalmist of the 23 Psalm, we share the experience of being shaped by the power of a poetic imagination whose rich language of allegory and metaphor opening our ears to recognise the distinctiveness of God’s voice among the cacophony of competing, false voices in the world. We may remain lambs paddling on the shores of the great Scriptural sea so long as like lambs we come to recognize the Shepherd’s voice.
 Jeremiah 15:16 New International Version