3rd Sun. Ordinary Time • Neh 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Cor 12:12-31a; Lk 4:14-21 • 1/27/19
All the Gospels were put together with more art than appears at first glance. For many ancient cultures, conveying spiritual truth was a major function of storytelling and could take precedence over preserving an accurate historical record. Each evangelist shapes the events of Jesus’ life and death to bring out something a little different. Compared to Mark and Matthew, Luke moves Jesus’ visit to Nazareth from the middle of his ministry to the very beginning and adds the scene of his reading in the synagogue.
What Jesus reads is actually two passages from Isaiah spliced together. As Paul Knitter told us last week, this section of Isaiah is addressed to the very people we heard about in the first reading. We’ll return to them soon. Luke’s purpose, according to a homily resource text in the library, is to frame the ministry of Jesus in a clear statement of his mission (which Sue just described so well) and who he is.
Who are you?
Much of our felt sense of self is embodied in habits and relationships. It’s disorienting when these are disrupted—say, by a long-distance move or a loss. The people gathered in the square listening to the Law of Moses have been through both, and more: their home city was reduced to rubble a few generations ago, and many of them were been taken captive and relocated. Only recently have they, and their descendants, been allowed to return to their devastated land. The memories, practices, and relationships that had held them together as a community are in fragments.
Just before today’s snapshot of them, Nehemiah has secured supplies and organized a reconstruction. He lists by name dozens of individuals and families who rebuilt specific parts of the city walls. It reads like our annual bulletin listing of who’s served in what ministries—a list meant for people who would recognize the names.
Yet their sense of self is almost as deeply damaged as the city they’ve rebuilt. Largely gone are the memories, practices, and relationships that had made their parents and grandparents who they were. Who is this community now? What does it mean to be reassembled in this desolate place that many of them have never seen before?
That’s why they’re so thirsty for the words Ezra reads to them. The law given their ancestors binds them back to each other and to God. Beyond geographical place, the law gives them a place in the cosmos. It reminds them who they are.
A detailed and demanding law, it governs many aspects of life. As the reading of it stretches through the day, it reveals a daunting gap between its precepts and the way the people have been living. No wonder they weep.
Among other things, the law forbids intermarriage, and Nehemiah will require those who have married foreigners to divorce and send them away. The premise is that the people will be who they are only as long as they maintain cultural and ethnic purity.
And here we are, still grappling with questions of national identity and cultural heritage. These questions are urgent for oppressed or minority populations. They are also compelling to those who fear becoming minorities, as recent news illustrates.
Excluding others as a means of clarifying who we are seems to be human nature. It begins in school with in-groups and outcasts, and the pattern continues in workplaces, governments, and religious institutions. Even, apparently, among the Corinthians—or Paul would not have had to tell them that “In the one Spirit we were baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
In the one Spirit, a new human nature is possible: one that finds identity in relationship without exclusion. Who are you? You are a part of the One Body that includes all. Whichever part you are, you are indispensable, and you are honored. You are not like the other parts, and that’s a good thing.
I needed this message as I was preparing for today. I was so taken with the last few homilies here that I was paralyzed by my inability to manifest the gifts of Roberta, or Libby, or Paul. In theory I knew this was irrelevant, but I kept feeling like the Corinthian foot saying, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.”
I think we’ve all felt this way at times. And we’re also tempted by the flip side, the head saying to the feet, “I have no need of you.” We live in a culture that promotes self-reliance and shames people for needing help. We try oh so hard to do it ourselves, to go it alone, to tough it out… when the truth is we constantly depend on each other and the rest of Creation.
Outwardly, we depend on the earth and the shared infrastructure—often maintained by people we barely notice—that keeps us warm and fed. Inwardly, we depend on each other’s hearts. I come here because I depend on your faith to sustain my own. I depend on the examples you set and on the living spirit shining as music. I depend on the thoughts shared in the dining room and in the homilies. I depend on your warmth at the Sign of Peace. I depend on your seeing and knowing me to know who I am as part of the One Body. I depend on animals for this too, and on trees for comfort and grounding. Dependence on one another is a sacrament. It’s a sign of our creaturely dependence on God.
As Jesus says in a different Gospel, “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.”
So, who are we? We are branches, limbs in the body of Christ, voices in the cosmic choir. Let’s relax into this mutual dependence and harmony. We’re meant to rely on each other and on the Spirit of God… the Spirit that inspired Jesus and that inspires each of us in turn to contribute in diverse ways so that others may rely on us.
This dance of mutual reliance, this dynamic ecosystem in which each part is indispensable, is Creation’s reflection of the Trinity. Are we many? Are we one? Yes. If we pay attention, we can hear, feel, and see this many-in-oneness as we move into our shared petitions, exchange the sign of peace, and hold hands in prayer.
For all who are displaced and disoriented, that they may find welcome, safety, and a renewed sense of belonging…
For all who hesitate to reach out and rely on others, that they may remember that our true nature is a continual receiving and giving…
In thanksgiving for the variety and depth of gifts manifest in the human community and throughout Creation…