October 16 | Hymn-Sing Sunday | Itching Ears

The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859. Copyrights for songs given after the sermon text.

Itching Ears

Scripture: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:4

I was asked if I would give a short meditation today as part of our hymn-sing service, but my hope is to leave space for as much singing as we can possibly fit into these precious few minutes of our Sunday morning together. A hymn-sing is a great day to continue exploring my sabbatical theme of creativity and spirituality, so I looked to the lectionary to see if any of the texts for today fit that theme. The one I chose might seem like an odd choice, but there was something about these words to Timothy that I couldn’t quite shake as I thought about what it means to practice faith from a place of creativity and expression. 

This is one of the many books in the Bible attributed to Paul but which most scholars believe was not written directly by him. What’s more, many scholars also believe that by the time this letter was written, the person named Timothy would have been long dead. So, this letter is what one commentator calls a work of “epistolary fiction.” The names of Paul and Timothy are used as stand-ins to provide rhetorical weight to the author’s goals of instructing the churches.

It’s religious fan-fiction that somehow got incorporated into the official canon of scripture. In the last few years, it seems like there has been an explosion in the use of the word “canon” as fans of various book series, movies, or comics argue over what counts as officially part of the story and what can be seen as a divergence from the true narrative, what “really” happened.

Sometimes the debate over canonicity is settled quickly, especially if there is a single author.  For example, if J.K. Rowling didn’t write it, then it isn’t part of the Harry Potter canon. But then again, even that gets blurry as the story grows and is shared. And maybe it gets even fuzzier as the authority of a single author becomes problematic.

Regardless of how easily canonicity is settled, fan-fiction is almost always seen as outside of that canon, a dalliance or diversion however well written. But when I describe our passage of scripture for this morning as religious fan-fiction, I don’t mean to disparage it. Many of the books of our Bible could be seen this way. Even those letters that scholars agree were actually written by Paul are, in some ways, attempts to take the story of Christ to places it had never been before. And let’s not forget that Paul’s authority rested on a personal mystical encounter with God, a story he told and retold in his letters to prove his ability to speak into this narrative. 

Part of what drew me to this lectionary passage was the way it has been used to underscore a particular way of thinking about and reading scripture. More specifically, verse 16 has often been plucked out as the cornerstone in a circular argument for the inerrancy of scripture: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” 

How do we know this to be true?  Well, it says it’s true, duh. 

Whether it was this particular scripture verse or some other insistent spiritual authority in our lives, I think many of us continue to wrestle with questions about what to do with the Bible. Even if we have left the notion of “inerrancy” behind, we might still be left puzzling out what it means for the scriptures to be “inspired.” 

But does “inspired” mean that we need to simply accept everything in the official canon of scripture as straight from God?  Does the inspiration of the authors, whoever they were, mean that what they wrote is automatically good and true and able to withstand the test of time forever and ever, amen? 

I sure hope not.

What could break open for us if we began to see the inspiration of scripture less as an indicator of some singular divine authority and more as humans responding to experiences of Divine encounter and attempting to take that story to new places? 

I think what breaks open is an invitation for us to find our own authority to do the same, to become authors, painters, dancers, poets, and people attempting to take the story of God to new places, to express the inexpressible as best we can even if we don’t always get it right.

But we must not do so alone.

You see, I think that’s the real message that the author of this Pauline fan-fiction is trying to get across. He tells Timothy to remember those who raised him in his faith, to recall the teachers and ministers who nurtured him on his journey.  And as Timothy does his own teaching and ministering, he is exhorted to do so by drawing on the wisdom handed down to him in a way that rises to meet the new challenges of his day.

The false teachers and unsound doctrine that this letter speaks against is a warning against the temptation to tell the story in a way that suits only our own desires. It speaks of people getting “itching ears” that accumulate many different teachers to justify each new desire that comes their way. 

I have to admit that I have itching ears. Like many of us, I long to hear the story told in new ways, ways that speak to the challenges and opportunities of real life that I face today. The problem comes when we let our itching ears be drawn toward versions of the story that don’t speak the whole truth, that downplay the parts that challenge us, that gloss over the paradoxes and mysteries of the Divine with attempts at filling every silence and finally nailing down every theological doctrine into stone tablets that can’t be broken. 

Whenever and wherever God inspires, whether that’s the authors of the scriptures or us, it is always about giving us room to breathe, to grow and change, to meet each new day with the grace we need. And when our breathing becomes singing, we begin to understand that we need other voices to experience the richness of grace available to us.  We need the harmonies to encourage us in our resolve, we need the dissonances to convince our melodies to go in new directions, and we need the silences between the notes to rebuke our attempts to fill every void. 

I don’t have enough time to help us all unpack our relationship to scripture, but if I accomplish anything this morning in whatever time I have, I hope that I have given you permission to breathe and trust your own inspiration alongside those who wrote the words in the Bible.  Whenever you read and experience scripture, inhale and exhale with grace knowing that no one gets it completely right.  Add your breath to this community of inspiration as we sing, as we draw, as we write, as we live and move in this world in ways that convince, correct, challenge, and encourage one another toward the love of God.

Hymn credits:

What Is This PlaceVoices Together #22. Text: Huub Oosterhuis (Netherlands), Zomaar een dak boven wat hoofden, 1968; trans. David Smith (England) © 1967 OCP Publications; Music: Nederlandtsche Gedenckclanck, 1626; harm. Bernard Huijbers (Netherlands),  harm. © 1984 TEAM Publications, OCP Publications.  All rights reserved.  Podcast /Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.

In the Bulb There Is a FlowerVoices Together – #670.  Words & Music:  Natalie Sleeth (USA), 1985 © 1986 Hope Publishing Co.  All rights reserved.  Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.

Praise God (Dedication Anthem)Voices Together #70.  Text: Thomas Ken (England), A Manual of Prayers…, 1695; altered 1709; Music: Lowell Mason’s Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection…,9th ed., 1830. Public domain.

Hymn Sing Songs:

Great Is Thy FaithfulnessVoices Together #419.  Text:  Thomas O. Chisholm, Songs of Salvation and Service, 1923; Music:  William M. Runyan, Songs of Salvation and Service, 1923.  Public domain.

Heart with Loving Heart UnitedVoices Together #813. Text: Nicolaus L. von Zinzendorf (Germany, Herz und Herz vereint zusammen, 1723, Die letzien Reden unseres Herrn, 1725; trans. Walter Klaassen (Canada), 1965, alt. © 1969, 1983 Walter Klaassen.  Used with permission.  Music: Manuscript Chorale Book (USA), 1735; adapt. from “Sollen nun die grünen Jahre” (present-day Germany), ca. 1700.  Public domain.

Come, Walk With Us (Hamba nathi) Voices Together #23. Text: Zulu; South African traditional; trans. Gerhard Cartford (USA), © Lutheran World Foundation; Music:  South African traditional; arr. Anders Nyberg (Sweden), © 1984, Utryck (admin. Walton Music Corp.)   All rights reserved.  Podcast /Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.

Be Thou My VisionVoices Together #549.  Text: Irish traditional, “Rob tu mo bhoile, a Comdi cride,” ca. 8th c.; trans. Mary Elizabeth Byrne (Ireland), Ériu, Vol. 2, 1905, alt.; Music: Irish traditional, Old Irish Folk Music and Songs, 1909; harm. Martin Shaw (England), Enlarged Songs of Praise, 1931, alt., harm.  Public domain.

With Mary Sing MagnificatVoices Together #208. Text: Jeannette M. Lindholm (USA), © 2000 Jeannette M. Lindholm (admin. Augsburg Fortress).  All rights reserved.  Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved. Music: English traditional; harm. Ralph Vaughan Williams (England), The English Hymnal, 1906. Public domain.

Jésus, je voudrais te chanter / Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song – Voices Together #581. Text: French; Les Petites Soeurs de Jésus (France) and L’Arche Community (France), 1961; stanzas 1–3 trans. Stephen Somerville (Canada), stanza 4 trans. Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, 2018. Music: Les Petites Soeurs de Jésus and L’Arche Community. © 1970 Les Petites Soeurs de Jésus  and L’Arche Community.  Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.

Let There Be Light  Voices Together #714. Text: William M. Vories (Japan), 1908, Advocate of Peace, 1909, alt.; Music: Charles H. C. Zeuner (USA), American Harp, 1832. Public domain.

Could It Be That God Is Singing – Voices Together #42. Text: Becca J. R. Lachman (USA) © 2004, rev. 2018 (MennoMedia Inc.); Music: Southern Harmony (USA), 1854; arr. Alice Parker (USA), ©2008 Alice Parker (MennoMedia Inc.).  All rights reserved. Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.