The Third Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon

Readings

What might the Spirit be saying to us through today’s readings?

At first glance the first two readings go in opposite directions. The center of Psalm 19 celebrates the Law, the Torah: it revives the soul, gives wisdom to the innocent, rejoices the heart, gives light to the eyes… But when Ezra reads that Law the people weep.

Our first reading doesn’t explain why they weep, but its setting lets us make a reasonable guess. Ezra and Nehemiah are reconstructing the people’s common life after the disaster of the Babylonian conquest and exile. The temple’s been more or less rebuilt, the city walls restored, and now the Law reproclaimed. Love God; love your neighbor as yourself. Obey and things will go well; disobey and things will go very badly—as just experienced in the Babylonian conquest and exile. Why think that things are going to go any better the second time around? The people seem to have enough self-awareness to ask this question—and weep.

Love God; love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the path that revives the soul, gives wisdom to the innocent, rejoices the heart, gives light to the eyes… But as the prophets kept pointing out, it’s remarkably easy to stray from that path. Love God: more than I love my script for how I achieve security and status? Love my neighbor, or see my neighbor as a threat to be neutralized or a resource to be exploited? If only this were the challenge only for Ezra and Nehemiah’s audience, and not for every generation of the people of God!

We’ll come back to this. Meanwhile, attending to our other readings, our Gospel reading, like the first reading, gives us another scene of public proclamation, this time Jesus reading Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” It’s not difficult to apply the psalmist’s praise of the Law to this good news: it too “it revives the soul, gives wisdom to the innocent, etc.” But—caution, spoiler for next week’s reading—it runs into the same problem the Law encountered: the synagogue audience goes homicidal when Jesus declares that this good news is also good news for those neighbors they consider enemies. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we observed last Monday, ran into that same problem.

Love your neighbor as yourself. As Paul’s letters remind us, this is difficult enough to do within the church. The ear, the eye, the hand: they focus on different things; by most measures they have very little in common. But what Paul’s aiming at: that “the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Ears, eyes, hands, feet: some of us voted for Trump, others for Biden, some of us get our news from Fox, others from MSNBC, some of us are still sorry we’re not using the 1928 prayer book, others can’t wait for a full revision of 1979. And so on. And Paul wants us to get to the point that “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

What’s at stake here? On the macro level, whether the good news embodied in Jesus is true and has the power to transform, or if it finally belongs in the box with the Easter Bunny and Linus’ Great Pumpkin. On the micro level, look at the ending of today’s psalm. “Who can tell how often he offends? / cleanse me from my secret faults.” For all the power of the Law—or the Gospel—it’s powerless against my blind spots. And as long as I listen only to those who think like me those blind spots stay undisturbed. In other words, God typically responds to “cleanse me from my secret faults” not by some ethereal intervention, but through a neighbor I’m too ready to write off. Cue, again, Dr. King.

This challenge of loving God and neighbor, central to both Law and Gospel: what in our readings might give us some encouragement?

Paul’s image of the body is an appeal to our imagination, so let’s stay with that image a bit longer. The ear, eye, hand: each has access to an extremely narrow slice of reality. And in God’s ordering of the body, it all works, even though none of these parts has the “big picture”—including the brain. This ordering depends on a sort of trust, the eyes, ears, etc. sending out nerve impulses without knowing or controlling what will happen to them. And, conversely, bad things happen when this “trust” breaks down. One or more cells may get together, decide “the heck with all this cooperation, let’s just grow”—which is what we call cancer. In short, Paul’s image is designed to nurture a healthy humility: our individual perspectives are necessarily limited, but that need not be an obstacle to God’s work.

More importantly, going back to Ezra and Nehemiah’s Second Temple weeping congregation, it’s going to be better this time around because God comes to us in our brother Jesus saying “Let’s do this together.” Loving God and neighbor involves some serious dying, an ongoing letting go of my impulses to neutralize or exploit. That’s scary. And Jesus is there beside me: “You don’t have to do this alone. Let’s do it together.” That’s one way of thinking about what the Bread and Wine are about: Jesus’ “Let’s do this together.”

Ezra and Nehemiah aren’t in a position to mount a strong argument against the people’s weeping, but they point in the right direction: “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared.” The endgame of all this is the victory banquet Isaiah described:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. (25:6-8)

The Bread and Wine: they’re the first course. So come to the Table, God’s dream for the new world: everyone is welcome, there’s room for everyone, there’s enough for everyone.

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