January 27, 2013

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

“Gather Around God’s Word”

On Friday evening I attended the Ecumenical Jazz Service at St. Francis Xavier Parish. It was one of the special services planned for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity here in Saskatoon. It was a lovely service, with musical leadership provided by an excellent jazz trio of piano, double bass, and drums. Under the leadership of Pastor David Hunter from Augustana Lutheran Church, the Churches of the Broadway-Nutana area worked together to lead the worship.

Before the Gospel reading, the congregation was invited to stand and sing a jazzy Alleluia in preparation for hearing the Gospel proclaimed. But when the song ended, the congregation waited, and no one stepped forward to do the reading. Something had fallen through the cracks in the planning, and there was no one ready to read. Realizing what had happened, David scrambled to solve the problem. And after glancing around, he asked the question of us all, “Does anyone have a Bible?”

The Catholic Parish in which we were worshipping only had hymn books and prayer books in the pews and David didn’t have one on hand either. As I was just realizing that I could access the reading using the Bible App on my phone, another Lutheran pastor came forward with a bible in hand, looked up the text, and read it aloud for all to hear.

I do carry a little bible around with me most of the time, and it does come in handy in my work… not so much for saving the day at ecumenical services, but sometimes as a reference in conversation, and most often as a comfort and encouragement in the midst of pastoral crisis situations. I often pull out my little bible when I’m visiting church members in hospital or in their homes.

Sometimes I share one of the readings from the Sunday coming up or just past – a small way of including homebound members in the life of the church community even when they are unable to come to Sunday worship. Sometimes those who are sick or dying may request a favourite passage, or I may select a reading that I hope will provide comfort and encouragement – an assurance of God’s presence and God’s promises despite the current struggles of life.

And for many Christians who have participated in worship over many years, read the scriptures for their personal devotion and prayer, or joined in regular bible study with others, hearing Psalm 23, or John 14, or Revelation 21 can be a great source of strength in the midst of great difficulties.

Some of you likely have a special bible at home – one that you have studied so much that the pages are dog-eared, one that you received as a gift as a special time or from a special person, or one with special significance for your family.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the news about the US President swearing his oath as he began his second term last week, but one thing I noticed was the discussion around the bibles on which he was going to swear his oath. While there’s no law that requires presidents to use a Bible or to include the words “so help me, God,” Obama did both.

In the first private swearing-in ceremony, he used a family Bible belonging to his wife, Michelle. The following day at the public ceremony, he used two Bibles with special significance – one that had belonged to Abraham Lincoln, and another that was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible.

Of course, the bibles might be mostly for show – I can’t say for sure. But if not, it is encouraging to know that the president is honestly asking for God’s help in the work he has to do, that he’s seeking to follow in the footsteps of courageous and wise leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., and he values the Scriptures that they looked to for guidance and direction in their lives and for their leadership.

Special bibles with historical, or family, or personal significance aside, North American Christians today have free access to the Scriptures whenever we might want to read or study them. Some of the fancier Bibles that come with detailed exegetical notes start to get a little expensive, but otherwise Bibles are readily accessible.

We have more copies than we know what to do with in our churches, the Gideons make them available in hotel rooms across the country, and even hand them out to children in our schools. And if you’ve got internet access, you’ve got access to the Bible – in all the translations you can imagine, along with many, many resources for biblical study.

In our first reading this morning from the Book of Nehemiah, we heard about the powerful way that the Scriptures – the book of the Law of Moses – bound the people of Israel together after the exile in Babylon was over and they had returned to Jerusalem. In her commentary in “Feasting on the Word,” Kathleen O’Connor explains what is happening in this text:

“Ezra and Nehemiah preside over a community in severe conflict, dispute, and fragmentation. The book tells about returnees from exile in Babylon, led by Nehemiah and Ezra among others, who attempt to rebuild Jerusalem and restore Judah as a worshiping community. The future of the people is in serious doubt. Enemies attack from outside, but even more disruptively, internal disagreements threaten to undermine the community’s future. The people form factions arguing about who is in and who is out, who should govern, how the temple can be rebuilt, how Jerusalem can be re-established in safety and peace.”

In a powerfully symbolic way, the people of Israel come together around the Scriptures. Men and women, and all who can hear with understanding, stand together and listen attentively from early morning until midday as the Law of Moses is read and interpreted for their time. They bow their heads and worship the Lord, and then they begin to weep.

The text doesn’t really say why the people were crying – maybe because they were upset about all the conflict and uncertainty in their community – maybe because they were hearing the high demands of the Law and feeling guilty about their failures or worried about their ability to live up to God’s commands – maybe because they knew that whatever difficulties had caused the brokenness in their relationships, that God had the power to draw them together again as a People when they gathered around the Book of the Law and their shared faith in the One God of Israel.

But just imagine, these people had been through so much trauma. They had lived in exile for more than a generation, and they were finally at home in the land that God had promised them. They were finally together again, and hearing the Scriptures proclaimed in the public square – the kind of thing that never could have taken place in Babylon.

Maybe their tears were tears of joy. Maybe their tears were tears of relief. Maybe their tears arose from the complicated mixture of feelings they must have been experiencing: fear mixed with hope, grief mixed with joy, regret for past mistakes mixed with determination to be God’s faithful people once again.

The tears make sense to me because I’ve witnessed many tears like those when I’ve read from the Scriptures or offered a prayer in the midst of a pastoral crisis. And the tears are always complicated and difficult to explain, and they’re probably also good for the soul most of the time.

But when the people of Israel wept upon hearing the Word of God proclaimed and interpreted, Nehemiah and Ezra and the other religious leaders said to them: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” Instead of crying, the people of Israel were being encouraged to celebrate: “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The view of the Law being expressed here is that the divine instruction is not to be experienced as cramping restricting legislation, but as a compassionate guide, a pathway, a set of wise instructions about how to live together in justice and joy. It is a gift to be celebrated – perhaps at first with tears of joy, but then also with feasting and sharing and rejoicing in the goodness and wisdom and love of God for us.

Reformed Churches have a great history of focus on Scripture reading, study, and interpretation. One of the important principles of the Reformation was that the Scriptures should be made available to all the people, proclaimed in the language of the people, read and studied by the people themselves, and interpreted in community so that the people could understand and live out their faith in God.

In my reflection on the back of this morning’s bulletin, I suggested that our focus on Scripture, preaching, and teaching is one of the strengths of our Presbyterian Church. It is a tradition that we can be proud of, and one that we should strive to continue and strengthen and pass along to those who come after us.

As the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity draws to a close this afternoon, we may be aware of the fact that Presbyterians are a small minority in this part of the country. But all the members of the Body of Christ have an important part to play in its proper functioning. The United Church may bring its focus on social justice, the Catholics may share their emphasis on Sacraments and liturgy, the Evangelicals may offer their experience of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and the Lutherans may remind us that it’s all about God’s grace.

And although all the Christian Churches share the gift of the Bible, one gift we Presbyterians may offer is our long tradition of placing the Scriptures at the centre of our faith, of reading the bible seriously but not necessarily literally, of studying it carefully and interpreting it for our time and our context.

Aware of the conflicts and divisions that continue to separate the Christian Churches one from another, we may read the Bible and find ourselves convicted of the sins of discrimination, hatred, pride, or indifference. But we are encouraged not to mourn and weep, but to gather around God’s Word of grace, and hope, and reconciliation in Jesus Christ.

When we gather together as Christians, like we will this afternoon at St. John’s Anglican Cathedral, to read and interpret the Scriptures for our time, we must celebrate as the Israelites did, because God’s Word has the power to bring us together, and in Christ all the members of the body become one body, loving and serving the world in Jesus’ name. Amen.