Unroll the Scroll
A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz on January 23, 2022 for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota
It’s the elephant in the virtual room, as evident as the mask on my face. It dictates the format and form of our worship; it saturates the news; it affects each of us in individual ways.
In a week full of losses– from Buddhist master Thich Nat Han to the performer Meat Loaf, a week when Russian troops surround the country of Ukraine and Mitch McConnel separates black voters and “Americans,” even as we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King (whom we will honor later with one of his favorite songs), Covid remains the story of the day.
I will have been ordained forty years next Tuesday – four bishops, four congregations, dozens of sermons. I had planned a little party. There will be no little party. For many of us, there will not be much travel for a while longer, or casual socializing. There will be endless testing and ongoing concern that some new, yet-unnamed variant is out there, waiting to pounce.
Looking through some old sermons this week, I noticed that much of what I have written pre-Covid seem naïve now, so many conclusions about national and personal events sound innocent and irrelevant in the face of unparalleled and unanticipated global pandemic.
Is it harder this time with Omicron because we thought we were done? Where is the strength that God promises? The writer Anne Lamott observes, “Grace can be the experience of a second wind. Even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on.” (1)
Have you developed any bad habits going to church online? Do you unabashedly multitask during the liturgy? Do you pay your bills or knit or file your nails or brush the dog? Do you leave after the sermon to put the laundry in the dryer?
Let’s face it — it can be hard to focus on a small screen when we’re used to — well, all of this here….the gorgeous wood carving, the thunder of the organ and the melodies of the choir; the feel of the bread in our hand and the wine on our tongue, the bouquets, the solid wooden pews beneath us. And these cameras, this set-up, even these masks are evidence of the astounding resilience and creativity of the people of God and our will to worship. They are helping us hang on.
In the reading from Luke, Jesus goes to church — well, synagogue, actually. Synagogues developed during the many times the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem and cut off from worship in the great Temple, the center of Jewish life. Synagogues were small buildings or areas in homes where people were instructed by teachers or priests and heard readings from the scrolls of the Torah. This week another U.S. synagogue was attacked by a terrorist and people survived in part due to the training they had received about what to do in such emergencies — thousands of Jews have received this training and police presence is a reality at Sabbath worship. To be a Jew is still fraught with danger.
There was a buzz about Jesus in Galilee — the local boy was making a name for himself as a teacher and preacher. And then, reminiscent of those holidays like Christmas Eve or Easter at St John’s where kids are home from college or visiting from out of town, one day he visits the synagogue in Nazareth, where he has grown up. He is asked to read from Isaiah, and he unrolls the scroll and finds the section he wants. It is a section about being anointed by God; it’s basically a mission statement for his ministry. He reads it and people stare as he sits down. Then he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Total mic drop.
Today’s lesson ends there but it doesn’t turn out well, as we’ll see next week. The people find Jesus arrogant and his message outrageous. They say, “Isn’t that Joseph’s kid? Mary’s boy? Whaaat?”
Perhaps it is over-familiarity that changes their opinion: “A prophet is without honor in his own country,” Jesus says. He is run out of town. Over-familiarity can prevent us from giving something a fair hearing and can make us abandon it altogether. Been there. Done that. Bought the tee shirt. It can also blunt the effect our own Scriptures read.
Written some 500 years earlier, today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures (what we incorrectly call the OLD Testament) is also about going to church, in fact returning to church after a long absence. The Jews had been exiled from Jerusalem when the Babylonians invaded and basically destroyed the city including the Temple. Nehemiah convinces the Babylonian king to allow him to return to the city and lead efforts to repair it. He unites those who remained in Jerusalem with those returning and the walls were rebuilt to half their height around the city.
The people felt it was safe to return now even though temple was no more, but the people no longer seemed to know who they were now. So Ezra the priest reminds them by reading them their stories, from their Scriptures. We read:
“The priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding….He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. … Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. “
Maybe this is what it will be like when we come back together here?
But maybe not… It will require some adjustment for many of us. The novelist E.T. Max says, ” Sometimes you have to fight to keep yourself engaged with other humans. You have to stay in practice to be around other people.” I feel out of practice.
In both lessons today, people gather around the book, the scrolls. Jesus could have put his message into his own words but he didn’t; he relied on the words of Isaiah to put them in a context. And each sabbath in the synagogue to this day, they did what we would call “Bible study.”
Do we? Not that much out of what we hear from the lectern on Sunday. Bible study can have the connotation of dingy church basements and nerdy people who don’t have anything better to do. (The weirdest present I ever got was a large, pictorially-enhanced white fake-leather Bible. On Valentine’s Day. From my boyfriend. We went to the same church but I was struggling with the whole Lutheran thing…I remember being completely speechless expecting almost anything else especially with the big red bow and red hearts on the paper. “Oh wow,” I think I managed to say. And violating Lutheran tradition, it didn’t even have the words of Jesus printed in red!
Listen to the Presbyterian Fredrick Buechner:
“There are good reasons for not reading the Bible. Its format is supernaturally forbidding: the double columns of a timetable; the print of a phone book. It looks awfully dull and some of it is. The prophets are wildly repetitive and almost never know when to stop. Then there are all the begats… …The self-righteousness and self-pity of so many of the psalms …The Bible, written by many different people over a period of three thousand years; a disorderly collection of sixty-odd books which are often tedious, barbaric, obscure and teeming with contradictions and inconsistencies, Over the centuries it has become hopelessly associated with tub-thumping evangelism and dreary piety. With superstition and crippling literalism. And yet, and yet…If you look through its window you see the world beyond… There is the difference between those who see the Bible as a holy bore and those who see it as the Word of God which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves. It is a book about us. A book about life the way it really is, A book about God.” (2)
In the Episcopal church, the Bible is one leg of a stool with another being the teachings of the Church, and the other our own reason and experience. That three-legged stool is why I fell in love with this denomination 45 years ago: for the context in which it puts Scripture, along with its respect for history and for the human mind.
Bible study has also evolved. Remember the incredible St. John’s Bible created in Collegeville, commissioned several years ago to provide a 21st century, multi-cultural understanding of Biblical events with its stunning paintings and calligraphy, such as Jesus in jeans sowing wheat in a field. Also consider the Bible study that has begun here at St. John’s where the visual – paintings and drawings — supplement and explore the meaning of the lectionary readings. The Bible has evolved.
Buechner says for heaven’s sake don’t start at the beginning and try to read through, and get yourself a good commentary to help. Nehemiah was concerned with creating understanding and we should be, too. Read it in a group if you can. I’ll be writing about all of this in the next Evangelist.
Columnist Debie Thomas writes: “For me, the danger is over-familiarity. A cynical refusal to be surprised by a book I’ve known since I was a little kid in Sunday School. For others, the danger might be unfamiliarity or apathy or fear. And yet for all of the us the challenge remains to unroll the scroll. (4)
For forty years each month of more preparing a sermon, I have unrolled the scroll of the readings for a particular Sunday and tried to understand them. The online resources available to help now are extensive. In all honesty, I can say that never once have failed to find something wonderful or frightening or relevant to my life on the page.
Finally, two closing observations. First, in Scripture, God’s instructions or commands are almost always specific. I am frustrated and impatient with commands when I’m told to “just love everybody,” it’s all about love…” Because it’s not all that easy and sometimes I ‘m not feeling much love some days and I don’t even know what’s being called for here. Instead, I offer this from Bishop Mariann Budde: ” Maybe redemption takes root in the smallest of things. Not withholding a smile or compliment; the effort to take a chance on people; in getting over yourself enough to see who is standing before you, there need in full view.” Maybe ‘here I am”‘ begins as a whisper that can scarcely be heard.”
Secondly, in my experience trying to create an “emergency room faith,” a “desperate theology of the moment” seldom works. Instead, take time earlier to unroll the scroll and look at the big questions. I don’t God ever asks us to do something alone; “for God working in us can do more than we can ask or imagine,” our Prayer Book tell us. So we understand that whatever God asks of us is in partnership, with God taking our hands as we shout, cry or whisper what we it is we want to do, who it is we want to be…..
(soloist with piano)
“Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I’m weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my ha-and, precious Lord
Lead me home.
When my way groweth drear
Precious Lord, linger near
When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand, precious Lord
Lead me on.
When my work is all done
And my race here won
Let me see by the light
Thou hast shown
That fair city so bright
Where the lantern is the light
Take my hand, precious Lord
Lead me on.” (4)
Songwriter: Thomas A. Dorsey, 1932
- Anne Lamott, Please, Thanks, Wow, 2005.
- Frederick Buechener, Beyond Words, 2004.
- Debie Thomas, “When He Opened the Book,” Journey with Jesus, Jan. 20, 2019.
- Thomas A. Dorsey, “Precious Lord,” 1932.
Also: Sermon on Nehemiah from Dr. Mike Glenn [email protected]