Preacher: Nathan Hosler
Scriptures: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19 , 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21
I’m going to start with a spoiler alert: Though I will stand in front of you and talk for a while—by the end of this sermon I will say that a preacher standing in front of you preaching is not the only way to hear from God.
Last Sunday, several of us had an extended and lovely conversation after church, regarding church theology. Part of the discussion centered on comparing the Church of the Brethren and Orthodoxy on church hierarchy and power relationships as well as styles of simple clothing.
We also discussed knowledge—particularly theology and how we do or do not articulate it and how it is or is not woven into our practices. Though we may often do our ordinances such as feet washing or love feast with a bit too much ease and not enough reflection, these practices are a form of theological knowing or embodiment. We learn what it means to follow and know Jesus through these and other actions of discipleship and faith.
Our Bible passages today all present forms of knowing or are relevant for our work together in gaining greater understanding of God.
In the book of Nehemiah, the people are back from exile. They were carried off from their land and on returning are struggling to rebuild. Nehemiah, who has become an official in exile, returns with permission to evaluate and rebuild. This rebuilding is of physical structures such as the wall around the city, but also of the religious life. In our passage the people gather for a reading. They stand and listen to the words of scripture. Upon hearing, they weep, but Nehemiah exhorts them to celebrate. Though grief and repentance are an appropriate response, this is also a time of joy. A joyful time of getting reacquainted with the word of God. Not only did they hear the words of the law, but the teachers taught and explained.
In verse 8 we hear, “So they read from the book from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense so that the people understood the reading.”
Here we have what we might often think of as of church knowledge. There is the scripture—which is understood to be Divine communication. It is presented in a public religious gathering. And the leaders, who are identified by a particular vocation, calling, and/or religious training, teach and explain what is being read. This is not simply the transference of information, but the understanding is flowing mostly one direction. Not only is the knowledge of God and God’s law spread through the community, but the position of the people and the readers is theological (as well as cultural in assumptions of honoring and practical in terms of literacy, availability of the text, and the lack of a sound system).
Our local and global Church of the Brethren family embodies and shows theological beliefs in many (basically all) ways. These embodied beliefs can be explicit or implicit and with varying degrees of intention. These include our official and practical ways of reading the Bible, how we define and practice “set apart” ministry of pastor, our manner of worship, and our relationship to matters of money and power.
The sanctuary of the Washington City Church of the Brethren was built in 1899 and has a raised platform for the ministers to preach from. However, within the last 10 years we moved the pulpit down to the main floor. Traditionally, within the Brethren there was a prohibition of a raised platform. The preachers, though with a particular task, were seen as part of the congregation. Our congregation also has stained glass windows, which were pretty fancy for Brethren at that time. Simple buildings were a theological statement of our relationship towards God and the world. Were our windows an example of theological extravagance or an ecumenical gesture in an urban environment? Was dressing simply a way to express theological truth or to isolate ourselves?
At times, perhaps often, the broader Church has prioritized formal written or spoken theology. The early and later Church of the Brethren embraced being “non-creedal” or “no creed but the New Testament.” They did this because they felt that many Christians simply affirmed a Creed but were not in any way changed by this intellectual position. This was not necessarily an opposition to the content of the Creeds but aimed to be an expansion to a fuller expression of following Jesus. In Jesus, we see both a proclamation by word but also the inseparability of word from action. In Jesus inaugural speaking in the Gospel of Luke he quotes from Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Let us join in the proclamation of God in word and deed!
Not only is the knowledge of God proclaimed by words in scripture and those called out by the community, but we gain insight from all of Creation. As beings also created by God we are co-discoverers and co-proclaimers of God’s goodness with all of rest of creation. In Psalm 19 we read,
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and Teaching of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the ways that trees communicate. Robin is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a Professor of Environmental Biology and she writes, “In the old times, our elders say, the trees talked to each other. They’d stand in their own council and craft a plan. But scientists decided long ago that plants were deaf and mute, locked in isolation without communication.” She goes on to note that there is now compelling evidence that the elders were right. Not only is communication possible via “pheromones…hormonelike compounds that are wafted on the breeze, laden with meaning” but forests are connected through fungal networks. These networks and communication seem to alert to insect invasions and may synchronize fruit “masting” as well as redistribution of energy among trees.
In our Psalm today we read, “There is no speech, nor are there words: their voice is not heard: yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” Though speaking of all of Creation and not only trees, we see forms of balance and communication when there is ecological wellbeing. We also see the presence of the Creating One. What some have called voiceless and merely resources to be exploited, are a joyful heralds of God.
Let us join in this proclamation of joy!
In 1 Corinthians we read the passage on the “body of Christ” which comes in chapter 12. Much of the first part of the book and the context of the Corinthian church focuses on divisions within the body. Factions and identities have formed around certain leaders as well as around approaches to living and sexuality. Indian scholar, Joseph Pathrapankal, reflects on the divisions among Christians in India in a context of religious pluralism and being a religious minority community. He observes that, though the Indian church is well represented beyond its size in social-economic and health endeavors, its witness is undercut by many divisions—many of which were introduced by European and American missionaries who discounted many aspects of the indigenous Indian Christians who were there before they arrived.
I cannot speak for other church settings, but within the Church of the Brethren, the “Body of Christ” is an image is referred to regularly. One might argue that it is a key text in our theology of church—in our ecclesiology. In the image we see the church reflected as the body of Christ. The physical earthly presence of the ascended from our sight Christ. The passage highlights the mutual nature of our ministry. Jointly ministering in unique ways in cooperation with our fellow travelers and Jesus.
In it, the body of Christ is made up of many individuals who have specific and important roles within the life of the church. Not only does this image and theology elevate and challenge the assumption that some (the pastor or religious professionals) should be the ministry service providers, but it elevates the work of those who may not normally be seen as elevated. Commentator, Boykin Sanders, notes that some believe the listing of the gifts corroborates a hierarchy of gifts. However, he asserts that the list inverts the assumptions of the Corinthian church and levels the playing field.
Like all written or oral communication, this passage uses certain literary tools to relate its theological point. The “body of Christ” is a figure of speech that does work. The work it does is to describe and portray a rather abstract and esoteric theological idea in quite tangible and graspable word-pictures. However, there are always limits to the use of figures of speech. We gain in vividness but such pictures resist closure—resist resolution.
Differing body parts have differing work to do. There is not, however, a direct connection between ministry X and person Y such that Jacob = musician = elbow (guitar strumming being the connection). This also does not comment on if these various parts/ministry folk are volunteer or part-time with other gigs—given Paul’s writing on working for a living or being compensated for ministry elsewhere (as well as other historical and sociological data) it seems that very few folks would be doing this professionally as primary employment in the time of the New Testament.
This also does not comment on the nose’s having more than one ministry function. People are more complex and have more functions than, say, a toenail. It merely says we are part of the body and that we shouldn’t try to be the same thing. As the little jingle goes from a video that our 3-year-old watches, “You can be more than one thing.”
I got thinking about this in relation to the other passages, which deal with variations of knowing or knowledge.
Within organized religious structures the assumptions of understanding, knowing, and dispersing the knowledge this has been heavily weighted and enforced towards people a lot like me—white, male, advanced theological education, ordination, married, straight, part of a recognized religious structure, able-bodied, first-language being the dominate language. While I do not think that these characteristics necessarily discredit my take on scripture, they certainly limit me. To gain more understanding and to more faithfully and rightfully live, I need others.
The community of Jesus-followers is made up of many members. Each have an important window into the life of the Divine-the way of Jesus. This does not mean that we cannot reasonably disagree and make a case for a particular understanding or practice. It does mean that we can learn and gain insight—especially from those who often have been not heard or intentionally shut out. This community needs all members to function well. We cannot minister well or discern well if we are missing or muffling the voices of the children of God.
Let us hear the Spirit speak through all!