[Some parts of this sermon are stolen, borrowed, copied from others, but the whole of it was knit together by me.]
THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY
January 24, 2016
“Everything Depends on Remembering”
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-12
Today we get to go to church. Three churches, really. The first is not in this sanctuary, not on this date, but in Israel soon after the return from the Babylonian captivity. The people, under the watchful eye of Ezra and Nehemiah begin to rebuild their shattered lives and their city, now in shambles.
While rebuilding the walls of the city, something remarkable happened. An ancient scroll was discovered. It was a Torah scroll.
This discovery came in a moment when reconstruction was not only a revitalization project for the temple and city walls. The future of these people is in serious doubt. Enemies still threaten from outside, internal disagreements threaten the future of the community. Just how to re-establish Jerusalem in safety and peace is a point of contention.
The question about the future life of the Jews is an urgent matter. Some, no doubt, looked to the glorious past and sought a return to those days in practice and in shape and in function. Because human beings now are not so different than then, I suspect, others sought to throw off the so-called ‘old ways’ and start from scratch.
In reality, what was necessary then and now, to rebuild their faith and cultural life, was the recovery of their pre-exile view of the world; but they must reimagine it for a new situation because the world, their world and the world around them, has changed.
A few weeks ago I was driving between appointments and was listening to NPR. On a talk show they had on two economists (whose names I cannot recall). The Fed had just upped interest rates and the host and one of the esteemed economists were discussing how the economy might be revitalized. The third voice finally interjected saying, “I wish you would stop using the term ‘recovery.’ There will be no recovery. What has happened to us has decidedly changed our world. You may say ‘transition,’ you may even say ‘transformation,’ but please, don’t say ‘recovery.’
Recovery looks for the past to return. Transformation looks for change into the future.
In the last episode of Downton Abby, one of the servants, the under-butler Thomas Barrow, is looking for another position. He responds to an advertisement in the paper and goes to a nearby estate. Mr. Barrow is invited in by the Master of the estate and finds it, as the Master himself comments, ‘having slipped.’ But in his imagination, that is not how the master see’s it. ’Sir Living In the Past’ remembers when they had grand parties and drones on and on about the candlelight illuminating the happy faces of the upper class during Times That Won’t Ever Happen Again. Thomas hightails it out of there, left with the realization that — again — times are different and his job skills will soon be obsolete.
At the Downton Abby, in ancient Israel, and in our midst, the world is not only changing but has changed. Familiar ways of structure and relationship are now obsolete. In every single case, the biggest question is this: can the institution remain true to it’s timeless truths and be transformed.
I use the term transform intentionally. See, there is no going back. No matter how much I may desire it there is no recovery of the halcyon days of my youth when my ‘stay at home’ mother would scrub us up, take us to Sunday school and church every week. Just as did everyone else’s family I knew. Some not only long for the past, but are stuck in believing that the present ‘isn’t how it should be.’
There are others, of course, whose memory does not contain the same content as mine. These folks are often baffled at my pining for the ‘good ‘ole days.’
Gathered there near the Water Gate is a similar crowd. Some who have lived long enough to know the way things were and some who only know the way things are. For all of them their history has given them an amnesia of sorts. Their faith seems distant, or their faith seems irrelevant. But somehow all of them realize that there is a ‘something more’ to life other than the way we knew it or the way it is. They command the priest Ezra to bring forth this scroll. He stands on the platform placed at the gate for deliberation and judgment and reads.
The scripture is read and the people who knew the way things were and the people who know the way things are dutifully respond, “Amen, amen.”
It must have been similar to times when one of our scripture lessons is particularly challenging and we automatically go on to the rubric where the reader says, “The Word of the Lord,” and we reply, “thanks be to God” even while some reservations rise in our hearts and we may have wanted to say, “well, maybe.” Being the good pastor that Ezra is, he sends out some colleagues to ensure that the people understand what has been read.
And ever since, God had ensured that someone would go forth into the community to ensure that no literal reading of Holy Scripture goes without interpretation. Those colleagues of Ezra ensure that the reading does not inflict the rigid orthodoxy of the past on the gathered people, but urges them to meet God anew in the changing times in which they find themselves.
The beauty of their interpretation is that those who knew the way things were and those who know the way things are are both moved to proclaim, “yes, that is it.” And they weep.
It appears as if Ezra understands these tears as tears of sadness, caused by the people’s recognition that they had forgotten God’s law. That may well be. But instead of insisting that they get their act together, Ezra skillfully and compassionately calls for a feast on fat and sweet wine and to send some to those who do not have any.
It appears that this wise old priests knows that the divine instruction is not a cramping, restricting legislation, but a way forward with justice and joy. That instruction has not been forever hidden in the wall, not set in concrete at Sinai. It has been interpreted in this new day in such a way that the people who knew the past and the people who know the present can see a way forward in God’s presence, together in worship and service that results in their transformation and the transformation of their community.
I pray that I have offered you one such way forward. Today is our annual meeting and in the many sheaves of paper we offer you is my report. In that report is my interpretation of the divine instruction I have received as I keep my nose buried in scripture, as it intersects our present condition. It is called the 2020 Vision Statement. There is no vote on this, as there was no vote at the Water Gate or at Nazareth as the Word was interpreted. But the people gathered do have options, then and today. We can hear God’s word of renewal and reinterpretation, and celebrate the presence of the living God in our midst; we can meet God anew in the changing times we find ourselves with joy and hope. Or not.
If as we hear scripture we somehow are moved by the Spirit, there are ways to faithfully respond. I believe that memory is the most important element of any transformation. it begin’s with our own memories of our own situation. Our memory that resides in scripture allows a careful re-collection of memories of God’s many blessings. But transformation begins when we remember that the promises of God remain sure, in this moment, even as in the past. Remember with me the presence of the Holy Spirit who opens our hearts and minds, empowering us for this work. And, this is perhaps the most important step, to participate in the diverse body of Christ, caring for one another, sharing the compassion and love of God in the world.
Today we also get to go to a second congregation, not Nehemiah’s Israel, but in Nazareth. There a young Rabbi also stood up in the midst of a congregation and read an ancient text; then he interpreted that text in such a way that it announced a new day. In this new age in which we are living, we need to be bold in our faith. We need to trust this Jesus, filled with the Spirit whom God gives to us in Baptism and the Sacrament. We need to live free from old enslaving habits because Jesus gives us the freedom to live that way. We need to trust that this world which wants to oppress us and thus depress us with its beliefs and practices is powerless, useless, in his new age. This morning we are present in a third congregation. These voices are speaking directly to us. Times are a-changing. As it always is, today the time when God’s ancient promises intersect our present condition. Don’t live in the past, but let the promises given in the past give you freedom, release, insights and spiritual riches, as you enjoy and serve the world that God has given us.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”