Sunday, January 17, 2010

Third Sunday after the Epiphany Year C

Third Sunday after the Epiphany C 
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

The return of God's people from exile in Babylon was sporadic and difficult.  The rebuilding of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem and the re-establishment of religious and civic order rallied and failed repeatedly.  Likewise, the accounts of the return in the book(s) of Ezra/Nehemiah are compiled texts of widely varying and  confusing kinds.  Contained in this compilation, however, is this singular, stirring, seminal event: Ezra reads "the book of the law" in the pubic "square before the Water Gate" in Jerusalem "from early morning until midday...."  With a gesture appropriate to the occasion, Ezra ceremoniously opens the book "and all the people stood up," lifted their hands and together said "Amen, Amen...."  Then Ezra, Nehemiah and "the Levites" read the texts and provided commentary:  "They read from the law of God with interpretation."  Mark and remember this day, the people are told, because "This day is holy to the Lord...." It should be a day of feasting and joy.  (Gabriel Josipovici writes: this scene "dramatizes within the Bible how the Bible itself will be treated by wise men [and women], both Jewish and Christian, in ages to come.  Their explanations and interpretations form the basis of sermons right down to the present day." [The Book of God, p. 137]

No doubt or ambiguity here; the psalmist understands  perfectly, even without words, "God's glory" everywhere around him.  But then the poem shifts to the other, comparable assurance of God's benevolent participation in human life-- the Lord's teaching, which  is perfect/restorative/pure/unblemished/just.  Yet the psalmist confesses that his interpretations are susceptible to "unwitting" misuse of the Lord's teaching and prays that his "utterances" may be "pleasing" to the Lord.

Paul has just argued that the sometimes messy diversity in the church has the same source-- "the Spirit"-- and operates under the same rubric for all believers-- "Jesus is Lord."  Now he offers an image of the church as a human body.  Each part is vital to the other and to the well-being of the whole.  All suffer together and all rejoice together.

Luke's placement and twist on Jesus' return to the synagogue of his hometown is typical of Luke's overarching themes.  Immediately after the imprisionment of John the Baptizer and Satan's tests of Jesus in the wilderness, Luke writes that Jesus "returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee"  and word spread quickly of his powerful teaching and his healing.  (Matthew's and Mark's versions of this event are later in their narratives and focus on the rejection of Jesus by his hometown.)  Jesus has gone to synagogue on the Sabbath "as was his custom."  He stood up, read the reading of the day, which Luke provides as an excerpt from Isaiah [61"1-2; 58:6], in which the prophet declares "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me," empowering the prophet to preach, heal, liberate those who are oppressed and "to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."  When it came time to offer an interpretation of this text, Jesus said simply: You are hearing/seeing this text fulfilled today!

In that pivotal scene from Nehemiah, public reading of God's word followed by interpretation brings response from the people who celebrate a fresh encounter with something human, basic, necessary and life-giving in that experience that day.  Even with her caveat, (of "unwitting" misinterpretation), the psalmist still offers her own honest interpretation.  Luke, with the story-telling skill of a major playwright, blandly provides a few mundane details about Jesus making a routine visit to his hometown synagogue and functioning as lector for the day and then has Jesus deliver that unforgettable line-- Today, right before your eyes and within ear-shot, you are witnesses that this text is fulfilled!  These episodes, as well as many, many more throughout the biblical texts, establish the foundational premise that reading and interpreting the texts in public is the Bible's self-designated and authorized means for bringing current readers/hearers into direct contact with the prospect of the original human encounter with the divine that caused the text to be written in the first place. 

Hannah Arendt collected essays of Walter Benjamin after this death and published them under the title, Illuminations, (Harry Zohn, trans., New York: Shocken Books, 1968.)  Her introductory essay, which was also published in The New Yorker, has become famous for the following passage:
Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and strange, the pearls and the coral, in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the past --but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages.  What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things 'suffer a sea-change'  and survive in new crystalized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living-- as 'thought fragment,' as something 'rich and strange,' and perhaps as everlasting Urphanomene. (pp 50-51)

After the texts were read in public and interpreted, the people celebrated, the book of Nehemiah records.  After Jesus read that passage from Isaiah which defines the effect of hearing God's word-- healing, justice, liberation-- he declares that that venerable text is not just an inspiring fragment from the past, it is fulfilled here and now, this day. Preacher and congregation are engaged in a risky exercise when the biblical texts are read and interpreted in public.  Something might happen!