a sermon for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
Ezra read the law to all the people of Israel so that they would remember what it meant to be the people of God. Many individuals, one people. Paul reminded the church in Corinth that we are all members of the body of Christ. Many members, one body.
Sometimes when we read scripture we find that it’s hard to visualize the scene that’s taking place in the story. This is why I so often suggest to people that they not read along in their bulletins when our readers are reading the lessons. The very process of reading interferes with the process of visualization. So before I begin, I’d like you to close your eyes as I re-read today’s Old Testament lesson.
Read aloud: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Imagine that scene: All the people of Israel were gathered that day.
Which people? All the people.
Could you be a little more specific? All the men, and all the women, and all those who could understand.
What did they gather to do? They gathered to hear their priest, Ezra, read to book of the Law, the first five books of the bible.
What did they do when he was finished? They all wept.
This passage of the bible was written soon after the people of Judah had been released from exile in Babylon. The Babylonians held them captive for 80 years. But when the Persians conquered Babylon, they were allowed to return home. Before they left, they had always believed that the temple was essential to their worship of God. After all, that was where God lived, in the ark of the covenant. It was the place of their Jewish identity; all faithful Jews were expected to go there at some point in their lives. But when they returned, they found Jerusalem in ruins and the great temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed.
The Exiles had been scattered for a long time – two or three generations. They had been assimilated into the culture and society of their captors. They had forgotten so many of the customs and teachings of their ancestors that they hardly knew who they were. Now that they had been released, how would they become a people, one nation, again?
At our Epiphany service a few weeks ago, we each drew a words to ponder on for the coming year. We called these words, “star words.” You might think of these star words as seeds for meditation. You could read about your word, or pray over it, or maybe journal about your word. All of the words had some significance in our journeys of faith.
Just to prove that the Holy Spirit has a sense of humor, the word that I drew was “law.” Now as a practical matter, I think law and order is a good thing. I don’t have any trouble following the law: I pay my taxes. I don’t steal or kill people. And I pretty much follow the posted speed limits. But beyond that, I haven’t been real big fan the law as it’s described in the New Testament. After all, didn’t Paul warn us that we could not achieve righteousness through “works of the Law?”
But this reading lesson caused me to take notice. Here, the reading of the Law has the very beneficial effect of drawing all the people who were scattered together. In fact, it does more than that, because the law is actually the teaching or instruction of God. It tought the exhiles what it meant to be a community of God all over again. It caused them to remember that they were a chosen people, dedicated to God. It caused them to remember who they were.
“Re-member” is the opposite of “dismember.” To re-member is to gather together the members that had been scattered and make a body whole again.
Last summer, when we studied our core values, we gathered and talked about what draws us together as the body of St. Simon & St. Jude. We described the values we hold in common. Many of you here were with us that night, and we talked our community in many wonderful ways: as a family; a place where it’s okay to be different; a place that’s open all the time; a house of God, a place of refuge, prayer and respite; a place where everyone belongs.
All the people.
But the really amazing thing about that time was how many different personalities and participants we had contributing to this exercise. Many came who had only been with us for a short while. People with different skills and interests, different ages and talents, different points of view. Different places on the political spectrum. And we found that our differences were part of what we celebrate in this congregation – they contribute to making us who we are. Whether or not we agree with each other, we still gather together to wrestle with the Word of God – to hear it read as it was read by Ezra and interpreted by different people in different ways. Still, we hold on to each other in love, and we uphold one another in our spiritual journeys.
And this is what Paul means it in his letter to the Corinthians. Many individual members are part of the body of Christ. In spite of our vastly different points of view and different gifts, we are joined in communion with God and each other through our mutual love of Jesus Christ.
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. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… Now you are the body of Christ and individually
members of it.
Through our baptisms, we become “re-membered” – reassembled into a body of faith. We remember what it means to be the body of Christ in the world. Members of the Church are as vital to Christ’s ministry as our limbs and organs are for our lives. And we all depend on each other for our spiritual health and well-being. Just as an arm can’t be severed from my body without causing severe pain and harm, a person cannot leave the church without harming the body of Christ.
In this political season, we seem to be talking a lot more about what makes us different from one another than what makes us the same – more about dismembering the body of our nation than about remembering and reassembling it. And yet both the Old and New Testament lessons teach us about the importance of bringing all the people together into one body, one nation.
All of us are members not only of the church and of the nation – we are also members of one another. When one of us gets sick, we all become just a little bit sicker; when one of us is recovers, we all share in that recovery. Through our common life, we all become members of a single body – the body of Christ, the church, and the body of the nation.
The Church exists for the benefit of people who are not already members, but it depends on its membership to do its work in the world. When all the people of Israel heard the reading of the law, they remembered what it meant to be the chosen people of God. They re-membered – they became members of that body again. Much later, Paul described the church as the body of Christ, we remember that we are individuals with many different gifts and points of view called to live together in a single community of faith.
This parish of St. Simon and St. Jude has been always been called together to tell the story of Jesus Christ in unique ways. We are constantly remembering who we are as a community of faithful people. We are a body where lay leadership has been valued and nurtured; a body that has a history of doing things in creative and wacky ways. We are a body that has told God’s story through worship, thought outreach, pastoral care, art and music, and through proclamation of the Gospel in words and action. We are a body where it’s okay for people to relax and ask questions. We are one body, yet have many members – many hands and feet, bones and muscle. – one mission: bringing everyone into relationship with God, and relationship with one another. Many members, with different gifts and perspectives, living out our mission to welcome all, to rejoice with all, and to be Jesus in all the world.
Thanks be to God!