Friday, January 25, 2019

Epiphany +3, What We See#4: Jesus Makes Aliyah

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

Our sermon series for Epiphany is “What We See.” And what we see in two of our lessons today is people in church. Which is surprisingly rare in the Bible—depictions of actual worship services. Of course there’s lots of instruction on how to behave in church, but there is not one nice, full set of instructions for the Christian liturgy, nor is there one description of a Christian worship service from start to finish. We are offered only glimpses, and not many of them, but we get two of them today.

Of course I am being anachronistic. The glimpse in the Gospel is not of people in church, but in a synagogue. But the synagogue is the mother of the church. The earliest churches were Christianized synagogues, and church worship evolved from synagogue worship. Not from temple worship, with its altars and sacrifices, but from synagogue worship, with the reading and interpretation.

And I am being doubly anachronistic because the depiction in the First Reading, from Nehemiah, is not of a synagogue, but of a public meeting outdoors. I say “public” because it was equally church and state. The nation’s constitution was being read out loud to its citizens, in the original Hebrew, and then it was translated for them into the Aramaic dialect that they now spoke. And this experience moved them to worship. This event depicts the origins of synagogue worship, and so this event is like the grandmother of going to church. This is one source of what we do here every week.

Temple worship was different. There was no congregation. The priests did their sacrifices and the Levites made their music and you could watch it from a distance, if you were a man. Now, for temple worship, the Bible does have a full set of instructions, in the Torah, especially Leviticus.

But when the Temple was destroyed, and when Jewish communities scattered through the world, they developed the substitute of the synagogue. There they read out those same instructions from the Torah and interpreted them, not for the How but for the Why. If God wanted the Levites to do such-and-such in the ritual, then how shall we ordinary Jews apply that in our daily lives? Even way out here in Babylon or Africa or Rome? Or Brooklyn?

So which kind of worship does God desire, temple or synagogue? The sacrificial ritual or the book interpreted? Jesus attended both. But he also kept saying that crazy thing that his body was the temple. And then, on the night before he died, he instituted a sacred meal, and to that meal he applied the temple language of sacrifice when he called it his body and his blood, a little temple on the table. Which meal the apostles kept doing every week after his resurrection—first the synagogue-style reading and interpreting, and then the temple of his body in the meal. Word and Sacrament.

Over the following centuries, the church evolved into the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, and the worship got more like the temple and less like the synagogue. Eventually the Mass was the priestly sacrifice for the laity to watch from a distance, with no participation and little understanding.

The Reformation reacted and made the worship more like the synagogue again, Bible and interpretation, with our pastors more like rabbis than priests, and we minimized the sacraments. Recently both sides recognized that we went too far, so Catholics have restored the Bible and the language of the people, and many Protestants have restored the weekly sacred meal.

So this is why reading and interpreting is an act of worship. We meet God here, in the reading and interpreting. It’s not just talk about God, it’s God talking, and we talk back. God is present in the meeting of our minds. We find God here, God finds us here, and here we find ourselves.

That’s why they wept, when the people heard the reading of the Torah. They wept because they found themselves, they got present to themselves. Because they found God they worshiped and because they found themselves they wept. Because God was present to them they worshiped and because they were present to themselves they wept. Just from reading the Book and interpreting it.

And that’s why in the Gospel story Jesus went up to read. That’s called the Aliyah, when an ordinary Jew comes up to read. You might read from the Torah or you might read from what’s called the Haftarah, the second lesson from one of the prophets, say Isaiah. The Haftarah reading is less prescribed than the Torah reading, and when Jesus went up, and the elders decided it should be from Isaiah, Jesus could choose what from Isaiah.

What he chose was his campaign platform for being the Messiah. His vision statement, his public mission statement. But I’m sure it was also personal for him. This was his personal mission statement. In these words he found himself and his private experience. Here he was present to himself as much as God was present in him.

In my own small way, I do something similar every week as I prepare my sermons. Before I can apply the scripture lessons to you, I have to get personal with them, I have to find myself in them, how they challenge me. If my preaching has any value, it’s that I wrestle with the text every week. I have to be converted by it every week again.

It can be draining, and the weeks when I don’t have to prepare a sermon are such a relief. I get lots of church-work done and spare myself that self-examination. And yet I crave it. It’s the drug that I’m addicted to. I depend upon that sermon preparation to keep me engaged with God, and also honestly present to my own soul.

Isn’t that why you came here today? Not to hear a lecture, but a sermon. Not just teaching but preaching. What I mean is you didn’t just come for information, though you do want that, but you came for here for confirmation, for integration, for transformation, for one more bit of conversion.

You came here to listen to the reading from the book and the interpretation, and there to find God present in the meeting of your mind, and also to get present to yourself, you came here to find yourself with God. To put your own self on the table, and make a temple of your own body and soul.

Jesus said that he came to bring good news to the poor, and you think, that’s important information, and a necessary reminder of the Christian attitude to the poor. But how about you, how are you poor yourself, and what for your particular poverty would be good news, and if you heard it, would you weep, in recognition?

He said that he came to bring release to the captives, and how are you captive, and what are you captive to? I think when you recognize your own captivity you might well weep.

We are to recognize ourselves in these words, both individually and as a congregation. We are to let ourselves be described by this words, even if we would not say to other people that we are poor or captive or blind or oppressed, even if it would be not honest for us to describe ourselves this way considering our wealth and our health and our freedom and our privilege.

But when we are in the presence of God, we are invited to be present to ourselves as poor and captive and blind and oppressed, and to confess it, and weep, and be relieved, and resurrected, and be told to rise and eat the fat and drink sweet wine, and share with others who have none. In this weekly dying are we born to eternal life.

And then Ezra says this very strange thing: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” What does that mean? Well, what kind of strength do you want? What personal power, spiritual stamina? What strength can you draw from the joy of the Lord? What is “the joy of the Lord?” That’s poetry, so you have to use your imagination on it for few years, to wonder how the joy of the Lord might strengthen you.

I can tell you this, that when you lend your strength to any effort that’s good news to the poor, be that political or social or charitable, you will find your strength in the joy of the Lord, because that’s his campaign platform.

And when you lend your power to what’s good news for prisoners, from ending mass incarceration or ending the bail system to liberating your friends from the prison of their days and the oppression of their shame, that’s what the Lord rejoices in.

And when you yourself are wrestling with your own poor, blind, and oppressive emotional captivity, your will find your strength in that joy that knows the weeping through to the celebration.

I am saying more than I can understand here, we have to believe it a while in order to begin to understand it, but I do believe it and I invite you to believe it too, that there is strength here for you, and there is joy here too.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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