I was preaching again at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY. Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany.
As I read the Old Testament reading for today (1), I noted four things that I felt were relevant for today.
First was the statement that the people stood during the reading of the Law. Second, there was the statement about the fact that women and those who could hear with understanding were included in the statement about who heard the reading of the Law. There was the fact that the people cried when they heard the Law. Finally, the people were told that they should celebrate, not cry upon hearing the Law.
In verse 5, we read that the people stood as Ezra unrolled the scroll. This gesture would later become characteristic of the Jewish people during synagogue services and why we stand in reverence when we hear the Gospel Message on Sunday morning.
In verse 2, we read that the assembly gathered were “men and women and all could hear with understanding. Women are often presumed to be present in group gatherings but, in this reading of the Old Testament, they are mentioned specifically. Also, older children who have attended school, i.e., those who could hear with understanding, were also present and counted. This is quite a difference from other readings, such as the feeding of the thousands where only the men are counted and the women and children are presumed to be present.
This is, I think, important, because this was a time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity. It was not just a rebuilding of a city but the rebuilding of a people as a community of believers. And in this new community, everyone, not just men or the elders or a select few, were a part of the community, As the Law was read to them, the people were beginning to remember who they were and what they were about.
Paul speaks to us today, just as he wrote to the Corinthians so many years ago (2), about a community of believers. Just as the people of Israel were brought together in the Spirit of the Lord, so too were the people of Corinth brought together by the Holy Spirit.
Paul points out that every individual has a vital role assigned to him or her by God Himself. It is why Paul warns us about neither boasting in what we can do nor thinking too little of ourselves. Each one of us is important in the eyes of God and the community cannot exist without each member. Because God gave spiritual gifts for the profit of all, each member of the community should have the same care for one another. Rather than being jealous of other people’s gifts or possessions, we should give of ourselves to others. When one part of the body is in need we should minister and help that part.
Today, I think the problem that we face is that we are not so much interested in building communities of believers as we are building communities of people with common thoughts. We quite easily exclude from our communities those who do not fit in or who disagree with us. But when a community is made of individuals who think alike and talk alike and act alike, there is no vibrancy or energy.
We must also remember that these communities do not necessarily have to be centered on towns, cities, villages, or neighborhoods. There are some in college, who like me, found a comfort and haven in the Wesley campus ministry. For many students, college is a time of discovery and discovery of those talents that Paul wrote about. But in a time when budgets are hard pressed to match dollars given with dollars needed, cutting money for campus ministries seems to be a logical choice. It is not much money and it does not have the immediate reward that rebuilding a house on the Gulf Coast does. But how do you measure the change in the life of someone who found God in a non-descript house two blocks from campus? How do you measure the impact that the presence of a small house of God and worship will have on a group of students when the impact will not be felt for many years after college?
We, as a community of God, should be charged with building other communities, not destroying them. That is why the people came to Jerusalem; that is why we are here today. It is what we do here that is felt in this neighborhood, in this town, in this county, and in this society long after we are no longer here.
And that brings us to the third thing that I thought was interesting about this passage from Nehemiah and its relation to today. It was the nature of the message that the people who were gathered that day heard and their response to that message.
As the Law was read and explained to the gathered people, the people wept. The people wept because they heard the high standard of the Law and recognized their own low standing before the Lord. Though it is probable that Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites were glad to see this, they urged the people to remember that this was a day of celebration. It was the joy of the Lord that the people were experiencing. It is the joy that springs up in our heart because of our relationship with the Lord. It is a God-given gladness found when we are in communion with God.
It occurred because the message was clear and those who heard it were able to understand it. This is such a contrast to the messages we hear in today’s society. The message of society, both in and out of church, clouds the true message of the day and makes it difficult to discern what is true. The message heard by the people of the Old Testament reading was clear; the message of today is muddled and confusing. It is so because people are quite often willing to let others make decisions for them; they want to simply be told what the reading means.
Some forty years ago there was a song that showed us how the message of society can easily drown out the message of peace first expressed on Christmas Day two thousand years ago. It was a version of “Silent Night” sung by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel and entitled “The Seven O’clock News.”
As they sang the traditional Christmas hymn, a announcer read the evening news. There is an interesting contrast between the beauty and serenity of the song and the darkness and fear that were then and are now the components of a typical news broadcast. The problem was that you had to focus on either the news broadcast or the singing; you could not hear both and it was entirely possible that the news broadcast with its litany of violence, death, and destruction drowned out the message first sung some 190 years ago.
The message we should be hearing from the church today is the message that Jesus proclaimed in his own synagogue in Nazareth, that He had come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed free and to proclaim this the year of Jubilee”. (3)
But that message that is more often than not heard is just the opposite. It is a message of exclusion; it is a message of oppression; it is a message of ignorance and foreboding. Instead of bringing hope to people, the church seeks to take hope away. Instead of bringing in all the people, as Jesus encouraged people to come to Him, churches today tell people to stay away. If you are not the right creed, the right color, the right economic status, or live the correct life style, you are not welcome in church. That the writer of Nehemiah would count women and children, those in that society who were often ignored or forgotten, speaks volumes when compared to the rhetoric of today when we seek to marginalize those who do not fit the accepted concept.
It is a message that says it is perfectly all right to ignore the poor and blame poverty on the sins of people. It is a message that says you will get rich because you lead a righteous life. It is a message that fails to remember that those who ignored the poor, the helpless, the disadvantaged and the oppressed will not get past the doors to heaven.
It is a message that allows others to say there is no God or the hope for the future is found in other places. It is a message that allows others to say that faith is a fantasy or a delusion, not a part of one’s life.
The message heard today is one of a vengeful God, of one who will use wars, natural disasters, and the inhumanity of mankind to punish people. Yes, the God of the Old Testament was such a God but we are first and foremost a people of the New Testament. We are the people who proclaim that God is our Father. We are the people to whom God sent His only Son because He loved us.
I am not saying that every one who preaches the Gospel preaches such a litany but it is very hard to hear the message of Good News first proclaimed that day in Nazareth some two thousand years ago when there are so many others whose self-interests, greed, ignorance and hatred lead people away from God.
It is so important that that message of hope and promise be heard. As President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” (4) We cannot live in a world where the Gospel message is forgotten or ignored or cannot be heard.
When the true Gospel is read, such people will truly weep; not out of joy, as did the people so many years ago but out of fear, for they will be the ones who are left behind.
But how do we, individuals lost in the corporate collective of society bring the message that was first proclaimed in Nazareth some two thousand years ago?
The people of Israel concluded their hearing of the Law with the discovery that it was time for the Feast of the Tabernacle. This was the fourth thing that came out of the reading of the Old Testament for today.
That day was not a time for weeping and fear but a time for joy and renewal. We are reminded of that sense of joy and renewal in the communion that we are about to take. We are also reminded that we are a part of a larger community of believers united in our faith in Christ.
I have not been able to determine who Thomas G. Pettepiece is or was; I know what he wrote and I know that what he wrote affected a great number of people. But I have not been able to find out who he was or what he did that allowed him to write the following story. I presume that he was Irish because the word pronounced “jail” is spelled “gaol.” It stands to reason that he was in jail because of his beliefs and as we hear these words, we know that he was not alone. Thomas Pettepiece wrote,
Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.
There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion – without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”
“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents the very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”
I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you’ do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”
We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” The father of the dead girl came up to me and said, “Pastor, this was real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.” (5)
Here was a community of believers in jail perhaps only for their beliefs. Yet, as a community of believers, they so impressed others that those others were willing to risk additional punishment so that they, the believers, could celebrate communion. And when it was over, one prisoner came up and asked to be a part of the community. Another found in the depths of their own sorrow hope.
We have the bread and the juice so we will be fed today. Ours will be a celebration of community, of being a part of a larger community in the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is because we are a part of that larger community; it is because we have heard the Gospel message first proclaimed in a synagogue in Nazareth over two thousand years ago that we must take the message of Communion out into the world.
It is a message that says to those not here today that they are missed and we want them to be a part of this community. It is a message that says we need to build more, not remove communities of builders. It is a message that says we are to welcome to all who seek to hear and know the word of the Lord, not exclude and cast out those who are not like us.
We must say to those who are confused by the message of society, who cannot distinguish between the words of charlatans and fools and the words of the Gospel that there is one true message. We must say that the message is clear and it is a message that offers hope to those without hope, it offers help to the helpless, and brings freedom to the oppressed. It is a message that says that Christ died on the Cross so that we may have freedom over sin and death. Like the people in Jerusalem so many years ago, we have heard the message and we understand. Like the people in Jerusalem, so many years ago, we say in unison, “AMEN.”
(1) Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10
(2) 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31a
(3) Luke 4: 14 – 21
(4) President Dwight Eisenhower, quoted by Senator George McGovern in a speech to the National Press Club, 17 January 2007 (from http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/011907B.shtml)
(5) From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece