Six years ago today, Sunday, January 27, 2013, we celebrated moving back into this space after worshipping for 10 months at the Church of the Brethren. During those ten months, this building was rebuilt, transformed with a new foyer, new restrooms and importantly, a lift. That Sunday, six years ago, we read the same two texts we hear today. These two stories from Nehemiah and Luke might seem quite disparate from each other, yet they have something in common: they are both about hearing the holy scriptures read aloud.
As we listen this morning, pay attention to the listeners in the stories and their responses to hearing scripture. You might also think about our context as we hear these stories.
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Six years ago, in the context of coming home to our place of worship, I heard in the Nehemiah text that the people were returning to their temple, rebuilt after years of exile. This time when I hear this text, it is the wall that draws my attention – the wall that the people rebuild around the city. The wall isn’t mentioned clearly in this particular passage so let me recap.
Israel is in exile. Ezra is a priest and Nehemiah becomes the cupbearer for the ruler Artaxerxes. (The cupbearer, the taste-tester, is the one that makes sure the king is not killed by poison in his wine and food. It is a pretty important job and takes a lot of trust building with the king.)
Nehemiah hears that life back in Jerusalem is awful. He is moved to do something about the situation but in his position he must tread carefully. Nehemiah thoughtfully, cleverly, asks the king if he can go help rebuild the place where his ancestors are buried (not naming the city). He even asks the king for references to make the trip smoother and to help provide supplies. The king agrees!
Nehemiah must be equally careful in Jerusalem as he organizes the people and supplies. He gathers people from a variety of groups to participate in rebuilding and repairing the wall and gates around the city. And though opposition leaders jeer and mock them, the rebuilding is finished in a record 52 days.
While we might question walls in our political context, in this story, the wall is important. It is a symbol that reminds the people of who they are and who they are when they are together. And yes, it is a defense from attackers – both physical attackers and those who would mock Jerusalem. Despite it’s detractors and those who make fun of the builders, the wall unifies the people in a common project, in a common goal. And it is out of this common work together, across different family groups, some that lived in exile and some that did not, that the people come to appreciate the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra.
In celebration, the people decide they want to reconnect with their tradition after all the years of exile. They want to hear the law of Moses once again. So the people gather at the gate to listen, standing for six hours. While Ezra reads from the law, Levite interpreters mingle in the crowd, helping to bring understanding to what Ezra reads.
The people listening to the Law know hardship; they are decades into separation from their homeland, and family members. They have begun to find a new normal as they acculturate to life in Babylon; they have married and had children with “foreigners.” So when they hear these words, in Jerusalem, inside the city walls, this Law that gave their ancestors identity and purpose, this Law that grounded and centered their people, they are brought to their knees. They weep for what they have missed, for what they have lost. They weep for what their children have missed. They weep in remorse, they weep in repentance and maybe they weep for joy at what they have found again.
Ezra doesn’t let them get caught in weeping for what might have been, what could have been. He says let’s move forward, let’s be joyful. Let’s celebrate where we are now and what is possible from here on out. And if you really want to remember your ancestors, remember who you are now. Let’s start practicing. Drink wine, eat rich food. And – take food to those who aren’t here but need some celebration in their lives. Share your food with those who need it.
Reading from our current context and the contentious nature of walls, this particular wall feels like a theological obstacle, not to mention Ezra’s ensuing instructions to divorce “foreign” spouses. Walls divide. And I am not sure that Ezra’s wall theology is something I want to espouse. As much as I appreciate Ezra’s instruction to share food with those who need it, I don’t want to promote safety through walls. And yet it was the gathering together of people who would not ordinarily have worked along side one another, it was the building of the wall, that helped the people find their identity again.
I am reminded of what Malinda Berry said at the Women Doing Theology conference last November. Dr. Berry said she approaches the bible with “a hermeneutic of suspicion” meaning when she reads the bible, she doesn’t just take the bible’s word for it. She is suspicious about what she is reading. And she added, “It is mutual. The bible is suspicious of me too.” So, as much as I wonder about this wall around Jerusalem, perhaps it wonders about me too.
The story in Luke is also about people listening to scripture. Jesus has returned from his forty day retreat in the wilderness and is on a preaching tour. People all around the area are quite enthusiastic about Jesus and his teaching; they stream to synagogues to hear this young rabbi read and preach. The rabbis must be thrilled with the increased attendance on the Sabbath.
When Jesus gets to his hometown synagogue, it is a different story. Yes, these old family acquaintances and friends appreciate how well he reads; and this son of Mary and Joseph does have a soothing voice with inflection that really makes the text come alive.
But when he sits down to teach, when he starts unpacking the text, well, he starts to sound a little “judgey” to these people that have known him since he was a wee lad. The message hits a little too close to home. And he knows it – but he just won’t stop. He says they have missed the boat, that God is passing them by just like what happened to their ancestors who didn’t listen to Elijah and Elisha. (If you ever want to make a congregation mad, tell them they take after their grandparents but only in the bad ways.) Now Jesus is not the well spoken son of Mary and Joseph. Now he is a heretic and deserves to be run out of town.
Which is just what happens. The crowd drags him out of the synagogue and hauls him to the edge of the city to throw him off a cliff. The crowd obviously doesn’t know that Jesus recently spent time in the wilderness and was tempted to jump from a high place. Or maybe they do know about that temptation and they decide to take care of him once and for all, since he didn’t do what he should have done.
But instead of being thrown off the cliff, Jesus walks right through the crowd and disappears. It is the reverse of what happens after his resurrection when he suddenly appears to the fearful disciples huddled in the upper room.
The people in Nazareth who listen to the scripture, well, let’s just say their hermeneutic of suspicion is quite strong.
What about us? I can’t help wondering what our response would be if we stood outside for six hours to listen to Leviticus or Deuteronomy, read out loud, or maybe Martyr’s Mirror. Certainly interpreter theologians would be helpful.
And if you have been in this congregation for anything length of time you know suspicion is embraced here, some might say too warmly. How much are we like the established hometown crowd in Nazareth?
We can’t divorce ourselves from our context when we hear the scripture. It makes all the difference in what we hear and how we respond. Because of our work with the DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network, this time when Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah, my ears hear most clearly:
God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive,
and release to those in prison.
What does it mean to proclaim “liberty” to those who are held captive?
I think of Rosa who has been living at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church since December 10. She is separated from her three young children who remain in Fredericksburg, VA and come see her most weekends. Rosa is not held in detention but neither is she free. Do the people who provide round the clock care for Rosa help her experience “liberty?”
I think of Prince Gbohoutou, who remains in detention in Etowah County, Alabama. Prince was sent there last July, we think in retaliation for all the inquiries and support he was receiving while he was held here in Maryland where he and his US-born wife, Shaniece, live. I write regularly to Prince and receive letters back. My sense is that he is trying to find “liberty” even while in detention but as the months drag on, it is harder and harder. What he truly desires, what we all desire for him, is release from this unjust imprisonment.
I think of Juan, the stepson of Father Vidal, the priest at San Mateo. Juan has been in detention for over 2 years. On Tuesday Lisa Zammuto and I went to a hearing in Baltimore as a way to support Juan, Father Vidal and their family. Before the hearing could really get started the attorneys said that they had agreed to a deal. The agreement allows Juan to be released within 90 days, and though he will never be able to receive asylum or citizenship, he will receive a work permit and documents. It is the first time I have ever left the ICE office with anything approaching joy.
The proclamation of liberty and freedom is one that used to pass me by. But now, because I know people who are in prison, who are desperate to be released, the text makes sense. This is no longer the part that causes suspicion for me. It no longer sounds like just more religious words, but like something to strive for, a vision to join my own energies to.
But that wall still troubles me; it is suspicious of me. Looking more closely at the text, I see that the people gather to listen to Ezra read the Law not at the Temple, not securely behind the wall, but at the gate, one of a dozen gates, this one called the Water Gate. It is at the gate, this more liminal space, that they listen to the scripture. Here at the edge of the city, at the margins, the people remember the pain of exile. And they rejoice at returning home again, inside the walls.
Somehow it seems important to listen for the Word at the gate, in that space between safety and the unknown, in the space where we welcome – and say farewell. If we stand at the gate, perhaps we too can listen with open hearts and minds, to hear the way the Word points to the Law – as well as to freedom.