- Parish House
Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany – Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21
The Rev. Hannah Hooker
In seminary, I took a class called Biblical Storytelling. I learned from an absolute master how to bring the words of Scripture to life. If you’re in need a rabbit hole to fall down on YouTube, I highly recommend looking up Tracy Radosevic. Her telling of Blind Bartimaeus is spectacular and her Gerasene Demoniac is mesmerizing. I’ve even seen her tell the story of Nebuchadnezzar and his fiery furnace word for word from the book of Daniel and keep her audience as rapt as if she was reading from a previously undiscovered 8th Harry Potter book. She has an incredible gift for taking sparsely worded stories from those ancient texts, and pulling from them sound and sight and taste and drama. She’s a wild gesticulator. Students often asked her where her ideas came from, how she could possibly glean so much life from such tired old stories. In reply, she had us do an activity.
On a screen, she showed us a paragraph of letters. They were all capital letters, and there was no spacing and no punctuation. We all attempted to read the paragraph, but discerning words and sentences was tricky. The paragraph didn’t make much sense, although the phrase “Mick Jagger” stood out. Then, she showed us the same paragraph but broken down into sentences with proper punctuation and spacing between words. We could now easily read the paragraph, but it still didn’t make much sense. It had something to do with Mick Jagger, but that’s about all we could determine. Next, she showed us the same paragraph, this time divided into parts with designated speakers. Now we understood that we were reading a conversation between several people about Mick Jagger – a conversation we could understand, except that there was clearly an inside joke that we, as readers, weren’t privy to. Finally, Tracy showed us a video. Perhaps you’ve seen it. It’s a sketch from season 37 of Saturday Night Live, in which cast members and host Mick Jagger play a group of colleagues at a bar comparing the bar’s musician to Mick Jagger. It’s hilarious. As it turned out, the paragraph we’d been reading was the script of that skit, but the written script just couldn’t hold a candle to the skit acted out.
In this season after Epiphany, we reflect on the many ways that God is revealed to us. We’ve talked about the witness of outsiders, the powerful waters of baptism, and the sacrament of marriage. And today, our focus is on Holy Scripture, that collection of literature, written long ago in ancient languages, with no spacing or punctuation marks, and mostly in capital letters, from which we must somehow extract meaningful truth. The task is daunting, but the stories of scripture began as a oral traditions long before they were ever written down, and it is delightful to imagine that some of the more complicated or boring stories from the Bible might just be the written scripts for truly enthralling tales.
In both our lesson from Nehemiah and our Gospel passage today, Holy Scripture is read aloud. The practice of reading scripture aloud in a gathered community has shifted and morphed throughout our history, but remains an essential element of our faith tradition today. We hear or read aloud at least two passages from the Bible at every single worship service. But, as fabulous and appreciated as our Christ Church lectors are, our typical experience of hearing scripture read aloud is fairly tame compared to Tracy Radosevic’s wild gesticulations. Most of us use the lectionary to stimulate us mentally, and to prepare us for the sermon, or for our Sunday school class, or even for personal prayer, but rarely do we expect for hearing scripture read aloud to really rattle us. Ironically, the lections for this third Sunday after the Epiphany tell a very different story.
In Nehemiah, the people have returned home from exile. Mirroring the first time they settled in the land, the joy in being in a place all their own is short-lived once they realize all the work they have to do. Having their homeland back is only half the battle, now they have to reorganize their society. We might expect for a struggle to ensue: people assuming power over their neighbors and enacting laws, political unrest until governmental systems are put into place. And maybe they did experience some of this in those early years after their return. But first, before they do anything else in this post-exile world, the people gather together to hear their holy scriptures read aloud. It is a powerful image. Old and young, male and female, slave and free and everyone in between, everyone listens to the story of their ancestors, which is the foundation for their common life. A sense of communal identity and strength is stirred up in them, and a precedent is set of returning to those roots and that story before venturing out to discover new ways of life. I would have loved to witness that brief but mighty moment in Israel’s history.
Then in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been baptized and tested in the wilderness, and now he’s back in Galilee, at the synagogue of his youth, like a college student home for the holidays who goes to Christmas services with her parents. The folks who went to the synagogue that day did not expect anything out of the ordinary to happen, except perhaps the thrilling satisfaction of a now well-known boy come back to his roots for a visit, who reads scripture aloud just like he used to. Imagine their surprise when that same boy announces to a crowd of his elders that a revolution has come among them and that he is its leader. That was certainly not how they’d ever read Isaiah before!
Our Bible is a living text that is constantly revealing God’s movements in the world to us, centuries after the words were first written down. But we miss a lot of the truth it has to offer when we limit ourselves to reading it silently and alone, or to only hearing small portions read in church once a week as a matter of routine. We stifle the Spirit in the Scriptures when we don’t look past it’s written script and toward the much larger and more magnificent play. Now I know that suggesting to a church full of Episcopalians that we should do more dramatic readings of the Bible is almost as bad as suggesting we have an altar call. But scripture is not just how we learn about our history, it is a tool for the building up of our life together, just like the witness of outsiders, the waters of baptism, and the sacrament of marriage.
Last weekend, during our parish retreat at Camp Mitchell, Dr. Bobby Williamson asked those of us present to consider our personal relationship with the Bible. It was an interesting exercise, and it was a privilege to hear many of you talk about what Scripture means to you. I can tell you that there were as many different understandings of the Bible as there were people present, and the same is true in this room. Aside from sermon preparation, I likened my relationship to the Bible to that of a friend from college who always answers the phone when I call, but whom I don’t call nearly enough. Almost as an answer to that predicament, I think that if our Scripture is telling us anything this morning (evening), it’s that when the people are gathered together and Holy Scripture is read aloud, the Spirit moves in a powerful and unexpected way. What an opportunity we have this season to consider our own relationship with the Bible, and to have the Spirit come through it in ways we never saw coming. Perhaps within each of us is the capacity to bring the words of Scripture to life, wild gesticulations and all. Amen.