Rev. Sarah Buteux

Epiphany 3, Year C

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 & Luke 4:14-21

To view this morning’s service click here. The Sermon begins at the 10:30 minute mark

“For the word of God in scripture, 

for the word of God within us, 

for the word of God among us…”

“Thanks be to God.”

I had never heard that particular response before I came to First Churches. From a purely liturgical perspective, I admit it’s a little clunky and overcomplicated – too many words to keep straight – which may be why in most churches they just say: 

“The word of the Lord.” 

“Thanks be to God,” 

after the scripture is read.

But the weird thing about church is that once you do anything enough times, something in you starts to think that’s just the way it ought to be done. So, now that I’m used to it, I like it. I feel weird if we don’t say it. And I don’t want to change it. 

In some churches people resist that rote impulse at every turn, preferring everything to be spontaneous and therefore, in their minds at least, more authentic and open to the Spirit.

Other people crave a more fixed liturgy because they find that knowing exactly what comes next actually clears their minds and frees their hearts up to be more open to the Spirit. 

Go figure. 

Honestly, there’s no right or wrong here, and I confess that had you asked me before the pandemic which I preferred, I probably would have said I fall somewhere in between. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who appreciates good liturgy, especially if I have the freedom to mix it up a bit. 

But these days I realize how much I took all of our liturgical traditions and expectations for granted. Now, I would love nothing more than to settle into anything resembling a routine – liturgical or otherwise. 

Part of why I will be taking this next week off is to recover from something called, “decision fatigue.” It turns out that having unlimited options, infinite variety, and any number of possibilities, is absolutely exhausting. Constantly switching things up leaves one feeling perpetually off balance. 

I’ve always loved church, but it was as nerve-racking to come back to worship in person after more than a year apart as it was to move the whole congregation on-line all those many months ago. Nerve-racking to feel like I didn’t really know what I was doing even though I’ve led people in worship for more than 30 years. 

But you know what? Coming back was also exhilarating. It was exhilarating to watch the church come back to life as we ever so slowly brought more people and practices back into worship. 

I will never forget the Sunday when we took the offering for the first time since March of 2020.  As we all stood for the doxology, I felt like a piece of me I didn’t even know was broken was being put back together. It felt like hope. 

We weren’t even supposed to sing yet, but I know most of us did, because it felt so good and so right to:

Praise God from whom all blessing flow, 

Praise God all creatures here below…

I never thought singing the doxology would bring me to tears, but it does now. 

I miss the comfort and stability of knowing exactly what we will be doing in worship from week to week – not just how many hymns we will sing, but whether we’ll actually be allowed to sing them, not just whether we’ll gather, but how and when and where? 

And God knows how much I miss our children. I miss my kids hanging out with your kids. I worry so much about when and whether our families will return, because passing on our faith to the next generation is not a given. It was really hard before Covid. Now it feels almost impossible. 

Basically, I miss feeling like I know what I’m doing, and friends, I pretty sure you do too. 

So when we read this passage from Nehemiah, I think we can all relate to why this was such a significant moment for the people of Israel. I think we can understand both their longing and relief as they stood together and heard their scriptures read publicly for the first time in a very, very long time. And I think I understand why they cried.  

Because, you see, the people gathered outside the walls of Jerusalem that day had only just rebuilt them. Under the direction of their new governor, Nehemiah, and the priest Ezra, a remnant of Israelites were attempting to reestablish themselves in their ancestral homeland of Judah. 

You may remember that Jerusalem had been destroyed back in the year 587, when the Babylonians invaded. Anyone deemed worthy had been carried off into captivity. Everyone else had either been killed by the invading army or fled to Egypt. Their city was sacked, their temple destroyed, and their whole way of life was obliterated. 

However, what goes around comes and around and, 50 years later, Persia conquered Babylon.  Under the rule of the Persians, the Israelites were allowed to return to Judah and begin the process of rebuilding. 

But the people sent home to rebuild were not the same people who had left. All the folks who could have offered their guidance and wisdom were no longer alive. So it took their grandchildren and great grandchildren 22 years to build a new temple. And it took another 80 before they were able to hold this service because – as we all know – every house of worship is more than its building.

The Israelites were able to erect a new temple, but a temple – just like a church – is more than wood and marble and stone.  So much of what the original temple had once held had been lost forever. 

Gone was the ark of the covenant and all the sacred artifacts that had once graced the interior. Gone were the scrolls that had held the holy words of their prophets and sages, their historians and poets. 

But gone as well were the memories and the words, the experiences and the songs, the traditions and routines that had once filled the original temple like incense. 

Gone were the priests and scribes who had once walked those hallowed halls, passing their wisdom down from one generation to the next. 

Gone were the membership records and the wedding registry. Gone was the yellowed paper taped to the wall in the kitchen that explained how to properly use the percolator, the minutes someone had saved so they’d know when to start the stewardship campaign so it didn’t run into planning for the Fall Festival, and gone was the box of cotton balls and popsicle sticks someone had collected so the kids could make sheep when it came time for the lesson on Psalm 23.

The people who built the second temple had no experience of what it would have been like to worship in the first. Nothing of the old had been left behind to connect these people tangibly to their past. Nothing, that is, until Ezra unfurled a new scroll he had painstakingly prepared and began to read to all those assembled.  

Historians believe that Ezra was the first to assemble the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy into the form we know today as the Pentateuch; the first 5 books of the Bible. 

Ezra took all the laws that the Israelites had kept safe in their hearts, all the wisdom they had managed to pass furtively from parent to child under the watchful eyes of their captors, all the stories they had whispered from ear to ear in the dead of night, all the memories they had managed to pass on and protect while in exile, and compiled it all into one coherent story. 

So imagine, if you will, what it would have been like to stand outside the Water Gate on that fateful day – 129 years after your people had been carried off into exile – and finally hear the whole story of your faith read out loud in broad daylight without fear or shame. 

Imagine finally hearing the story of your people in its totality… the story of all God had done for Israel. 

But most importantly, imagine how good it would be to finally know, for sure and for certain, exactly what God expected of you and your people. 

I mean, I’m sure the people had been doing the best they could under the circumstances, but to have the law and the covenant written down where they could find it and refer to it, to know that their scriptures and traditions hadn’t been lost, to know specifically not just how many cubits long the Holy of Holies should be, but what a good and holy life requires…to finally know exactly what to do… . 

It must have been such a relief. Such a relief, that I think I would have cried too.

And then to finally have the space and the freedom to respond, the space and freedom to not only hear the word in scripture, but let the word move within you and among you….what a tremendous gift. 

Notice that the first thing Ezra instructs the people to do in response to the scriptures is rejoice and feast and share what they have with one another. 

“Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared…” 

Ezra moves the people to action, immediately, because Scripture is precious and holy, but it is never static. It must always be lived out with love and humility, justice and generosity. 

God’s word, whether spoken by priests like Ezra, prophets like Isaiah, or Jesus himself, comes alive the more it opens our eyes and our hearts to care for those around us. Which is why this story fills me with such hope. 

Friends, there is so much fear in the air these days, especially when it comes to the survival of our churches. Christianity was on the wane even before Covid sent the church into exile. And I admit that I worry. I worry that I’ll forget how to do things right. I worry about how we’ll pass our faith on to the next generation. And I worry that too many churches, maybe even our church, will one day close. 

But this story is a good reminder that even the fall of the church will not mark the end of our faith. 

Our faith will live on, adapt, and re-emerge wherever and whenever people find the word in scripture, the word within them, and the word among them. 

Our faith will live on wherever and whenever people hear the voice of God in their hearts and act on it with compassion. 

I have no doubt that we’ll be back in our building soon, worshipping as we always have. And I actually think First Churches will be ok for a good while longer. 

But even if we were never able to meet in our building again, I trust that not all would be lost. Because our children have not only heard the word in scripture at our church, they have seen the word at work within us and among us. 

I trust that they will remember what we have done; remember who we welcomed through our door and fed at our table. 

They will remember the stories we told, not just in church but round our hearths and our homes. They will recall how we have loved God and our neighbor not just in word, but in deed. 

There’s an old saying, “Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some person ever reads.2” 

I have hope, First Churches, because the Word is alive and well among us. And with that spirit of compassion as our guide, we’ll always find our way back to God and one another, as surely as the Israelites did, no matter the challenges that keep us apart. Thanks be to God and thanks be to you. Amen

 

Foot notes

1.Though it is amazing how patterns and expectations creep in whether you want them to or not. I think of the way the word “just” peppers evangelical prayers like its a non-negotiable: “Father God we just want to thank you, we just want to praise you, we just want to ask you …”  

2. William J. Toms