Monday, January 28, 2013

Nehemiah 8: 1-8; Luke 4:14-21

Have you noticed that Martin Luther King, Jr. has lately been speaking from beyond the grave?  Have you watched his transformation from a human being situated in a particular moment in time to a totem carried in support of any cause?  People from all political persuasions used last Monday’s national holiday to claim that Rev. King would support their positions on today’s issues if he were still alive. Even though the first ever Gun Appreciation Day received support from a white supremacist group, its founder, Larry Ward, apparently channeled MLK in a televised interview to assure us that our nation’s most famous proponent of nonviolent activism would support in death an issue he never endorsed during his life.[i]

Martin Luther King, a flesh and blood leader who took courageous stands on various issues of his day, has become an icon: the image of something or someone who represents what is sacred to us.  He has become a totem: a people’s identifying and inspiring  picture, statue, slogan to carry with them into action. When we hold an icon with love for what it represents and with hopes for its power to help and heal, then we use it responsibly. When we hold that icon with an expectation that its power will accrue to us, we use it irresponsibly.

I suppose it’s inevitable that some who never marched in a civil rights demonstration—never felt the point of a bayonet, as has our own Jerry Pogue—will seek moral stature by merely mentioning the name of Dr. King.  It’s as predictable as it is ironic that King’s words would eventually be quoted to shore up almost any argument.  The cross of Christ has certainly been carried into arguments and actions that are at “cross purposes” with Christ’s intentions.  The Bible, too, has been used more as an icon than as living words.

In other words, co-opting Martin Luther King is not so different from co-opting the Bible, which has been used for centuries to support every imaginable ideology, opinion, prejudice, and product. Quoting King—like quoting the King James—is sometimes more about our agenda than God’s.

I learned this week that Mobile is the 13th “most Bible-minded city” in the country.  What in the world could that mean? An article in Friday’sPress-Register hints we earned that illustrious title not because so many of us are skilled in interpreting the Bible or living out its loving principles–but because those surveyed professed to reading the Bible regularly and “believing in [the Bible’s] accuracy” (read: inerrancy). I’d like to suggest different measures for being “bible-minded.”[ii]

Just as some quote King without understanding nonviolent protest, others quote the King James without understanding anything about the people and cultures who wrote the Bible.  I often hear people say that So-and-So really knows the Bible because she can quote so many scriptures.  I’m not sure that’s what it means to know the Bible.  Reading is more than calling words. I suggest the “bibleminded” awards go to those who care about biblical interpretation—and those who can live in ways that honor the God of the Bible. Of course, even literalists interpret, whether they recognize it or not. But I suggest we invite others (from past centuries and today, members of this faith community and our broader culture) into the work of biblical interpretation, which both requires and produces a faith community.[iii]

We return to today’s Hebrew Bible and Gospel lessons to see examples of the Bible itself being read interpretively and communally:

Biblical reading is, like all reading, a complex act of interpretation. That was true even in Nehemiah’s day.  Ezra and all the priests were there to help the people interpret what was being read to them.  Not just any interpretation is valid.  Notice the emphasis on the need for help in understanding the scriptures:

Also . . .  the Levites helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8: 7-8).

When reading the book of Nehemiah, you don’t have to know that Ezra is interpreting scripture to a people just released from traumatizing Babylonian captivity in order for you to appreciate their eagerness to hear scripture. But Bible-minded people benefit from knowing the context of the words and that the Bible comes from multiple cultures with histories and values different from our own. Bible-minded people understand there are conflicting theologies within the Bible—which is a collection of books, not a book.  Bible-minded people best use the collection’s poems, myths, sayings, and laws by recognizing they were written by human beings—not the hand of God.  Some voices in the Bible get things wrong. But Bible-minded people should also know that for centuries people have experienced God in these words and thus we deem them sacred.

Lest I seem to make reading the Bible too academic, I’ll emphasize that interpreting the Bible requires both a scholar’s mind and a poet’s sensibilities.  We sometimes forget the Bible is largely a poetic work filled with song lyrics and vivid imagery and figurative language wemistakenly try to convert into prose.

The following poem about poetry offers a helpful approach to the Bible. The speaker of this poem is a teacher lamenting the way his students read poetry.[iv]

        I ask them to take a poem

        and hold it up to the light

        like a color slide

        or press an ear against its hive.

        I say drop a mouse into a poem

        and watch him probe his way out.

        or walk inside the poem’s room

        and feel the walls for a light switch.

        I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

        waving at the author’s name on the shore.

        But all they want to do

        is tie the poem to a chair with rope

        and torture a confession out of it.

        They begin beating it with a hose

        to find out what it really means.

Hear that poem a second time as I replace the words “a poem” with “the Bible”:

I ask them to take the Bible

        and hold it up to the light

        like a color slide

        or press an ear against its hive.

        I say drop a mouse into the Bible

        and watch him probe his way out.

        or walk inside the Bible’s room

        and feel the walls for a light switch.

        I want them to waterski

across the surface of the Bible

        waving at the author’s name on the shore.

        But all they want to do

        is tie the Bible to a chair with rope

        and torture a confession out of it.

        They begin beating it with a hose

        to find out what it really means.

Let the Bible be a poem for us and about us.

Bible-minded folks might also do well not only to read more interpretively but also to know that biblical interpretation is a communal act.  In fact, I can’t think of any scripture that encourages private Bible reading.  One reason the Bible assumes scriptures are read communally and liturgically is that literacy was rare in the ancient world and scrolls were rarer.  Few people could have read the scrolls on their own. But maybe understanding scripture actually requires fellow readers or hearers—even today.  Both the priest Ezra and the rabbi Jesus read scripture aloud to a worshiping congregation, and the congregation participated in the meaning-making.  Notice how Ezra’s congregation reacted dramatically as a unit:  they attended to the Torah reading for hours that day—from morning to midday; they responded with exclamations of “amen, amen” and they began to understand together—men and women alike—as the Levites passed among them in something like peer tutoring sessions. If you read farther into chapter 8, you’ll see the entire crowd weeping with emotion and rejoicing over the words they’ve come to understand not just in their heads but in their very being.

Likewise, Jesus commenced his ministry by returning to his hometown of Nazareth and reading aloud from the scroll of Isaiah to all those gathered in the synagogue, says Luke. Again, we see that a scripture holds within it a scripture.  We read a scripture about Ezra reading a scripture. We read a scripture about Jesus reading a scripture.  Thus the layers of engagement with sacred texts stack up like Russian dolls containing more and more dolls, commentary upon commentary upon commentary in a conversation that goes on for centuries. People of faith understand that the Spirit of Wisdom is the prompter and guide of these conversations.

Jesus, coming out of a Jewish love of the Torah, announces his ministry by reading from the Prophet Isaiah in a congregational setting.  Heowns those familiar words in a way that deeply affects an entire congregation, according to Luke.  After his reading, a stunned silence grips the gathered as Jesus methodically “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down” (Luke 4:20). But even after he was seated, “the eyes of all in the synagogue remained fixed on him” (4:21).  All were swept up in this experience.  All were galvanized around the read Word.  This was a communal epiphany.

Then their concerted gaze seemed to call forth something more from Jesus.  The reading was over.  He was back in his “pew.”  But the congregation knew Jesus had something to add.  Like a unanimous vote, their united stare elicited this simple sermon after the reading: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Ah! He will bring relief to the poor, the oppressed, the blind, the captives! With that one sentence Jesus took upon himself the messianic mantle . . . after the faith community helped bring it forth.

Bible reading can be divisive or bonding, and sometimes when it’s the most upsetting it has the most potential for healing.

Though you and I may not have been counted among the Bible-minded of our city, let us use our minds when we read the Bible. And use our hearts. Let us try not to hold up the Bible as an idolatrous totem; let us try to hold it within ourselves and our community.

Let’s not tie the Bible to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it nor beat it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

I suggest we try reading the Bible interpretively, not literally; and communally, not just individually—led by the Spirit that moves among us.

Let us pray: O God of the Bible, let the Bible read us, hold us, struggle with us, form us, fuse us as a congregation. Amen


[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/11/larry-ward-guns-african-americans-prevented-slavery-_n_2457479.html

[ii] McPhail, Carol. “Mobile No. 13 among ‘Bible-minded’ Cities” Mobile Press-Register (25 Jan. 2013). 3D.

[iii]    “Gun Control.”  Mobile Press-Register (25 Jan. 2013) D3.

[iv] Billy Collins, “An Introduction to Poetry.”

Category Prayer, Scripture
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