Sunday, January 21, 2007

millinerd sermon time

Here is a sermon I preached today for Epiphany 3. I did my best to follow that time-honored preaching motto, Christum praedicare ex fontibus, that is, "preach Christ from the sources." Though I understand that the alternative My opinion praedicare ex movie clips is also popular.


Readings: Nehemiah 8:2-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Luke 4:14-21

To the Anderson Coopers of the ancient world, that is, to anyone whose job it might have been to observe the current affairs of the Ancient Near East... Israel was finished. What reason could there have been to assume the survival of a relatively insignificant nation that was first divided, and then destroyed twice? Divided due to internal tensions into a northern and southern kingdom. Then the mighty Assyrians destroyed the north in 722BC, and the mightier Babylonians destroyed the south when they sacked Jerusalem in 586BC.

Israel, it must have seemed to contemporary observers, had had a decent run. First just a wandering tribe, they had somehow gotten themselves out of slavery in Egypt, and after migrating to the Jerusalem area had even pieced together an infrastructure complete with a king, a temple, an army.

Though never even approaching the expanse and power of Egypt, Babylon and Assyria, still considering their size they had at least done better than the Canaanites or Hittites. But after a division and two destructions, and their elite being transported to a foreign city where it was very tempting to remain, it was probably time to write Israel off.

Egypt Assryia, Babylon - Empires were the real game of the ancient world, and they left their mark. Just a train-ride away in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are remnants of all of them - tombs of Egyptian rulers, friezes from the intimidating thronerooms of Assryian kings, even some of the glazed brick that decorated the Processional way through Babylon's legendary Ishtar Gate, bricks that the Jews would have seen as they were marched for the first time into that foreign city. But walk past the Babylon display at the Met and you'll also see remnants from the great stone carvings of Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire. And God used these Persians to give Israel a second chance.

As the Babylonians conquered Assyria, now Persia conquered the Babylonians, and Cyrus the king of Persia, took a unique approach to Israel. He entered the Babylon that he had conquered and allowed the deported elite of Israel to return, if they please, to Jerusalem - and he even offered a government grant to rebuild the temple. This was perhaps the first case in history of a ruler granting permission, even financial assistance, to a religion other than his own.

Some Jews were comfortable enough in Babylon to stay, but others took Cyrus up on his offer, walked back to Jerusalem, and this is the context of the Nehemiah reading today. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah both chronicle this critic period of reconstruction in Jerusalem.

First the temple was rebuilt with royal funding. It was a task not without bureaucratic difficulties - it was in fact stalled for several years - but the building was completed. Biblical scholars estimate the date of completion to be around 515 or 516. If you do your math and subtract 516 from 586, the year of the destruction of Jerusalem, your left with 70 - just about the exactly the number of years that the prophet Jeremiah foretold the punishment of the Judeans would endure.

After the temple came the task was of rebuilding the walls, which due to the unpopularity of the project had to be done with a sword in one hand and a spade in the other. But these tasks now completed, it was time to worship. Ezra, a new priest had been sent from Babylon was placed in charge. It was disobedience to the commandments that had led to the exile, and a new generation of leadership in Israel was determined not to let this happen again. So aside from the reinstitution of temple sacrifice, Ezra the priest performed a public recitation of the law for all the people. According to the text, "both men and women and all who could hear with understanding" were invited to hear. It was a family occasion.

In our reading we see that Ezra erects a wooden platform, a platform that recalls the bronze platform that Solomon used when he dedicated the first Jerusalem temple so long ago. Maybe the implication is that when the Scriptures are read God's presence is invoked just as if the temple was right there. The text tells us this happened on the first day of the seventh month, which subsequently would be known as Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year's Day. Because for this congregation, the remnant of Israel restored to Jerusalem, a new era had begun.

They read from the Scriptures all morning. Six hours. And Nehemiah says that they added interpretation - "They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." Perhaps the interpretation was necessary because the people now spoke Aramaic and the Scripture were in Hebrew. Or perhaps the interpretation was necessary, because the only way to insure obedience to the law in this crucial moment of congregational renewal was by explaining it to the people, bringing their minds into conformity and active engagement with God's commands.

The response of the people to hearing the law - the law that they had broken - was to weep. Perhaps they wept for the sins that led to the exile, or for fear that they couldn't keep the high standard that God's law required, but Ezra the priest stops them. He tells them not to weep but to feast, for "the joy of the LORD is your strength."

Whatever sin had caused the exile - and if we're to take Isaiah and Jeremiah at their word it was sin that caused it - whatever sin it was, the way to not succumb to it again would not be by a downcast and sober moral compliance, but by a joyful, reverent obedience to the law which was not a burden but a privilege. In that joy would be the strength to carry on.

And that was how, the nation of Israel, which by common sense would say had no reason to continue, continued.

The practice so vividly described by Nehemiah, the public reading of the law, continued as well. Public reading of the law with interpretation. This was the ritual of the synagogue. Males of age were given this privilege, and in the Gospel for this morning, Jesus, now of age, is poised to give it a shot himself. But the catch is, it's his home-synagogue. Luke tells us in gospel text this morning that after a brief healing tour, Jesus is coming home to Nazareth, a town about to receive a small scale version of the second coming of Christ.

Perhaps you consider Princeton your hometown, but if not, you may have visited your hometown recently over Christmas. One of the unsettling aspects about hometowns is that they know you pretty well. Though you may have attained some measure of significance amongst colleagues and friends, the hometown typically knows you from the bottom up, and if necessary, can cut you down to size.

Luke tells us that at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, already "a report about him spread through all the surrounding country… Christ was praised by everyone," but Nazareth wouldn't be nearly as easy to impress.

It's the Sabbath day, he unrolls the scroll, and he finds the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor...."
He finishes the reading, rolls back the scroll. And, like we saw in Nehemiah, prepares to give the interpretation. Luke pauses for drama: "The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him." And then Jesus gives a rather abrupt interpretation. "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

What had been recorded centuries ago by one of the greatest prophets was, Jesus tells his mom, dad, friends, neighbors and former playpals, referring to him.

As we'll discover in next week's gospel, this didn't go over too well. To the hometown crowd who knew him - a claim to fulfill prophecy must have seemed arrogant. Nevertheless, we know that what would have been arrogant, and what still would be arrogant, coming from the lips of anyone else, was, when coming from the lips of Jesus, a truthful statement of fact.

Because, simply put, Jesus Christ fulfills the Scriptures. There may be many interpretations of the Bible, but there's only one fulfillment - and that is Christ. Luke tells us that at least since the age of twelve, Jesus had been "sitting among the teachers, listening and asking them questions about the law." Back then the all in temple were "amazed at the understanding and answers" of this twelve year old. But Jesus didn't stay twelve. He must have kept reading, thinking, praying, maybe even struggling with conclusions he was coming to. Could he really who Isaiah had predicted? Did all Israel's promises, all the world's hope really fall to him? Yes. It cannot have been easy for him to accept that, but he accepted it - he accepted it for us - and when the time was right, he went public with his staggering realization. And his answers did the same thing then that they do today - make people nervous.

Today's three readings give us three snapshots of congregational life, we've looked at two, and the third is Paul's words to the perpetually divided congregation at Corinth.

Last week Father Diogenes began this chapter, pointing out danger of equating spirituality with the extraordinary or ecstatic, for the Holy Spirit is just as prone to move in the ordinary. After all, as we've already seen God did not choose to give his inaugural address amongst the big city lights of Rome, but in an ordinary, no-named village like Nazareth. The only foolproof indicators of God's presence, we learned, are not flashy pyrotechnics, but fruits of the Spirit such as peace and patience. Also pointed out was the danger of assuming that because the Holy Spirit worked one way with someone, that hence such a manifestation should be expected from everyone else.

These themes continue in today's passage, and a new theme emerges as well - one popular in Paul's day - the analogy of the body.

Read to the ends of the book of Ezra or Nehemiah, you'll find an urgent concern that the returned exiles separate from the Gentiles. Foreign spouses - even if they were half-Jewish - would lead to foreign gods, so Ezra and Nehemiah were prepared not just to prohibit Jewish intermarriages with foreigners, but to even break up marriages that already existed, sending widows and children away. That is how serious the returned exiles were about national purity.

Yet, to the Corinthians this morning Paul has the audacity to proclaim that in the church of Jesus Christ, "we were all baptized into one body- Jews or Greeks, slave or free." No longer is national purity an aim, for all national and individual impurities are drowned in the waters of baptism. Up from those waters comes a new organism, the church - a corporation in the Latin sense of corpore - body - the body of Jesus Christ that, because of its international flavor would exhibit an unusual amount of diversity. But rather than valuing the many ways the Spirit was moving, the Corinthians were valuing only those that were externally impressive.

Strangely enough, Renaissance art theory sheds light on this passage. In the early 1400's, the clerics who wrote about painting naturally assumed that there could be only one kind of beautiful form, one proper kind of style that, with the appropriate technical training, anyone could achieve. But as a diversity of artists take up the brush, those who wrote about painting were forced to abandon a theory that proved in time to be too constricting. Experience showed there to be in fact many kinds of beauty - Michelangelo's proportion , Raphael's grace, Leonardo's subtle use of light, Titian's bold use of color. But it took well over a century for Renaissance theorists to discover that.

We learned last week that Paul was way ahead of the journalists at the Economist who think God can be identified with abnormal brain activity, and here we see that Paul was way ahead of Renaissance as well.

"If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?" Paul playfully asks the Corinthians, "If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?" If everyone painted like Michelangelo, where would Raphael be? If every artist was Leonardo, where would Titian be?

The upshot is that there is not one way to be faithful to God at Corinth or at All Saints', there are many, and though important, highly visible channels of ministry are not to be coveted. With his body analogy, Paul seems to be suggesting that to assume, as the Corinthians did, that the most important people of a congregation are the most visible ones, is as foolish as assuming that the most important parts of the human body are the most visible ones like the eyes and hands, as oppose to those minor, inconsequential parts of the body like, you know, like the heart or the lungs.

Paul suggests that the fact that someone is not visible might mean they're even more important, for if they stopped doing their role of quiet prayer or some anonymous but essential service, then the church might collapse as quickly as a body whose heart stopped beating because it wasn't getting face-time. Each of the various roles at Corinth and at all Saints - are essential.

But there one time when one given person or family is more important than the other is when they are suffering - for then, as with a broken leg, the whole rest of the body joins together to support it, a heavier load taken by the unbroken leg, the arms taking up crutches. Likewise when one of us suffers, the rest suffer as well and move in for support. Conversely, when one of us rejoices, the rest rejoice as well.

Therefore we don't have to wait for the next Seminary congregational dynamics textbook to learn the secret to healthy interaction at All Saints. The secret is as immediate as our own bodies. According to Paul, everybody, literally every body in this building right now are walking textbooks as to how to best be members of this congregation.

I'd like to close with what seems to be a paradox. Paul concludes this morning's readings with the words, "You are the body of Christ and individually members of it." Yet soon we will approach the altar and be handed a consecrated wafer and told, that in fact that bread is the Body of Christ. So which is it? Are we the body of Christ, is the bread the body of Christ, or is it all just symbolic talk that shouldn't be taken too seriously?

It should be taken seriously, and we should not be surprised if such mysteries put a strain on our minds. Christ's ascended body is capable of being present in more ways than one. Yes both we are the body of Christ and the bread is the body of Chirst - which is why another word for what happens at the altar is communion. In a way, we who are the body of Christ, are most fully ourselves at the altar, when we receive the body of Christ - becoming very members incorporate in the mystical Body of the Son. - whose Eucharistic presence is one of the greatest gift we have been given, to sustain until we behold his glory in the age to come.