sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 27, 2019
Today we drop into this reading from Nehemiah, and we find that we are late in the Old Testament story. The people of Israel have returned from the Babylonian exile and are resettling Jerusalem. Their prophets have told them again and again that the reason God allowed the exile was that the people sinned repeatedly, both by worshipping false idols and by oppressing the poor and powerless among their own people. Now that God has cleared the way for them to return, it’s time for a fresh start.
At the people’s request, the priest Ezra reads to them from the book of the law of Moses—that is, the Torah—all morning long. We suspect that he is reading from Deuteronomy, a late-breaking addition to their Scripture that refines and clarifies the law for their present time—a very long amendment to the constitution, if you will.
Then we read: “All the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”
Imagine the scene: thousands of people have gathered as a congregation at the Temple Mount. And they are openly weeping—overcome with emotion, certainly, at this monumental occasion. But they are also weeping with grief because they know that they have not kept the law. Yet Nehemiah and Ezra reassure them: “This is a holy day! There is no need to mourn. Instead, feast! And then share what food you have with those who have none. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The people have been broken by exile, broken by their failure to keep the commandments of God … but also broken open by this new beginning. If they not only feast but also share with the poor, they are living into the law of Moses for real this time.
Every failure is an opportunity to begin once again, and the failure itself is our fuel for renewal. Take failure, add God’s joy at our existence, and the result is strength to go on, both wounded and transformed.
This happens to us as individuals, for sure, and the older we are, the more likely we are to have stories of our woundedness and the grace that keeps nursing us back to health. But it also happens to entire communities and nations. Very little in the Bible is about individuals, because we are all members of one body. Each one of us matters, but all by ourselves we can do very little. So by being part of a community, we own and are partially responsible for dealing with all its triumphs and all its failures.
For instance, as Americans, we are the inheritors of an evil legacy: the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement and abuse of Africans, just to name two—most of which has taken place within our own laws. The effects of this evil continue to this day as poverty and prejudice. But we are also the inheritors of a set of higher standards that we have yet to live up to. The Founders keep whispering down the generations to us the cherished values that they themselves did not keep: that all people are created equal, that everyone has a right to live and to be free and to make the most of our lives.
We’re not there yet. America is still growing up, and it’s going through a stormy adolescence right at this moment. We’ve tried on various noble identities for ourselves. But in recent decades, and especially in the present day, we are giving in to the self-destructive habits of idol worship—such as the worship of money—and the oppression of the poor. I pray that we come through it. I pray that we Americans will wake up to the way we treat the vulnerable in our midst, because they are us. I pray that someday we can tell a true story of our nation’s own acts of self-harm, repentance, and transformation.
Like us, the people of Israel were victims of their own self-destructive habits. Our Christian story includes their story: their exodus from Egypt and settling in the Promised Land—their glory days as a monarchy—their fall from glory into division, dissolution, and disgrace—their freedom from exile by the hand of God. They returned home demoralized but liberated, ready for a fresh start in the land they understood God to have given them. They rededicated themselves to being a light to all nations, so that everyone in the world could come to know through their example the goodness and love—and forgiveness—of God.
To the degree that we have adopted the Israelites’ story, it is also our story. But speaking genetically, most of us, in our ancestry, were among those grafted onto Israel’s story through Christian baptism. We are not the Chosen People, but we, too, have a role to play in God’s hopes for the entire world.
Our story centers more specifically on Jesus, a Jew from Nazareth in Galilee, who Luke tells us began his itinerant ministry with a “soft launch” and then headed home for the official kickoff. It’s Saturday: the Sabbath, the time for everyone to gather for worship. The synagogue is the local place to gather, since the temple in Jerusalem is so far away. Every major town has a synagogue. And every literate man of a certain age has opportunity to read to the assembled congregation, just as Ezra did nearly half a millennium before. The pattern begun there continues to this day.
Jesus is handed the scroll of Isaiah. I wonder how it was selected? He unrolls the scroll and finds a specific passage. I wonder whether it was the appointed passage for the day, or whether Jesus chose his own text? Either way, Jesus reads to his congregation and to ours the blueprint for his ministry:
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.
This text from Isaiah dates from around the time when that crowd gathered with Ezra and Nehemiah. It describes the very situation they were experiencing. They had been oppressed captives, but they were now free.
But here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t quote the text precisely as it appears in Isaiah. Here’s how it appears there:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.
It goes on from there, and it’s beautiful, and had the passage been written down yet for Ezra to read to the people that day, it would have been no less apt and also would have inspired weeping.
Now, Jesus has misquoted Isaiah, yes, but it’s not a matter of being sloppy. It would have been common practice for a reader in the synagogue to paraphrase the text to make a point. They didn’t place value on careful, literal quoting like we do today. Remember that in Nehemiah, we hear that the leaders read “with interpretation.” Jesus is doing so here.
Most noticeably, Jesus adds the line about “recovery of sight to the blind.” He will indeed restore sight to a man just before he rides into Jerusalem in the week of his arrest. He will spend all the time between now and then living into the words he is quoting and urging people to see, to notice, to learn what they had missed before. And then he will be broken: broken on the cross, broken by human sin. And in Christ’s resurrection, we will be broken open one more time.
That’s how it works, isn’t it? We find ourselves broken, weeping, disconsolate. We can let that brokenness take us. Or we can let God take us. When that happens, the first thing we’ll find is that we cannot avoid the truth of our brokenness. Indeed, we need it, because it will be God’s fuel. Reconciliation cannot begin without truth-telling.
We will soon take bread and bless it, just as Jesus did. We will break it, just as Jesus did. And then we will allow Jesus to give it to us. Twentieth-century theologian Gregory Dix observed and wrote about the fourfold action of the Eucharist: take, bless, break, give. We let Jesus take us in the divine hands like bread. We let him bless us for all that we are, in all our brokenness and belovedness. We let him break us open: we admit to the brokenness we feel and let Jesus into it. Then we let Jesus give ourselves back to ourselves, transformed into something new.
These actions are not forceful actions on our part, but rather the opposite. They are actions of consent. Let Jesus—allow Jesus to take, bless, break, and give. Every time this happens, Jesus is present with us, both wounded and transformed, and offering us the same transformation even in the depths of brokenness. Every time this happens, Isaiah’s prophetic words have been fulfilled in our hearing. Amen.