a sermon on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
preached on January 27, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
I started off my holiday Monday this week as I suspect many of you did, settling in front of the TV for a bit to watch the second—or fourth, depending on how you count it!—inauguration of President Barack Obama. I try very hard not to inject my politics into this pulpit—though over a cup of coffee, a meal, or a beer I am quite willing to tell you who I vote for and why I do it!—but I will say that I have been a fan of President Obama since he first appeared on the national scene at the 2004 Democratic Convention, back when he was a state senator from Illinois who was running for the US Senate. Still, I believe that the inauguration is not so much a political moment as a national one, a time when we come together to be surprised yet again by our strange ability to transfer the most powerful office in the world peacefully from one person to another.
In this second inaugural address, I most appreciated how President Obama connected his goals for his second term to the founding principles of our nation. He quoted the Declaration of Independence
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Then he made our challenge clear:
Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.
Over and over again in his speech, he linked these principles of the past with the realities of the present:
We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.
While we all may disagree on exactly which actions are required to make these past ideals reality in the present and future, this challenge to connect who we have been with who we are now is our great call in this changing age.
This is the same challenge addressed in our reading from Nehemiah today. Nehemiah was governor of Judah in a time when the people had just returned from exile in Babylon and were seeking to rebuild Jerusalem and reestablish their common life and identity. Today’s reading tells of an early gathering of the people as they prepared to rebuild Jerusalem. In the face of uncertain days, they gathered to hear the Torah, the books of the law, read by the priest and scribe Ezra so that they might be reconnected to their past and sort out how they ought to live in the present and future. They listened intently as Ezra read from early morning until midday. Along the way, other priests and scribes—whose difficult-to-pronounce names fill the verses of our reading that we skipped!—helped the people to understand the law, offering interpretation of what was being read and helping them to see what these words—several hundred years old even then!—might mean for them.
The people of Judah couldn’t just listen to the old words and immediately act as their ancestors had— they needed guidance and wisdom to figure out how the old things applied to those new days. As commentator Kathleen O’Connor puts it
To rebuild their faith and their cultural life requires recovery of their pre-Babylonian worldview, yet they must reimagine it for the new situation, because their history has undermined their faith. (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 267)
The ancient words were still there, still offering deep wisdom and hope, but without some sort of interpretation, they would mean mean nothing. Again, Kathleen O’Connor puts it beautifully:
This reading about the reading of [the law] does not inflict the rigid orthodoxy of the past on the gathered people but urges them to meet God anew in the changing times in which they find themselves. (p. 271)
Just as Ezra and Nehemiah gathered the people to hear the ancient scripture and interpret it anew for their time, just as our president challenged our nation at the beginning of his second term to hear anew our core values and sort out what they should look like for us today, so I believe that we in the church are invited to do this same thing, to sort out how we are to understand the Bible in our own day and how to live out our faith in the midst of our own changing times.
Even though God is always faithful and does not change, as our last hymn reminded us, sometimes we must change. Just as the people of Judah heard the word and interpreted it anew for their world after exile, so we may have to live out the Bible differently now than we did fifty or one hundred or 141 years ago. Just as our nation is challenged to make its founding principles applicable to new and different days, so we may have to find new pathways for our church in a changing world.
And so today as we journey into our annual meeting of this congregation, I think we are called to remember these ancient moments of reinterpretation and sort out how we might do the same thing—how we are to listen for what God is calling us to do in this time and this place, and respond in faith, hope, and love as we journey together along the way. We are called to consider real change in this place, not just a willingness to wait long enough for things to change, to hope and pray that we will magically return to what we once thought we were, or even to pray fervently yet simply that God will act in our midst. In these days, we need real and concrete action by us for a new and different way of embodying God’s presence in this congregation and for this community. I don’t have clear guidance for what we must do differently or what must change in order for us to survive and thrive again as a congregation, but I do know that simply doing what we have done before and expecting different results is a recipe for failure.
Now our congregational meeting today is only the beginning of this process. We will certainly hear reports and consider a few small actions like electing new leaders for the coming years in our midst, but there is little else that we can do today. Instead, the real work comes in the everyday life of this congregation and our world, the places where the rubber meets the road, the moments when we sort out how what actions we will take in response to God’s Word and the situation of our world. Toward that end, you’ll hear more in the meeting today about a discernment and conversation process over the next few months that I and the session hope will help us to see where we are and where we are going. I hope that you will make a commitment to participate in this process, to add your voice to those who long for something new to take hold in this place, to step up and take action to be a part of God doing something new in and through this First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone. We need your presence, your voices, your commitment, and your action in the days ahead, for just as the people of Judah did not live out the words of the law on their own, just as President Obama cannot fix what ails our nation on his own so we too gather in community to sort out what God is calling us to do, to hear the Spirit speaking in our midst again and again, and to be restored and made new for the joy of the days ahead.
So may God’s presence be among us as we gather, God’s Word be loud and clear and understandable in our ears, and God’s new creation be our goal as we live and work together for the days ahead. Lord, come quickly! Amen.