By Tom Mundahl
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
As we continue our Epiphany journey celebrating the manifestation of God in the deep incarnation of Jesus, we marvel at the interconnections between creation and the story of God’s people. That relationship is proclaimed in the very first verse in this week’s psalm: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament declares his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).
The creation, then, does precisely what the congregation does when it gathers to worship: it praises God. This is based on the notion common in biblical thinking that “every created thing has the capacity of a creature to acknowledge its originator” (James Luther Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 97). Time and again in the biblical tradition, that which is visible becomes vocal. “The imagination is in the midst of an unending concert sung by the universe to the glory of God” (Mays).
Just as the universe is patterned to praise God, so the torah gives life and shape to the human community. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul . . . .” And, “More to be desired are they [the commandments] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:7, 10).
By connecting the song of creation with the torah, the psalmist honors what Ellen Davis calls “proper world order.” “Divine order is exemplified in the proper functioning of both nature and human society. The well-being of humans and the enduring fruitfulness of earth are inseparable elements of a harmony sometimes imagined as a ‘covenant’ encompassing all creatures” (Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 12). We have witnessed the violation of this covenant far too often and understand that when it is shattered it is nearly impossible for any creature to be “at home.”
To Ezra and Nehemiah (one “book” in the Hebrew Scriptures), nothing was more important than restoring this sense of proper order. Even though exiles began to leave Babylon in 538 BCE, it was nearly a century before the repopulation and rebuilding of Jerusalem would lead to full restoration of religious life. This week’s reading highlights this milestone with a public reading of the torah by Ezra.
But public reading of the torah should not be seen as an attempt by elites to impose a code of conduct on the people. Quite the contrary. The narrator makes it clear that this marathon reading was demanded by the people. “They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Moses” (Nehemiah 8:1). To make sure that they could both hear and see Ezra, the people built a bema, or reading platform. Hearing the newly-codified torah marked a new stage in their life together in a dramatic way ( Mark A. Throntveit, Ezra-Nehemiah, Louisville: John Knox, 1992, p. 96).
Although archaeologists disagree as to where “the square before the Water Gate” (Nehemiah 8:1) was located, the very proximity to a community water source reveals, as the author of Psalm 19 made clear, the close relationship between the gift of creation and torah instruction for harmonious order. Although the first reaction of the people hearing this reading was mournful weeping over past failures, Ezra called for a celebration of their renewed life together. “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD . . . .” (Nehemiah 8:10) It was a festal homecoming and housewarming for the whole city and its inhabitants.
As the Book of Nehemiah ends, we see that the unity described at the communal reading of the torah was not perfect. Nehemiah discovered that both international traders and residents had begun to violate the Sabbath—key to understanding both creation and the torah—by running an active marketplace at the gates of the city. After shutting the city gates, Nehemiah was able to drive out foreign traders, putting an end to sabbath trading. To guarantee this would not continue, he engaged “purified Levites” to guard the entrance to the city (Nehemiah 13:15-22).
Although the factionalism among the early community in Corinth did not reach this citywide scale, Paul, too, struggled to provide an ordering vision. Not only did he emphasize that there were no spiritual “superstars,” only spiritual gifts given for the common good, but he now asks the community to envision the recipients of this diversity of gifts as “one body.” “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).
There was nothing new about the body metaphor. Plato and Aristotle had made good use of it to describe what we would consider “natural hierarchies,” with those who were labeled “head” and “heart” (monarch and counsellors) ruling those less talented, who served as soldiers and slaves. Stoic thinkers had expanded the notion of the body to comprehend the entire cosmos held together by “sympathy.” But Paul’s notion of the body emphasizes the value of all “members,” but especially the inferior and less respectable, totally undermining the “honor” values of Roman culture.
Because this “body” is created by the Spirit in baptism, this depth of connection will provide the resilience to move beyond factionalism. As Wirzba writes, “The Pauline understanding of membership, much like the Johannine depiction of Jesus as the vine onto which his disciples are grafted, is much more organic and vital. If each person is joined to another like a limb is joined to a torso, then there is nothing voluntary or occasional about the relationship. For a limb to flourish, it must draw its life from the whole body . . . . Joined together, all the members of the body share a common life” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 151). This body metaphor mirrors the ecological interdependence of the whole creation. We have learned that ocean plankton, the snail darter, and intestinal bacteria are just as crucial to the proper working of the body of creation as the mountain lion or the human brain. Each “member” is indispensable.
We see the same Spirit at work in the life and ministry of Jesus begun at baptism. Initially, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to demonstrate obedience (Luke 4:1-13). The power of the Spirit propels him home to Galilee where he teaches in area synagogues to excellent reviews (Luke 4: 15). And things seem to begin this way for Jesus in his home synagogue.
On the sabbath day, Jesus follows his usual custom of worshipping in the local synagogue where he is asked to read the scripture portion from the haftaroth, the prophets. We do not know whether the reading from Isaiah 61 was appointed for the day or chosen by the reader. But we do know that this was “the going passage of the time because it spoke of how the eschaton would take place. It speaks of the coming of a herald to proclaim the acceptable year of God for the poor, captives, blind and oppressed” (James A. Sanders, “What Happened in Nazareth,” God Has a Story Too, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 71).
As Brueggemann suggests, this incident completes the birth narrative. “The birth of a new king, the one Rome did not anticipate and Herod could not stop, begins another history, which carries in it the end of all old royal history. Characteristically, the birth of this new king marks a jubilee from old debts, and amnesty from old crimes, and a beginning again in a movement of freedom (so Luke 4: 18-19)” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 103).
Not only does this connect Epiphany with the Christmas Season, it reminds us of the importance of the sabbath complex ( Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5: 12-15; Leviticus 25)—surely read to the people by Ezra—as an ordering vision. In declaring Jubilee, Jesus follows the long tradition of prophets who made observance of the sabbath a prerequisite for the restoration of the land and Israel as the people of God. “This view of the sabbath indicates that creation truly becomes itself when it ceases the improper desire of self-gain or self-glorification . . . our use must not turn into abuse. It must be directed to the pleasure and menuha (rest, the final step in creation, Gen. 2: 2-3) of God, which signifies the non-contentious serenity of creatures being who they are meant to be” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God — Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p.39).
To keep the sabbath is the opposite of a desire to be rewarded for holy performance. As Moltmann says, “The peace of the sabbath can be viewed as the Jewish ‘doctrine of justification.’ Anyone who looks at Israel on the sabbath cannot reproach her with a ‘righteousness of works.’ And on the other hand, Christian faith in justification must be understood analogously as ‘the sabbath rest’ of Christians” (God in Creation, The Gifford Lectures, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 286).
Not only is the celebration of Sabbath—weekly, sabbatical year, or jubilee—an elemental experience of God’s creation; it is central to what Jesus proclaims at Nazareth. For the early community understands his preaching as the continuation of the sabbath. “As lord of the sabbath, Jesus takes within himself the aspirations of sabbath life and gives them concrete expression in the ministries of feeding, healing, exorcism, companionship, and service. Jesus’ proclamation of the imminent kingdom makes the whole of life a sabbath feast” (Wirzba, God in Creation, p. 40). The community joins “the heavens” (Psalm 19) in singing praise and doing justice as one interdependent organism among many others.
But can we make any sense of Jesus proclaiming Jubilee aside from being a powerful metaphor crucial in announcing the arrival of the prophetic messiah? Although there is evidence that the sabbatical year was observed (both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar made provision in tax laws for Israelite exemption during sabbatical years), there is none for implementation of the Jubilee. Yet, the very existence of this pattern stands as a call to deal justly as we make a home in God’s creation and learn to serve it. “The goal of our life is so to take care of ourselves that the care of creation is maintained at the same time” (Wirzba, God in Creation, p. 39). The long-term nature of jubilee –every fiftieth year –is especially important for this care.
Since October, a leaking underground natural gas storage facility near Los Angeles has released vast amounts of methane, more than one hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. While nearly two million pounds of methane spew into the air every day, residents of the affluent suburb of Porter Ranch report a variety of short-term symptoms—headaches, nausea, bloody noses, and increase in childhood illnesses. Even though this methane leak is not as visible as the Macondo Well Disaster in the Gulf in 2010, California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a State of Emergency.
Anthony Ingraffea, Professor of Engineering at Cornell University, blames this blowout on a failure in infrastructure, the failure of steel pipe, first laid in the 1950’s that has had to withstand 2,700 pounds of pressure per square inch for sixty years. While SoCal Gas has tried to downplay the severity of the situation and promises to have it fixed in a few months, Ingraffea worries about other aging infrastructure that may also cause problems, infrastructure for which there are no replacement plans (NPR, “Living On Earth,” January 8, 2016).
A similar disaster this time featuring public infrastructure recently has been uncovered in Flint, MI, where high levels of lead in the water have been measured. These dangerous lead readings, especially dangerous to growing children, result from the City of Flint’s refusal to spend $100 per day on an anti-corrosive agent for pipes. Now even water piped in from Detroit is contaminated. Flint is a bankrupt “Rust Belt” city with more than 40% of its citizens below the poverty line, another example of the poorest and racial minorities suffering environmental harm. Yet both affluent Porter Ranch, CA, and Flint, MI, demonstrate what will become an increasing problem in the U.S. — crumbling infrastructure with insufficient resources for replacement. Only long-term concern such as that inspired by jubilee thinking can begin to reorient a culture in love with the novelty of the latest smart phones and driverless cars.
Gathering: “We Are Called” ELW, 720
Hymn of the Day: “God of the Sparrow” ELW, 740
Sending Hymn, “Christ, Be Our Light” ELW, 715
Petition for Prayers of Intercession:
Creator God, you free us to celebrate sabbath in all its forms so that we may be filled with the beauty and interdependent harmony of all that you have made. Awaken us to the long-term needs of all of your creatures. God, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.
Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN email@example.com