Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Epiphany 3 - Sunday, January 24, 2016
The paired readings from Nehemiah and Luke present the wondrous event of public speech bringing to pass what it proclaims. In Jesus’ debut in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth he states that the promise of good news brought to the poor, release given to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and God’s jubilee year is fulfilled as soon as the words struck home.
What are we to make of this enigmatic statement which produces, first, congregational amazement at the giftedness of the hometown boy, followed by rage upon his identifying them with the hometowners who cannot accept a prophetic message from a fellow hometowner, one of those traits mentioned by Garrison Keillor in stories about his mid West prairie home. In Lake Wobegon it behooves you to diminish your aspirations.
Nevertheless there must be those beside the burghers of Nazareth who are capable of hearing and believing, of suspending disbelief in the presence of this prophet, in whom word and fulfillment coincide. Are we the burghers or do we stand elsewhere? A clue lies in the quality of our expectation; for example:
The first would clearly be the Torah festival described in the reading from Nehemiah. Ezra the priest, fluent in Hebrew, read from the book of the law of Moses from early morning until midday to a large congregation of those who had returned from exile, a specially staged reading over that stretch of time.
One can see what a command performance this was by surveying the narrative which precedes it - Nehemiah’s plea for the exiles, his dispatch to Jerusalem by the Babylonian king, his inspection of the walls of Jerusalem in total disrepair, the organization of repair despite the formidable hostility of those who’d been excluded from the exile, the establishment of Nehemiah’s administrative ‘creds‘ as the work proceeds in his dealing with oppression and the foiling of hostile intrigue, the completion of the city wall, and, importantly, carefully compiled lists of the categories of returned exiles directly preceding the account of the Torah festival itself.
It’s as if Israel were freshly reconstituted as God’s people in a second exodus upon its rescue from captivity and was standing at Mount Sinai for the first time, and hearing the law of Moses for the first time, and therefore weeping in realization of their transgression. We can see that the buildup to this is extremely charged and creates an expectation whereby the words proclaimed become a kind of living event.
Here’s a little commentary on that: On the opening Broadway night of “A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Marlon Brando among others, Tennessee Williams, the playwright, sent Brando this telegram: “Ride out, boy, and send it solid. From the greasy Pollack you’ll someday arrive at the gloomy Dane, for you have something which makes the theatre a world of infinite possibility.” The play, as you remember, was given a half-hour’s standing ovation that night. And there came a voice from heaven, “Ride out, boy, and send it solid!”
We have it also in the Order’s archives almost beneath our feet.
When Br. Adam and I transported them from West Park to the Episcopal Church’s facility in Austin, Texas back in 1976 and were leafing through some of the boxes deposited there, we came across an advertisement put out by Fr. Huntington for a teaching mission he was about to give. Of course it gave all the info to entice people to attend, but the kicker was its concluding statement characteristic of Holy Cross mission promos of the period which simply said in large type, “Expect Much.”
The emphasis suggests the conversation in the pivotal chapter of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in which Shug asks Celie if she ever found God in church, reminding her that the only occasions in which she herself found God in church were related to the God she brought into church with her.
It suggests a lesson brought to me on a sunny Saturday morning a while ago in Berkeley, California where I happened to meet Raymond Brown leaving the breakfast cafeteria of the Jesuit School of Theology. Dr. Brown had given a lecture the previous evening, so I recognized him and thought, “Aha! my chance to verify the theory I’d concocted to explain the Feeding of the Five Thousand in the Fourth Gospel.” This in relation to the homily I was to give in a local church the next morning. So I go into this song and dance which I thought pretty good, but which dodged the issue of God’s inbreaking. When I finished, Raymond Brown gazed at me a moment, then practically exploded, “But they were expecting this!”
One of the contributors to the 1982 Hymnal of the Episcopal Church is Charles Price who as well as being a gifted hymnologist was an extraordinary theologian and teacher at the Virginia Theological Seminary in the 1980s and 90s, before that the Preacher to the University at Harvard in the 1960s and 70s, the position, in fact, held at one time by James Huntington’s father. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Charlie Price was esteemed thesalt of the earth in his ministry at Harvard, attracting people far and near to the eleven a.m. Sunday worship in Memorial Church. It was he, incidentally, who hired Peter Gomes onto the church staff in the sixties, where Peter went on to imprint his own indelible mark.
I was one of those who regularly went to hear Charlie preach on a Sunday morning and what I always remember in addition to those sermons delivered with rhetorical elegance is the atmosphere of expectation and waiting which could be cut with a knife inside that spare white Colonial interior looking like a Cistercian house of worship.
Yes, the word of God was amazing, and a catalyst to what we’d brought with us - like the demonstration of a supersaturated solution in organic chemistry which appears as a clear liquid, but if you add only a crystal, the entire solution changes into crystal.