Third Sunday after the Epiphany by Suzy Jeffreys

Lessons:

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Luke 4:14-21 

 

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

If you’re a movie watcher, I want you to think of one of the following movies: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Amadeus or Sunset Boulevard. If you’re more of a reader, one of these books: Ethan Frome or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And if I’ve missed you altogether, I’ll move through this opening quickly so you don’t feel left out.

One of the things those five narratives have in common is structure – sometimes referred to as a fragmented narrative or a frame narrative. We don’t start at the beginning and end at the end, chronologically that is. Maybe, as in Amadeus and Frankenstein, we start at the end and are taken back to the beginning through the telling of the story by one character. Or, as with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the narrative jumps around and we, as the reader/watcher, suffer a bit of mental whiplash.

Well today with our Old Testament reading, we began in essence at the end of Nehemiah’s story, with a time of celebration for the completion of a significant undertaking – rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. If we go back, though, and learn where the story began and where it’s been we see a much more complicated picture.

Nehemiah was a cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia in the fifth century BC. At first glance, not a great job, perhaps, especially if the king for whom you bore the cup had a long list of enemies. But while occasionally a cup-bearer might be called on to first drink from a cup to be served to the king to ensure it had not been poisoned, the essence of the position was to guard the king’s cup. The position brought with it a nearness to the king, a proximity to the king’s ear.

We first meet Nehemiah in the Bible when he introduces himself in the first verse of the book of Nehemiah. Reading from that first chapter: “The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, ‘The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.’”

Let’s go back just a little bit further, and then we can finally start moving forward again. In the late 6th century BC, Jerusalem was laid under siege three times, resulting in the exile of Jews to Babylon each time and ultimately to the destruction of the temple in 588 BC. Fifty years later, in 538 BC, the Decree of Cyrus allowed Jews to finally return to Jerusalem. Nearly a hundred years after that, sometime in the middle of the 5th century BC is when we meet Nehemiah.

So, Nehemiah, his heart heavy from the news his brother brought him of the Jews that survived exile and returned, himself returns to Jerusalem, now governor of the province, appointed by the king. The task he has set himself is to rebuild the walls surrounding Jerusalem. The task is immense. The walls are in ruins. The gates have been burned. On a midnight survey of the walls, Nehemiah reaches a point where the destruction is so total that the animal he is riding can no longer continue. From enemies outside the walls – Ammonites, Samarians and Ashdodites – Nehemiah faces accusations of treason, attempts to slander his character and taunts…Tobias the Ammonite tells them, “That stone wall they are building – any fox going up it would break it down!” So the task is huge in scope, the threats from without are near and constant, and, then, perhaps most demoralizing, in chapter 5 we hear about an outcry among the Jews against many of their own relatives, those in power and with great wealth who are lending money on high interest, enslaving their sons and daughters, and taking possession of their fields and vineyards.

I have to tell you, as the director a non-profit, this is about the point where I would put in my two weeks notice. The cup-bearer job had to be looking plush to Nehemiah at this point. But we know, because we began at the end of the story, that Nehemiah had more conviction than that. He foils the plots of the Samarians and Ammonites, he gets a promise from the officials who were oppressing their own Jewish kinsman to cease their exploitation, and in 52 days the wall and its gates are rebuilt.

And so we arrive now at the end…of this part of the story at least. The scribe, Ezra, brings out the book of the law of Moses into the square where all the people are gathered and he reads from it from morning to midday. In the passage we heard this morning, I think one phrase rings out – “all the people.” It comes up eight times…about once a verse. “All the people were attentive,” “All the people stood up,” “All the people answered ‘Amen Amen.’” It sounds like church. Maybe more of a mega-, mega-, mega-church than our less-than-mega parish, but the image is the same…together, we all stand up, we are all attentive (more or less), we all say Amen. But contrast this with what Nehemiah was dealing with just weeks earlier – division, oppression, threats…within that same “all the people.” The wall took under two months to build so we’re not talking about years of reconciliation here. And they were busy, really busy, working. One whole chapter of Nehemiah just lists the names of the people and the tasks they undertook – repairing a thousand cubits of wall (admittedly I have no idea how much that it, but it sounds like a lot of work, right?), setting up doors, bolts & bars on the gates, laying beams. How did they find time to talk it all out, to become “all the people”? Was it really just as simple as it’s described in chapter 5? – Nehemiah spoke with those who were exploiting and oppressing their fellow Jews, and asked them to promise not to do so. And they did. A sneak peek ahead at the last chapter in Nehemiah suggests that no, this promise to turn from oppression did not end and flared back up as certain groups of people were not given their due and sent back to their fields. So was this “all the people” throughout the story? From conflict and hurt, through celebration and glorifying of God, and back to division again? I think so. And as much as the repetition of “all the people” in today’s reading reminded me of the church, so to does this cycle of togetherness and disunion. So how then do we live as the church – the body of Christ – if brokenness is always going to be a part of it?

For now we just keep moving, forward again, almost 2,500 years this time…to today. Just over a week ago, the majority of primates in the Anglican communion (the worldwide Anglican church, of which Grace and the Episcopal Church USA are members) agreed that for three years the Episcopal Church USA will not represent the Anglican communion, be appointed to its internal committees or take part in its decision-making. This in response to the Episcopal Church’s inclusion of LGBTQ people in the full life of the church, including the sacrament of marriage.

In response to the Anglican primates’ decision, our Bishop Michael Curry wrote, as Father Martin shared with us in last week’s email – “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.” Bishop Michael when on to say, “The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.” I also love the church, and I struggle with the notion of unity in the face of such deep discord. How do we feel like part of “all the people” in the face of this? Can we? What other option do we have? Do we care? How could we not care?

These questions are more easily asked than answered. And they are more easily asked by me, someone with the privilege of not being directly impacted, in my own self, by this decision, than they are by those who are impacted, including LGBTQ Episcopalians, and the priests, bishops and other leaders of our church.

I know there are many who have asked these questions for many years, and I don’t presume to suggest any or even one answer this morning. I do hope to offer a few thoughts based on what we heard in the Word of the Lord this morning, thoughts about how we might continue to love the church in the midst of division, though our minds & hearts may not feel that possibility right now.

First, let us remember that as members of Christ’s body we live in the tension between the joy of the coming of the Kingdom of God and the pain of brokenness, as did Jesus Christ. We are called to be with one another in both of these times. Going back to Nehemiah, there is a stark contrast between Ezra the scribe’s injunction to the Jews at the end of the reading today – “do not mourn or weep…go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine…do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength,” and Nehemiah’s words to God at the very beginning when his brother brings him the dire news of the returned exiles and their city. Nehemiah weeps, mourns, fasts and prays for days. He prays, “O Lord God of heaven, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray for the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you.” Both the injunction and the prayer are corporate – do this together, we pray for all of us. But what is it supposed to look like to “be together” with those with whom it is hard to be together. And further, what does that look like when the thing that separates us is not an obtuse theological difference that has little felt impact on us but is in fact a very questioning of the full dignity of some of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I will be the first to admit that the hardest people for me to be together with are often my fellow Christians with whom I hold stark difference on matters of theology, biblical interpretation, politics or the Christian life. As an example, I am part of another Christian community, in a sense, that I experience a strong desire to distance myself from – students, faculty and alums of Wheaton College. Part of this community – the institution – has, over the past several years taken positions on a number of issues that are profoundly important to me, positions that are contrary to those I hold. I have found it hard to love both the community and the individuals in the community with whom I disagree. I get more deeply worked up thinking about these differences than I do any others. There is only one thing that unites us now – the feeling of pain, hurt, frustration, anger. I lament in fellowship with others who feel the same way I do. I assume those with whom I disagree lament as well. Is that enough, our shared lamentation? I hope there will be a sharing in joy in time to come. There may not be. Our shared joy may be a thing of the past. But we are united – as long as we so choose – because we are together in the conflict and in the brokenness that results from the conflict.

Second, I suggest we understand the church, as the Episcopal priest Ephraim Radner says, less as a loveable body – though many of you are very loveable – but as a body that is loved. We heard a common metaphor of the church – as body – in the reading this morning from the first letter to the Corinthians. The description begins in quite a lovely way: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” And then it gets a little weird – imagine as a child hearing these words – “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body,” or “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” or “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” My mind at least conjures up something resembling Frankenstein, something not particularly lovable, desirable or ideal. I think the letter writer is describing for us both the ideal – the unity of the body of Christ – and the actual – the dominance at times of some over others, imbalance, difference. And the author concludes that in God’s love, God has so arranged the body that, ideally, “the members may have the same care for one another.” Notice the letter writer does not say that God so arranged the body of Christ that they may all come to agreement and vote unanimously on the issue at hand. No, the body of Christ is formed such that, again from first Corinthians, “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” We are loved – by God and by one another.

And finally, I am reminded of two aspects of our liturgy that speak to this tension in the church – the prayers of the people, in which we pray corporately, and the breaking of the bread. We take the bread which is broken for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins, as a reminder of the broken body of Christ. And we pray the prayers of the people with our voices aloud together, here at Grace, at other Episcopal parishes in Portland and the diocese, in our nation and in the world…prayers for reconciliation & healing, that wrongs will be made right, for forgiveness, in gratitude and thanksgiving. Implicit in the fact that this prayer is corporate and is being prayed in all times and in all places is the prayer of Jesus himself – that we all may be one. Amen.