Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21
January 24, 2016
Loren Mead in his book Transforming Congregations for the Future tells a story about examining candidates for ordination to the ministry.
The first candidate was asked, “Who is the patriarch Abraham?” The candidate scratched his head, hesitated, then said, “Wasn’t he the first president of the United States who won the Revolution and freed the slaves?” The committee turned warily to the second candidate. “What is the religious meaning of Christmas?” She spoke up quickly, “That’s when all the angels make toys for Santa to deliver in the chimneys!” The third candidate was ushered in to a depressed committee. “What happened on Good Friday?” they asked. “Oh yes,” the candidate said thoughtfully, “that’s when Jesus died on the cross.” “Wonderful!” the committee chair said. The candidate warmed to the subject. “And they buried him in a tomb and rolled in a stone for the door.” Committee members glowed. “And on the third day they roll away the stone and he comes out. If he sees his shadow, he goes back in and there are six more weeks of winter.”
I can only hope that the story is not true. But Mead was pointing (years ago) to an alarming lack of knowledge about what the Bible says. That lack of knowledge is all around us. In fact, misinterpretations and false assumptions often carry more weight in popular interpretations than the Biblical witness does.
I looked up sayings falsely attributed to the Bible. A Roman Catholic website had 15 phrases listed. 1) The three wisemen or kings. We don’t know the number. 2) Moderation in all things. 3) The Lord works in mysterious ways. 4) The eye is a window to the soul. 5) The apple in the Garden of Eden. (Even my seminary professors got that one wrong. The Bible never says apple – just fruit. 6) The lion will lie down with the lamb. 7) A fool and his money are soon parted. 8) This too shall pass. 9) The seven deadly sins. 10) Money is the root of all evil. 11) Pride comes before the fall. 12) Charity begins at home. 13) To thine ownself be true. 14) Cleanliness is next to godliness. 15) God helps those who help themselves.
The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from the time when the Israelites had returned to the land after exile in Babylon. They had returned to the Promised Land. They knew that they were God’s people. They knew that this was the land God had promised to them. But, they had been living in the midst of a different culture for an extended period of time. They needed to hear God’s word again. They needed to let God’s word, God’s intent, God’s plan shape and reshape them for a new age, a new context – living back in the Promised Land.
The passage speaks to the power of the word being proclaimed – with interpretation. Loren Mead’s book looked at the passage that is our gospel lesson today – the passage where Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah. This was another occasion where the word was used to offer the opportunity for God’s people to be reshaped, reformed, and renewed by hearing the word afresh and anew. Mead points out that for Jesus the “good news is profoundly contextual.” Yet, it is deeply rooted in the words and traditions of the ages.
To find the good news for today, we have to be people of the Book, people who are steeped in its tradition and wisdom so that we can apply that wisdom to the context in which we live. But we battle ignorance. We battle assumptions. We battle traditions that have distorted the message of the Bible.
Do you remember Jim Bakker and the PTL Club? The PTL Club (Praise the Lord Club) was a televised “church” that had great popularity during the 1970s and 1980s. It raked in the dough. Jim and his wife had a mansion with a climate controlled dog house. They had fancy cars and a rich lifestyle. The PTL Club was extremely successful, so the enterprise planned to build an amusement park that would cater to Bible loving Christians. However, their stewardship of money was a little shady. Jim Bakker finally ended up in jail for fraud or misuse of funds. I saw him years later, in an interview after he had been released from jail. He was working in a poor neighborhood in LA (I think.) He said, “You know, while I was in prison I read the Bible. It didn’t say what I thought it said!” Instead of a promise of prosperity, he found a commandment to work for the well-being of those whom the world had mistreated – those on the edges.
Scholar, the Rev. Kenneth E. Bailey, spoke about the sins of Biblical interpretation. I think he had seven, but I can’t remember all of them. A few stuck with me. “Don’t read the Bible assuming you know what it is going to say,” was one. We tend to read the scriptures through our lenses of culture and tradition. I think another one of his “sins” of Biblical interpretation was taking scriptures out of their context. If Jesus was contextual in his interpretation, he was also respectful of the context of the original words. There are two contexts! The Bible was written in particular times, in particular societies. Understanding the context out of which words and stories came, respecting that context, can help us begin to understand – and then find ways of applying the wisdom to the world in which we live.
About 15 or 20 years ago, many of the Christians in the community where we were living had grabbed hold of the book The Prayer of Jabez. The author encouraged people to follow Jabez’ example, praying as Jabez prayed, so that they might enjoy blessings and riches. If you look up Jabez, he rates one sentence in the scriptures – one sentence! Yet that one sentence became for many the blueprint for faith. It promised that extremely popular “gospel” that is called the “prosperity gospel” by observers of Christian traditions.
It seems to me that we are surrounded these days by many proclamations that tell us that Christianity is under attack – that its ways are threatened. It also seems, when I look deeper, that the Christianity that is being “threatened” isn’t really Biblical – it is more cultural tradition. In fact, some of the loudest voices proclaim a message which they call Christian that has little to do with the Biblical witness and very little to do with what mattered to Jesus.
How do we find, for ourselves first, and also for the world a powerful witness that speaks good news? It is a vital question. We know too well how the Bible can be used as a weapon to destroy, hurt, marginalize and judge people. Sometimes it is tempting to dismiss the Biblical witness instead of wrestling with it to find the ways it can speak to the world in which we live. The Israelites heard ancient words – interpreted! They heard them and in hearing them they found themselves redefined and encouraged in the hard work of re-establishing their community.
We can look at what mattered to Jesus. He had wrestled with the message of the Scriptures. He had seen how they had been misused in ways that harmed, divided, judged, and enslaved. He lifted up the stories and the passages that bore witness to what God was doing in and through him. In this morning’s gospel lesson he quoted from the prophet Isaiah. He was telling his home church that this was his job description:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
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.
One of the tenets of the Reformed Tradition is that Scripture interprets Scripture. It cautions us against lifting out certain passages and making them more important than the rest of the Biblical witness. It cautions us against taking a minor voice, minor opinion and making it central to the faith. If we consider the overarching themes of the Biblical story it can help us interpret particular passages. It has been noted that the Bible stories move toward liberation, toward justice, toward embodying God’s love and mercy. We can begin to think of story after story that reinforces that perception – stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The work before us as God’s people is to find the sense of those stories for our own lives that we might be shaped and reshaped as God’s people. The work before us is to find the sense that takes these powerful stories into the world to further God’s work of liberation, renewal, and recreation.
I’ve been reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. She wrote about an All Saints Day Celebration that included an acknowledgment of the work of a woman named Alma White. Alma White had founded the Pillar of Fire Church in Denver, Colorado, way back in 1901. Bolz-Weber was astounded. “Did a woman plant a church in Denver in 1901?” In researching she found out that Alma White became the first female bishop in the United States – back in 1918. This, truly, was a woman to be remembered – to be counted among the saints!
Then she read further. Alma White was noted for her feminism (yay!) and her association with – the Klu Klux Klan. She was noted for her anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-Pentecostalism, racism, and her hostility to immigrants.
She told a friend about Alma White, expecting the same anger that the woman’s biography had generated in her. The friend responded, “E-mail me her name. I’ll add her to the Litany of Saints along with all the other broken people of God.”
Today’s gospel story is one of my favorites. John shows the beginning of Jesus’ ministry not as some dry lecture, but as a celebration – a party. Jesus didn’t go to point out everything that was wrong. He went to participate in a joyous ritual – a ritual that provided a break from everyday life. And, when the harsh realities of scarcity threatened the celebration, he provided the wine needed for the party to continue. He not only provided wine, he provided the finest wine. “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now,” the steward said to the bridegroom.
The gospel writer tells us that this is the first of Jesus’ signs. Jesus’ glory was revealed. His disciples believed in him. We are invited to marvel at the abundance – six stone water jars each holding twenty or thirty gallons – suddenly hold wine. The party could continue. There was an abundance of grace – evident in the finest wine!
Last week, as I was thinking about Jesus’ baptism, I was struck by John’s distinction between the baptism he offered and the baptism that the Messiah would offer. “I baptize you with water, but One who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s baptism was a cleansing. Although the setting was different – the Jordan River -- It would have reminded people of the rites of purification. The baptism by Holy Spirit is something more than a mere cleansing. It is being baptized into the ways, the agenda, into the call of God. Here, Jesus took the stone water jars – meant to hold the water for the rites of purification – and turned the water in them into wine. No longer were they filled with water to cleanse – but with wine to fill, to satisfy, to intoxicate with the joy of God’s presence. This sign points to Jesus’ ministry which invites people to be transformed. He takes the water, placed in the jars used for an external ritual, and offers the finest of wine – something to be tasted and something to be enjoyed. It is a foretaste of his ministry which will offer God’s presence within.
Paul wrote: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. I pulled the book Healing the Purpose of Your Life off the shelf. The authors, Dennis, Matthew, and Sheila Fabricant Linn, write about finding what it is God calls us each to do. They call it discovering our “sealed orders” from God. The question they use is: What is the unique way I was created to give and receive love in this world? They use Jean Houston’s observation that it is about finding our essence. “By essence,” she said, “I mean that part of our nature we recognize as the god in hiding, the source quality or soul quality that links us to our highest becoming, that transcends time and space, life and death.”
I thought of this gospel story, the story of fine wine hidden, in a sense, in water jugs. God, through Christ, invites us to be transformed – to become the fine wine that delights the world, that offers hope and healing, that offers true sustenance and joy. Perhaps we are like the stone jars. Sometimes, as God’s people, we look at the rituals, the traditions, and the everyday practices that have shaped our faith lives. We’re satisfied with being the water that cleanses, but doesn’t really change us or the world. “I go to church every Sunday. I do what God expects.” The wonder of Jesus’ ministry is that he invites us to something deeper, something more profound – something more satisfying and meaningful.
Coming back to Bolz-Weber’s story. She was, at first, astounded by the story of Alma White. Then she became angry – because Alma White was a mixed bag of faithfulness. But, she mused, after her friend had said that Alma White would be added to the list of the saints who are the broken people of God, isn’t that always true?
Time has given a new perspective on aspects of that woman’s faith. We see the shortcomings born of the time in which she lived, born of age-old traditions and assumptions. A century after she lived, some of her contributions can be celebrated. Some can be recognized as a misinterpretation of God’s good news.
On our way back to the airport after Mark’s family gathering, we drove by the first church I served – a little country church. It is where Mark and I got married and where our daughter was baptized. My sister-in-law had sent me messages recently that the congregation was leaving the denomination and the building. Then she sent a message that the presbytery was closing the church with a service – to which I was invited – in Advent! She thought the building had been sold. We drove by on a snowy day. I was reminded of when I moved there – also a snowy day, a very snowy icy day. I drove right into a ditch! I was reminded of my installation service on a cold, snowy January evening. I had some difficult memories –some related to the housing they had provided – less than adequate, and others that grew out the conflicts between an outsider coming into a community that was wary of strangers and traditions and expectations that had been handed down through the generations.
Bolz-Weber’s struggles with seeing Alma White as a saint – one of the broken people of God – made me look back at the time in that church in a new way. I needed to remember the “wine” that flowed from them. I asked the women of the church to cater our wedding reception. I asked for something extremely simple – a picnic style luncheon with cold cuts and bread to make sandwiches. We arrived and found an astonishing spread, beautifully laid out. Everyone had contributed. During the time I served that church, they agreed to set up a food cupboard that served the neighborhood. They took care of each other.
So, with joy I remember Muriel who arranged flowers every Sunday and who taught the women’s Bible study. I remembered my daughter’s church grandmas – the women who welcomed her into their pews on Sundays when Mark worked. I remember the crib loaned to us by Jim and Helen – a crib that every child care book would have disallowed, but was lovingly hand made. I remember Pete and Clarence who puttered around the church, making sure things worked. I remember Lucille – organist and treasurer who loved her church. I also remember the racism, the pain of the sexism that tainted our relationship, the unwillingness or inability to try new things and welcome new people. They were, like me, like all of us, the broken people of God. Yet, at times the wine of God’s presence flowed freely through them and from them. They were a testament and witness to the God of hope and love.
We are all called. We all have gifts. That’s Paul’s message. Those different gifts become the fine wine that brings the joys of God’s new creation to the world around us. The Linns ask, “What are you most grateful for today? What are you least grateful for? If you were to ask yourself these questions every day, what pattern would you see?” I might add that God’s call always moves us and those around us to reconciliation, justice, mercy, acceptance, healing and love. Jesus didn’t judge the bridegroom for having run out of wine. He didn’t judge those who gathered to celebrate. He gave the wine – a sign of God’s presence, mercy, and glory. He gave it to all God’s broken people.
Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Since moving here, I’ve been intrigued by the Greek Orthodox Epiphany observances in Tarpon Springs – particularly the practice of throwing the wooden cross into the waters for the young men to find. On Epiphany, January 6th, a reporter declared, “They do this to remember Jesus’ baptism.”
“No,” I thought. “Epiphany remembers the arrival of the sages. We remember Jesus’ baptism on the first Sunday after Epiphany – today!”
The reporter’s explanation stayed with me. I had always wondered what connection there was between a cross thrown into the water and the arrival of the sages. I couldn’t think of any reasonable explanation. So, I wondered, if there is there a difference between the Western and Eastern Churches’ understanding of Epiphany?
And, the answer is, “Yes.” The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates January 6th as “an event in the life of Jesus Christ which is considered the beginning of His official dedication to His Divine Mission (the event is his baptism)…[the word Epiphany is] a combined Greek word which is derived from two Greek words meaning to show, to show forth, to shine upon.” In the Greek Orthodox tradition it is the Feast of Lights. In the Western Church we focus on the arrival of the sages as a sign of Jesus being revealed to the larger world. There is an emphasis on light – an emphasis that grows out of the story of the star.
In the Greek Orthodox tradition, it is the “Light of the World” that begins to shine forth as Jesus’ ministry starts with his baptism. The tradition of throwing the cross into the water began to make sense. The act is a reminder that Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized by John. The Christ was submerged. And in his willingness to be submerged, Jesus received the gift of the Spirit – and he began to be revealed to the world through his words and his deeds.
It was last year that I came across a powerful poem that spoke of Jesus’ baptism as his “stepping into the mud.” He is revealed to the world not through some sanitized ritual of bathing – a cleansing – but through his willingness to enter into the murkiness of human life. It is the start of the story of new creation. The first story in the Bible tells of God moving over the waters – the chaotic waters that were the stuff out of which God created. Here, God immerses God’s very self in the chaos. This is no remote creation – this is re-creation from within the chaos itself. I would imagine that Isaiah’s words informed Jesus as he stepped into that muddy stream:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
He stepped into the non-mighty Jordan – into that river that was brown with silt and clay. That act, perhaps, indicated his willingness to pass through all the murky waters that would lie ahead. He was immersed in human existence – and trusted Isaiah’s words that God was and would be with him.
Modern hymn writer Thomas Troeger wrote:
What ruler wades through murky streams and bows beneath the wave,
ignoring how the world esteems the powerful and brave?
Christ gleams with water brown with clay from land the prophets trod.
Above while heaven’s clouds give way descends the dove of God.
Isaiah’s words of God’s presence take on flesh and blood in Jesus’ life. He showed his willingness to walk through the murky waters that would mark his ministry by going down into that muddy Jordan river at his baptism. He would trust God’s presence with him.
I have no idea how murky the waters are in Tarpon Springs. They obviously aren’t crystal clear since it is not always easy to find the cross. Was it a couple of years ago, or just last year, when a second cross was thrown into the waters because the first wasn’t readily found?
Anyway, it got me thinking that epiphanies aren’t always crystal clear. We sing, in our Christmas carols, about the bright star that led the sages to seek the Messiah. Yet, nobody else seemed to see it. God’s presence is blurred by the murky waters of our lives and of the world. Jesus’ baptism provided a glimpse – for him and, maybe, depending on the gospel account, for some people around him. Although, Luke’s description doesn’t indicate that anyone else witnessed the Spirit’s descent. As Jesus began his ministry, some recognized him as God’s Messiah – God’s chosen one. But, even those who recognized him as the Messiah didn’t understand what that meant. Others saw Jesus as a troublemaker, an apostate who didn’t fulfill God’s law, a political threat – and even as Satan. It was not easy to glimpse God’s presence in Jesus the Christ – even when he was here in flesh and blood.
I’m reminded of the story I shared some time ago from Nadia Bolz-Weber who wrote of the first time she was called into a trauma room while serving as a student chaplain. “Everyone seems to have a job, but what am I doing here?” she asked. “Your job is to be aware of God’s presence in the room while we do our jobs.”
She was to look for and claim God’s presence. She was to affirm that God was with them in the midst of the chaos – in the deep turbulent waters, the rushing, muddy rivers, and the devouring fires of life. She was to live in the sureness of God’s words to Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” And, by her presence, she proclaimed what was not readily visible – that God was with them
Jesus’ life was an epiphany of God’s presence in all that it means to be human. God is present in our joys. God is present in our sorrows. God is present when life is good. God is present when everything is difficult – when nothing goes as it should. God is in the perfect and in the imperfect. God is in the beautiful and the ugly.
Hear the last words from Thomas Troeger’s hymn:
Come bow beneath the flowing wave.
Christ stands here at your side
and raised you as from the grave
God raised the crucified.
Water, River, Spirit, Grace,
sweep over me, sweep over me!
Re-carve the depths your fingers traced in sculpting me.