In today’s first reading, from the Book of Nehemiah, you can almost feel the excitement. All the people of Israel are gathered in to a great square, like some huge event in Central Park when people absolutely fill the Sheep Meadow. And so all the people of Israel are waiting in anticipation for the chief scribe, the head religious leader, Ezra, to read from the sacred scroll. Ezra gets the book of the law of Moses and reads from it for several hours. The people listen. The men and the women hear and they understand what God is saying. Ezra blesses the Lord God, giving God thanks and praise, and the people all cry, “Amen, amen.” The people then worship.
But they also seem to lose heart. The scripture doesn’t go into detail about it, but it sounds like the gravity of the importance, the weight of the Word of God, all of this somehow begins to weigh the people down. Maybe they begin to realize that they have not lived up to God’s expectations. Maybe they feel like they are unworthy of the ways in which God is blessing them. Maybe they wonder even why they have been spared some of the misfortune, and disease, and calamity that has befallen other people.
However it is that the people begin to feel the burden of God’s love, Nehemiah, Ezra, and all the religious leaders tell the people an amazing thing. They say, “This day is holy to the LORD your God.” But then they go on to say what that means. Because it is a holy day, they say, “Don’t mourn. Don’t weep.” Nehemiah offers more encouragement, as he explains, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine . . . send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared.” And again, he says, “for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” The joy of the Lord is your strength.
It’s sometimes hard to hear the joy in scripture, and perhaps especially hard to hear that joy as being offered to us, or directed towards us. So many of us are predisposed to hear judgment in scripture or to come to church and always feel reminded of some way in which we’ve fallen short of the image of God. But look at how Jesus “reads, marks, and inwardly digests” the Word of God when he goes to the temple and it’s his turn to read. He reads the words, and understands them to be straight from God. Jesus hears them as words from his Father.
Of course, those words weren’t originally meant for him. They first came from Isaiah, describing one who is to come:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And yet, as grand and glorious as that vision may sound, the vision of one who is specially chosen, anointed even, to bring good news, proclaim release, to heal, to free… Rabbis and other theologians have also understood that they do not just refer to Cyrus of Persia, who allowed exiled Israel to return home. The words do not just refer to Jesus, who heals and frees and brings good news. The words of Isaiah also refer to us.
If we thought they referred to us individually, and took them seriously, we might feel a little like those people we heard about in our first reading, the people in the Book of Nehemiah. If I thought it was all my job to all those things Isaiah mentions, and those same things that Jesus reads, I would either work myself into a pious frenzy and pretend to be pleasing God, or I would absolutely despair.
While I think we are meant to take those words personally, and to evaluate our faithfulness by them, we’re not meant to do it individually. We’re not in this alone. As someone has said, there is no such thing as an individual Christian. To be a Christian means to be in community with others who seek to follow Jesus Christ. We look for others to add to our community not so that we can fill committees, or have more people to help at the altar or coffee hour, or to help pay the bills—we look for others because the more we interact with other people, the more we see the contours and complexities in the face of God.
The scary news comes today from Nehemiah: that the Word of God can convict us and startle us. The even scarier news comes from the Gospel: that the Word of God shows us how and who we should be. The really Good News is fine-tuned in Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, in which he makes it very clear that the work of God we’re given to do does not fall to any one of us, individually. Each of us has particular gifts, and so in community, as the Church, through prayer, conversation, even a little conflict, we discern who is good at doing what, and we work together to accomplish God’s work.
Paul makes it sound funny, and it is funny when we think of the human body. A foot wouldn’t say, “just because I’m not a hand,” I don’t belong to the body. An ear doesn’t get upset and try to leave just because it’s not an eye. All work together. But that’s harder when we’re talking about people, isn’t it?
But there are times when we can behave as comically as those individual parts of the body that don’t see their connection. We might look around and it seems like everyone else is smarter, or has a better job, or lives in a nicer place… we might begin to think we don’t fit in. Or sometimes because others seem better grounded in scripture or Christianity or “Episcopal ethos,” (whatever that may be), we feel like it’s not the right place for us.
Or maybe it’s my passion to visit people in prison, and since this church doesn’t seem to have a prison ministry, I move on. Or maybe my interest is to work with a youth group, but again, since there aren’t many youth around, I give up. But there is room for everyone.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians explains how we, like Jesus, can bear to hear God’s word, understand it’s for us, and not be overwhelmed. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” Paul writes. “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?”
Do all sound as good as Dudley Stone when we read scripture? Does everyone have Leo Turburcio’s energy? Can anybody else pull a crowd together for a cause like David Liston? Can anyone network like Yvonne O’Neal? Do all sing like our choir? Do all welcome like our ushers? Do all crunch numbers and understand finance like Gus Christensen or Jean Geater? Our list could go on.
Especially as we elect a new vestry next week, evaluate our mission and our organization for mission, there are lots of opportunities for gifts to be uncovered, magnified, and shared. Do you walk by the church during the week—if so, perhaps you could notice if there’s any trash in the garden. Do you attend a meeting or group at the church—if so, maybe you could make sure things are picked up after the meeting, turn out lights and lock doors. Can you put up the hymn numbers? Can you help fold, or collate, or proofread?
We ARE the body of Christ. It is for us to live and reach and embrace and share as a body that is complex, but is uniquely gifted by God.
When we hear the Word of God, may we hear its joy. The words of the old Sarum Primer, compiled centuries ago, understood God as “all in all.” May we know the joy of God and
God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.