January 24, 2010, Third Sunday after Epiphany

January 24, 2010
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
3rd Sunday after Epiphany, Year C
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10, Ps 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

There is a common thread woven throughout all our readings today. It is the idea of interpretation. Interpretation is central to our faith and how we understand our Holy Scripture. Every age and every person who reads the Bible engages in interpretation. Its meaning is neither static nor is there only one, unequivocal understanding. This has always been the case. We read it in the context of our personal lives; we read it in the context of our social setting. And this is a good thing, for if it didn’t continue to raise up questions for us it would be a dead text. It is a vehicle, a sacrament, I think, of God’s ongoing revelation and working in the world.

Of course, there is the need for an appropriate starting point and understanding about the texts in order to interpret them well. We see this in the reading of Nehemiah where all the people “who could understand” listened to the book of the law and this book was read to them “with interpretation”. Nehemiah was written after the return of the people from their exile in Babylon. They had been away for three hundred years and they were different. The law was reinterpreted to fit new times and places while holding to its essence. The law also helped people interpret the world and times around them. And it was interpreted by those believed to be wise enough and prayerful enough to give a sound rendering.

The wisdom spoken of in the Psalm is a variation of interpretation. Jesus engages in a bold and audacious act of interpretation by saying that this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing, meaning that he was the fulfillment. We take that as a given, but imagine if I or someone else here made that statement today. We’d be shocked and understandably skeptical. Jesus’ claim is vitally important to us, though. We as Christians believe he is correct in that daring speech. Jesus is the Word of God for us, and it is this Word that we worship, not the words of the Bible. Those words, beautiful, essential and utterly necessary, point to him and to God and to a path of understanding. A very real temptation and reality is that all too often we begin to worship the Bible and that is idolatry. It is Jesus who is our ultimate and primary interpretive lens on our faith and our world.

This theme of interpretation is not as visible in the letter to the Corinthians, but it is there. It is not so much an interpretation of the written word, but an existential interpretation, an interpretation of who we are and how we see and understand ourselves. The image Paul gives is powerful and profoundly important. We have heard it so much that it is almost a cliché, but we do ourselves a disservice by passing over it lightly. It deserves our time and willingness to stop and really examine what this image is meant to help us understand.

Paul grounds us in the point I made earlier: Jesus the Christ is our starting point, the place from which our understanding and interpretation flows. Without that as a starting point the inclusive picture he paints would not have emerged so clearly and so quickly—one body of Jews and Greeks, slaves and free. And therein is the second vital point: we are a body.

We are a body. We are described as part of Christ’s body and that body is clearly described and understood by analogy to a human body. Here are some of the implications of such an image. It is organic. It is unified, though diverse. It is utterly interdependent and mutually dependent in ways clearly seen and ways that we can’t even comprehend. Every part is essential, necessary. If part of the body is lost or injured it affects all the rest; it may compensate, but is not ever again quite the same. Though there are perceived hierarchies, they are completely interwoven with a basic horizontal equity. One cannot exist without the other. No part is expendable. No part can be exploited or used without damage and detriment to the rest. This is how God sees us…absolutely necessary and needed, indispensible. No matter what we hear out there or at times within our own hearts, we are seen by God as part of this body. We each matter profoundly. And that type of love and connection is indeed Good News.

It is a tremendously powerful image of community within which resides autonomy and independence. It is a collective understanding in which individuals live and from which they are shaped and formed. But they never leave it and they cannot exist without it.

This is a radically different understanding of self, I believe, than that of our culture and the institutions we have created. There, the individual is seen as completely discreet, independent, mostly unattached to others by nature or need. Hierarchies sort people into separate groups and obscure notions of commonality. We believe we are self-defined and able to act on the world around us as if our ties to it were voluntary, not intrinsic. It is a picture of isolation presented as freedom. It is individuality presented as true identity. It is disconnection presented as common reality. It severs ties and mutuality in their existential sense and creates ties that are artifice and construct, often without much commitment or sense of accountability. To me that is a lonely and bleak prospect.
Paul’s vision calls us into a truly interdependent life. His community exists based on Christ, nothing else and nothing less. Today community often means a group of people who share the same viewpoint or who like the same activity as us. But beyond that there is often not much that ties us together, requires us to stay with each other and bear with each other. We might join a line-dancing group and share good times, but when we are feeling blue or a difficult time arises are these people we feel we could call to be with us? Or Tom Friedman who writes that technology has made the world flat. Is that true? We may be able to connect with people all over the world in a second, but is a connection done through an impersonal medium where we can present (or recreate) ourselves as we want the same as face-to-face interaction? Is there the possibility for true understanding when we can’t meet and experience each other’s realities?

Our world may indeed be more immediate, but it is not intimate. Paul’s vision is one of profound intimacy and caring. It is a redefined freedom and identity, not one that negates our individual-ness and particular gifts, rather it rejoices in them, but one that puts them into a richer context and a deep understanding that we exist for each other first, even if that means that we can’t always do what we want or have all that we want. We discover that his image though gives us so much more of what we need and truly taps into who we are as created beings. Paul believes we find this by a deep recognition that our fullest life is found by understanding ourselves as part of Christ at all times and in all places. We are communal creatures defined and guided by his life. This is the community the Church aims to be at its best. It’s a grand and wonderful vision. It takes work and awareness and an openness to growth within us all.

I would suggest that this vision is not just valid for Christians. We aren’t the first people to have a similar idea of self and community. It exists in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, native traditions and so on. Ours has its particular aspects that are unique and that we hold to be divinely revealed. All to the good. But if we believe our understanding has a divine source, it is not just for us, but also saying something about the whole world and its character. This vision of Paul’s has something to offer the secular world. We have something to offer it based from this understanding. We have something of value to say to a world where suddenly corporations, artificial constructs of the state, are defined as and given all the rights of people and citizens. Such entities are not people; rather, they are collections of people and legal arrangements and constructions defined on paper and in practices. The interface with them is through lawyers and boards and ultimately many persons and yet no one. The relationship is ephemeral. They can be created and they can be undone overnight. Function is confused with essence. Corporations are necessary and needed for many things, but I think this is a symptom of confused interpretation and understanding. It is so very different from the body image.

Fragmentation and disconnect are the force pulling in the other direction depending on how we see ourselves. I am reminded of the words of the “Grapes of Wrath” where the farmers who are struggling to survive in a natural calamity are being forced off their land, even though they have not been negligent or irresponsible. The refrain from the representatives is it’s not me it’s the bank. Impersonal, everywhere yet nowhere, not in connection to the men and women who grow the very food they eat.

There is much in the world that will be shaped based on our images of who we are: the situation in Haiti, the vote this week, the ideas being put forward around our economic activity and actors, our annual meeting next week, and surely our own private concerns and situations.

My invitation to us this week is to ponder and pray with Paul’s image. What does it mean to us? What does it invite us to? Where is it good news and where does it challenge us? What does it mean to how we understand ourselves? What does it mean to be Church, to be part of this community? What does it call us to do in how we look at the world outside these walls and take part in it? What hope can it offer in times that are so very hard and where the tension is very real between highly differing visions of society? Where is the Word, Jesus, present to us here and now?