I preached on Nehemiah and Luke
three years ago – the last time they surfaced for air.
That was the Sunday
I gave the now apocryphal sermon
in which I said I could be a midwife for Trinity,
or a hospice chaplain.
Remember back then?
Three years ago, I told you
a little bit about Ezra and Nehemiah
but I doubt it was so scintillating
that is burned a trough in your memory.
So I want to really hone in on this story we just read,
because it changed the history of the world.
No kidding, this boring little story
is as dramatic a moment as there is in human history.
So, whether or not you plan to stay
for the first session of Episcopal 101 today,
you are still going to get a major dose of content.
Allow me to peel back the rind
on this lethargic and lumpy reading,
and reveal that inside is succulent fruit.
Picture this scene.
A disparate remnant of freed slaves
limps and hobbles back into their homeland
after as much as a century of absence.
We need to realize they had never
actually been there before
but had only heard about the place
on the knees of parents and grandparents.
Maybe a few of the oldest among them
had an actual memory of the place –
but even then, it would only have been from
But for most of the remnant,
it would have been as if our great-grandchildren
had only heard about the Finger Lakes
from their parents
but had never actually been here before.
So, this ragtag group of exiles
who were brave enough
to risk the harsh distance,
returned only to find their once famous city
All they knew before stumbling into those ruins,
was that once upon a time,
in generations past,
they had had a magnificent homeland.
They had had a capital city
with an enormous and ornate temple
where all the people came to worship.
They had had a king,
and they had had farms
and they had had orchards
and they had had rivers
and they had had a pastoral life of goodness…
As their parents and grandparents had told them,
in just five short years, it vanished.
All of it destroyed.
Then they had been eclipsed from the land
by miles and miles of distance
and forced into exile.
I know this sounds like a bad movie,
but a dark and fearsome empire
crushed their army and stole them away
to another country and enslaved them.
But now, generations later,
the Babylonian empire
was itself ground into the dust of history too.
Now, generations later,
a straggly group of poorly educated,
and fiercely independent people returned.
To be brutally honest in the telling of this tale,
not very many of them came back.
Most of them stayed
right where they had been taken in captivity;
stayed where they were
because by then, they were assimilated
into that foreign place.
So just a few came back,
returning with hope-gilded hearts
and an imagination to rebuild.
We all know the history of human migration:
no land remains uninhabited,
especially not good land otherwise surrounded
by more barren lands.
So the few who returned,
returned to a land they found occupied
by other people –
people with different languages
and unfamiliar customs
and strange gods.
The few who came back,
did not even speak their own language;
they did not know the language of their religion –
any more than we know Aramaic, Greek, Latin, or Celt.
We need to stop the story right here for a moment.
This is something we do not think about
when we read the Hebrew Scripture
or tell the ancient stories of our religious ancestors.
They did not know how to speak Hebrew.
By the time of Ezra and Nehemiah
Hebrew was already a dying language.
Hebrew was not spoken among ordinary people
and had become only a religious language –
the language of ritual
as Latin became to Roman Catholicism.
So now we can understand the scene depicted
in the first reading today.
Even though it seems remote,
dry and terribly uninteresting on the surface of it,
this little story is grist for the imagination.
It depicts the very first time Torah was read
amidst the rubble of Jerusalem.
After half a century or more of exile,
Hebrew is spoken in the place
where the temple once stood.
That image might give us a chill
if we have ever lost something we cherished
and then suddenly arrived
at a moment
or a place
or a time
we never expected, we were reunited with it.
So there in the rubble
Ezra, a priest,
and Nehemiah, a lay person,
begin the task of re-educating Israel
and bringing back to life
a nearly dead religion
Just think about that, let it take hold of your imagination.
Just think about what we know of Judaism today.
All that it was,
and all that it would become over a millennium,
was at that moment,
hanging by a spider’s silk.
Ezra and Nehemiah
stood there telling the people
that the present moment was to be a time of joy,
an occasion for feasting and celebration.
Then, the story says,
the people weep.
Joy runs freely into the river of grief,
and they are mixed together into poignancy
by the currents of memory,
relief, and hope.
If we can imagine such a moment
through our own memories of gratitude
when the grief of loss
has been overcome by relief and joy,
then we will understand
how moving that moment must have been.
There are few literal moments
in the history of civilization
that would come to have as much impact
as that one mythical moment
with Ezra and Nehemiah.
There in the rubble of Jerusalem,
beginning in that moment,
the very idea for “The Bible” was born.
Indeed, the IDEA of a “Bible”
had a moment of genesis
from which the actual pages grew –
as we know that most milestones in human history
can always be traced back to an idea.
The very beginning of the idea of “the Bible”
is born in that moment in the rubble of Jerusalem.
What we know of as Genesis,
and all the rest,
were first scraps of parchment and scrolls
littering the history of the ancient Near East.
Before they were in “a book,”
they were told and re-told
and delicately preserved on rough fabric
without the foreknowledge
that one day they would all be brought together.
First, there had to be the imagination
that through actual events and the story of events,
That is the very idea of the Bible–
the idea that God could and would
speak directly to a people
through an anthology of written story.
That idea only comes into existence
at this very late moment
in Israel’s history.
It is at that moment
that Judaism hangs over the chasm of extinction
by the slimmest of threads,
and the idea of the Bible is born.
Christianity and Islam
would inherit this idea of a sacred text
through which God speaks directly to human beings.
And as we know, whether we know anything else
about the Bible,
human history has been totally influenced
for good and for ill by the Bible.
So, this unassuming little description
is actually one of the most stunning moments
in human history.
But wait! There’s more.
Think about this.
Those people gathered around Ezra and Nehemiah
did not speak or understand Hebrew.
As we know, the oldest Biblical texts,
probably scraps and pieces of scroll,
were written in ancient Hebrew.
Ezra read the Hebrew to those people, and then?
Well, if they did not understand the language,
it had to be translated.
which was the language of the common people.
So, the ancient text of Torah,
and the rest of what would become Hebrew Scripture,
had to be translated in order to keep the religion
and the culture alive.
But translation always involves interpretation.
So, from day one of the Bible,
it has been interpreted.
What immediately sprang up after the exiles returned
to the land of Israel
from their captivity in what is now Syria,
was an Aramaic interpretation
that explained the meaning of the Hebrew text.
In the modern world,
when we think of the Bible, we think of a text –
of words ordered and numbered
and headed by subtitles
or chapter headings.
But in the ancient world,
when the Bible was evolving
it was more sermon than text.
It begins with Ezra and Nehemiah
and others who followed them,
expounding on the original meaning
of stories or texts,
some of which no longer existed.
So the Bible, from the beginning,
was sermon at least as much as text.
And actually, a great many sermons
probably got embedded into the Biblical text
that today we read as verses and
never imagining they were originally
a translators homily.
What we have in the Bible is
layer upon layer upon layer upon layer
of the ancient words
that were translated
from very ancient texts.
So instead of a treasure trove of God’s direct words,
the Bible is a box of highly interpretive renderings
about what the translators
thought was the meaning
of the ancient text – some of which no longer exist.
If you are following me here,
what I am saying is that the Bible itself
is a sermon – a really long sermon,
even longer than this one!
It is a mixed bag of verses,
interpreted verses, and
stories told and retold many times over.
Now, let’s leave Ezra and Nehemiah
and zoom ahead 450 years,
that’s when Jesus lived.
We just heard a little story
about Jesus going home
to teach and preach
in the synagogue where he grew up.
We all know what a tough gig that is.
No matter who you are
or where you are from,
going home as an adult
and getting credibility for your ideas
is a hard sell.
Luke imagines Jesus returning
to his home synagogue,
which was likely not in a building
but an outdoor gathering place set aside for worship.
Once there, Jesus reads from a scroll.
Now what we need to realize
is that Jesus is NOT doing
what we do here on Sunday morning.
He is not READING, word for word
from an Aramaic translation
of the Hebrew text,
the way we read word for word
from an English translation
of a Greek text –
which is the language our Bible
is translated from.
Instead, what Jesus is doing
is offering a free-style rendering
of Isaiah’s prophetic poetry,
and saying what he thinks it means.
But get this.
If some of the modern New Testament scholars
Jesus may not have even been able read –
Hebrew or otherwise.
What Jesus is doing in this little story from Luke,
is what others like him
would do at the synagogue:
Stand up and offer from memory,
what he had been taught to memorize from
the Hebrew Bible, and then,
he would have sat down to preach.
He would have sat down
and told them what he thought Isaiah meant.
Here is what I hope we pick up
from these two stories,
the one from Nehemiah and the one from Luke:
The Bible is not a how-to book.
The Bible is not a precise instrument.
The Bible is not an exact translation.
The Bible is not anything permanent,
universal or final.
What the Bible IS,
is a wide-open challenge
to continuous interpretation.
While generations have gotten trapped inside
the idea that there are only singular ways
to understand the Bible,
or that somehow we can read a verse of it
without also interpreting its meaning,
we need to pop that bubble
and vigorously interpret and re-interpret the Bible
for our own time.
In fact, I would go so far as to suggest
we need to keep writing the Bible
and understand that our lives,
as individuals and as generations,
IS also Scripture.
We are the Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s
of a later generation.
We are the Marys and Peters and Jameses
of a later generation,
and we are still writing the book.
Our stories need to be added to the anthology
and in order for that to happen,
we need to start translating our stories
as the acts of God in our generation.
And that, by the way,
is why we have poetry from people
like Mary Oliver, in our lectionary each Sunday.
They are the contemporary voices
of those translating the acts of God
and the wisdom of God in our present generation.
But the bigger punch line here,
is that you and I need to get better
at telling our stories as if they are a sacred text.
Those angels, Mary Oliver speculates about,
dance on us – they
make their way across our “wild and precious lives.”
Ain’t no one going to tell about it
if we don’t.