I’d like to start with a survey: how many of you remember the first time that you heard a story around a campfire?
For me, the memory is indelible – it is a huge part of my personal mythology. I was away at camp for the first time, sleeping in a cabin without my family for the first time. I was maybe my youngest child’s age, so about seven years old. And the whole experience felt full of joy and danger and possibility. We stayed up way later than I did at home – it was near the summer solstice and we went out at some impossibly late hour to see the stars in their ancient immensity.
And then having gazed in wonder at the sky, we sat around the campfire.
The teacher or counsellor who told the story that night was named Steve. And Steve shared with us a tale of horror. In retrospect, it was kind of a goofy tale of horror, a riff on Poe whereby this guy murders his neighbour and then he is haunted by his neighbour’s coffin as it comes thump, thump, thumping up the stairs. But when I was seven it might’ve been the greatest story that I had ever heard, it kept me on the edge of my seat or, I suppose, on the edge of my log.
The story ended, by the way, with the hopelessly hokey punchline:
The door burst open and the coffin came in and our hero thought all was lost.
But then he took out his package of Vick’s and he stopped the coffin.
A lot of years later, when I started encountering the stories of the Bible, the penny dropped for me: I realised that, in origin, around the campfire is where almost all of these stories of faith would first have been told. Before there were scrolls or books or e-readers these stories were shared from people’s memories and hearts.
Most scholars reckon that no fewer than 20 years elapsed between Jesus’ death and the first of the Gospels, Mark, being committed to paper. And unless there are older texts that got lost, unless that scholarly guess is right and there really is a lost document that predates Mark, that means that for two or more decades the story of Jesus’ birth, his life, his death, his resurrection was remembered and told by folks like Steve to people like me, sitting on the logs around the fire and listening hard for what happens next.
How is the story different when there is no physical text involved, when there is no paper but just the human voice around the fire? Well, for one physical context becomes part a way deeper of the story. When it is the night and you are under the immense beauty of the stars, when the darkness is all around you, your imagination is unlocked in a way that, maybe, it is not and cannot be inside a building with artificial light and a text on a lectern. Around the campfire, you touch something primal, and it is a little easier – a lot easier – to imagine that coffins might chase people around or that Jacob might walk away from the fire and wrestle with a stranger in the darkness.
The campfire is a place of holy possibility.
The other thing that is different around the campfire is that the story is interactive. The story happens, to borrow a phrase from the world of computers, in real time. Steve listens to our reactions and he alters the story accordingly. We ask him questions – what colour was the coffin, what did the house the guy lived in look like, how does a coffin climb stairs anyway, given that a coffin doesn’t have feet – and Steve responds. In a sense, everyone who sits around the campfire tells the story together.
When written text shows up, it changes all of this. Suddenly, you need enough light to read, and light lessens the magic and the danger. And suddenly the story is the same, it is consistent, everywhere and always. If I am reading Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World to my son before he goes to bed (which I am), it is the very same text that someone else is reading to their child across the country or across the world or even across time. Maybe I do the voices differently, maybe my pacing is different, but by and large the story is identical. I am not changing Dahl’s tale as my son says why or how or more.
Today, we hear this reading from Nehemiah. In it, Ezra the scribe has a book or, more likely, a scroll, and he gathers the people and he reads to them from the law of Moses. This scene likely takes place in the 6th or 5th century before the Common Era, so maybe 500 years before Jesus’ birth. This is the time when, in much of the ancient world, the stories of faith and of life and of being human are being committed to paper on a scale and in a way that they had not been before. Plato is writing around this time, so is the Buddha, so is Confucius.
Now, there are couple of a fascinating lines in the passage that we just heard. The first one goes goes like this: Ezra reads the law to all who could hear with understanding. The second line, a little while later, says that Ezra reads the law with interpretation.
Do these qualifications mean – and here and throughout the sermon I am drawing heavily here on the research of the wonderful scholar, Paul Nuechterlein – that the ideas are too complex for some of Ezra’s listeners to understand, that there is a theological nuance that some of his audience can’t quite track and, therefore, that he has to walk them through it? Or does it mean that we’re now living in a time in which not everyone can understand Hebrew and, therefore, Ezra has to keep on stopping to translate, that hearing this is a little like watching a movie in a language that you don’t know, so Ezra has to hit pause every couple of minutes to explain what the characters just said?
Either way, something is happening as Ezra reads from this text that doesn’t happen around the campfire – or, at least, that doesn’t happen when the storyteller is any good. Because Ezra is reading from a set text rather than telling a story or making an argument in a real-time collaboration with his listener, the mutuality that happens around the campfire is radically diminished. I suspect that we’ve all had the experience of hearing someone speak and being super engaged during the part of the speech when they are extemporaneously drawing on their own experience, but then losing our engagement, our eyes glazing over a wee bit, when the speaker starts reading from prepared remarks. The written text allows precision, but it also diminishes communion. It ramps up the likelihood that we will hear but not understand.
It seems to me that we encounter Ezra’s problem in church with some regularity. We have a set text that we read from the lectern or, if it’s the Gospel, in the middle of the aisle. Sometimes the text is confusing. If you’re like me (and I don’t know if I should admit this), that confusion comes up particularly often during the Epistle, during the second reading. That confusion can make it hard to listen. Occasionally, when I am travelling and I visit a church, I have the disquieting impression that not only do I not understand the Epistle, but neither does the person reading it. We are united in mutual incomprehension.
And sometimes the text is not so much confusing as it is hard, such as when it appears to paint a picture of God that we don’t like.
What do we do then?
Today in the Gospel, Jesus offers a possible answer to that question. And it is an answer that may be kind of shocking to us. What do you do when you are reading the Bible and you encounter something that is inconsistent with what you know about God? Well, you draw on your experience around the campfire and you edit the text.
Jesus’ quote from Isaiah is actually a combination of two passages. From 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 brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor. And from Isaiah 58: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
If you know your Bible, if you know Isaiah, you will know that, in addition to stitching verses 61 and 58 together, Jesus has omitted something from 61, he has stopped reading in mid-sentence. The original passage says:
…to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God.
The original text gives us what Nuechterlein calls the conventional messianic dream of an oppressed people. In other words, the Messiah is going to come, he is going to put things right for us, he is going to release our prisoners, he is going to heal our broken hearts. And then he is going to turn to those who have oppressed us and he is going to kick ass and take names.
And Jesus, like Steve around the campfire, knows that this line about vengeance isn’t right, it isn’t part of the story that his listeners need to hear.
And so, in his version, it is gone.
Here’s the question: Christians are called to be Christ-like, to imitate Jesus. But dare we emulate him imitate him here?
Jesus, well, he’s Jesus. He’s the Son of God, light from light, true God from true God. And if wants to edit the Word of the Lord, then he is probably qualified to do so. But could someone like you and me possibly do the same? If I just start editing the Bible, cutting out anything that I find strange or confusing or troubling, then what am I going to go except make God in my own image? This is what the scholars call eisegesis, where I project myself into the text, where I look down into a well and, without realising it, see nothing but my own reflection looking back.
And maybe that would be enough to stop the Christian from emulating Jesus when it comes to scripture. Except that, here too, maybe the campfire offers us a possibility. Because around the fire, the tale is never told alone, the editing is not done alone. The storyteller under the stars is not a novelist, putting their words into a machine and then sending them out to the world fixed permanently to the page. Rather, this storyteller is a collaborator.
If Paul is telling the truth and all of us together really are the Body of Christ, if we are Jesus’ hands and feet and voice in this hurting world, then maybe, together, we are qualified to edit this story. To shape the tradition we have received. To remind one another, as our friends in the United Church of Christ have it, that God is still speaking.
Together, maybe we can figure out how to be like Jesus. Together, maybe we can figure out which parts of the story we need to edit, to change, to add to. Together, we will proclaim the amazing story of God.