The Radiance of Torah: A Sermon for St. Alban's, Oxford, 21 January, 2007
I Cor. 1:21-31a
Lk. 4: 14-24
Today's readings are perhaps more significant for what they do not say than for what they do say. In the Nehemiah reading, we are told that the priest, Ezra, helped the people, newly-returned from exile to Jerusalem, to understand the Law, the Torah, by which they would now live, the relationship with God that forms all of life. But exactly what he said is hidden from us except for these words: "The joy of the Lord is your strength."
In the second reading from First Corinthians, Paul falls all over himself trying to describe the whole-that-is-more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts that is the unity-in-diversity of the body. Some of his difficulties arise from the fact that he is trying to communicate unity using language that can express itself only in dualisms. While the analogy of the body for unity-in-diversity is a good one, this passage is but a preface to the more famous verses that immediately follow, which were not read this morning: "If I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not love, I am nothing."
In the Gospel, Jesus does not try to explain how Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled in himself; he says only that it is. [Isa. 61] But later in the same chapter he goes on to use the analogy of Naaman's healing from leprosy, which came about not through words, penance, or blood sacrifice, but rather through a great act of faith in which Naaman, a stranger, let go of everything he thought he knew.
Joy; Love; Faith; certainly it would be possible to nail down the continuity of today's readings through these words and notions which work together seamlessly, and provide us with a familiar framework of aspiration. But that is precisely the problem: we tend to get stuck in our familiar frameworks; we lose any sense of immediacy. So let us look instead at the psalm.
It begins with an account of the creation's praise of God, which is immediately followed by a paradox of silence and speech through which it gives this glory. Creation has no "voice" as we human beings understand that word; nonetheless, one day pours out its song to another, and in the contemplative dark, wisdom is transmitted.
Perhaps it is the presence of this paradox of silent voice and communicative silence that has made the exact translation of verses two through four controversial. But in an interpretive context, textual paradoxes often signal interior processes at work beneath the plain sense of the text.
One of my most memorable encounters with this psalm was in the late '80s, in Juneau, Alaska, in the office of a Tlingit Elder. He was a hereditary chief who at that time was in charge of his Native corporation's efforts to preserve what was left of Tlingit cultural heritage in the wake of its often deliberate destruction at the hands of white people.
This destruction took many forms, from the introduction of disease and alcohol, to the forced evacuation of children to boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their own language. The children were forced to learn English and to live by to European standards; their cultural heritage was vilified.
Back at home, living conditions became so difficult that villagers had to sell their tribal heirlooms to collectors and museums simply to stay alive. Sometimes the collectors just stole them.
But the dislocating effects of these cultural clashes are not limited to artifacts or enforced language. Many Native people continue to remark that one of the most difficult, often impossible adjustments to the Euro-American way, has been the Anglo-European insistence on separating time from space and motion, and the increasingly frenetic and insensitive speed with which this fundamental dislocation requires people to move and speak, if they are to maintain an illusion of balance.
Even today, missionaries still do their best to destroy what they find among indigenous peoples. They do not bother to listen, to understand, or to enculturate. In spite of the best efforts to reconstitute Native culture in Alaska, the average life expectancy of a Native male is 47 years, and he has a 97 percent chance of passing through the degradation of alcoholism before he dies.
It was in this more sombre context that I went to see this Elder, and I was very aware that my presence in his office was to a certain extent impertinent, no matter how good my intentions. He, like his peers, had followed the statistical trajectory through alcoholism, but was atypical in that not only was he recovering, but along the way he also had acquired an MBA.
Our conversation had been circling around the question of preservation of Raven stories. This was a complex topic because stories in Tlingit culture are considered patrimony. They are earned by maturing young people, and passed from one generation to the next in elaborate ceremonies. This is a notion that cuts much deeper than that of intellectual property. At that time, there had been far too many incidents of white people publishing these stories without having any right to them, and making money off them, of which the Tlingit saw not one penny.
In addition to these general tribal concerns, the Elder made me aware of the continuing negative pressure and personal hurt that he was undergoing from the Assemblies of God church which he attended. His anguish was all the greater because of his position as conservator and keeper of his people's culture. The non-Native members of his church regarded Tlingit stories and the artifacts that accompany them as idolatry, and as ancestor worship. I had the impression that he had been subject, both personally and professionally, to a lot of religious bullying.
There was a pause in our measured discussion while he shifted in his chair and quietly interjected what seemed to be a complete change of subject.
"You know," he said, "I've been thinking a lot about my grandfather lately. When I was young, I used to go out and pick the nets with him. It was cold, and I wanted to get it done in a hurry, but if you hurry, you just get tangles, and it takes even longer. My grandfather used to remind me that you can pick the nets only one square at a time."
"You know," he said, "when I was doing my MBA it was a terrible time. I remember one night, very late, when I was trying to understand some financial papers; I was ready to quit. And then for some reason I remembered fishing, and in my mind I heard my grandfather say, 'You can pick the nets only one square at a time.' Is this ancestor worship?"
Another pause, and a long silence. Then he opened the top left-hand drawer of his desk and pulling out a well-worn copy of the King James translation of the Bible, said, "I don't know why, but for some reason I've been thinking about this psalm..."
He leafed slowly through the pages. He found what he wanted, and began to read:
"The heavens declare the glory of God *
and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
One day telleth another *
and one night certifieth another...."
He stopped reading, raised his head, and looked at me, questioning.
From somewhere deep inside, next two verses arose and spoke themselves through my mouth:
"There is neither speech nor language *
but their voices are heard among them.
Their sound is gone out into all lands *
and their words into the ends of the world."
For this Elder, the paradox of silence and speech in the psalm had proved a lifeline.
[To be continued.]