News, Connections and Photos from the life of the faith community at CAPC Oakland
Why do you go to church? How does it bring you joy? How doesn’t it? How does your participation in public worship, and communal listening to the Word of God shape your identity and your actions? Should it? If it doesn’t, why doesn’t it?
In our continuing series of Ezra-Nehemiah we switch to Nehemiah, and come to the only text of the two books included in the Lectionary – or read on a ‘regular’ basis in public worship. Nehemiah was the cupbearer (or right hand assistant man) of King Xerxes. He asks to be sent back to his homeland to help in the rebuilding of the Temple and city. He returns and helps build the walls, arming the workers as they reconstruct protection with tools and weapons. Our section for today comes at the end of the reconstruction of the city walls and temple. (More or less chronologically after our reading last week of Ezra 3-6).
This physical reconstruction and rebuilding is in order to reclaim and re-establish their identity as the people of God, followers of Yahweh. They celebrate the construction with an unusually long scripture-reading and sermonizing session. It lasts all day! They are amazed in their reaction. Had they not read the scriptures before? What was it that so spoke to them, even as they stood up all day long? The tradition in some churches of standing when the gospel is read, points back to this story.
The text talks of reading the Law, which we understand as “the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy, in more or less the same form as they exist today. Moses was for a long time understood to be the author of these texts. As noted already, “law” is a term that coverts on in part what the books contains. When Ezra stands up to read, he reads about the creation of the world and of Israel as a people; he reads about the failings of humanity and of the covenant community; he reads all the ups and downs of the history of God with the world and with God’s people until they reach the land of the promise. He reads stories and poems, songs and blessing, and also ‘laws.’ The people who listen to Ezra Listen to a recital of the past and of the way God went with them in the past. One of the decisive moments int his history came when the people were shaped into a community by entering into a covenant with their God. …
It is, in any case, clear from this event that the book of the Torah of Moses given to Israel by the Lord is seen as central to the life of the community. This idea may be strange to a church that believes itself to be freed from the need of the law and that views obedience to the law as legalism to be avoided. It is helpful then to remember two things: torah is more than law; it is also the story that identifies the roots of the community especially in its relation to God, and it helps the community to give shape to its current self-understanding. The story of the past gives guidance for presence and future. Sccond, insofar as the laws are a a part of torah, they are an essential ingredient for a community that seeks guidance. At the time of Ezra-Nehemiah, the community listen to rules and prescriptions for its common life, and it does this is a way that seeks to apply these rules to a different time than when the laws were first constructed. Laws in ancient Israel went though long processes of adaption and change. Rigidity and a static understanding of torah are not helpful…when the community is basically listening for the voice of God, as did the community of their ancestors when they made their first covenant with God.” (Ezra-Nehemaih-Esther, Johanna W. H. Van Wijk-Bos, pps. 70-72)
Why were the people invited not to weep but to joy, to eat the fat and drink the sweet wine – in other words to enjoy the best things that life has to offer, the best of all the good that God has given to us? As J van Wijk-Bos writes in her commentary, “Torah is designed to help in figuring out where we came from, how God went with us in our history, and what the principles are on which we should formulate the regulations for the conduct of our common life [today].” It’s not about weeping for the past. It’s about building and moving into the present-future.
I’m struck by the beauty of that phrase (which is repeated twice in this chapter!). It seemingly so different than some worship experiences I’ve suffered through, and reminiscent of the ones that have deeply transformed and shaped me. Why is it that worship isn’t like that in general for us, in particular in ‘mainline’ denominations – where we’re known more as the “frozen chosen” than as the jubilant ones, or those worshippers that know how to celebrate and party? A interesting post on Next Church points to a possible reason that we protestants are often so stuck and few-to-be-present (Worship: style vs. substance) What do you think? How have you experienced worship as a joyous chewing-of-the-fat celebration? Or as a killing-of-your-spirit serve to endure?
The latter part of the text tells of a second day of scripture reading, followed by the building of huts or booths, similar to the tabernacle of God which journeyed through the desert with the people. They celebrate Sukkot, of the Feast of Tabernacles, a celebration of God’s Word among us in the tabernacle and God faithfulness in the harvest that took place each fall (when Sukkot fell). At it’s core worship isn’t about preserving a tradition, but rather about wrestling with identity as we respond to who God is and what God has done. The word worship, coming from old English & German meaning “to make worthy” or to find the worth of something. All too often worship seems to be more about identity in the us-vs-them sort of sense, or an all our preservation of tradition, history, heritage, and pew reservations.
In our day and age we’re struggling to know why we gather for church? Many don’t come every week, or seen a need to do so. Myriad are the voices that say that they don’t need to go to church to be spiritual. While there is a decline in public worship attendance for Christians, a curious opposite trend has emerged among atheist movements in the past year (see the related Huff Post Article: “Atheist Megachurches…”) How does that strike you? How or why are atheists so ardently enthusiastic to gather for “worship” or a gathering, while followers of Jesus seem to be less and less so?
Questions for Going Deeper
We live in a time of great dissension, adversarial attitudes and hostile opposition. Out culture communicates to us that we cannot be associated or friends with those that don’t hold