Getting Ready for Sunday

By the Rev. David Stangebye Houk, Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Dallas, Texas

January 24, 2016: Epiphany 3, Year C

The Rev’d David Stangebye Houk, Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Dallas, Texas

January 24, 2016: Epiphany 3, Year C

 

BCP lectionary

RCL lectionary:

Nehemiah 8:2–10

Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood six elders Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and seven others Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah the Levites helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10      

All the people of Israel gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The book of Nehemiah, along with its companion volume, Ezra, tells the story of the Jews’ return from exile in Babylon and Persia. Jerusalem had been sacked by the Babylonians in 586 bc: the city walls were destroyed, the temple burned to the ground, and the inhabitants of Judah (at least the best and the brightest) were carried away to Babylon. In 539 bc King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and took over the empire. Soon after, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, and the book of Ezra tells of the return of the first exiles and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.

Nehemiah begins in the Persian capital of Susa, where Nehemiah serves as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes I. Nehemiah receives a grim report that the returned exiles lie in “great trouble and shame” (Neh 1:3) as the local inhabitants—those who have moved into the land during Judah’s displacement—show open hostility to their return. Most alarmingly, Jerusalem’s wall still lay in ruins, leaving the people and the newly rebuilt temple incredibly vulnerable. In “the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes” (445 bc) Nehemiah receives letters and resources from Artaxerxes as he travels to Jerusalem to commandeer the rebuilding of the wall and to serve as governor of the territory. The wall is rebuilt, but through great difficulty and opposition in the face of Judah’s enemies.

This sets the stage for the important eighth chapter of Nehemiah in which Ezra the priest and scribe, “skilled in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), leads the people of Jerusalem in a covenant-renewal ceremony that follows the completion of the city walls. It is “all hands on deck” as “men and women and all who could understand what they heard” (Neh 8:2) listen attentively to the reading of the Torah from early morning till afternoon. More than reading, however, Ezra and them Levites attending him also teach the people by providing necessary interpretation and commentary from time to time: “They read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Neh 8:8)

As Jerusalem listens to the reading of sacred Scripture, the people mourn and weep. (Neh 8:9) Perhaps some were moved by the stories of creation, the calling of Abraham, the Joseph saga, the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Mosaic law. Certainly, there was a sense of their having fallen terribly short of God’s good purposes for them, individually and as a nation, and a heartfelt sense of repentance for the shortcomings and sins that resulted in Judah’s exile and captivity.

When Nehemiah and Ezra see the people so moved with contrition, however, they declare that the day is holy to the Lord. (Neh 8:9–10) Judah must not mourn, for even when God’s people have been faithless, God himself is faithful to rescue and redeem and restore. The fact that they are back in Jerusalem, the temple rebuilt, the walls restored—through “many dangers, toils, and snares”—is a humbling reminder that God’s favor rests on his people and is still working for their good. Joy is the final word on this day of this covenant renewal. The people are commanded to celebrate: to eat, drink, and realize that it is their relationship with a gracious God that is the basis of their joy.

There is much about this passage that is instructive about Christian worship, particularly the role of the Word of God in the liturgy. It has been said that the preacher’s job is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” and this passage shows us the important role Ezra and the Levites played as they labored to ensure that the sacred text was intelligible to their audience and that the people’s contrition led to an experience of grace and renewed joy in God’s presence. Likewise, the preacher’s job is incredibly important in allowing Scripture to speak to the hearts of men and women, and then helping those hearts take their next steps of growth in faith, hope, and love. It is important to remember, as we see in this passage, that the power to affect and transform the human heart comes from Spirit-inspired Scripture itself; the preacher is only a channel, a conduit, of the Spirit’s work in this miraculous enterprise.

 

 

 

Spiritual Aspiration & Envy

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good… -1 Corinthians 12:7

As a youth I learned to play trumpet, and I developed an aptitude for the instrument during that first year. Three of us traded turns as 1st chair. Driven by a desire to be on top, we each worked hard to be the best. As we competed, we each became better musicians throughout the year. The following year I had taken a firm hold of 1st chair—that is, until John came. John transferred in from another school, and had an amazing gift for the trumpet. He was hopelessly beyond me, and I loathed him for it. I still played as well as I did before he came, but I was no longer on top and I envied his ability and position. I have a natural tendency to measure my own worth relative to others, and this is nothing new.

Within the Church in Corinth, some people compared themselves one to another based upon their spiritual gifts. Some gifts were considered to be better than others because of the prominence of their display. However, the gifts in question were all given by one God for a certain purpose, and that purpose was never solely to bring esteem to the carrier.

The gifts Paul wrote about were not naturally possessed, but are manifestations of the Holy Spirit of God bestowed in baptism. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). Note how Paul used a threefold invocation to speak of the one source from whom these blessings flow.

While given to each individually, these gifts are possessed for the common good. St. Basil commented, “Since no one has the capacity to receive all spiritual gifts, but the grace of the Spirit is given proportionately to the faith of each, when one is living in community with others, the grace privately bestowed on each individual becomes the common possession of the others… . One who receives any of these gifts does not possess it for his own sake but rather for the sake of others.”[1]

The Holy Spirit orchestrates the placement of each gift in the Church, building up the whole community through each individual contribution. The variety and distribution of gifts draws people into interdependence in order to carry forward God’s purposes for the community. Like a musical ensemble, each person has a part to play that is necessary to fully express the intent of the composition. Trumpets have a standout role in Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, yet their performance is bare without the punctuation of the drums. Together, they fit into a masterpiece of beauty.

 

[1] Bray, G. L. (1999). 1-2 Corinthians (p. 121). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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This is a blog of essays meant to prepare parishioners for an upcoming Sunday reading.