Epiphany 3C: Reading Between the Lines

Bible with LightOLD TESTAMENT:  Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10

To read the Old Testament passage

This passage that we read from Nehemiah may be a strange one for us.  Essentially, in very detailed precision, it recounts a public reading of the Law of the Torah for a community, not totally unlike the Scripture readings in which we participate each and every Sunday.  The public reading took place on the day that would be the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month, late in September or early October, according to our modern-day calendar.  The day would be a holy day.

This was not merely a requisite reading as part of a worship service, though.  It was instead a gathering of the community to celebrate and hear the word of God for that community. It was a time of thankfulness, a time of realizing what God had done, a time of becoming who they were called to be before God.  And this community was receptive, was indeed hungry for this word.

The context of this eighth chapter of Nehemiah is set soon after 539 BCE after Cyrus and the Persians conquered Babylon and the Jewish exiles began to return home.  But the city to which they were returning was very different from the one that their community had left.  Their land had been taken and redistributed so they had no way of making a living.  The infrastructure that had previously been there was no more and even the temple, long since destroyed, had not been rebuilt.  They were returning home but for most of them, there was no home to which they could return.  And so, for the most part, the fledgling city of Jerusalem remained unpopulated and unable to move forward and rebuild their lives.

The Book of Nehemiah is mainly about the work of the man Nehemiah, the Persian appointed governor of Judea whose responsibility it was to see that the city of Jerusalem was rebuilt following the return of these exiles.  The walls had to be rebuilt, the city had to be repopulated, the social abuses had to be corrected, the worship life had to return as a central part of the community, and the community of faith had to once again become who God intended them to be.  Needless to say, this was no small feat!  The first six chapters of the Old Testament book that we know as Nehemiah outlines the beginning of that rebuilding process.  Then in chapter 7, we are given a long list of returned exiles who have settled back in their towns.  These were the ones who had come home.  These were the ones whose character and traditions would lay the foundations to rebuild the community.  They knew what they needed to do that.  They knew that they needed some help.  And so, they ask Ezra to read the “law of Moses” to them.

Here they are, it says, gathered in a square opposite the Water Gate.  This was an area of the worship space in which laypeople could enter.  It may have been in the vicinity of the spring of Gihon, which was once Jerusalem’s main water source.  And they all came—men, women, and at least some children (all who could “hear with understanding”).  This was a very inclusive gathering.  And here were these people—concerned about their homes, their families, whether or not they would ever recover from what they had been through.  So they asked Ezra the scribe to read from the book of Law, the Torah, those words that had guided them for centuries and provided a compass for their very lives.

So Ezra stood on a raised platform, surrounded by some of the lay leaders, unrolled the scroll, and began to read.  And as he began to read, the people stood, a sign of reverence and respect.  This was not a passive crowd.  They really wanted to hear.  They really wanted to understand.  They really wanted to find in those words the comfort and strength and hope that they had always found.  As he read, it says that there were responses of “Amen, Amen” as they listened and understood.  The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  The passage says that Ezra read from early morning until midday and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of law.  Can you imagine?  A Scripture reading that lasted at least four hours.  Oh admit it, most of our congregation would have been long gone.  (Good thing there wasn’t a football game that day!)  So the next time you complain about a sermon or a prayer that is too long, I want you to remember this passage.

This reading is about both the faithful and joyous reception of God’s Word seen in the people.  For them, the Word of God comes to life through these words.  The point is that these were not just words…this was the story, their story, and ours.  The celebration at the end is not, as we might think, because the reading is over.  It is because the sacred memories were alive once again.  Once again, the people have remembered who they are.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said this:  The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love.  And just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did.  That is all.  That is meditation…Do not ask “How shall I pass this on?” but “What does it say to me?”  Then ponder this Word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does it mean to you for the “Word of God” to come to life?
  3. What is a “faithful and joyous” reception of the Scriptures? What stands in our way of having that?
  4. What does it mean to “hear with understanding”?
  5. What does it mean to you for the Word to “take possession of you”?



NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 12: 13-31a

To read the Epistle passage

This passage is a continuation of the Epistle that we read last week.  Once again, the passage focuses on our unity, our common body in which we live.  Paul is speaking here to some disunity and discord that had taken place because of views toward gifts.  Paul is affirming the presence of spiritual gifts but in his own way is also warning that just because someone possesses “spiritual gifts” does not necessarily make them “spiritual”.

According to Paul, whatever does not embody and reflect love is not Christian spirituality.  Paul claims that because we are of one body, the Body of Christ, there ought to be a sense of unity and solidarity.  According to the passage, all of these gifts, indeed, all of these roles are vital for the life of the whole Christian community.  The roles relate to particular functions, not to any sense of status on its own.  Paul’s list is not a complete compendium.  It is about functions within the roles that make up the community.

Paul challenges us to see ourselves as the embodiment of Christ in the world, not primarily as individuals but as local communities, yet belonging also to a larger whole. Difference is acknowledged. People are not all the same. They do not all have the same abilities. The common life is nothing other than the life of Christ, the life of the Spirit. This remains the constant. We are not asked as individuals to be Christ or Christs, let alone saviours of the world, although many suffer from this misconception and the burn out it produces. We are asked to be members of a body, of Christ, and to play our part – not more, not less.

It is essentially a discussion about stewardship, about using what God has given you and infused into your life to build up and bring in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.  But it is also about using the gifts of others, honouring them and empowering others to use their gifts.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. In what ways do gifts contribute to or deflect from the unity of Christ’s Body?
  3. What, then, does this say about what the Body of Christ is or what it should be?



GOSPEL:  Luke 4: 14-21

To read the Gospel passage

So, here, Jesus returns to his “hometown”, so to speak.  They had heard about how the hometown boy was doing good elsewhere and they all showed up to be taught by one of their own.  They had high praise for him.  As was the custom, Jesus stood in the synagogue to read.  He unrolled the scroll and began to read.  But something happened in the midst of the reading.  He saw himself differently after reading the lyrical words from the scroll.  So did those who heard him that day.  Through this reading, the community was born anew.  They saw things differently.

We probably pretty much take our ability to read or to hear the words read for granted.  But, there’s reading and then there’s reading.  Renita Weems says that “public reading of the Bible today would scarcely move anyone to weep or even to look up from reading the bulletin or filling out the offering envelope.  But every word in the Bible was written with the expectation that most of those who encountered it would hear it as a text read to them in a gathering of believers. This explains the lyrical, poetic, engaging style of much of the language found in the Bible.”

The point here is that reading the bible is more than entertainment or “information gathering”; it is transformation.  The Scripture that was read is a calling to something else.  It is meant to move the hearers (and the reader) beyond where they are.  The Word changes things.  Nothing will ever be the same again.


Hear the Scripture that was read: (Isaiah 61)


The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,  and release to the prisoners;
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,  and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

5Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; 6but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7Because their* shame was double, and dishonour was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;  everlasting joy shall be theirs.

8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Much of that language is summarily tossed aside by us, relegated to a time gone by.  And yet, Jesus stood up before that crowd and read this aloud.  You could say that it was his manifesto.  He was meant to do this from the beginning, meant to shake the world out of its complacency and wake it up so that it might see where the need is the greatest, meant to show us what the world could be, and, indeed, what we were called to be.  Jesus was pointing to God and God’s vision for the world—a vision of good news and release, of recovery and freedom.

So, what do these words mean for our time?  How are we supposed to take them today?  (OK, do we need to read them again.)  These words ARE the words.  What do they mean for our time?  They depict a vision of good news and release, of recovery and freedom.  The fact that words are not comfortable for us to hear does not mean that they are not the truth.  So, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Can you hear me now?  Take the words, roll them around in your heart, and then imagine what vision they hold.  That is the vision to which we are called.  We just have to learn to listen.  We just have to learn to open ourselves to the Spirit that they hold.

Scripture has been compared to a lake whose depths have never been fully plumbed.  On the surface it looks like any other lake; that is, we see human words like those in other books.  But when we jump into the lake and begin to swim downward, we may be unable to find the bottom.  It is as if those human words become transparent to some mysterious and infinite depth we can never fully grasp.  Perhaps that is why one writer can say “Sounding in and through the human words of scripture, like the sea within a conch shell, is another reality, vaster than mind or imagination can compass.  God has chosen to be bound to the words of Scripture; in and through them, the Holy One comes near…It is not that the words magically or mechanically contain God’s Presence, but that as we allow the same Spirit through which the scriptures were written to inform our listening, the presence of God in and beyond those words becomes alive for us once more. (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast:  The Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY:  Westminster-John Knox Press, 1995), 19-20)


  1. What meaning does this hold for you?
  2. What would it mean to truly live these words, to digest them and make them a part of our very being?
  3. Why does our reading of Scripture today fall short of this?
  4. What would happen if we really heard what the Scripture was saying, if we really allowed the Spirit to trickle into our lives from the words?




Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


The larger the island of knowledge, the greater the shoreline of wonder.  (Huston Smith)


We do not always realize what a radical suggestion it is for us to read to be formed and transformed rather than to gather information.  We are information seekers.  We love to cover territory. (Macrina Wiederkehr)


If  then you are wise, you will show yourself as a reservoir than a canal.  For a canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, but a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and thus communicates, without loss to itself, its superabundant water. (Bernard of Clairvaux)





All-seeing One, above me, around me, within me.  Be my seeing as I read these sacred words.  Look down upon me; look out from within me; look all around me; see through my eyes; hear through my ears; feel through my heart; touch me where I need to be touched.  And when my heart is touched, give me the grace to lay down this Holy Book and ask significant questions.  Amen. (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast:  The Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY:  Westminster-John Knox Press, 1995), 23)


Proper 13B: Becoming Bread


OLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 11: 26-12: 13a


Our Old Testament passage is the continuing story from last week. Remember that David, home alone while his armies were out fighting battles, had spied the fair Bathsheeba and, in what can only be described as a colossal failure of leadership and an implausible abuse of power and authority, had sent for her, slept with her, impregnated her, and then in an attempt to cover up the deed, lied, schemed, and finally murdered her husband Uriah the Hittite. So, Uriah is now dead and Bathsheeba mourns. With Uriah dead, David then is free to take Bathsheeba as his wife, bringing legitimacy to their son.   Well, as you know, there are a variety of ways that this story is told. Some will shift the blame to Bathsheeba, depicting her as some sort of harlot or something that wooed David into the affair. But that, of course, ignores the fact that it was David that had all the power here. Others will somehow characterize it as God’s work, as if God would call David to cheat, lie, scheme, and murder to further the building of the Kingdom of God. Sorry, I don’t really think that’s quite what God had in mind.

So today we have the story of Nathan. I love Nathan. He confronts the problem head-on. And he does it in quite a remarkable way. He tells a parable. (Where have we heard that style of teaching before?) He tells the story of a rich man who possessed many flocks and herds—so many, in fact, that he didn’t even really know them all–and a poor man who possessed one lowly little lamb who the poor man actually had grown to love.   Yet when a traveler appeared, the rich man, replete with livestock, actually took the one lamb from the poor man to feed his guest. Well, David was incensed. After all, what a horrible man! Someone should do something! That is not justice! That man should be punished! That man doesn’t deserve to live!

You know, John Westerhoff once said that “if a parable doesn’t make you a bit uncomfortable, [doesn’t make you squirm a little in your seat], you probably have not gotten it.” So, obviously, David didn’t get it. Obviously, it was much easier to hand out judgment for someone else’s acts than to recognize his own failures and shortcomings. So Nathan, courageously speaking the truth in love, essentially, holds up the mirror. “David,” he said, “You are the man!”

He then explains in detail what David has done, all the time holding a mirror, forcing David to look at himself, to look at his own actions, to realize that his actions have consequences, that they cannot be hidden from God. And, maybe even more painful, they cannot be hidden from himself. David has to face what he has done, look at the consequences, look at the pain and the suffering that he has caused. And David finally admits his wrong. He confesses. It’s a hard thing. It’s a hard thing to admit when you’ve done something wrong. It’s a hard thing to be forced to take a good hard look in that mirror and see the reflection not of that image of God in which you were created but rather someone that you’d rather not be around.

Yeah, sin is a hard thing to talk about. It’s a hard thing to look at, particularly, when that mirror is showing us someone that we don’t really want to be. Where did we go wrong? And what will everyone else think?   And, after all, we’re good Methodists. We don’t need to talk about sin. We have grace. Really? I think Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor has possibly written the most incredible book on sin that I have ever read. In her book entitled “Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation,” she depicts sin as our only hope. Well that’s a new spin on it! After all, aren’t we trying to avoid it? She says that “sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications), 59.) In other words, no longer can we just sweep something under the rug hoping that it will go away, hoping that our good Methodist upbringing will shower us with grace and keep our sins closeted away where they need to be. It’s a phenomenal way to think about it, to realize that in some way, holding the mirror up for ourselves or, if we can’t do that, hoping that someone in our life will be grace-filled enough to do it for us, can actually bring us closer to God, actually put us on the road to beginning again.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What power does the parable have in confronting David as opposed to some other way that Nathan might have utilized?
  3. Why is it so difficult for us to see our own misgivings?
  4. How do we usually talk about sin in our society and our culture?
  5. How do you view sin in your own life?
  6. What part did God play in this story?


NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 4: 1-16


This passage is sort of a “hinge” statement for the writer of Ephesians (who, remember, is more than likely not Paul). It wraps up the theological statement in the first three chapters and leads into the material that follows that provides a rationale for the behavior that is required of the church. It is an exhortation to hearers to abandon the old ways and fully enter something new. The primary call is to unity of the church, which the writer views as a reflection of God’s gift of reconciliation in Christ. But this is a process, rather than a completed event. Unity is part of the maturity of the church itself. Unity is the way to wholeness.

But while the process is going on, the church is called to build up the members of itself, rather than posing some sort of “requirement” of where they have to be before they enter the church. That is the reason, as the author sees it, that God endowed members of the church with certain leadership gifts. But in Ephesians, unity is not the same as uniformity. This is not a closed unity that shields the church and keeps it “safe” with its set and staid doctrines and beliefs; it is rather an expansive and open unity, growing and dynamic. The mystery of God does not wipe out the distinctions between groups within the church. The call is that even in the midst of diversity the church will become one in Christ. It is a call to a “grown-up” faith that recognizes what God has provided and listens for what God is calling us to do. We are to live a life worthy of our calling, a life worthy of what we were created to be.

Part of the message here, again, is that God’s generous love reaches out to include. No one is too far away; no one is too far gone; no one has sunk too low. It is a message of grace. We are all called by God. So these leadership positions are not “rewards” but roles through which the leaders reach out to everyone in the name of Christ. Endowed with gifts, we are now partners with God in ministry and ministry-making. We are now partners in building the Kingdom of God.

You and I might lament our meager gifts. We might even wish for some that were more positive and attractive, but such wishing is a waste of time. There is a wonderful story that comes from Jewish tradition about a man named Simon. And Simon wanted always to be more like Moses ~ That was his constant worry. And he kept going to the Rabbi and saying, “Rabbi I must lead my life so that I live more like Moses did.” The Rabbi told him once “Simon God will not ask you why you were not more like Moses? God will ask you why you were not more like Simon?”

We have to live our own lives. I do not know why you have the gifts you have and I have the ones I have. I only know that we have them for the same reason, to build up the Body of Christ, to benefit others, to serve the communities of which we are a part. That is the central issue in the business of living.

So are you a gifted person? Yes, absolutely. Where you come from is a gift. Who you are is a gift, what you long to be are all gifts given you by God. The opportunities you have that come from where you are now, and what is going on now and the relationships you have now are also gifts from God. Use them to the Glory of God ~ to the building up of the Body of Christ. Use them to make the world God loves a better place. Do that and you will be doing the business of life. Amen. (From “Gifts”, by Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade, available at http://day1.org/837-gifts, accessed 1 August, 2012)

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does “unity” mean to you?
  3. What do you think “unity” means to most of our society?
  4. How does this speak to our modern-day church?
  5. What does this say about our own calling?
  6. What does it mean for us to “live a life worthy of our calling”?
  7. What does this passage say about leadership?


GOSPEL: John 6: 24-35


This passage follows up to the passage that we read last week about the Feeding of the 5,000. And here Jesus makes a major declaration by claiming that the crowds were following him because their needs had been met. In other words, he is claiming that the crowd really wasn’t that impressed with the miracle itself but in that it had had a positive effect upon them. The implication is that this was sort of a superficial belief and did not lead to real change, to really knowing who Jesus was.

We believe Jesus to be the full revelation of God, but, particularly in John’s Gospel, that revelation does not come to us directly and straightforwardly. And, once again, the crowds do not get it. They hear “bread” and assume that Jesus is talking about baked wheat flour. Jesus notes their incomprehension. They are looking for Jesus, but the “Jesus” for whom they are looking is different from the one they have. Their faith rests, rather, in their idea of a Savior, a King, or perhaps someone who can “fix” all the ills of life. It sort of, then, flies in the face of the notion of the “Feeding of the Multitude” being about the Jesus who can meet all of our needs. In other words, it’s about bread but it’s not just about bread. The bread that filled their stomachs now turns into holy metaphor. Now don’t get me wrong. The passage is not lessening the importance of physical nourishment. There are millions of starving people in the world that can speak to that. But it’s not all there is.

Jesus is depicting faith as belief in something else, in the spiritual, the incarnation of God. Jesus is not trying to hide the truth but to show a new truth—the Word made Flesh. “Seeing” Jesus, seeing signs is not the same as encountering the Christ that is the Word made Flesh, not the same as knowing Christ as God. What is interesting is that most people are good at going where their own physical needs are met and, yet, many try to “spiritualize” others’ material needs. Jesus is trying, though, to connect their physical hunger back to their spiritual hunger. The two cannot be separated. After all, what good are “signs” if one is physically hungry and what good is eating if one is spiritually wanting? Encountering Christ recognizes that we are called to feed the world both physically and spiritually. We can neither concentrate on just the physical nor can we over-spiritualize the basic need of the human body for physical food. We are called to be the “signs” of Christ’s presence in the world. We are called to be sacrament in this world.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does the term “Bread of Life” mean for you?
  3. What stands in the way of our seeing Christ as the Bread of Life?
  4. What needs compel people to follow Christ?
  5. How do those needs affect our faith, our view of Christ, and our view of the Church?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Perhaps if we are brave enough to accept our monsters, to love them, to kiss them, we will find that we are touching not the terrible dragon that we feared, but the loving Lord of all Creation. And when we meet our Creator, we will be judged for all our turnings away, all our inhumanity to each other, but it will be the judgment of inexorable love, and in the end we will know the mercy of God which is beyond all comprehension. (Madeline L’Engle, “Waiting for Judas”, in Bread and Wine)

Vocation is the place where your deepest gladness and the world’s greatest hunger meet. (Frederick Buechner)


Sure, people need Jesus, but most of the time, what they really need is for someone to be Jesus to them. (Reuben Welch)



O Ingenious God, I rejoice in your creation, and pray that your Spirit touch me so deeply that I will find a sense of self which makes me glad to be who I am and yet restless at being anything less than I can become.

Make me simple enough not to be confused by disappointments,

Clear enough not to mistake busyness for freedom,

Honest enough not to expect truth to be painless,

Brave enough not to sing all my songs in private,

Compassionate enough to get in trouble,

Humble enough to admit trouble and seek help,

Joyful enough to celebrate all of it, myself and others and you through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(“Touch Me Deeply so that I will Find a Sense of Self”, by Ted Loder, in Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, 82 )