Thanks to Pastor Gregory and our children and youth for a fine Youth Sunday. I was able to listen to the service recorded and was touched by their wisdom and witness. Congratulations to Hegene Lee and our other graduates and to Deborah Ha as she moves up to middle school this fall. Thanks also to Melanie Ramirez and Alan Plessinger for organizing Lunch Bunch. There are so many ways we area a blessed community.
This week we continue to journey with Dr. Seuss. Our focus will be on his classic story about The Lorax. In this cautionary tale he asks us to think long and hard about how we care for creation. He also raises important questions about success and greed. Jesus, too, had something to say about this when he told the parable of the Rich Fool who wanted to build bigger barns. See the Words to Consider (above) and think whether Dr. Seuss and Jesus might share a similar view of “biggering.” How do we think about such things in this day of rampant consumerism and the pressure to be a “success”?
Adult Spiritual Formation is on hiatus till the Fall. Our first Patio Hour is scheduled for this Sunday, though we don’t yet have a host. Please let me know if you might be willing and able to take this on. Next Sunday we will have our first cookout of the season in honor of Father’s Day.
Join us for any of these opportunities beginning with Sunday at 10:00 AM. Invite your family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, acquaintances and strangers to join us on the journey.
So when is the last time you heard a sermon on a text from Nehemiah? I know I’ve used Habakkuk before but I don’t recall ever preaching from Nehemiah. To be honest, I had to use the index even to find it. I was looking among the minor prophets, but Nehemiah actually comes earlier, among the texts purporting to carry the history of the Jewish people. I am embarrassed to admit the faux pas, especially since my father wrote his doctoral thesis on “The Historicity of Ezra.” Anyway, I found this text to tell a fascinating tale, one worth our consideration this morning.
As we keep discovering in Bible study, much of Hebrew scripture was written down and codified during or after the Babylonian exile. When we study texts, we usually have to discern whether they are situated pre-, post- or in the midst of exile. There is no doubt that Ezra and Nehemiah are post-exile. Basically they tell the story of the return to Judah and restoration of Jerusalem under the rule of Artaxerxes, king of Persia in 445 BCE. Some 49,000 Jews are allowed to return from Babylon, now ruled by the Persians. Nehemiah, who has been serving as the king’s cup-bearer, is appointed the governor and given responsibility for the restoration. The scribe and priest, Ezra is appointed the religious leader among the returnees.
The time of reconstruction was not easy. Kathleen O’Connor writes that “Ezra and Nehemiah preside over a community in severe conflict, dispute, and fragmentation.” She says, “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 about who is in and who is out, who should govern, how the temple can be rebuilt, how Jerusalem can be reestablished in safety and peace.” She concludes, “The question of whether or not the Jews can revivify life together and reclaim their identity as a worshiping people is an urgent matter of life and death. Like all communities that undergo military invasion and cultural breakdown, their identity has come unraveled” (Kathleen O’Connor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 267).
We live in such a secure settled place and time, it may be difficult for us to imagine the situation in which these people found themselves. They had been ripped from their home and carried to a foreign land where they had had a hundred years or more to acclimate. As difficult as it might have been to sing God’s songs in a strange land, they had undoubtedly heard stories of their homeland and been schooled in their religious traditions as much as possible. With pilgrims and pioneers of every age, there must have been something in those ancient stories and traditions that lured these particular people away from the comforts of Babylon to a place they had only heard about it and which they knew lay in ruins. We know all the descendants of the exiles did not return. Has anyone here ever felt that sort of adventurous pull to strike from the comforts of a familiar place to start over in a strange place that needed to be restored from rubble? It makes me think of those folk who are eager to help colonize Mars or, more likely, refugees and immigrants who long for freedom and a better life at the same time the long for lost home.
You can imagine the sort of hardships and tensions these people might have faced. In these ancient accounts, Ezra and Nehemiah must have provided exemplary leadership to pull these people together and finish the work. That is where today’s text brings us. To the relief of everyone, the hard labor and contention in the community are in the past. Now is a time to come together and celebrate. Can you recall some time in your own life when you’ve been through a difficult process of some sort and suddenly you wanted to hug everyone and celebrate a job well-done? Whatever you had disagreed about or fought over, whatever exhausted you about the work, was behind you and it was time to acknowledge your accomplishment.
Not only was the restoration finished, this was the time of harvest, another reason to gather together and rejoice. Even though they held the authority, it is neither Nehemiah nor Ezra who called the congregation to gather. Going back to the last verse of chapter 7, the text says, “So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants, and all Israel settled in their towns. When the seventh month came—the people of Israel being settled in their towns—all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel.”
I love this. All the people, including the “singers,” were finally settled and what did they do? Did they shut their doors and go about their own business, concentrating on their success at the expense of the community, gloating over all they had accomplished with their own hands? They did not! Recognizing that all they had came from God, they gathered in a large public place and called on their high priest to read for them the ancient sacred text. Imagine the electricity of that event. There they were, as many as could crowd into the space. Like those filled with the Spirit at Pentecost, the Holy One moved among them, calling them to closer community, They immersed themselves in a word that gave them life and meaning.
“[M]en and women and all who could hear with understanding” gathered that day. What occurred surely qualifies as a spontaneous act of worship. “Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Holy One, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
I know there have been times in our religious tradition when church has lasted all day, but can you imagine gathering here early on Sunday morning, demanding that I read the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, straight through so you could revel in their majesty and righteousness? If I just read the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or even one of them, for that matter, from beginning to end, would you sit through it or stand for it? Now, granted these were largely illiterate people. And even if they could read, they didn’t have libraries or pew Bibles or copy machines, so they didn’t have easy access to the formal word. Ezra read from long scrolls that his helpers on one side unrolled while his helpers on the other re-rolled.
And did they sit there, yawning or dozing, as Ezra droned on? No, they rose to their feet in love and respect for the holy word. And when they heard, they wept. Can you imagine, the whole crowd standing and weeping at the word of God? Why did they weep? Perhaps they were convicted of their sin. Perhaps they wept in remorse for the ways they had treated one another in the restoration project. Perhaps these were tears of relief at finally being home and settled. Perhaps they cried at the beauty and truth of their ancient law, proclaimed in their own land, before their holiest site. I’m sure many us have had some experience like that, moved to tears of conviction, remorse, relief or joy by the recitation or proclamation of words of beauty or truth that touched us deeply.
There they were all crowded into one place, hungry for the word of God. It reminds me of the old hymn, “Sing them over again to me, wonderful word of life. Let me more of their beauty see, wonderful words of life. Words of life and beauty teach me faith and duty. Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.” Though they probably didn’t sing this song that day, they might have. That was the spirit of the meeting. For them, these ancient words were full of life and beauty. They taught the blessings of faith and duty.
In the end, Nehemiah urged the crowd to cease their weeping and dry their tears. This was to be a day, a time, of joy and celebration. This day became Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, a day to rejoice in the new thing that God is doing.
In her commentary, Anathea Poitier-Young, writes, Nehemiah says “Do not mourn…because this day when you have let God’s law fill your ears is a holy day. The day when God’s people gather together to hear the teaching of Moses can only be a day of drawing near to God in deepest joy: it is the joy of the Lord, the strength of the people (8:10).” Further, she says, “Like the people’s embodied expressions of humility, petition, and sorrow, this superabundant joy takes a concrete embodied form in an act of feasting that refuses to stay put…The feast of God’s efficacious, strengthening, joy-filled word exceeds all limit, reason, and expectation; it fills every need and defies all lack of planning.” Finally, “Nehemiah 8 shows us what it looks like when the people gather to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted and let that proclamation shape and energize their life in community (Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Nehemiah 8:1-10, 1-24-2010,” workingpreacher.org). The word is out and it’s a living word.
So don’t hold back on celebrating. Don’t skimp on the meal. Nowadays we might balk at the fat and sugar, but the point is to break out the best, spare no expense, set the table with the good china and silver. This is a day to celebrate God’s goodness and redemptive spirit. Only the best will do. Oh, and by the way, “send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared.” In other words, this is day to share. No one should be left out; no one need be left behind. The word is out, working its wonders. Don’t hold back. There is plenty for all in God’s Beloved Community. Come, join the party. Amen.
There was a lot on Moses’ mind as he followed the flocks across the Sinai Peninsula, finding food and water where they could. One could say he was distracted as looked back over the way he had come – growing up in Pharaoh’s court, his curious feelings for the Hebrew people, both the ones who had helped raise him and those he saw in hard labor for the Egyptians. He wasn’t really sure how he fit in anywhere. Then there was the day he had struck out in rage, killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was abusing a Hebrew slave. He didn’t know exactly what had made him so angry. It all just seemed so wrong.
He had been forced to flee for his life, leaving behind all the wealth and privilege to which he had been accustomed. He found his way to the tiny land of Midian, where its priest had taken him in, giving him refuge. In time he had made an uneasy peace with this arrangement, eventually marrying the man’s daughter and becoming a part of his family. Now his responsibility was to tend the flocks of Jethro, a task for which his royal friends and family back in Egypt would have disdained and ridiculed him. “Oh look, the mighty Moses is a shepherd. He’s not such hot stuff now, is he? How far can a man fall? He’s living in the bottom of the barrel.”
It wasn’t that he minded the work so much. It gave him a secure role in the world and often kept his mind from wandering, but for several days now they had been moving farther and farther from Midian. Suddenly he was aware that he was in territory he’d never traveled before. He looked up and looming before him was a mountain with which he was unfamiliar. As he began to look around more carefully, trying to get his bearings, he saw something in the distance that caught his eye. It appeared to be a fire. He decided to check it out.
As he got closer, he could see a thornbush that seemed to be aflame and yet its leaves and branches were not actually burning. That is, they appeared to be unscathed by the fire. He moved in to get a better look. As he got very near, he was sure he heard a crack of thunder. Maybe the bush had been struck by lightning and lit ablaze. Only it was a hot, dry day without a cloud in the sky.
Again the thunderous sound, only this time, he thought he could make out words, like his name was being called. “Moses, Moses.” What could it be? Was there someone in distress in or around the burning bush? But how could they know his name? Again, the sound. This time he was certain it was his name. “Moses, Moses.” There was an urgency to the call. He had to respond, “Here I am.”
Thus did Moses encounter the living God. Lost, distracted, full of the challenges of his own life, God found him where he was and called to him. I suppose in his troubled self absorption, he might have wandered by and missed the whole experience. Barbara Lundblad writes, “I…know, and perhaps you do, too, if we’re honest with each other, that we have an almost endless capacity to keep walking. Schedules can do it. We’re terribly busy. We need to get someplace, no time to stop, we’ll come back later. Rationality can keep us from turning aside: we don’t believe in visions. Belief in an all-sufficient, autonomous God can keep us from stopping: God so totally other that any earthly sign could only be our own psychic illusion. There are plenty of sound reasons to keep on walking” (Barbara Lundblad, “Turning Aside,” March 5, 2000, csec.org). He also might have seen the flames and fled in fear as far and as fast as he could.
Still, there is plenty of evidence that when God comes looking for us, God will find a way to get our attention. Fortunately Moses’ native curiosity led him to “turn aside and look at this great sight.” Some would say that whatever path we take, there is something in each of us that longs for an encounter with the living God. We may be aware. It might be near the surface and a conscious quest or it may linger deep within us, out of consciousness, nagging at us indirectly. At any rate, Moses’ journey brings him to the foot of the holy mountain and here God descends to meet him in the midst of his distracted wandering. God calls him by name. God knows him better than he knows himself.
“That’s close enough, Moses. Take off your sandals. This is holy ground.” Have you ever tried to walk barefoot across burning sand? Hopping from one foot to the other, you look for shade or water or covering that will cool and protect your feet, but Moses removes his sandals and kneels in the presence of the living God. Overcome by the encounter, he covers his face, afraid to look directly at what blazes before him. There is an inherent humility that comes with such a sacred encounter.
My friend, LeAnn, used to remove her shoes to preach. She felt that standing in the pulpit was holy ground and removing her shoes was a meaningful, humbling symbol for her. There is something powerful in removing whatever comes between us and the sacred. In his poem, “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins observes,
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
So much gets between us and the grandeur of God, the sacred wonders of creation, and we trudge on unaware of what is possible all around us. As Anathea Portier-Young puts it, “…in this moment, Moses is told to remove his shoes. Draw away the covering that has protected you. Clear away the barrier between yourself and the earth so that your bare feet may touch and sink and take root in this holy ground. Let this living soil coat your skin. Dig in, feel your way, and find your balance here upon this mountain, so that its life becomes your life, its fire your fire, its sacred sand and loam and rock the ground of your seeing, speaking, and calling.”
Bare feet and burning bushes become markers of an encounter with the Holy One, the Living God. Such an encounter shakes us up, changes our lives, transforms us. It becomes source for our seeing, our speaking, our calling. The encounter is with the very ground our being and all being.
Portier-Young continues, “When Moses removes his sandals he will find himself at journey’s end, at the true goal of every journey. He will release himself from every claim so that he can accept the claim God makes upon him. He will strip away strivings for status, success, and stability. He will find his true ground and he will know where he stands” (Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15, August 31, 2014,” workingpreacher.org).
Could such an experience be available for us? Will we turn aside to see this great sight, this evidence of the sacredness of Creation? Will the time come when you and I find true ground and know where we stand? Where in your own journey have you been invited to remove whatever keeps you from digging your toes into sacred soil, from rooting and grounding yourself in it, from accepting the claim that the Living God makes on you?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning advised us that
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware…
(from “Aurora Leigh”)
God is ever present and always calling us, luring us, longing for us to meet God in holy encounter, to see and embrace all of heaven, all of the sacred that surrounds us and for which we share God’s loving care. We will not each have the same experience Moses had. Moses was unique – as is each of us. God had a task for him, a monumental task, the liberation of an entire population from oppression and slavery.
God may not challenge you or I to such a grand enterprise. But God calls each one of us – “Mary, Mary. Lois, Lois. Thelma. Thelma. Lynn, Lynn. Alan, Alan. Rick, Rick. I have work for you. There’s a place for you, a calling for you, a task for you.” How will we respond, you and I? I imagine we might be as reluctant as Moses. We may offer as many excuses or more. We’ll try to talk God out of it. “Why don’t you choose someone else who is younger, better qualified, less busy, not as burdened with obligations, more faithful, more spiritual, a better person, a better Christian?”
Well here are the universal words of assurance I take from this text. In the midst of voicing his protest and making his excuses, God says, “I will be with you…” The promise is that we will not be alone; that God goes with us; that whatever the work to which God calls us peacemaking, justice work, liberation activity, compassion for others, care for the earth, it is shared work. Bare feet and burning bushes, our journeys and our encounters, our working and our living, when grounded in God, will bring us again and again to worship on God’s holy mountain. May it be so. Amen.