Sunday, January 24, 2010

Carrying the Word Across

Back in the 1980’s I saw a “Dennis the Menace” cartoon in which Dennis’ father is opening the car door, while Dennis and his mother, who is carrying a Bible, are coming down the walkway. Off to the side is a little boy, obviously one of Dennis’ playmates, standing by his wagon with this sort of amazed and perplexed look on his face. Dennis waves to him and says: We’re going to church, Joey...but I’ll be myself again after lunch!” One of our greatest struggles as church people who so often hear and read God’s Word in the Bible is to resist going back to being ourselves again “after lunch”.

Martin Luther used to say that the Church is not a
Buchhaus (book house) but a Worthaus (Word house). By that I think he meant that our continual challenge is to translate, i.e., to carry across, the text of the Word. Like the Jews and Muslims, Christians are a people of the Book, and the Book of Scripture hopefully moves us to live in and through the Spirit by carrying that Word across. Our challenge is to translate the text of the Word into life, into action. It can be an interesting experience to simply read the Bible, but it’s another thing to let the Word impact us, to have its way with us in what we do and say.

We admiringly study the words and deeds of great prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, or those of Paul and John, but, if we’re honest, we find ourselves becoming somewhat uncomfortable and hesitant when those words face us with demands for action which we’re to take here and now. The challenge is always to translate, to
carry the Word across.

In each of today’s liturgical readings we find people hearing the Word of God, but being resistant to buy into the vision: people unable or unwilling to translate the text of God’s Word into action.

Nehemiah (8:1-3; 5-6; 8-10): The Persian king, Artaxerxes II, commissioned the Israelite priest and teacher, Ezra, to reestablish the worship life of the small Jewish remnant who had returned from exile. They were a depressed and needy lot. Though they had some general knowledge of Torah and of their Jewish heritage, they lacked understanding and, most of all, lacked a common vision for what could be in the rebuilding of their nation. Their leaders had failed before this time to enter the public square where they’re now standing to address the issues and to call for the necessary changes and decisions. The way to the future, they began to realize, was to go back to the Law, to Torah, given in the past: to hear it again and to have it interpreted, but to hear it in a new way, a way which would lead them to join together in action. By taking up the challenge of translating the text of God’s Word, they would be moved to renew God’s Covenant, to redirect their lives, to commit themselves to action on God’s behalf.

1 Corinthians (12:12-31a) : Paul’s congregation at Corinth had also heard the Word through his preaching. Yet, for all that, they were much divided among themselves by class, by ethnic roots, by odd religious pridefulness. Whoever the “members of the body who seem to be weaker” are in their community, they’re obviously not being served and cared for appropriately in Corinth. The members of the Corinthian church had gotten too comfortable getting back to being themselves “after lunch”, so to speak. They’d not learned to translate, to carry across, the text of God’s Word.

Luke ( 4:14-21): Here Jesus reads a text from the scroll of Isaiah against his own background and the needs
of his audience. The text of that Word would come to life in Jesus’ person and activity in his public ministry. He speaks not a dry, dead Word from the past, nor a Word which comforts and anesthetizes his hearers in the present, but a futuristic, a realistic and attainable Word, prompted by the Spirit’s presence, which announces a hands-on agenda of bringing good news to people in real need and freedom to people locked up in various forms of oppression and slavery. Luke makes it clear that Jesus’ challenge is for us to translate, to
carry across, the text. Jesus’ hearers then didn’t get, nor do people now like to hear, things like this. If you don’t believe that, listen to the rest of Luke’s narrative in the verses following this section:

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked. Jesus said to them, ‘Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’
‘I tell you the truth,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed -- only Naaman the Syrian.’
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

Sometimes a preacher’s greatest criticism and indictment is to have someone come through the line at the end of a Sunday service and say, “
That was such a nice sermon.” A good preacher’s task, after all, is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It isn’t really very nice if you and I haven’t been challenged to translate, to carry the Word of God across, into hands-on action.

As you and I join together in prayer at the conclusion of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue, which ends tomorrow on the feast of St. Paul’s Conversion, our challenge is to
be the Church as a Wordhouse, not as a bookhouse, to learn together from our Lord and Master how to translate the text of the Word into visible and loving servanthood.

The late theologian, Walter Rast, professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, once wrote: “
And here is a most poignant message for the modern church. Have not the divisions in the church often come about through lack of attention to the caring mission of the church? Some years ago the Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann made the startling suggestion that the divided churches could well begin to find their way back toward a unity of belief and purpose if they would undertake common tasks of social concern. For two decades now such shared work has gone on among the churches, with great reserve in many quarters. But wherever it has occurred, at least the people in the pews have found themselves deepened in their understanding of the servant calling of the church.

We don’t know the full content of what Jesus preached that day in his hometown, Nazareth. One thing is certain: Jesus got their attention with what, in sales presentations when I was a salesman many years ago, we used to call a “ho-hum crasher”. His “ho-hum crasher” was this: “
Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus isn’t just identifying this passage with his person; he’s speaking about what he’s already doing: his actions of bringing good news to the poor, release to the imprisoned, sight to those who cannot see.

The question is: has Jesus gotten our attention today? God’s love seeks out the needy and the oppressed at all times and under all conditions, everywhere, but only through you and me, his servants. As the servant body of Christ you and I must translate, must
carry across, must bring to life, the Word into action today on behalf of those referred to in Paul’s epistle as “weaker”, “less honorable”, “less respectable” in our society. As individuals and as communities of faith our responsibility, in light of God’s Word, is to address people’s immediate needs: to go even further and attempt to change the social and economic conditions which make people poor and needy. We have a responsibility to address the sad reality of the jail and prison systems in this country; to minister to victims of violence and abuse, especially women, children, and gay persons, to name a few; and to labor against the social inequalities which breed crime. As uncomfortable and repugnant and frightening as it may be we’re called to dirty our hands in what the late Richard John Neuhaus called the “naked public square”. Jesus, God’s Servant, has called us as followers, not as NIMBY’s: people whose response is: “Not in my backyard!

The challenge of translating the text of God’s Word into risk-taking service is, indeed, awesome. The first President Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush, said in his inaugural address: “
...let it be written in our hearts: ‘Use power to help people.’” God, in Jesus, has given us power to do that: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the proclaim freedom for the prisoners...recovery of sight for the release the oppressed...

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