For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. —Philippians 1:21
We are taking a break from Bill’s prison series and will return to the Common Lectionary. Two texts are prescribed for today, which peaked my curiosity.
Nehemiah wrote of the Israelite return to Jerusalem in the 5th BCE after the decades of Babylonian exile. The temple and wall had been ruined and, in their exile, they had also forgotten their faith.
This is the story of the people who rebuild and reclaim the way of life intended by God. In the chapters preceding the text we are about to hear, long lists of families, genealogies and house hold numbering over 42,000 are listed along with servants, slaves, donkeys, singers, horses, mules and camels.
Nehemiah offers a rare glimpse into the ancient understanding of the role of scripture in the life of the people. It is a precious story of the people who are in and transformed by worship.
Listen for the repetition. Listen for the living word of God as I read verses from Nehemiah chapter 8.
All the people 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. 2Accordingly, 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.
3He 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. 6Then 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…the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading….And all the people went their way to eat and drink and send portions and make great rejoicing because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
The second reading is from Paul’s first letter to the people of the church in Corinth. We read this in our Bible Read Along in the fall, I thought we would hear this as well in worship.
A bit of context: The early church in Corinth was vibrant with diversity; culturally, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, educated and common laborers. Filled with energy and growth and not surprisingly, it was very, very messy, prompting Paul to write not only one, but many lengthy letters addressing how to live together in the common bonds of Christ.
He bluntly tells them to stop suing each other in court, some sexual relationships are inappropriate. He admonishes women and men to assume respectable and respecting behavior. He scolded their table fellowship, telling them instead to strive for hospitality.
One of the messiest areas of their life together was worship. Some members were flaunting their abilities to speak in tongues, claiming superiority. As they worshiped God, they began to divide and belittle.
Paul’s letter is filled with crescendo-ing rhetoric and, as you will hear, tells a funny story, employing a common Greco-Roman image of the body, but he turns it upside down. Imagine being in the house-church in Corinth, sitting shoulder to shoulder with other baptized believers, as this letter is read and listen for what God is telling us as I read portions of Paul’s letter from chapter 12.
For 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.
13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.
15If 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.
16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be?
20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this.
But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it….
So strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Please pray with me. Living and loving God, you have made yourself known to us in many and various ways. We’re grateful today for scripture, whose reading reveals your care for people of ancient days and for people here today. Open our eyes to read it, our ears to hear it, our minds to understand it, our hearts to feel it, and then spark our energies to act on it. Amen.
uthor Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s true. We love novels and biographies, movies, and sitcoms.
From Bible stories, family legends and our own memories, stories shape our values, preserve our past, and become the lens through which we see the future. When we hear another person’s story, even if of another time and place, race or gender, their stories of being human can connect to our joys and struggles and bind us together.
In my early 20s I was with a large number of other 20-somethings in Atlanta for the grand finale of my training with IBM—Sales School. Imagine, a bunch of fiercely competitive, high energy, glib, rather creative, budding sales reps thrown together in a class. We had all been charged by our managers with: “don’t return unless you are ranked #1.”
In Atlanta, we were steeped in method and skills, heard success stories from those who had “rung the bell,” and we practiced and we practiced until we bled IBM blue. In the olden days, IBM could feel like a religion. It inspired or demanded unwavering brand loyalty to “Big Blue” and promised if you performed; it would take care of you.
In our home cities, most of us lived alone or with spouses, while in Atlanta we were housed in apartments with 2–3 other sales reps, shared meals and cars, and engaged in all the usual ways 20-somethings are entertained while away from home for two weeks.
I recall the weekend in between, resting on a Sunday afternoon from homework and almost dreading the next week. I had reached my capacity and was convinced my body simply could not have any more fun.
We had a great time. My body had more fun than humanly possible, seriously. That is the single moment I recall the most of this two-week experience.
As the week drew to a close, they had done all they could to mold us into the “standard issue” IBM rep.
We were trained to be Lone Rangers, out in front with competition from other companies and within the company and always ranked according to your value. I have some great friends to this day from my time at IBM, but none from that community. Nothing we did inspired enduring connections, we were focused on bring home the #1 ranking.
Nehemiah tells a different story of community. After a long exile in Babylon, the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem, only to find the temple destroyed. They were going to reclaim their place in the city.
Although they rebuilt physically, they lived among a culture that continued to challenge their Jewish faith and they needed to be reminded of who they once were as a people of God.
How do you remember who you are? You tell stories.
Ages ago, God had given the Israelites some wonderful gifts: land, security, abundance, and prosperity. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has said that the memory of those gifts and God’s covenant relationship was the glue that bound the Israelites together. It also kept them close to God, reliant upon God and responsive to God. But, when they were in exile, no longer worshiping together or reading scripture, they lost this memory.
So, when the work was finished of rebuilding the walls and temple, everyone in Jerusalem, “all the men and women,” a Hebrew phrase meaning “as one person” gathered.
Ezra opened his scroll and began to read of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sara, God’s liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on the mountain and God’s other instructions for how to live in a faithful and enduring community that cares for the welfare of others.
As Ezra read these stories, the priests stopped to translate, not only the words from Hebrew into Aramaic, but also interpreted the meaning for that time and place, revealing a truth that transcended the decades. They read for hours and hours. With understanding, the centuries dissolved and the people experienced God’s revelation all over again through their own human experience.
In hearing the stories, these former exiles discovered they were a part of God’s story. They had wandered far from God’s word, just like the ancient Israelites. Moses had received the laws from God on a mountaintop as the Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land and these were the same laws Ezra read from a high step.
Nehemiah’s story shows us how scripture and worship transforms lives and creates community. They were from different families and trades—all the 42,000 listed, but they understood “as one body” then rejoiced and cared for each other as one body.
God’s word can do all that, because the scriptures give us a lens to look at this world and our lives through God’s eyes. We are reminded of God’s presence and love…and our own worth when we might otherwise feel alone and abandoned.
Another story. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Atlanta for class. This time the class was with my cohort in the doctorate of ministry program at Emory.
Imagine ten other ministers from different states, denominations and churches: an African American, grand-daughter of a slave sat next to a white guy whose father had participated in the Ku Klux Klan. A Korean spoke of ministering in a Muslim community. One had been a corporate lawyer. Another played semi-pro ultimate Frisbee as a way to travel Europe. Who knew you could do that?
So, I joined ten ministers and a New Testament scholar sat in a room for an entire week reading scripture together…every day, all day.
We would read aloud and stop after a sentence or even a phrase. We shared impressions, questioned translations and interpretation, argued over meaning, and encountered the text through another’s point of view.
It was as if I was reading scripture through a kaleidoscope. You know, a kaleidoscope looks like a telescope but has crystals and a mirror that reflect new images as you slowly turn the cylinder. Reading scripture in community was as if I had a kaleidoscope revealing new depth and meaning of these familiar stories—bringing them to life.
We found it was safe to be vulnerable. No one was looking to be #1. We shared of our experience of growing close to Jesus, personal stories of love, loss, and ministry. Our community prayers changed over the week as well.
Our stories allowed us to see beyond the filtered image of each other, which too often is all we can see, and instead glimpse into the divine image in the other.
Maybe it is my age, but after a week, I reached the limits of intellectual and spiritual engagement. I was exhausted for three days.
I experienced how personal stories and the biblical stories showed us the face of God in one another, not in spite of our differences but only because of our differences.
Differences. The early church in Corinth had been fueling their differences to the extent they were becoming damaging divisions.
The Apostle Paul wrote his letters just a few years after Jesus went around dismantling boundaries and hierarchies and distinctions—and the people in the churches were already thinking once again that some of them were better than others, possessing more prized gifts such as the ability to speak in tongues or to prophecy.
Cleverly, Paul employs a metaphor, commonly used at the time in Greco-Roman speeches, for parts of the human body to represent the community. From this image of differing members within the body, orators argued diversity in the body reflects the diversity in society and that some people, just as some parts of the body were more highly prized…and those with less appealing functions, were inferior and shameful. Usually, this metaphor reinforced hierarchy and discrimination.
Paul is the master. In the surprising twist on this metaphor, with talking feet and self-deprecating ears, Paul turns upside down what was commonly thought—there are no members in the body more valued nor do any carry shame. All are essential and part of God’s divine plan.
All of the members of the church were baptized into the body of the church. All members received the same Spirit. All members were essential in their gifts for this community to be able to survive and thrive.
As someone has said, “there are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian is not one of them.”
We are experiencing this today at Kenilworth Union. I am sure there were other times in our almost 125-year history when it was obvious, as well, but two weeks ago in a meeting about rummage, I experienced this ideal of church unfold.
The issue at hand is Rummage for 2016. We’ve known it was at risk. Our beloved leaders from prior years were stepping down. Who would lead? What would we do? Do we have the resources to do this? Would anyone show up to reimagine the future? The room was set for about 10 people and 25 showed up.
The varied tasks were identified and people started to talk, one at a time and listened to each other. When someone said “I can do this” referring to a set of tasks, those of us listening, heard a passion and commitment rising from a unique talent or experience.
Another would add—“well, I am going to be grandmother again, and will be busy, but I can commit to doing this.” The meeting continued with such diversity—not willy-nilly but revealing very pragmatic skills and ideas. Somebody needs to order the port-a-potties and other needs to sort the clothes. We need both. Somebody needs to count money behind the scenes and another stand as security. All are essential and not one matters more than the other.
Rummage is the way this Church—the people—become the body of Christ. But, this body is not confined to just these walls. There are those who will receive tee shirts and books—people who need them—and there are those who will receive care from agencies. The passion in the room sprang not from the desire sort through mountains of trash bags, but to care for the other members of the body of Christ who are in need.
So often our relationships are functional or transitory, but not our relationship in Christ. They exist as the visible expression of the love of God, a love that takes delight in the presence of the beloved—however different he or she may be. As part of the body, we share each other’s lives, in good and bad times. As we do, we become a tangible expression of God’s care. We know God loves us when we are held in a community of love.
Was it necessary for the ancient Israelites to reclaim their place in God’s story through scripture and worship? They had lived for decades in exile without these memories and rituals and could have lived in Jerusalem, blending into the culture of the day. It was not really necessary.
Was it necessary for me to read scripture for five long days? Not really. We could have heard lectures, written papers and done more small group work.
Was it necessary for the people in Corinth to turn their world upside down? We still struggle with the notion of diversity and unity.
Long questions of “was it necessary”. No. These are all gifts from God.
The biblical text does nothing in and of itself and nothing by itself. But, when we read the laws and stories in community, opening ourselves up to the interpretation, sharing our stories, we also receive the spirit of God and can experience again; God’s covenant promised long ago is for us.
It is a gift to worship and sing and pray and read.
It is a gift to be church.
 David Jones. Everything Depends On Remembering, http://day1.org/1710-everything_depends_on_remembering. Accessed January 21, 2016.
 Lee C Barrett “1st Corinthians 12:1-31 Theology,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C Vol 1, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009) 283.