What happened when this parish committed to reading the Bible (yes, all of it) together
The Rev. Brooks Cato is the rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Hamilton, New York.
Back in May, as the dust from Easter Sunday was still settling, the Bible Study group at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Hamilton met for our weekly Lectionary study. We were looking at the beginning of Acts and Matthias’ election. Feeling certain I was tossing a slow, easy pitch across the plate, I asked the group why it was so important to elect someone to fill Judas’ vacated spot among the Apostles? Why did Jesus need twelve? A silence fell over the room until one person facetiously piped up, “Because it was in Jesus’ bylaws?”
I suppose, in a manner of speaking, that was a pretty decent answer, but the moment pointed to a tough reality. This Bible Study group that had been meeting for Lord-only-knows how long didn’t really know the Bible. They knew the Lectionary (our three-year cycle of Sunday Bible readings) more or less, but the depth of understanding really didn’t go much further than the disjointed lessons we halfway hear on Sunday mornings. So, I did what any ornery preacher would do, and I wrote a sermon, a call to action, really, to get us good Episcopalians up on our Bibles!
That’s right! St. Thomas’ has committed to read the Bible. Now, we’re taking our time. We’re reading one book a month, give or take, so we’ll be at this for around five years. If the past three months are any indication, though, this will be one of the most life-giving things we do together.
If the past three months are any indication, though, this will be one of the most life-giving things we do together.
So far, we’ve read Acts, Jonah, and Job. Acts was a great place to start in June. As one parishioner put it, “It’s one part action movie, one part ‘Paul gets on everyone’s nerves!’” Much as I think I know the stories, I learned that, in Peter’s Great Cosmic Picnic, the Bible doesn’t explicitly say that he ate the unclean things offered to him by God. I’m not entirely sure what to do with that information just yet, but it’s a wrinkle I’d unconsciously smoothed over—and I’d gotten it wrong!
Thanks to General Convention, July was a busy time, so we needed a short book that didn’t need a lot of background knowledge. That put Jonah on the hook. We discovered that, while Jonah does show up in the Sunday Lectionary, the fish story never does! We borrowed our Godly Play props to liven things up with great success.
For August, we’ve been lamenting with Job. This month has been extraordinary. “Leaning into the slog,” as another Bible studier put it, has been so rewarding. We chose Job because the issue of theodicy (the question of why evil exists if God is good and all-powerful) has been a hot topic in our Adult Ed class. Also, Jonah felt like a softball, and it was time to step into the big leagues.
Those three have been a good introduction, and they’ve gotten us used to reading scripture. We’re still learning, and I hope we’ll keep on learning for a good, long while! This month, we’ll go back to the beginning and see what Genesis has in store for us.
Apparently, there was a whole lot of life bubbling right under the surface, and all we needed to do to let it out was to open our Bibles together.
When we started this process, I was hoping we’d learn a little more about what our scriptures hold. I never imagined how fulfilling this would be. (Job is funny! Who knew?) In just a few months, I’m noticing changes. Folks are engaging deeper with the sermons on Sunday. We’ve had to pull in more chairs for Bible Study and Sunday School. People are actually bringing their Bibles to church! Apparently, there was a whole lot of life bubbling right under the surface, and all we needed to do to let it out was to open our Bibles together.