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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-7, 8-10; Psalm 19:1-14; I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

One of the texts I memorized as a child is found in I Timothy 316-17:  “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”  While it’s not part of the lectionary for the coming Sunday, it provides a good starting point as we read this week’s passages.  Several of them focus upon the power and place of scripture in our lives.

We each have our stories to tell about how the Bible has shaped our lives---for both good and ill.  Most of us have grown in understanding, often rejecting what we see to be the limits or distortions of what we have been taught.  If we have been deeply steeped in the life of the church, we cannot escape the influence of the Bible.  It is a book to be reckoned with whatever interpretation we put upon it, even if we reach a point of dismissing major portions of it.  Even if we have not been schooled in the church, with its wildly varying interpretations, the Bible is deeply imbedded in our culture, phrases and images (sometimes below the level of our conscious awareness) permeating our expressions, our literature, our art, etc.

Between the covers of that book which may have been read by a mother or grandmother so many times that, if it were any other book, it would have been thrown out, or which may have only sat in some visible place, dust-covered but unopened, there are only words. They’re just words, mostly the same words we use in everyday conversation.   (We’ll just skip over, for the time being, that the original words were in other languages, that the Bible has been translated into a variety of languages most of us would not understand as well as a multitude of versions in English, and that what was for years the most popular Bible in English, the King James Version, is far from the everyday English of today.)

Yet many of us keep coming back to those words.  Many of us have been deeply moved and shaped by those words.  It contains writings that have changed the lives of people and history for thousands of years.  It has brought people together in common cause and torn them apart in conflicts over interpretation or in confrontation with opposing “holy” books.

This week’s readings don’t help us much in understanding the why and how of the power of scripture.  They demonstrate the power of words to bring people to their feet in wonder and awe.  We see people motivated and guided by these words.  As children, we used to say, “Stick and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  We might be inclined to extend it to say, “ . . . but words will never hurt me.”  In reality, words have the power to hurt, to comfort, to induce guilt, to arouse hope and expectation, to motivate, and much more.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the Jewish people returning to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon where they had been held captive---some for as long as 80 years.  Many of them had integrated into Assyrian society, including Nehemiah, who was cupbearer to Artaxerxes, king of Persia.  They had grown away from their religious practices and texts, but they still longed for the homeland and the temple where God was present.  (After all, how could one worship without a temple?  All one could do was sit by the banks of the river and weep.  These words from Psalm 137 perhaps capture something of the mood:  “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion . . . there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?  If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!  Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”)

Nehemiah hears about the devastation back in Jerusalem, how “the survivors there . . . are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”  (Nehemiah 1:3)  He sits down and weeps for days, fasting and praying (Nehemiah 1:4), finally asking the king for permission to go to inspect and begin to rebuild the city.  (Nehemiah 2:7-8)  While the order of things in the books of Ezra, and Nehemiah raises many questions about the sequence of events, most are pretty sure that Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem before Ezra, a priest/scribe.  Whatever the sequence, today’s reading finds the rebuilding of the walls and temple completed.  For the first time in years, old rituals are observed and the people gather to hear the reading of scripture.  (Remember that it is only in relatively modern times that people had their own copies of scripture to read.)

Ezra is the reader.  (Nehemiah 8:1-2)  He read “from early morning until midday.”  (vs. 3)  How’s that for attention to something that is “just words” on a page---or papyrus, as the case may be?  They obviously placed great value on these “words.”  What value do we place upon them?  “And,” we are told, “when he opened it, all the people stood up.”  (vs. 5)  Okay, maybe I could listen for several hours, but standing up?  The words, however, did not stand alone.  Those who stood before the people offered “interpretation.”  “They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”  (vs. 8)  Even here we are reminded that the words on the page require interpretation and understanding.  Upon hearing the words, the people “wept.”  (vs. 9)  They were sent on their way with the instruction, “ . . . do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  (vs. 10)

The Psalmist shows a similar awe in the presence of God’s voice, whether it be through nature (Psalm 19:1-4) or scripture (“the law of the Lord”).  Verses 7-10 offer a poem in praise of scripture, reflecting a high view of the power of words to inspire and offer guidance.  “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear enlightening the eyes; the fear of the lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.  More to be desired than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.”  We might wonder whether one has to be in such awe that one views scripture as perfect and inerrant as is held by some and seems to be implied here.  Notice, however, the emphasis upon results.  The heart is rejoiced, the eyes are enlightened.  Scripture is not found to be a bitter burden, pressuring one into obedience.  It brings the sweetness of honey to life, something that is greatly desired.  Oh my!  The power of words.

The epistle lesson is a continuation of the gifts passage from last week.  Our working together for the common good is described in terms of the parts of a body.  We are all different parts of the same body, and the body doesn’t work unless each part works in the way it is supposed to.  One part cannot say to another, “I don’t need you.”  The passage does not speak directly to my focus for this week, although it does mention apostles, prophets, and teachers, all of which would have had some role in the reading and interpretation of scripture.  Those who are the caretakers and communicators of scripture are to be given due honor, neither more nor less than anyone else who is part of the body.

Finally, the Gospel records what is often spoken of as Jesus’ first sermon.  Jesus comes to his hometown, enters the synagogue on the Sabbath, and is invited to read and interpret the scripture.  (vs. 16)  The words he read from Isaiah have become a touchstone for those who focus on peace and justice.  Jesus, we say, is our ally.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus reads, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (vss. 18-19)

The kicker, however, comes when he sits down---with the eyes of all “fixed on him,” we are told---and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  (vs. 21)  This is but a beginning.  “He began to say . . .”  The beginning is that the words of scripture are not dead lines from the past.  Unless they live and have some relevance---and continue to live and have relevance---they remain “only words.”

The full power of the story cannot be realized without reading the rest of the story (vss. 22-29) paying close attention to, interpreting, and conversing about its details.  For now, it is sufficient to reflect on our own response to the power of scripture.  Do we tolerate the reading of scripture in boredom because “they’re just words”?  Do we dismiss the words because they don’t apply to us?  Do we split hairs about the accuracy and factuality and truth of the words?

We are also called to gather in awe standing in expectation.  Who knows?  We may even hear a word for “today.”  After all, God is still speaking.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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