26 Jan Sermon: Epiphany 3 (Year C)
I find that it’s all too easy to come to a service intending, wanting, even trying, to listen to the scripture readings but, no matter how beautifully they were read, when the reader sits down I realise I can’t remember a word of what has been read.
I sometimes find it helpful to be alerted beforehand to what I might listen out for, and occasionally something in a commentary will act as a kind of signpost. Jane Williams writing in the Church Times some years ago about today’s first reading from Nehemiah was one such signpost for me.
Nehemiah has been carried off into exile and is working as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. He becomes overwhelmed by a sense of shame at the plight of his people. He is ashamed partly because he knows that he and his people deserve their punishment – they have forgotten the Law of Moses and the Covenant – but also ashamed of God’s behalf, because the behaviour of the people and the resulting exile seem to call into question even the existence of their God. Nehemiah gets permission from the king to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city. He meets with huge opposition but eventually the city is re-built. The next task is to rebuild a people fit to live in the city and be God’s covenant people.
The people have to learn again about their God, and the way they must do that is by learning to live together as a society that is obedient to God. Their knowledge of God isn’t to be abstract but absolutely practical. It is at this point that today’s reading comes in….and as we hear the reading we might reflect on the state of the Church today and the ‘exile’ of the lockdowns during the pandemic, and the way in which, some at least, have come to a very new perception of what God and Christianity are about, and that it isn’t a matter of ‘going to church for religious services’ but ‘being Church 24/7’ and living and relating to others as Jesus did in a very practical way; being a leaven in Society.
Jane asked why the crowd wept as they listened to the Law of Moses being read out and wondered whether it might be with shame because they had forgotten – or never been aware of – what they were now hearing, or whether they might be weeping with joy that at last they can enter their proper heritage. Whatever it is, they are told to turn their emotion in two directions: they are to remember to feed the poor and they are to worship God.
Nehemiah 8. 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10
The second reading from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is also about trying to build a new people. The more we read the Bible the more inescapable is the conclusion that practical, loving relationships are basic to any human attempt to understand God. We can get only so far with a personal private knowledge of God. The test of it will come in the way we interact with others. From what we can gather, the Corinthian Christians were enthusiastic about their faith but infantile in their ability to live together in love, – not so unlike much of the Church we are familiar with! In the next reading, Paul is pleading for them to adopt a completely new way of thinking. Instead of always thinking about themselves and their individual needs and rights, they have to learn to think of themselves as one entity, one body, whose health and life depends on co-operation and a mutual care for each other.
1 Corinthians 12. 12 – 31a
And now to the Gospel reading; this is Jesus’ chosen description of his mission. It isn’t about teaching us a better spirituality, but about doing God’s justice and creating God’s community. The Christian body St Paul was pleading for will be recognizable by the way it treats others. The reading ends: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We are invited to reflect on how it is being fulfilled in our own society.
Luke 4. 14 – 21
In his sermon on Christmas Day Br Jonny challenged us to notice how the Incarnation dismantles the distinction between the secular and the sacred, to become aware of how far our society is from life in first Century Palestine and how, in centuries past, it was perhaps easier to translate what we read in the Scriptures into the raw reality of everyday life. How do we do it today? How aware are we of the enormity of the challenge in this digital age?
One of the things the Pandemic has highlighted for some of us is the way we -might I say ‘the Church?’ – have taken the Good News that God who is Love is involved in every facet of life, that ‘dismantling of the distinction between the secular and the sacred’ and, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps because it was too threatening, too costly, reversed it and imprisoned the Good News again in a ‘sacred’ religious practice, increasingly irrelevant and incomprehensible to the vast majority of society…and by so doing, have shrunk the concept of God ,the Creator of the Universe who ‘fills all things’, who is the ‘ground of all being’, to something manageable, almost controllable, to whom we can pay lip-service…while imprisoning ourselves in a materialistic, relatively self-seeking life-style, something akin to what Aldous Huxley described in Brave New World.
It has come as a great surprise to people in many places that simple acts of neighbourliness during the Pandemic have unlocked a profound spiritual curiosity and realisation that there is so much more to life than they had imagined – not a million miles away from the tears of the crowd in Jerusalem as they listened to Ezra reading: remorse for the limitations of the past attitudes to life, and joy at the amazing new prospects opening up as the Christ-life begins to pulse through them in the normal cut and thrust of daily living, and revealing the true meaning of ‘religion’ – that at a profound level we belong to each other, we are inextricably part of each other and of all Creation. In a way we will never completely understand, we are one with all Creation in the heart of God – who is both closer than the air we breathe and still creating new galaxies in the vastness of the Universe.
We are caught up in the divine, creative life of God and given the privilege and responsibility for the care both of each other and of our earth and its creatures. The invitation is to become more and more aware of that – and it’s so easy to forget and turn in on ourselves! But when we can respond with awe and generosity we find ourselves freed to share both in God’s heartache at humanity’s blindness to reality, and to share in the exuberant, self-giving and infectious joy that we see in people like Desmond Tutu as he lived out the ‘mission’ Jesus described in this morning’s Gospel reading. And it is in this context that we continue to pray for the renewed vision and unity of the Christian Church: ‘that the world may believe and have life and have it abundantly!’
Nehemiah reminds us, “The joy of the Lord is your strength!”