January 30, 2013 Sermon

The Schaeffer-Ashmead Chapel of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia
Holy Communion
Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 11:30 am

First Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 

Psalm 19

Second Reading: II Cor. 12:12-31a

Gospel: Luke 4: 14-21

It was not the first time that I had vested in the church. I had been in the choir since Grade IV and was proud of my choir robes, consisting of a blue cassock and white surplice. I had been an altar assistant and crucifer since the time I was confirmed and enjoyed wearing the special vestments that seemed to set me apart, not to say anything about being in numerous wedding photographs and getting invited to the wedding receptions as a reward for eagerly volunteering to “carry the cross” at the service – not that I wore vestments to the reception! But this time it was different – I had completed seminary and was getting ready to go to my first parish, the rural Gauribidanur Pastorate of the Karnataka Central Diocese of the Church of South India. I had my new white cassock and a white cincture (which we call “girdle”) – the black one would come after the ordination. This was my last Sunday in my home parish, St Mark’s Cathedral, and the pastor wanted to have a commissioning service, at which I was presented a Bible and asked to “Go Forth in Christ’s Name.” After the service many people who had known me from childhood came to wish me well, and in the midst of the crowd came a couple, people whom I had never seen before, who slipped an envelope in my hand. This was my first experience of some of the minor “perks” of being a clergyperson, even though at this point I was going out as an “Exposure Candidate for Ministry.” I went to my parents all excited to tell them about this, only to have them inform me that following this, the couple had gone to them and told them about their daughter, and how best it would be if something could be “arranged” – needless to say, my parents ended that conversation before it became interesting. So much for the prophet in his own congregation!

It was not the first time that Jesus had attended the service in the synagogue in Nazareth. This is where “he had been brought up,” and this is where “he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.” However something interesting was going to happen, but before we get to that we need to go back in time. We go back to the time of Nehemiah, about 400 years before the birth of Jesus, to a time when the walls of Jerusalem are being rebuilt after the return from exile of a group of Jewish people. The word hermeneutics is one of those lovely words that we like to toss around, even though we may or may not know what exactly it may mean in the context in which meaning is sought. Well – the passage that we heard read to us addresses several issues of meaning. We heard about a reading of the Law, a reading of “the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding.” It’s an interactive session, with the people answering “Amen, Amen, and lifting up their hands.” It’s within the context of worship, worship “with their faces to the ground.” It’s a collaborative effort, with a number of people helping in the process of reading with understanding, reading while giving “the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Reading with understanding, reading with interpretation, reading collectively, reading interactively, reading and teasing out the meaning – all activities that resonate with us as an academic community, a community engaged at multiple levels with hermeneutics in all its dimensions.

And now here is Jesus reading – reading the old, old story, the good old story, the familiar words ring out across the synagogue, amidst people who had seen him since he was a little boy. “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Did he read from the assigned text for the day? We heard that the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him and that he “unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written …”. Why did he choose that particular passage? Sometime slogans have a way of obscuring meaning, and we have attached such a slogan to this passage – “the Nazareth Manifesto.” Were the people there prepared for the conversion of a passage from the prophet into a manifesto? What kind of manifesto is this anyway? What has it got to do with Jesus? Jesus and the Spirit; Jesus and being anointed; Jesus and the poor; Jesus and the captives; Jesus and the blind and oppressed; Jesus and a special year – “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Well – even as these questions were swirling around, the ambiguity is cleared and he begins to speak – “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

We need to show some kind of understanding for the congregation and make allowances for a level of confusion and apprehension. We shouldn’t be surprised if they start looking around and asking where this has been fulfilled; how has this been fulfilled; what is it that has been fulfilled. Shouldn’t we be more accommodating of a certain level of incredulity and incomprehension that Jesus seems to locate this fulfillment in himself? But it’s not just about them, it’s also about us. We are present when the Law is read out, and even when we listen with understanding it is still the Law. We are present when the Gospel is proclaimed. It’s very easy for us to blur the distinction and convert the Gospel into Law, or even apply the Law to the Gospel. Our reading today ended on a high note or at least an ambivalent note – we didn’t get to the part where there were good things said initially, followed by an uncontrolled rage leading to murderous intentions. Why did their own boy, now man, provoke such widely fluctuating emotions and reactions among his own people? Why does this Jesus provoke such widely fluctuating emotions and reactions among us, we who claim the promise of Christ, and yet react with vehemence when faced with certain situations where we believe that we know what is right and have the right law and the right interpretation for any and every situation? 

We need to return to Nehemiah – hermeneutics can lead to understanding, but what kind of understanding? As we read further, we hear about how the Law was applied tearing people and families apart. We hear about how when “the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.” (Nehemiah 13: 3) We hear about the condemnation of what is euphemistically called “mixed marriages” (Nehemiah 13: 23ff) We hear about how “everything foreign” was cleansed. (Nehemiah 13: 30) Does the teaching of Jesus lead us to do this – it can and it has. Ethnic cleansing has been justified by misusing words of Jesus; narrow understandings of marriage have been justified by misusing words of Jesus; enslavement of vast numbers of people has been justified by misusing words of Jesus; self-centered worthiness, that wonderful Latin word “superbia”, unreasonable and inordinate self-esteem, has been justified by misusing words of Jesus; certainty in terms of predicting the end of the world has been justified by misusing the words of Jesus. Jesus says (in Matthew 11: 6) “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 

I still like my cassock and my black girdle – not too many people come up to me nowadays and slip an envelope into my hand (though in these difficult economic times that wouldn’t be a bad idea!) But the good news continues to endure and reverberate – the scripture has been fulfilled, not only then, but now, right here, in the presence of a font filled with water, in the presence of a table, on which we will place a piece of bread and a glass of wine. The good news of Jesus, the dharma of Jesus, that for which he came and that for which he died, the good news proclaimed time and again in our midst, in our hearing, within the scope of our understanding and yet transcending human efforts to pin it down to “what exactly does that mean?” – this good news that scripture is not locked, that God is not remote, that we are forgiven, that we are welcome, this good news is repeated endlessly, not in terms of a stuck record in an endless loop, but as the vivifying and illumining word of life, truly “wonderful words of life.”