Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Why do you think we come to church—come to worship? (to thank God, to help each other, to pray, to sing together).
Have you ever been to a sports game? Why do you go to watch a sports game? (entertainment, to cheer on a team, to support players, to be a part of something).
What do you think makes worship and sports different?
What do you think makes them the same? (liturgy—cheers & anthems; hymns—songs & band; prayer—prayer).
Do you get emotional at a game? Excited or sad? Do you get excited or sad in worship? Why (not)? Maybe, if we pay attention to what’s happening and the things we say, we might find reasons to be excited or sad.
In today’s readings, people got sad and excited and mad and happy—lots of emotions during worship. Because it’s not just something boring that we do. It means important things for us—like giving us something to look forward to or giving us courage when things get tough or an opportunity to share our lives and milestones with people who love us just because we’re us. And the good news is, we don’t even have to win!
Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for creating your Church as a people with whom we can share our lives. Let us never take it for granted. Amen.
Today’s scriptures tell us about two worship services. The first takes place after Israel’s return from exile in Babylon. The Temple and city walls have been rebuilt, thanks to Nehemiah. He invites Ezra, the prophet and priest, to gather the people. And from the Water Gate of the city, Ezra reads the Torah—the Books of Moses. The whole thing. It’s probably the first time most of the people had heard it. And along the way, various people help to interpret what is proclaimed. And they realize how far they’ve come from God’s intentions for them.
They hear about God’s beloved creation. They hear about Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, about God’s promise to Abraham, about Isaac and Jacob and Esau, about Joseph and his brothers, about the time in Egypt, about Moses and the Exodus. They hear God’s law. They hear God’s gospel. And they weep in response. They weep for all the ways in which they had forgotten—all the ways in which God had been with them and they hadn’t noticed. In their humility over having been in exiled, in a gracious return, and the hard work of rebuilding the city, they are now faced with God’s abundant grace. They look into the face of hope and weep.
Several hundred years later, the little town of Nazareth has a famous hometown boy. They welcome Jesus back into their midst. Their hometown boy is going to preach. He reads from the prophet Isaiah and gives the shortest sermon anyone has ever heard: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And what we’ll hear next week is that the people don’t weep with relief or sorrow—they get angry. They get angry at his audacity. They get angry at his familiarity. It’s a very different response than what Ezra got.
It’s interesting. You see, they would have expected Jesus to say something like, “Isaiah was an amazing prophet. He gave the people hope.” He might have talked about that long-ago exile or even about their own struggles in occupied territory. Or, he might have told them of hope for the future—that someday things would be different. But he did neither. He said, “Today, the scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.” Today. Not back then. Not someday. Today.
And the people, much like today, looked around and probably thought, “What are you talking about? Nothing has changed. Our situation is still bad. Injustice lurks in every shadow. People are being crucified for no reason at all. Taxes are heaped on the poor. And we have no control at all. Again, not unlike today. Perhaps we, too, should feel more than an academic interest at what Jesus was saying.
I read a post recently that said something to the effect (because I can’t find it now), “I wish it were 9/12. While I never would want 9/11 to happen, I wish we were the people of 9/12. We didn’t worry about whether we were Republican or Democrat, immigrant or citizen, black or white. We gathered in churches and synagogues and mosques; we wept together and we prayed together. We hoped together and we hurt together.”
Why does it take something massive and scary to bring people together? Why does it take exile and terrorism to draw us into prayer and humility? To inspire us to worship and challenge us to be one people for the sake of one another? Why is it that when we are managing along just fine that we turn against one another? That we refuse to hear the truth of our lives and turn in anger to the one who speaks it?
I have some thoughts on that, as you might imagine. That we are only one together when we have a common enemy—someone to be against. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s a short-lived friendship. When we are struggling to make sense of grief and pain and upheaval, we grope and grasp at anything that might give us a sense of hope.
But when we are comfortable—even if we are comfortable in our discomfort—we don’t want to hear about changes. We don’t want to hear about being set free if it means we lose our connections on the inside. We don’t want to hear about good news for the poor if we aren’t ‘the poor’ or about release to the captives if we have benefited from their captivity. And heaven forbid that we hear about the year of the Lord’s favor.
You see, that refers to the Jubilee year. In the Torah, God instructed Israel to make every 50th year one in which all things were reset. Indentured servants were released. Slaves were set free. Debts were forgiven. Land was returned. Imagine what that would mean for us here. Whether this is good news or not sort of depends on where you are in the system. Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it—the Jubilee Year was never actually enacted. There may have been a few debts forgiven and people released, but as a whole, there is no evidence that Israel practiced it as a nation. I can’t imagine why. 😉
A study was done not too long ago by Public Religion Research that discovered that the majority of churchgoers in the US experience high amounts of nostalgia and anxiety. There is the sentiment that the best years of the Church are long gone and that the future of society is bleak. That sounds about right. But in between the valor of days gone by and the fear of what is to come, we miss the promise of today.
Diana Butler Bass says, “Today is a deeply dangerous spiritual reality—because today insists that we lay aside both our memories and our dreams to embrace fully the moment of now…Today places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are actors and agents in God’s desire for the world. ‘Today’ is the most radical thing Jesus ever said.”
I’m reminded of a John Mayer song, “Waiting on the World to Change.” He talks about how his generation will someday rule the population, but for now, they’re waiting on the world to change. I don’t like that song. I don’t like it because it seems to reflect a powerlessness of his generation—a sense of lack of responsibility. The world won’t change if you wait for other generations to do it. We do it. Today.
The scary thing—the thing that probably sent Nazareth into a rage over Jesus’ proclamation—was that doing something about the situation leads to consequences. But that’s the thing about the Word of God. When we read the Word, when we proclaim the Word, when we invite the Word into our lives, there are consequences. Whether we weep for all the ways in which we realize we have failed or fear what is to come, the Word insists that things begin to change—from the inside out.
I’ve seen a cartoon going around that shows a church call committee identifying the kind of pastor they want. The chairperson says, “Basically, we’re looking for an innovative pastor with a fresh vision who will inspire our church to remain exactly the same.”
Friends, if the Word is preached and lived, then we are in for a ride. We’re in for a ride that invites us to let go of who we were once, who we think we are, even who we want to be or are afraid we’ll become. God is inviting us into the Living Word—one that, upon hearing, begins a process of transformation for which we cannot plan and yet can take immense joy in. Because when God starts working in us and in our community, we can trust that the world gets muddier and challenging and complicated—and absolutely beautiful in the midst of it all.
This is the good news—that life is complex, but love is simple. That is the Word Jesus preached and lived and died for. It’s the Word that he WAS as he met surprised disciples in a locked room and sent them out to proclaim that word to the world.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church