Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
23 January 2022
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
When we were first married we lived in Germany. Jackie’s first job in Germany was in a neighbouring city, about an hour by train. One of the places the train stopped was the town of Friedland. There was a camp that in 1945 had been created by the British occupying force to process evacuees, refugees, and displaced persons. Friedland was very close to the border with East Germany and even in the 1990s Friedland was the first stop for many ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union moving West. When the train stopped one would see large families disembark with three suitcases and five cardboard boxes as their only worldly possessions. As the Soviets did not permit them to take much with them, those who had anything of value usually sold it to buy a new pair of shoes for their new life in the West.
We had acquaintances from Manitoba who volunteered at the camp, welcoming new arrivals and looking for Mennonites, possibly helping them to connect with a local church or helping them come to Canada.
There aren’t a lot of Mennonites in Germany. Like other Anabaptists, Mennonites were persecuted, and because Mennonites are traditionally pacifists and European countries conscripted their citizens, most Mennonites left Europe. But there are some. A fellow student from my time in Germany is a Mennonite pastor. When a few of us visited him in the first congregation he served, we learned about new arrivals in their churches, people whose first stop would have been in Friedland or a similar camp. You must know that like Lutherans who came from Eastern Europe, Germans in the Soviet Union had lived in small cultural and religious enclaves where language and faith continued to mark people’s identity and who stayed separate and distinct from the surrounding populations.
This is not exactly the situation we find in our first reading from Nehemiah but something like it. In Nehemiah you find two groups of people. There are those returning from exile in Babylon, and those who had not been deported but had been left behind after Judah’s defeat in 598 BC. All of those returning would have been born in Babylon and have had no memory of Judah other than what they had been told. Those left behind had no temple in which to worship and many intermarried with people of the surrounding nations. These marriages were deemed a problem for Ezra and Nehemiah, but that is not what we will talk about today.
When Nehemiah, who served as Royal Cup Bearer to Babylonian King Artaxerxes, arrived in Israel, he quickly organized the rebuilding of the ruined walls of Jerusalem. That Jerusalem no longer had had fortification showed the disrepair into which Judah had fallen.
And now you have two groups coming together and in order for this social experiment to work they need to have some kind of common identity. But this is difficult as both groups are quite different. The one returning are the elites and they may have preserved some kind of memory of what made Judah God’s people, though their memory may not have been accurate. My Mennonite friend told me about the dynamics in his congregation that welcomed Mennonites from the Soviet Union. The new arrivals considered everyone in the welcoming church too worldly (and I can only imagine what the old timers thought of the newcomers). But the new arrivals settled in, so that after about they had been there for about five years or so, the next group to come considered them too worldly, even though they were still far more traditional than the group they had joined.
In the case of Judah, those who had stayed behind likely had a smaller collective cultural and religious memory than the returnees.
It is into this situation that the Law, the Torah is introduced. And what we have in our reading is a public reading of the law, requested by the people. They listen to the scriptures for six hours. Can you imagine? I imagine that looking at your watch during worship isn’t an entirely strange experience for you, and that’s only about 60 minutes.
The reading of the Torah is a uniting experience for the people. Together they hear the law and together they understand their lives to be guided and bound by it.
When I first moved to Canada I noticed little vignettes on television that shared moments of Canadian history. I also noticed an effort of politicians to encourage feelings of patriotism, not only to avoid having to answer to current problems. In a country where many different cultures come together it is important to create some kind of cohesion that will hold the whole thing together. Telling stories of our history and encouraging patriotism is one way.
Some years ago I read a paper by a sociologist who argued that Western societies no longer had common values, aside from wealth accumulation. And if wealth accumulation is the only thing that holds us together as a nation, then let us pray that we will never fall on hard times and that we will practice solidarity between the rich and the poor, and more than we do today.
Robert Jenson is a Lutheran theologian who says that the world in which we live no longer has a story. Story, of course, is about who we are, how we tell our story. Furthermore, promises as given in the scriptures, only makes sense within the framework of stories.
Jenson says that the project of the Enlightenment was to maintain realist faith while declaring disallegiance from the God who was that faith’s object. It was the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.
“The experiment has failed. It is, after the fact, obvious that it had to: if there is no universal storyteller, then the universe can have no story line. Neither you nor I nor all of us together can so shape the world that it can make narrative sense; if God does not invent the world’s story, then it has none, then the world has no narrative that is its own. If there is no God, or indeed if there is some other God than the God of the Bible, there is no narratable world.”1
Statements such as Jenson’s may offend our modern sensibilities, and yet when we look around the world, we are hard pressed to find a coherent story that gives us a corporate identity. And that that is so we can see in the breakdown of our common discourse. We live in a society where at times it is hard to communicate with one another for we are so enamoured with our own convictions that we are no longer able to hear the voices of others.
The people of Israel sat down for six hours at the water gate to listen to Ezra reading from the Torah. This is not some kind of ancient fundamentalism but the people’s embrace of a common story, for the story of the law presupposes that the people are created and called by God to live as God’s children in the world, that their lives make sense in light of this story, and that their lives are thus connected to one another and that they are their siblings’ keepers.
For the church to live in this time we must learn from the people of Israel. Church is not simply something that reinforces our morality or that makes us feel good on a Sunday. But to be part of the church is to be part of God’s people, to have a collective identity, for our lives to makes sense through the death and resurrection of Jesus and to receive our values not from ourselves but from the Lord whose name we claim and who loved even his enemies and forgave those who crucified him.
This is the story in which we find ourselves, the story that gives us an identity, and the story that helps us live in a world without coherent story.
For us to live this story we must know it and we must come together to hear it and to study it. And as for the people of Israel, it is not a burden but it is a gift.
Thanks be to God.
1 How the World Lost Its Story: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/03/how-the-world-lost-its-story