Epiphany 3C

Those who are preaching this Sunday were given an embarrassment of riches from which to base a sermon.

We have Jesus in his first recorded public teaching in Nazareth, giving what in essence is his inaugural address, setting forth his vision of the kingdom of God, a vision full of good news for those who are poor and oppressed, in prison or on the margins of society.

We have Paul’s beautiful message to the Christians in Corinth, a quarrelsome and polarized bunch, reminding them that every person has God-given gifts that are important to the body of Christ, and that the suffering of one member affects the entire body.

Surely both of those readings speak to our situation today. They are also two of my favorite passages in scripture.

But as the week wore on I found myself, much to my surprise, coming back again and again to our reading from Nehemiah.

I’m pretty sure I have never preached from Nehemiah before. I don’t think I’m alone in that. In fact, one commentary I read this week called Nehemiah “little traveled territory for the preacher.” But this rarely preached on passage offers some wisdom for all of us.

The setting of this passage is Jerusalem about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. For the past 70 years, the Jews have been in exile in Babylonia, a kingdom that included much of what is now Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Then Cyrus the Great of Persia captured Babylon. In a moment of grace, he appointed a Jew, Nehemiah, as governor of Judah, and told him and a priest named Ezra to take their fellow Jews back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city.

The Jerusalem they returned to was not at all the same city the Babylonians had captured 70 years earlier. The Temple, the physical heart of Judaism, was destroyed, the walls around the city were torn down, and the once magnificent city was reduced to ruins.

It must have been a disheartening sight to those who either remembered or had heard stories of the glories of that holy city.

In the midst of the rubble, Ezra the priest has come into possession of what might have been the only surviving copy of the Torah, what we know as the first five books of scripture. Where he got it is unclear, but word that he has it spreads, and the people come together and demand that he read it to them.

The passage that we heard today tells of the first reading of the Word of God in Jerusalem in more than seven decades.

Think about that. Maybe a few of the very oldest of those gathered has a vague memory of hearing scripture read as a child. Certainly some of the stories have been kept alive by retelling from generation to generation – remember that for centuries these ancient stories were part of an oral tradition.

But for the vast majority of those gathered, this was their first direct exposure to hearing their faith’s holy texts, the written word of God.

Those who gathered were an inclusive group – men, women and children. They stood and listened for six hours as Ezra and his assistants read, “and the ears of all the people were attentive.”

Six hours. Think about that the next time you catch yourself feeling annoyed that the service has gone on 10 or 15 minutes longer than usual.

What really struck me as I read this passage this week was not just the emphasis on hearing the Word of God, but on interpreting and understanding it.

“He read in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand,” it says.

“They read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

And the verse following this passage, which really should have been part of today’s reading says, “And all the people went their way with great rejoicing because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”

Interpretation and understanding are crucial to the reading and hearing and living out of scripture.

The Bible, our sacred text, has inspired countless people to do good works and lead godly lives in the past 2,000 years. But as we all know, it has also been the inspiration for great evil done in God’s name. How we interpret the words of scripture is crucial.

Certainly we in the South know that all too well. 150 years ago in this part of the country one of the most often preached passages from scripture was Paul’s Letter to Philemon, a letter supportive of slavery. Countless Southern preachers interpreted that text to mean that God not only approved of, but blessed that evil institution.

Scripture has also been misused to maintain a societal hierarchy that values men over women, to lessen the humanity of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, to demonize foreigners in our midst, to create a false divide between science and faith, and to condemn those whose beliefs differ from ours to eternal hell.

One of the things that I love about the Episcopal Church is that we honor and respect the sacredness of scripture, but we also recognize that God continues to be revealed to us in other ways, through tradition and reason and experience.

We understand that God expects us to use our God-given intellect to try to understand the context in which a scripture passage was first written, and then to see how that translates to our own time.

We understand that sometimes our reason and experience tell us that a given passage of scripture may have an entirely different interpretation in today’s world.

And sometimes our reason and experience tell us that certain passages of scripture should no longer have authority over us. 

As Christians, we are called to proclaim the Gospel, that is the good news or glad tidings. Those good tidings, the vision of God revealed in Christ, are shown to us in the Bible – not just in the four gospel books, but throughout the Old and New Testaments.

But to say that the good news of the Gospel is found in every passage of the Bible is not true. Psalms that curse and bring wrath and vengeance upon our enemies are not proclamations of good tidings.

Nor are scripture stories of offering one’s daughter to appease an angry mob or abandoning one’s family for so-called higher callings.

There are dangers in reading isolated biblical texts. We must realize that an isolated passage from the Bible may contain a message that the Gospel must oppose, not proclaim.

The Bible itself warns us to be wary of false prophets and messiahs who “will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”

A favorite trick of the false prophet is to quote scripture. But a closer inspection will show that such a prophet  does not make the distinction between proclaiming the Bible and proclaiming the Gospel.

For example, those preachers who focused on Philemon to support slavery, ignored scripture’s overarching theme of liberation and redemption.

Those who use the Bible to put one group of people above another or to degrade a group of people because of their skin color or gender or sexual orientation or faith, ignore the pervasive scriptural message that all people are created in the image of God and are equally beloved by God.

What may in a narrow, isolated sense seem to be an accurate reading of the Bible, when seen in the larger sense of the Gospel, may be opposite to the vision of God revealed in Christ.

Paul knew that Christians must discern what is truly of the Gospel and what is not. “Pray for me,” he says at the end of his letter to the Ephesians, “so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel – the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of God in Christ.”

If we truly understand that scriptural message we, like those gathered in Jerusalem to hear the word of God, will go home rejoicing.


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