Awestruck:  1/31/16 (1/24/16)

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

All the people gathered together in the square before the Water Gate.  They told Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel.  So, 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, 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 God with their faces to the ground.

The Levites helped the people to understand the law, they interpreted the reading so that the people could understand.  And Nehemiah, the governor, 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 Ezra said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy God; and do not be grieved for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Let us pray: “God of Love, give us a sense of awe this day as we gather and as we share our sacred stories.  Teach us to be present here and now.  Show us the beauty of this moment.  May the words of our mouths and the meditations of all of our hearts be transformative and inspiring we pray, in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

I have a confession.  Sometimes I, Rev. Caroline Dean, think that the Bible is boring.  And at my worst, I have moments when I fear that the Bible, not only boring, it in indeed possibly irrelevant.  Sometimes I fear that the foundational stories in our Christian faith are too far away, that their relevance has faded over time.  And if we are all honest, even the most prolific biblical scholars of our day would have to agree that sitting through half a day of a Torah reading marathon would be torturous.  Sure there may be a few times when our ears might perk up, like when we imagine the rows upon row of animals on Noah’s Ark, or Abraham & Sara gazing up at the heavens remembering God’s promise, that they will have as many children as these stars one day.  But, the irony here is that this very Bible reading marathon, that is quite possibly the most boring scenario for our modern spiritual imagination and fragile attention span, this is exactly the scene that captivates the imaginations of the people gathered that day!  They listen and learn. They bow and stand.  They raise their hands and they weep.  They go out in joy to celebrate their sacred story.  Our reaction to this text is “how boring,” when in fact, for the original audience it was transformative and awe-inspiring.

Can you remember the last time that your jaw dropped to the floor in classic cartoon character style?  Even if it was a really long time ago?  Perhaps it was in a moment that literally changed your life, holding your baby for the first time, meeting your partner, or finding a new soul mate or a friend when you needed one most?  Perhaps, at times, you even find yourself in awe in ordinary everyday moments, like a sunset on a winter evening, a good book, a sleeping baby or miracle of all miracles, a hand written note in the mail?  And so the big question is, how do we cultivate the kind of spiritual life that is attuned to moments of awe?

But before we dive in, it would probably be helpful to explore some of the backstory here to understand why this is such a powerful moment for the people of Israel.  Once upon a time the Jewish ancestors were humming right along.  They had their kings and their sacred city, Jerusalem, all dolled up with a Temple and a fortified wall to keep them safe!  And then suddenly, the political climate shifted and the Babylonian empire rose to power.  In 605 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem and started a series of deportations relocating the people of Judah to Babylon.  This began the period known as the Babylonian exile.  For the next 60 years the people of Israel would have to redefine their faith & therefore their identity which was so intricately bound to their land and worship in the temple.  And then, once again, the “powers that be” suddenly shifted.  After the fall of Babylon the Persian king Cyrus, who was in power, allowed the exiled Jews to return to their land in Judah.  However, some of their number had assimilated into the Babylonian community and they did not return with their kindred to their homeland.  And to make things worse, when the people returned, they found their sacred city, their home, in ruin.  And so this homecoming was a bit of a rude awakening.  The leadership of the Jewish people including folks like Nehemiah and Ezra began rebuilding Jerusalem.  They started with the construction of a wall (which is a logical first step after your city has been ransacked and your people oppressed for half a century).  After this rebuilding process the people gathered at the Water Gate and asked to hear the Torah, their sacred scriptures.  And during this Torah reading, the Jewish people have a re-awakening experience.  Some scholars suggest that they have lost their faith and their sense of their identity during the time of exile (which would be understandable!).  Other biblical traditions even place the blame on the people of Israel for their own exile.  Ancient scribes suggest that before the exile, the people are a bit too comfortable.  They are disobedient, and they forget their relationship with God and the promises they have made to God.

But for this text, I prefer to have a more compassionate reading.  After all, the people of Israel have not had it easy, they have been through exile and the destruction of their home.   They grieve the loss of friends and family who decided to stay behind.  They have lost their faith, their identity and to top it off, they face an uncertain future.  What if others decide to leave the city?  What if they cannot sustain their way of life?  What if they are attacked again?  What if their future is untenable?

And so as the people gather you can almost sense a palpable atmosphere of anxiety.  And yet there are some among them who also hope for a new chapter, a new way to connect with God.  This is why it makes a lot sense that when Ezra begins reading the Torah, the sacred stories of their ancestors, they stand in respect, bow in awe and shout “Amen.”  They re-connect with their roots, by remembering the stories of God’s promises, God’s presence & God’s call in their lives.  They weep, in regret and in release.  And their leaders beckon the people to go out in celebration, to stop weeping, for this day is set apart as holy.

And here comes the portion of the sermon when I am supposed to relate their setting to our own.  And here is when my fears arrive that this story is in fact irrelevant, at least for our context.  First, of all there are the usual barriers of language, culture, time period – which are present any time we read ancient texts.  Secondly, we are not traditionally known as a “Bible-loving community” and so it can be a bit hard to relate to a people who are inspired and given hope by connecting with their holy scriptures.  Then we have the whole building a wall metaphor, which, in their defense, is an attempt for a marginalized community to survive the next takeover and perhaps even a metaphor for their need to re-define themselves after experiencing such fragmentation and loss.  But in our church we talk about inclusivity and openness, not building walls.  Lastly, we read about an almost Pentecostal expression of worship that we can perhaps sometimes relate to, but we are mostly skeptical and at least uncomfortable, when we imagine people raising their hands and shouting “Amen!” in worship.

And yet, isn’t there something about this story that resonates despite these barriers?  Like the people of Israel, we live in a time of rapid change and uncertain projected futures.  Think about the challenges of our time, Climate Change, political polarization rooted in fear, economic and racial systemic injustice, war, refugee crises and the list goes on.  We can also relate to the experience of fragmentation that this story portrays.  In our modern moment we often yearn for communal connection.  We are learning to relate with each other through technology in meaningful ways, and that learning curve steep.  Furthermore the tribe of the church, much like the Israelites, is also in a period of reorientation.  The mainline protestant church must re-form our practice & our identity if we are to serve with the next generation and make change in our rapidly transforming world.  Lastly, don’t we still seek moments of awe just as much as this ancient tribe struggling to reclaim their identity?  Aren’t we often too busy, too numb to connect with God in our daily lives?  We can be so anxious about the future or bound up in past regret that we miss the awe-filled moments of transformation happening right now!

Upon deeper reflection perhaps we are in need of some of the wisdom rooted in this story.  Don’t we, like the Israelites, need the kind of spiritual community that has our back in thick and thin, in exile and times of rebuilding?  Don’t we need to participate in the kind of community that is sacrificial, loyal and loving?  A community that is in the business of showing God’s love?  Don’t we need the kind of community that shares our tears and our celebrations?  In our individualistic Western age the only spiritual response to the challenges of our time is to work in and through gathered communities.  Like the Israelites rebuilding their home together, we have to take a hard look at the work before us and the only way that we can face the challenges of our times is to connect with a community bigger than ourselves, and to connect with a God bigger than ourselves.  And if bowing, shouting and lifting our hands is not our expression of worship, then what rituals do we share to mark the moments of transformation in our community?  What are the moments that make our spiritual lives visible and tangible?

Lastly we need diversity in our gathered community for spiritual growth.  Polish-Born Sociologist Zygmunt Baumann, writes about the importance of gathered community in our technological age.  He writes,

“The difference between a community and a (social) network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish….People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness, abandonment, is the great fear in our individualist age. But…people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go out in the street, in the workplace, where you find lots of (different) people who you need to enter into sensible interaction with. Pope Francis, who is a great man, gave his first interview after being elected to Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist who is also a self-proclaimed atheist. It was a sign: real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you. Social media don’t teach us to dialogue because it is so easy to avoid (our differences)… But most people use social media…not to open their horizons wider, but… to cut for themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice.”  http://elpais.com/elpais/2016/01/19/inenglish/1453208692_424660.html

So this story reminds us of the power of diversity in our gathered communities.  Secondly, when I read this story I am compelled by the wisdom that we need sacred stories to help orient us and help remind us who we are.  Yes, a Bible reading marathon would be terribly boring, but how can we reimagine and re-interpret our scriptures to inspire and grow us even in our modern moment?  And if reading these stories aloud for half a day isn’t our celebration of scripture then what is?  How do we make these stories that comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable come alive for our moment?  When I think about the parts of the Bible that I find terribly boring, I also remember some of my best Divinity School professors or even current favorite preachers who can take an obscure and utterly boring text and make it come alive.  And I am reminded that perhaps the piece of the storytelling that is most compelling is actually the interpretation of the story.  What do these stories mean to you?  What metaphors teach us wisdom for our daily life even 2,500 years later?  Where do you locate yourself in the story?  What pieces in the story are unbelievable?  What pieces in the story make you stand in awe?

Lastly, when I imagine this scene at the Water Gate I am reminded that I need more moments of awe in my life.  The priests tell the gathered people, “This is the day that the Lord has made!  Do not weep for your losses or past regret and do not fear the next exile, live in this holy day and celebrate now!”  A dear friend recently shared a poem with me by the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa it reads, “The startling reality of things

Is my discovery every single day

Everything is what it is,

And it’s hard to explain to anyone how much this delights me  . . . . . . .

Occasionally I hear the wind blow,

And I find that just hearing the wind blow

makes it worth having been born”

We yearn for moment of awe, even simple moments like hearing the wind in the trees. We want to feel connected to each other, to ourselves, and to God.  We yearn for something to wake us up from the mundane stress and anxiety in our lives.  We yearn for the kind of experience that they have that day at the Water Gate.  And perhaps the magic question is how?  How does one create awe in their life?  How can we control or manipulate such mysterious things?  I am of the strong opinion that you cannot create a transcendent moment – but you can cultivate a life of spiritual practices that helps us be attuned to transcendence in our everyday life.  Perhaps you meditate, or find God’s peace in the natural world, perhaps music lifts your heart, perhaps children or an exceptional meal open you to the divine.  Perhaps you feel God’s presence in a journaling, yoga or a prayer practice.

This Lenten season (which is amazingly right around the corner) let us reflect on how we attune ourselves to the present moment.  Perhaps we can re-commitment to a community or with the stories of our faith.  Maybe you can try something new!  Ask a neighbor or a friend if they are taking on a practice this Lenten season.

So go now in peace, celebrating the power of this beloved community.  Go out remembering that our identities are rooted in our sacred stories, stories that calls us beloved, stories that also challenges us to make sacrifice & make change in our world.  Go out with an open heart ready to find God in the ordinary moments of this day.  So that perhaps one day we might all like the poet “find that just hearing the wind blow makes it worth having been born.”  Amen.