What is Old Is New

In recent years, both sides of the religious spectrum have raised concerns of religious rights violations in this country. Our conservative brothers and sisters on more than one occasion have argued their religious rights are being violated when a baker is asked to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, and when a county clerk is forced to issue a marriage certificates to same-sex couples despite her religious beliefs. On the other side of the spectrum, allegedly the congregation at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco grew concerned their religious rights were being challenged when the Bush administration threatened to take away their tax-exempt status because of a sermon the Dean gave decrying the Bush administration’s policies. 
The truth be told, with a few exceptions at the extreme ends of the spectrum, the right of religious freedom has never truly been threatened. At least not in the way the ancient Israelites suffered during the Babylonian Exile. 
Throughout history, it has been the practice of conquering empires to break the ethnic identity of the captured community. In the case of Israel, the King of Babylon ordered the dispersement of the Israelites throughout the Empire. We know from the Book of Daniel, that King Nebuchadnezzar had the brightest and the most talented young men of Israel brought to the capital to be trained and acculturated into the ways of Babylon.  
This is the back-story to today’s reading from Nehemiah. This morning’s Old Testament passage takes place just after the fall of Babylon when the children of Israel have returned to Jerusalem. For the first time in decades, the people are allowed to gather at the gate of the city to hear the Torah read in public. 
The writer tells us at first the people cried and then they celebrated. Then in between these two statements, the writer informs us not only was the Torah read, it was interpreted. Every detail of scripture, no matter how minute, has meaning. No word or phrase is extra or superfluous. The writer of today’s passage conveys not only were the words read for all to hear but they were also interpreted in the context of their new reality. In essence, the Word of God, which was articulated and then written down centuries earlier was now being rediscovered and made relevant to a new time and a new place. 
This is the wonder and the beauty of Scripture. Unlike most historical documents, the Bible was never meant to be a compilation of static documents. As the Word of God, the words of Scripture are dynamic. Holy Scripture, the Bible, is to be read in the context of its time and then interpreted into the context of the time in which it is being read.  
On Friday morning, I experienced a revelation, a mini aha moment when this became crystal clear. It happened while I was talking with members of the Altar Guild about Canon Grenz’s homily from Thursday night. Actually our focus had little to do with Scripture. Instead it had to do with Canon Grenz telling us that St. Peter’s did not find me or pick me, nor did I find or pick St. Peter’s , but that it was God who brought us together. 
I don’t think Canon Grenz could have said anything more true. It’s no secret my search for a new parish took over four years. In all honesty, by Ash Wednesday of last year, I had given up my search and began to rethink where my career was heading. As I began the annual Lenten Clergy Quiet Day in Central New York, I understood the mood and the feelings Israel was experiencing in the days of Ezekiel. I now understood their sense of hopelessness after years of exile and captivity. As Ezekiel looked out over the Valley of Dry Bones, I looked out over the dried bones of my career. While Israel’s words of encouragement came in the form of Ezekiel’s vision of bones coming to life again. My words of encouragement came in the form of a text message from Mother Bettine, a friend who I had not spoken with in over twenty years. The message was simple, “ would you be interested in St. Peter’s by-the-Sea? If so, you need to submit your resume to Linda Grenz by tomorrow evening. “
Now as I read Ezekiel, I realize the Valley of Dry Bones is not just about Israel’s hopelessness in exile. It is also about those times of hopelessness in all of our lives. Those times when God feels distant as we lose faith in God’s promises. The Valley of Dry Bones now reminds me to trust in God even when it feels as if there is nothing left to trust in.
This is how scripture is to be interpreted. The stories of Israel, the stories of divine healing, all beckon us to read, to inwardly digest them and ultimately make them our own story.  
If we fail to do this, if we choose to lock the words of Scripture into a specific time and place, then we risk making the dynamic Word of God stagnant and irrelevant to our time and place.  
A few minutes ago, we heard the story of Jesus preaching to his home congregation. In the midst of the service, Jesus has them pull the book of Isaiah, and reads one of the messianic passages. In this pivotal moment, Jesus brings forward the words from an ancient time and reinterprets them for a new time and a new place. By focusing on this passage, he redefines who the savior of Israel will be. Instead of a king and mighty warrior like King David, the long awaited messiah will now bring about salvation through justice and healing, not through the power and might of a warrior. Now the messianic prophecy can be fulfilled by anyone. Little did they understand that it was he, himself, Jesus was referring to.
Over the years, as part of my spiritual practice, I have engaged in Lectio Divina. It is the practice of reading and rereading scripture as you attempt imagine yourself as part of the narrative. At times I have found this practice helpful. It has allowed me to imagine being in conversation with God or Jesus. However, in the interest of full disclosure, it has not always afforded me the benefit of greater understanding. What I have found will often work better is to ask, where does the story of my life connect with the story I am focusing on. I have asked questions like, when have I wondered in the wilderness seeking to find God’s promise. Or when have I felt held captive or blind to something in my life? When I ask these questions and allow my life to connect with the lives of those in Scripture, more often than not, a new revelation occurs and a deeper understanding of the mystery that is the divine is created. And yes, there is a new sense of celebration in my heart. 
This week, I invite you to make time to delve into scripture however you may choose and to ask God to show you how the stories of old are still the stories of today as we continue to discover what is from another time and place is still relevant to today.
Amen

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