Life and Death Stuff 4/7
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
October 8th, 2017
What is most amazing to me and we noticed this last week – and it wasn’t until somebody in the congregation said, did you understand or did you hear how wonderful the choir was? The stage makes all the difference. And I thought you know, there’s a whole lot of truth in that because the stage that was here was soft wood and the problem that we had on all things was that the sound would get to here and it wouldn’t go any farther and so we of course mic’d the stage and that helps a little for the sound it gets, but now you really get to hear how awesome the choir is. I think you need to find them and tell them, I love how you bring the word into worship. I love how you catch my heart. I love how you hold onto one another and I know I love how you love.
One of the big problems that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement … he didn’t really intend to found a movement, he just started being a Christian as he understood it, and others followed along and there was the presence of the Spirit and things took off. But one of the problems John Wesley had his whole life, we know this because one of his final writings was on this very topic – he lamented the mystics of Christianity — folks who feel that they are close to God but they are missing joy. They’ve given their life over, their whole life has been shaped, they have been discipled, they have been formed and have become and they find themselves close to God, reliant on God but they are so morose – you just kind of don’t want to be around them.
John Wesley wrote — one of his final things that he wrote in his life was — I cannot think that when God sent us into the world God had irreversibly decreed that we should be perpetually miserable in the world. A tenet of the faith I understand is that mirth is vain and useless if not sinful but why does the Psalms so often exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord, to tell us it becomes the just in the Lord to be so joyful if we are not to be joyful people? He goes on to say, perhaps the best measure of one’s closeness to God is your ability to be joyful in all moments.
Well I want to tell you a story and it is a little bit about joy but it’s also more about the importance of how we interpret and how we listen to scripture. Anybody can read scripture – you drive down the road and there are tons of churches and on their signboard, in the word, the word, we’re reading the word, we just have a simple reading of scripture and you can glean a lot. You can also misunderstand a whole bunch because you’re reading in the third language of a good portion of scripture.
The New Testament, most of it happened in Aramaic which then was written down in Greek, which has then been translated into English so do you understand Greek enough to translate it into English? I’m pretty sure I don’t know how to do all the words but I know enough to know that we get it wrong a lot and so we must be careful and cautious – a topical reading can tell us a lot but it can also be unhelpful and so I want to tell you the story that Shannon read a piece of today – the story of Nehemiah.
The story actually begins years before the text that Shannon read when the Babylonians defeated Israel and carried off a whole bunch of people – they knocked down the walls of the City of Jerusalem and they carried people into exile. This happened in lots of towns, for years and years and years, the Babylonians were invading and conquering and carrying off. And if you happened to know somebody a town three towns over that you’d met at the market five years ago, they’d disappear and you might run into them when you got carried off to Babylon and made into a servant in someone’s house.
Some beautiful stuff, beautiful scripture came out of the exile period: stories of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the furnace, old Kind Nebuchadnezzar and his column of gold and demand to be worshipped by the people, Daniel in the lion’s den violating the rules that forbid prayer, and that beautiful psalm, Psalm 137 that was the inspiration of the song by Don McLain … by the waters, the waters of Babylon, we lay down… do you not all have Don McLain’s album at home? We lay down and wept and wept for the Zion. We remember… anyway Don McLain wrote that, he didn’t even write the song, he didn’t even write the tune – it’s an ancient tune and he put it on an album. It’s that longing of the heart for the way things used to be.
And what happened as is usually the case when you have an empire take over other nations, the empire declined. The Greeks have been moved out, the Romans drove out the Greeks and now the people of Israel have been released and they have come home to Jerusalem. Hooray we get to go home, and they arrive at home to find that there’s not much home left. The bricks that once were the walls of the city are scattered. The bricks that once made up the houses, the adobe mix that made up the house, there was not much of anything left. People camped for years trying to rebuild something of a life and the people go into a funk. You know that funk that comes to rest on you when you can’t see the future, all you see is more grinding your way through survival. You get along but not a lot of life in those moments. They live in a destroyed town and they are discouraged and they are disheartened and their ability to see the future just keeps getting smaller. The future becomes can we survive through today?
So Nehemiah is their leader – he’s the governor and as their leader he tries to get the folks moving into a future and he says, let’s rebuild the walls of our city and we will restore some feeling of physical security to the city’s populous. Now you need to understand the walls of the city proved useless when the Babylonians came; a wall does very little to keep others out. You just tour England or Italy or France and you will find how effective a wall is at keeping people out; walls are not impenetrable. Folks get around them.
But Nehemiah understood how folks work and he said, all right let’s rebuild the walls of the city because any time there is rebuilding a wall or rebuilding the nation or rebuilding the people, folks get excited about that and there was this political hubbub but there’s another thing that happens when there is recovery effort going on. There are people who use it as an opportunity to overcharge for their work and service – it’s called profiteering and it used to be illegal. Nehemiah sees how this profiteering disheartens people because if you can’t trust each other in the community then you don’t have much of a nation at all.
There was also another thing that was going on and that was there were people who claimed to be rebuilders capable of rebuilding – we call them carpenters, they were really stonemasons and they come around and say, I’ll help you rebuild your house but you’ve got to pay half up front and so you say, okay I understand, I’ve got to help you buy the bricks and got to help with this and pay some workers, and you pay half up front and never see them again. And so Nehemiah insists… he goes to the mat for this and a good chunk of the good of Nehemiah has to do with how do we get people to be honest with each other, to be solid members of the community?
And he is seeking to restore the moral fiber of the nation by insisting and he does this other thing – he insists that the division between those who have and those who have not is diminished, in other words, he imposes taxes on the wealthy and he redistributes that through public projects. And he says the purpose of these reconstruction contracts is not to make the rich richer. It’s to enrich the nation. He also forbids land grabbing and easy cash high interest loaning practices of the wealthy that puts lots of money and a whole lot of land in their pockets and it enslaves the poor to their debt and it also leaves the community in disarray. In rebuilding the city, Nehemiah cements the bonds of community that makes everyone responsible for one another. He is very successful in forming a nation.
Ezra was Nehemiah’s friend, Ezra is the religious lead, he’s the pastor and he goes around reminding people in the process of rebuilding their nation, he reminds them of their connection to God. And the people wonder about God, specifically their thinking is, how did God let something terrible happen to us? What did we do wrong that warranted the bad thing that happened to us – the exile? We’ve been carried off for generations, why do bad things happen to good people? That was the conversation among the people. And Ezra tries to provide some answer to that. He recalls to the people that God never promised bad things wouldn’t happen, especially when you’ve got an empire on the loose occupying and overthrowing and carrying off servants. He said, that was not the action of God. God did not punish you in that; that’s the action of an empire that’s out of control. God was with you and your ancestors as they were carried off. God was carried off too.
Then it comes time for the seasons of reflection and the people have kind of reached a new low place. Remember that funk? When you’re dealing with people who don’t have a lot of hope in a season of reflection, you’ve got to be careful because you can get full blown depression getting a head of steam pretty fast, and the people ask Ezra as the priest – can you liven up the Ceremony of Reflection? Let’s make it a celebration of the rebuilding of our city; our commitment to you will be that we’d you to read all of the laws of God during the Festival of Booths. The people thought that they were going to work a deal with God. We will listen to your laws, we will try to be more faithful, we will be public in our commitment to you, and we’ll do good things for you God so you can do good things for us. And so as the people they were gathered, they were waiting to work their deal – it was going to be based on their ability to come through for God. God could get on board with that momentum and it would just be a blessing for everybody.
Then the people are gathered and Ezra steps up to the podium and begins to read and as a people they hear again the stories. They hear again God’s commandments, they hear of God’s saving hand; God’s faithfulness and the people begin to weep. They stand inside the security of their newly walled city, they catch a glimpse of a future, they begin to have some semblance of where they’re headed as a people, they have hope and they are filled then with a sense of awe at what God has done for them and God’s presence with them and then right after that it all comes crashing down because they hear of God’s commandments and they are filled with a sense of utter despair at their own shortcomings and inabilities. And they realize how far they fall short of working a deal with God, dependent on them coming through. And the problem is they’re just doing a topical reading of scripture.
And of course they hear the law and it bears down on them. There’s a conflict that happens in the text. The Levites among the tribes are shall we say the enforcers of God’s law and they offer a topical translation to the crowd and there is an interpretation that they’re offering which is no interpretation – it’s God’s word, read it. If you’re suffering you must not be living up to God’s commands – it’s all on you, bad things happen to bad people just figure out where you’re naughty. And life will get better if you behave better. It’s a self improvement course right there in the bible among the Levites. And the problem with this equation is the focus is on the people and our ability to live up to the standards that God has set for us. The message focusing on me is not good enough. That’s what the Levites are communicating to the people and the people are again in utter despair.
When the message is you’re not good enough, there is no hope. For if we’re looking to be critical when can you be good enough? Have you ever had that person in your life and it took you a while to figure out that they pretty well decided their purpose in life was to be critical of you? And some of you right now are touching the marks from where they kicked you while they were riding you. And it left marks. They determine that at some point no matter what you did, they’re going to be critical of you. Maybe you had a teacher or another adult in your life and no matter how good the class was, how good you performed on your paper, how hard you worked, how much you got right, every paper just came back to you bleeding with what you could do better. All you got was a grim nod which communicated pretty clearly I don’t know why you’re breathing. Would you want to go out of your way for that teacher? I certainly did not. Do you want a relationship with that teacher? I did not. Would you want a relationship with that kind of a God? Well what kind of a beacon is that to other people if that’s the message of the church? You’re not good enough. And there’s not much hope for you. And it’s all on you. And if your life sucks well it’s your own fault. A lot of churches I’ve been in, that’s the message.
What kind of community does that create? It’s a relationship with God that starts in sin and never gets out of sin and the big deal in the conversation is my sin. And so Nehemiah and Ezra see what’s happening among the people in the crowd and they step back up to the podium and they offer a new way of reading old scripture. They override the Leviticus topical translation and interpretation and they direct the attention to the greater message that stands behind God’s law. Ezra knew that people didn’t need any more guilt, especially on a day of celebration, especially after seasons and generations of despair, more guilt does not help. Ezra was trying to remind them that God was present to them in all of these things, that the law was given simply to shape people.
I’m sure God would be thrilled if we change our behavior and suddenly become perfect, I think God might be as surprised as we are – to be a little more thoughtful, to be a little more intentional, but the overriding message of the bible is not that. The overriding message of the bible begins with God looking upon creation and saying, it is good. And the only promise that God makes to us is I will be with you in all things. And it is the very existence of God’s presence loving us, seeking us that move us beyond judgment. I don’t know about you but I still carry in me those old tapes that I got from a third grade teacher who I thought she was going to hit me, for the way that I wrote in cursive. I still hear her voice play in my head and it’s a critical voice. I don’t need that anymore. How do you get those voices out of your head?
The way I get that voice out of my head is I try to get focused on: God does love us. God keeps finding me, God keeps bringing me, God never has let me go. Joy – Joy, that open mouthed awestricken exuberant sense of joy comes. Have you ever had a teacher that spoke to you about what you did really well, and they said, oh I know you forgot a few commas, that’s not important – you’ll figure that out – what you really did well is to frame your argument with a beginning, a middle and an end and then you stopped, that was great. Do it again. Have you ever had a teacher that was gracious to you? Sure they had rules and sure they brought out, but they brought out your best by believing in you and telling you in all different ways – you’re good enough, give me your best, and you did. Do you have that teacher’s voice in your head or do you have the other teacher’s voice in your head?
Maybe you’ve got to forget the third grade teacher, forget her name and you’ve got to remember the seventh grade teachers, Mrs. Raymaker… think about what she said to you. That becomes a beacon in us – it wells up in us and is preserving and it makes the community rich. And although the people stood judged by God’s law, Ezra and Nehemiah say to the community, savor the word of God’s presence as sweet wine and fat meat, and they tell the people that joy should be the proper response on the occasion of the day. Not necessarily because the walls had been rebuilt and everybody gets a new house, but because we are the people of God and God is with us.
We all say awful things, we hurt the people that we love, we don’t listen like we should, we all take wrong turns in life, we all do things that we later regret – and the point of this is not to obsess on those things and make them larger than they should be. The point here is: what can we learn from our screw ups? And then how do we move with a God who is always on the move, how do we move into a new future? The point is God’s grace is sufficient whatever our need.
Go back to John Wesley here – his contemporaries always said God’s grace recedes as your sin increases. There is this relationship – the more you sin, the worse you sin, the less God’s grace is present to you. John Wesley said oh no, oh no… God’s grace marches step by step, side by side with our sin no matter what it is. Our sin is not the big story of the day. God’s grace is.
The importance of interpreting the text correctly became the focal point of Judaism and not very long after Nehemiah, the practice that first came into being that when a child would undertake their first lesson in reading the Torah, a golden drop of honey would be dripped on the first page of the Torah to remind the young student of the essential sweetness of God’s word.
A little weird here the transition I’m going to make but just recently they found what they believe to be the oldest written saying attributed to Jesus and where they found it was in Egypt because it had been wrongly attributed by scholars to the Goddess Isis through a misreading and a misinterpreting of the lettering for Isis or Isa which is Jesus. They thought the Egyptian Goddess said this, which was really weird because she never said things like this, which got a student of scholarly history to look at this and they’ve decided they’ve understood that this is the oldest saying written down that is attributed to Jesus. It was attributed to have been written right around 90 years after he died – they are the familiar words of Jesus from the gospel record – taste and you will see that the Lord is sweet. Those are words of joy and I tell you this because I think you’ll get this because of who you are.
What I hope that people say about our church; what I hope that everyone who comes here experiences is that when they came here, no matter where they came from, no matter what their life was before this, that the acid taste of guilt in their throat gave way very quickly to the sweetness of grace, the lusciousness of joy. Honey to taste… that’s the kind of church we have. Thanks be to God.