Monday, January 24, 2022

The Reading of the Written Word


Luke 4:14-21

Epiphany 3 / Year C

The film The Black Robe tells the story of how in 1634 a Jesuit missionary carries the gospel to native people in the interior regions of what now is Canada.  In one scene the missionary tries to persuade a Huron chief to let him teach the tribe how to read and write.  The chief sees no benefit to this practice of scratching marks on paper until the Jesuit gives him a demonstration.  “Whisper to me something I do not know,” the priest says.  The chief thinks for a moment and replies, “My women’s mother died in the snow last winter.”

The Jesuit writes a sentence on a piece of paper and walks a few yards over to his colleague.  Not one word is spoken.  The colleague takes a glance at the note and says to the chief, “I am sorry to learn that your mother-in-law died in a snowstorm.”  The chief jumps back in alarm.  For the first time he has encountered the magical power of writing, which allows knowledge to travel in silence and to dart through space and time.

The earliest known use of symbols to convey meaning is found in paintings on cave walls dating back over 100,000 years.  What we would consider writing appears to have developed independently in four different locations – Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Southern Mexico – beginning around 3,500 BC.  Centuries ago the uneducated thought those who could read were akin to gods.  It was held to be a mysterious gift, on par perhaps with being able to predict the future.  It required special gifts – or so it was believed. 

Our readings this morning focus on the reading of the written word, and not just any word… God’s word.  Reverence for Scripture has been a prominent feature of Judaism down through the ages.  We sense this reverence in the reading from Nehemiah.  The story recounts an episode taking place in Jerusalem shortly after the return from exile.  The people gather in the square near the Water Gate and ask Ezra the priest to read the law.  There is a liturgical procession during which Ezra reads and the people respond.  Working in small groups, the Levites then teach the people about the meaning of the text they have just heard.

Three motifs stand out in this story highlighting the significance of the Torah in the life of God’s people.  First, there is a community focus to the event. The reading is not simply relegated to scholars, spiritual leaders, or those in the upper echelon of society.  All the people are present – men, women, and children.  Second, the story emphasizes the importance of understanding what is read.  The long reading is divided up into smaller, more manageable parts.  It is then interpreted so people can understand what they have heard.  And did you catch how they misinterpret the meaning at first; thinking it indicates God is unhappy with them?  “Not so,” says Ezra, “We will celebrate, for the joy of the Lord is our strength.”  Finally, the story demonstrates the need to act on what has been read.  Understanding is not enough.  St. James wrote, “You must not be hearers of the word only, you must also be doers of the word.” 

After contemplating God’s unfathomable glory revealed through the majesty of the heavens, the poet of the 19th Psalm reflects on the wonder that is God’s law.  It is perfect, pure, and clean.  It provides refreshment, light, and wisdom.  God’s word, the poet says, is more valuable than gold and sweeter than honey.  The poet reacts to God’s written word with an awe and wonder much like Huron tribal chief’s reaction to the missionary.

In our Gospel reading from Luke we hear again the story of Jesus reading from the Scriptures in his hometown synagogue.  The community is gathered.  Jesus will first read the text and then offer an interpretation.    He is the son of a carpenter, a local boy.  Although it appears he has received no formal training he has been absorbing teaching all of his life.  He has stolen away with the priests in the Temple.  He has become acquainted the message of John the Baptist.  But most of all, he has found the Kingdom of God in the simple, ordinary, everyday events of life – a sower scattering seed, a woman looking for a lost coin, a son being reconciled with his father.

Jesus reads the appointed lesson from the prophet Isaiah.  After the reading is concluded he offers commentary: “Today,” Jesus says, “What the prophet hoped for so many years ago, what you have just heard with your ears, has been fulfilled in me.”

Our Old Testament reading for this morning is loosely set at the dawn of one era and the sunset of another.  The Hebrew people are beginning to use parchment - written records - as a way of keeping their stories and traditions intact.  But most of the people do not read or write so they spend hours listening to those who can.

We live at the sunset of that age and the dawn of another.  Words are giving way to images; listening to viewing.  More and more reading, writing, and listening are work.  Countless seminars and books are available to help today’s public speaker capture and keep the attention of the audience.  And a growing number of seminars and business gurus are offering classes on the art and skill of listening.

All of this has powerful implications for the Episcopal Church and congregations like ours.  We seek to communicate the gospel to an age where the skills necessary to receive our kind of proclamation are increasingly out of step with the times. 

It strikes me the Liturgy of the Word is not primarily about being entertained.  It is about a community of people gathering together to hear again the sacred stories and writings of our tradition.  We cannot sit back passively and wait for them to capture our attention.  We must view this as a time of activity, a time of work, a time demanding gifts and skills which very little else in our cultures asks us to use.  If we want to be transformed by the reading and interpretation of the word, then we must approach this time both with reverence and with discipline.  Then, and only then, will it be able to grab us and possess us. 

It is our great privilege to hear the Scriptures read this morning.  It is our calling to listen for God’s voice speaking to us through them.  It is our great responsibility to endeavor to understand what they mean for us in our time.  It is our great calling to apply what we sense and what we learn to who we are and to what we do.