Epiphany 3C 2019


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

From Rev. Rilla

Like many of you, I’d expect, I spent some time outside in the cold, clear, dark night last Sunday evening. This was, of course, outside after dark on a night in January, not June, so it wasn’t to sit in shirtsleeves around a campfire with marshmallows and guitars. No, all of us who found ourselves outdoors that night went out for a specific, and timed purpose: the total lunar eclipse of a full moon—a blood moon. Like you, Michael and I knew about the eclipse, but, probably, also like you—like most Western Washingtonians—we had placed the eclipse under the heading of “Yeh, sure…” in the days prior. Sure, the skies will be clear enough to see this amazing event. Sure, we’ll be able to view the full moon in full eclipse. We would have our cameras ready, but neither of us had much faith that we’d be able to use them.

That doubt is what made stepping out onto our deck and looking upward and into Sunday night’s sky so amazing. There was the vast firmament. Millions of stars and planets spread across the sky, and there was the blood moon in eclipse, a redness from a moon that usually glows white. I had no words and felt such a deep sense of awe and thankfulness at the creation. There we stood next to each other, cameras ready, but the experience of seeing it all was far better than any record shot would ever be.

Psalm 19, one of the 75 psalms traditionally ascribed to David, describes such a sense of awe. No wonder Haydn used it in his great choral work centuries later. It speaks to our human experience of awe and wonder in all God’s works. C. S. Lewis wrote this about Psalm 19: “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”[1] 

As it describes the heavens and offers a prayer to God, it celebrates for us the way in which the Torah reflected God’s glory to the people: "The law of the Lord is perfect." Indeed. 

Scripture gives the people so much and always has. Just listen to the Old Testament lesson appointed for this third Sunday after the Epiphany. We hear the telling of the story of the people returning from the Exile, and Ezra and Nehemiah presiding over them, a community in severe conflict, dispute and fragmentation. Centuries earlier, God had given the Israelites some wonderful gifts: a land, security, abundance, prosperity. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann said that the memory of those gifts. . . the memory of their story. . . and that relationship was the glue that bound them together. It also kept them close to God, reliant upon God, and responsive to God. But, as the years passed, they grew careless and cynical about their faith. They forgot who they were, partially because they had forgotten the stories of their people.

And now, following the despair and loss experienced during the Exile, the future of Israel was in serious doubt. Enemies attacked from outside, but even more disruptive were the internal disagreements that threatened to undermine the community’s future. The people began to form factions, arguing about who was in and who was out and who should govern, and how the temple could be rebuilt and how Jerusalem might be reestablished in safety and peace.

And so they gathered, and not just some of the people, but all of the people. ALL the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate, a place so significant because it was there that all could gather, even those who were ritually unclean. 

And there, in the midst of all, both men and women, and all who could hear with understanding, and all who had food and those who did not, and for all the people, words from the Pentateuch were read… perhaps for the first time since their return. And, in hearing these words and seeing the ruins of the temple, they stood and listened and wept. The sense of loss was palpable. The words described a society filled with Shalom, and yet there was so much loss and so much rebuilding to do. They must have heard the words from Scripture and thought, "Yes, sure… I wish it were that way. This old scripture sounds too good to be true."

Gathered as they were during the Festival of Succoth and the Festival of the Law, they were a people lost, and yet, as they heard God’s word read in Scripture, Nehemiah and Ezra said to ALL the people, "Go now and drink sweet wine, and share it with others. This day is holy." You have to feast from time to time to understand the character of God. Life is not just fasting and discipline. There is a place for unbridled joy and celebration. This day is holy. Listen to the stories of our people in Scripture and let those stories speak to you.
At times we can lose track of the stories of our people and of God’s goodness, of God’s nature. It can happen at all times.

Jesus read Scripture to those in the temple—Jesus of Nazareth, returning to his home region, possibly known to some, but from here he would begin his ministry. And the first thing he did was to read from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah—words that describe a time not yet come... or was it? A time of Jubilee, of release for the poor, sight for the blind, a time of the end of oppression to a people. And all the people—now held in oppression by the Romans—who were there in the temple must have thought, “Sure… I’ll believe it when I see it.” This old scripture sounds just too good to be true.

These were old, old images from the Torah, of a God who is about renewal, of a time of Jubilee (which was meant to keep society from spinning out of control,) of safeguards put in place so that debt and loss wouldn’t cripple families permanently. Jesus, then beginning his ministry, read from Scripture of the promise that all things that have the capacity to enslave us are marked with destruction of some kind.
We can imagine the congregation, listening. A congregation filled with the characters of the village—the rich and the poor; the sighted and the blind; the oppressed and the oppressor. And we can wonder what this liberation looked like for them. Did they anticipate the good news would come first to the poor, the prisoner, and the oppressed? Or did they think it would come first for those with inside connections, the rich and religious? Yes, sure…too good to be true.

Jesus offered them good news. Would they hear it and receive it as good news to be shared with all, especially the vulnerable? Or would they hear it and hope that it is a message for them alone? Were they hoping that, as Jesus’ hometown, they would receive special favor—exclusive favor? OR did their hope extend to the whole world?

Did they hear the good news from Scripture? Were they reminded of whose they were? Or did they adopt the “Oh, sure, I’ll believe it when I see it. This is too good to be true”?

The words from Scripture read to God’s people then, just as now, are a narrative of humanity’s experience of a God who is very stubborn and of a people who are equally stubborn, and of the relationship between them. God, Scripture tells us, will keep God’s promises, and people should listen and have faith in this, and in the knowledge of God’s love for all that is. And we often say, "Sure, this sounds too good to be true." But the act of returning to those old texts, interpreting them in a new time and place, and looking for the truth of what they teach us in this new time and place is not always easy. But these ancient texts reveal something to us of God’s presence in creation, of God’s presence in our lives. We need to listen and to wrestle with them. We need to pay attention to the stories.

Scripture speaks to ordinary life, like encountering God by gazing into the heavens on a clear crisp night sky, like the words of the poet, the language of creation, and they can give profound hope. God’s people need to pay attention… which sometimes, we confess, we struggle to do.

Mary Oliver, may she rest in peace, said, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”[2] With ears and heart paying attention to Scripture, to the story of our people over time, and to the witness of God’s faithful presence in all of creation, we know of that stubborn and loving God, and of us, God’s stubborn people, in communion with one another. Even in the pain and stress and doubt of life, we know, and then are no longer so prone to say, "It’s just too good to be true."

Listen then, once again, to the poetry of Mary Oliver, which illustrates the kind of attention we might pay to the ordinary, especially during the winter. This rapt attention to the simple, to God’s presence on a cold, clear night—not unlike the one last Sunday—to the creation, to our story as people of God. And all of this aims us toward answers to who it is that God calls us to be.

First Snow

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles, nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain — not a single
answer has been found —
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.[3]

[1] http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/blog/2013-04-05/mary-oliver-yes-no/

[3] “First Snow,” New and Selected Poems, Vol. I, (c. 1992 by Mary Oliver, pub. Beacon Press) p. 150. Mary Oliver