TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTACOST
Prayer of the Day: Holy God, our righteous judge, daily your mercy surprises us with everlasting forgiveness. Strengthen our hope in you, and grant that all the peoples of the earth may find their glory in you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” Psalm 84:5.
Not many years ago, a pastoral colleague in my pericope discussion group remarked, “I don’t know who Ezra was or what he did.” While I would find such an admission troubling on the lips of any believer, coming as it did from a fellow pastor left me searching for my jaw down on the floor where it had fallen. Ezra, of course, was the teacher credited with re-establishing Hebrew society, culture and worship in the Holy Land for the Jewish exiles returning from captivity in Babylon. His reinterpretation of Torah for the community of refugees returned home formed the basis for a fresh, renewed Judaism. The legacy Ezra and his disciples left behind gave shape to the hopes expressed by the prophets and set a foundation for the growth and development of both the synagogue and the church. How could a preacher not know about Ezra?
I think that perhaps the fault likes in part with the common lectionary and the way it has been fed to us throughout the years of my ministry. Most of us in the ELCA received pre-printed bulletin inserts with the lessons, the prayer of the day and some ready made petitions for use in the general prayers. This made it much easier for us to avoid pulling the Bible off the shelf and finding the readings ourselves. And let’s face it, in days filled with parish obligations of one kind or another, anything that saved a few minutes of our time was more than welcome. Of course, there were downsides. Unless you made a conscious effort to explore the whole biblical context of the lessons-which involved pulling the Bible off the shelf-you were left with a disembodied text without any “before” or “after.” Moreover, the lectionary leaves a good deal of scripture unexplored. If all you have is the lectionary, there are many stories, legends and poems that will never intersect with your life and ministry or find their way into your preaching. There are many fascinating biblical characters you will never meet. Finally, the makers of the lectionary tend to “censor” the readings in ways that are not always helpful. Unless you are paying close attention to the verse numbers, you might not even realize that passages from the lessons have been omitted. Of course, that too can be remedied by pulling the Bible off the shelf. For all its benefits, the lectionary as it is given to us tends to encourage laziness, carelessness and breeds a sense of disconnection with the larger Biblical narrative.
This disconnect between the Biblical narrative and our use of the Bible in worship and liturgy has produced a Biblically illiterate membership. Most of our members these days are far more familiar with some version of the American story than the Biblical one. Sadly, for us mainliners, the Bible serves as little more than window dressing for our progressive, ever white and ever polite social agendas-which might be just fine, but can stand well enough on their own without the frosting. Of course, the white evangelical wing of American religion finds little use for the Bible beyond employing it as a weapon in the culture wars. While I suspect that nearly every American home has a Bible in it somewhere, most of them are probably doing little more than collecting dust. The Bible has become in many respects a stranger to us.
That is what led me to advise a seminarian in a sermon preached at her ordination as follows: Read the gospels-one chapter each morning seriatim-Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And don’t worry that you find yourself reading the Christmas story on Good Friday. The feasts of the church year do not exist in isolation from the rest of the Biblical narrative. Read regularly the whole Psalter, two psalms a day, morning and night, from one to one hundred fifty. Don’t worry that the language, moods and content don’t seem to resonate. There are prayers in the Psalter you have no idea how much you will need later in life. Read through the rest of the Bible one chapter each evening from Genesis to Revelation. Get to know the Biblical characters and not just the Sarah’s, Abraham’s, David’s and Esther’s. Get to know the marginalized, exploited and suppressed voices seeking to be heard. Cain, the exiled murderer. Tamar the rape victim, the daughter of Lot who narrowly missed being handed over for gang rape to the mob at Sodom and the nameless concubine of the Levite in Judges who was not so fortunate. Get to know Hagar, the discarded wife and Ishmael, her disowned child. Meet Esau, the disenfranchised son. You will meet all of them in your ministry. They need to know that they, too, are caught up in the grand sweep of God’s story by the “God of seeing.” Genesis 16:1-14.
The psalm for this Sunday is likely a song composed by and for Jews making pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem on high feast days similar to the “songs of ascent” found at Psalms 120-134. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, (c. 1962 b S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 565-566. The vivid description of the pilgrims’ travels through the wilderness on their approach to Mt. Zion suggests to me a post-exhilic time when many Jews continued to live in lands far removed from Palestine. Vs. 5-7. Though separated from the holy city by miles, foreign borders and dangerous terrain, still “the highways to Zion” are indelibly etched into the hearts of these Jews from distant lands. Vs. 5. I believe that the scriptures ought to be for preachers, no less than the rest of us, “highways to Zion.” That is, the songs, stories and preaching along which we travel to find our place among the people of God and the meaning, purpose and direction for our lives.
Much like the home described in the following poem by David Igatow, the Bible should be for us a home which, familiar as it might become, has undiscovered corners, closets stuffed with items loaded with meaning and memories of times good and bad. It is a place that is forever open, welcoming our return. Yet it is forever turning our gaze beyond itself to the open road. The ways forward and back become inscribed on the heart-like the highways to Zion.
I am looking for a past
I can rely on
in order to look to death
What was given me:
my mother’s largeness
to protect me,
my father’s regularity
in coming home from work
at night, his opening the door
silently and smiling,
pleased to be back
and the lights on
in all the rooms
through which I could run
freely or sit at ease
at table and do my homework
undisturbed: love arranged
as order directed at the next day.
Going to bed was a journey.
David Ignatow (1914-1997) was born in Brooklyn and lived most of his life in New York. He published sixteen volumes of poetry and three prose collections. He taught at Columbia, the New School for Social Research, the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas, York College of the City University of New York, New York University and Vassar College. He has worked as editor for both the American Poetry Review and Beloit Poetry Journal. You can read more about David Ignatow and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.