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The work of the people…

January 25, 2010

January 24, 2010 (Epiphany 3C)

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21

SMC

Re-entry can be difficult in sometimes unexpected ways.  The time after the holidays can be a bit like re-entry.  The weeks leading up to Christmas are primed with energy…special activities and extraordinary expectations.  Then we turn the page on the calendar, we take down the Christmas decorations and we try to get back into the swing of study and work.   We re-enter the ordinary routine of life.  

For football fans, this time of the year is a re-entry to life after football.  For some of us that re-entry came sooner than for others.  

We prayed for Ron and Regina this morning as they anticipate re-entry later this year after a service assignment with EMM in Peru. 

And we have been praying for Haiti which faces an unimaginable time of re-entry to some kind of normalcy after the devastating earthquake. 

Of course, re-entry requires that we come to terms with a new “normal” that looks nothing like the old “normal.”  We return to places we have left (sometimes generations earlier) and things have changed.  The buildings have changed.  The people have changed.  We have changed.  And we are not quite sure where home is or what “normal” looks like.  This is the challenge of re-entry for missionaries, soldiers, and post-exilic Israel. 

Re-entry is the context of our text from Nehemiah.  After years of captivity in Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, the edict of king Cyrus of Persia in 538 began the process of return and reconstruction–a lengthy re-entry process.  Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah this was a time of reconstruction of physical structures–Temple, city wall.  It was also a time of spiritual renewal around covenant identity…around the Torah.  Exile had left a lasting imprint on God’s people, and Jerusalem was not the same, yet this re-entry time was undoubtedly a hopeful and scary time filled with challenges and opportunities. 

 And so it was that the suitcases were barely unpacked…people were just getting settled into their houses when Ezra is instructed to call the whole community together for worship (v. 1).  What was the urgency to gather for worship when there were construction projects to be completed…businesses to run…  The returning exiles were resettling in Jerusalem amidst the vast, polytheistic and multicultural Persian Empire.  Aware that the exile in Babylon was God’s judgment against Israel for the sin of assimilation to culture around them, Ezra calls them together to do important work.  The work of grounding themselves in God’s story

So they gathered into the square before the Water Gate to hear Ezra read from the book of the law of Moses—the Torah.  It was like they were hearing their Communal “Where I’m From” poemThe place is significant; the square in front of the Water Gate was a place where everyone could be present, even those who were ritually unclean.  In verse 3, the author of Nehemiah is explicit that Ezra spoke to a gathering that included men, women, and children “who could understand.” 

In a time and place of do your own thing Christianity, this passage speaks a countercultural word.  While individual spiritual disciplines are important this text invites us to consider how we are committed to gathering together as a covenant community.  A community that is continually shaped and sent by doing the work of the people–the liturgy of the Word. 

Questions: 

  • What does covenant community look like for us? 
  • How are we grounding ourselves in God’s story so that we might live as a contrast community? 
  • How are we making room for the “ritually unclean” in our worshipping community?

The work of the people is in the presence of the living God.  When Ezra opens the Torah, he prays, and the people prostrate themselves with their faces to the ground in response to God’s living presence (v. 6).    Liturgy is inherently communal and God-centered.  It’s something we receive and submit into.  Liturgy offers a communal story and rhythm that precedes us and will outlive us.  It transcends the flavor of the month Christianity which caters to the idols of relevance and consumer-choice.  Liturgy is a communal rhythm which requires humility, work and discipline.  

“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?…It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” ~Annie Dillard quote in bulletin

Gathering and submitting to do this work is a dangerous practice.  Perhaps we need to give Dave Hess a new commission in his post-elder life.  The task of gathering crash helmets and life preservers for the ushers to distribute as we enter the sanctuary.  As a reminder that when we gather around the liturgy of the word we open ourselves to being changed.  The work of the people as we gather for worship changes us—we remember who we are and how we are called to live in this world. 

We see this in our Nehemiah text.  After Ezra completes his reading, all of the people weep (v. 9).  Perhaps they are overcome with regret for the loss of the Torah during the exile.  Perhaps they have been reminded of how far short their actions have fallen from God’s expectations of them.  Or perhaps their tears are tears of joy, for the recovery of the Torah and for a sense of God’s abiding presence and providential care. 

We see that the liturgy of the word also impacts their table practices.  The people are instructed to share their food and drink as they leave (v. 10).  Those who have more food and drink are to share them with those who have brought nothing.  The ministry around the Word becomes a ministry of Table…of sharing Food.  This is the heart of Jesus’ message in our gospel lesson.    

Our gospel text finds Jesus also gathering with his community for the liturgy of the word (as was his custom).  Having been claimed by the Spirit in the baptism story, having been sustained by the Spirit in the story of wilderness testing, Jesus now returns to Nazareth in the power of the Spirit to take up his public ministry.  He reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth. 

This inaugural sermon sets the stage for his whole earthly ministry.  His kingdom message is one that brings hope to the impoverished, the war captives, the poor in health, and the political prisoners.    He announces an agenda of liberation and hope—spiritually and physically.  Jesus is about bringing healing and justice, not vengeance.  

The liturgy of the Word translates into a way of living that radically embodies this sermon in the Nazareth synagogue. The works and actions of Jesus embody these words we hear in Luke 4.  He does this by relating to women, by touching lepers, by calling both Matthew the tax collector and Simon the zealot to be among his followers.  He embodies this message by initiating relationship with both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar.  He embodies this message of liberation by turning over the oppressive tables of the money-changers in the temple.

And you speak of signs and wonders,
But I need something other.
I would believe if I was able,
But I’m waiting for the crumbs from your table….

~Bono, lyrics from “Crumbs from Your Table” on Atomic Bomb

We cannot hear this message of Jesus and not see that the Good News of the gospel is so much more than a spiritual transaction that secures heaven.  Jesus comes to bring his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  In a world where almost half of the three billion inhabitants of this planet live on less than two dollars a day—this message is profoundly relevant as good news.  The message and ministry of Jesus is not just about signs and wonders to attract a following (he rejects this temptation in the wilderness)…but the kingdom come is about Table ministry in which even the outsiders get crumbs…a ministry of food that involves each giving their little bit so that all can be fed. 

As the body of Christ, how are we anointed to embody the good news of this message?  What does gospel ministry look like in the way of Jesus?  (implications and questions…and perhaps an invitation)  (no doubt the implications and questions that emerge from this text impact how we envision the Kingdom come on earth…and no doubt hanging out with Greg Boyd and Jennifer Davis Sensenig all week shapes my own reflections on this text)

1. Impacts the way we see and relate to the Other…

The mission of Jesus calls us to a different way of embodying truth and love in a world divided along religious and political lines.  We live in a politically charged climate that is a greenhouse for hostility.  In this climate we see a propensity for caricaturing and demonizing the Other in the name of fighting for Truth.  As a covenant community centered in Jesus, we are free to relate to others in a spirit of love and respect—no matter who they are (any category). 

 2. Gospel ministry is incarnational…(Jesus embodies his Luke 4 sermon and calls us to embody our words with Gospel actions)

Means we can put away our rapture kits complete with stockpiles of food and ammo…means we turn off the talk radio which is spewing a spirit of fear and suspicion…means we roll up our sleeves and find ways to embody the good news to those who are living amidst the rubble of economic, political and religious earthquakes…

Gospel ministry calls us to invest in others…to pick up the agenda of Jesus and set aside our propensity for being coopted by partisan politics.  The Kingdom of God is not the new and improved version of Caesar.  It is not about building big government or dismantling it. 

What are the implications of this as we seek to cultivate communities of faith, hope and love?  Health care crisis, economic crises, crisis of meaning where people are living out of the hollow story of meaning provided by consumeristic capitalism…

What are the implications of this as we think about how a building project might tell a story that looks like the holistic message of Jesus in a Nazareth synagogue. 

Video:  What is poverty?

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