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A Glimpse of the Kingdom
Reverend Krystal Leedy
July 23, 2017
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
audio not available
Nehemiah is not a book of the Bible that we often read, but it is easily one of my favorites. The people of God have been exiled from Jerusalem, and this is their homecoming. Unfortunately, they come home to the city of Jerusalem which has been destroyed. Nehemiah spends the first part of this book surveying the damage and then hiring workers. It is important to note that unlike many books in the Old Testament who bear a name, Nehemiah is not a prophet, but instead a governor. The people of God rebuild each of the gates of the city, which are all listed. There are lots of names in the first few chapters and conversations about how they are going to get this building project accomplished. During the exile, many of their traditions are lost and they must rebuild those as well. Ezra, the priest, leads the people of God in this reconstruction. We pick up our story as they begin that first worship service.
8:1 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.
8:2 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.
8:3 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.
8:5 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.
8:6 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.
8:8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
8:9 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.
8:10 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 basement. “That’s where we used to have the children’s Sunday school. It was so dark down there. It smelled. It was a horrifying experience.” That’s what I kept hearing from folks about our Great Hall when I arrived at UPC on the tail end of the last capital campaign. Apparently, we hid our children in the basement. I’m sure in its hey-day, the Great Hall was perfect for children’s Sunday school, but age and time wielded destructive powers, and it was much in the shape of the walls of Jerusalem. Old, decrepit, and in need of repair. It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and the Great Hall was squeakin’ all over the place.
Not but a few years later, I was informed about another squeaky wheel in this place, but with less asbestos and more relational deterioration. The UPC Campus Ministry was likened to a “ghost ship” at a session meeting when I arrived on the scene as the wide-eyed campus director. We had four students in a campus ministry that I was reminded often used to have at least a hundred.
With each squeaky wheel at UPC, with each problem that needed to be fixed, this book of the Bible rears its head—a city that had been eroded, in need of repair. And each ministry is like each one of the gates that we need to repair—campus ministry, children’s ministry, stewardship, adult ed. And this is a fine metaphor for our church. It is a beautiful example of how we can work together and how we need to show appreciation for those who help with each ministry. And it would be easy for me to talk about each gate and how it relates to a committee. The Water Gate, the Valley Gate, the Sheep Gate, even the Dung Gate all have their own specific purpose. They all have a mission statement and a committee that worked on them. The names of the committee members are listed in Chapter 3 of Nehemiah. It is a beautiful expression of the legacy of those people who helped shape and work through each committee of this project. And I could have preached on chapter 3. I could have highlighted how each week during the summer we are hearing the earnest stories of people who serve on the various committees of our church. I could preach all day long about how the Christian Formation Committee is the Sheep Gate because they are shepherding young lives and how the Worship & Music Committee is the Fountain Gate because they help us tap into that well-spring of life known as Jesus Christ. And the Dung Gate is the… well… we should probably ask Session about that one. But I didn’t pick chapter 3 because you know the importance of working together for the common good. You know that Jesus Christ’s body has many parts and you are only but an ear or a toenail or an eyebrow. And when we get to chapter 8 and the capital campaign is done and the building project is over and the squeaky wheels have gotten their grease, when the appreciation has been given and the pats on the back have all been handed out: a leader named Ezra is called out from among the people to preach, and he reads the law. And the people of God who had been called for a purpose of rebuilding listened to these words and wept. That’s the chapter I chose. The one about crying and weeping because of sin. And the words of the leadership ring out over the people, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
I believe I told the story in a past sermon about my disdain for hearing about joy during the Lenten season, and how the staff ribs me on a regular basis because I said that joy should not be mentioned during Lent and I may have said it at an inappropriate volume in a staff meeting. I like Lent because it feels like it really gets down to the reality of life, especially the hard parts—the parts where perhaps there is some weeping at our own sin.
Joy has seemed so shallow to me, a kind of smiling through the pain type of emotion. Or joy has simply seemed based upon circumstance. The people who are joyful are the people who have achievement or have a new baby or just won a race. I felt like joy was this elusive thing, just when we grasped it, it slipped from our fingers. And the strength of joy didn’t seem to be there. Joy just keeps popping up for me, so I picked up a book: The Book of Joy, which is an interview of the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And they spend the first part of the book talking about obstacles to joy: sadness and grief, fear, stress, and anxiety, despair, loneliness, envy, the fear of death, and suffering. And I felt comforted by the fact that they were willing so quickly to delve into these very real negative emotions that sound a lot like the result of systemic sin. I felt like I had walked into a Lenten story about the isolation that we feel when the world turns on us, when we didn’t get everything we wanted or needed. This part of the book is when the squeaky wheel is just squeaking and the grease is nowhere to be found.
And it is in our suffering where we feel so isolated. It is in the despair that we turn inward.
And as we participate in worship services, I feel like they become highly individualized, mostly because many of us in my estimation are seeking solace from the world that rages outside of these walls. Especially as I begin to think about worship services in the Taizé style. I started a Taizé service here at UPC a few years ago, with the help of very talented people, and John and I actually spent a day in Taizé, France, at the community a little while after I started the worship services here. It was beautiful and an intentional community. Everyone was a worker and everyone was a worship participant. And we sang Taizé chants which are repeated over and over again. They are beautiful mantras that stick in my brain and pop up at the oddest of times. The first time I learned one of these chants was at a UKirk National Board meeting. We always start each morning with a Taizé morning prayer service. And each time I sing it or say it now, I am always transported back to that place where I first heard it.
“The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come Lord, and open in us, a taste of your Kingdom.”
It’s not: come Lord, and fix all the problems and make UPC the answer to all of our woes. It’s just asking for a taste of the Kingdom, which is big and broad. Just a taste of justice and peace and joy. Just a moment where things are right and calm and blissful. And maybe that’s what worship is. A pause, a reflection time—but with a community. It was for the workers of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah.
It was a time of confession, the interpretation of the Word, the reading of Scripture, the speaking of Amens. And this is sounding all too familiar. Nehemiah Chapter 8 is about a shared experience of worship, and while at this moment, we are here, and we can only see the people that are sitting around us, but there are many other people worshipping this same God at this very hour. And I know that we ourselves at UPC can be compared to the Jerusalem that was rebuilt, because we still have those squeaky wheels, but we are also only but a part of a much larger body. When Jesus prays, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” he does not say, “All of your Kingdom will be coming to 2203 San Antonio St in Austin, Texas.” The Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, is coming to all the earth. We are but a star of the descendants of Abraham. We are but a grain of sand on the shore. And we are but a brick in the New Jerusalem, the city whose walls are being rebuilt, the city whose walls are being reformed. And I have to wonder where we are in the wall around Jerusalem. My guess is that we are not the cornerstone. Which gate do we hold up? Are we high or low on the wall? Who even are we connected to? And who do we need to thank for holding us up?
The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, and we are but a brick in that Kingdom.
In the midst of the weeping, in the midst of the suffering, in the midst of the despair, some may take what the leadership says to the people of God as shallow: “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.”
And there’s that word again: joy.
The two men who wrote The Book of Joy have very little to be joyful about. They are oppressed people, who know more about suffering than we do. So when they spoke about what it takes to be a joyful person, not based upon circumstances, I believe them. When they talk about generosity, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, and acceptance as inroads to joy, I believe them. I believe them because the Holy Spirit gives us those gifts, and I have seen them at work when we reconcile with someone during the Passing of the Peace. When we accept that there are problems in this world and we are a part of those problems during Confession. When we offer gratitude to God in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. When we are generous with our gifts during the Offering. We are cultivating joy in this place each Sunday. This illusive thing called joy is conjured up not through circumstance but through the very act of meditation and prayer, and it does begin with individuals in our very circumstances.
We are cultivating joy within ourselves: for humility and humor are also inroads to joy. The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama discuss how humor and humility come from the same root word, and it is the same root that is also used for another word in English: human. By living into the fullness of our humanity, we find that we are not alone. We are not a brick apart from a wall, but an integral piece of the Kingdom.
This past week our youth went on a mission trip to Fort Worth. And I’ll bet if you read their blog or asked them they would tell you about all of the humbling and humor-filled experiences that they found this week. I’ve already heard a few. They lived together, they worked together, they suffered together, they were human together. It was a taste of joy. It was a taste of the Kingdom.
Two weeks ago, our intern Alex Pappas worked with leaders and junior high students at Mo-Ranch, a gathering place for so many who come from far and wide to live in intentional community for a week. One of the most humbling and humor-filled experiences at junior high camp, in my opinion, is energizers, which no one looks good doing. And when bad things happened, and they did, we suffered together, we talked with one another. We worked things out. We cried with one another and then had a fake awards show for the leadership with paper plate awards. It was a taste of joy. It was a taste of the Kingdom.
On spring break, a variety of people from UPC worked on a house for people in Reynosa, Mexico, and when you can’t speak the language and the work is new and different, it is humbling. And when you play games at night and wake up tired in the morning, it is humbling and humor-filled. We suffered together and were humbled. We played together and laughed. It was a taste of joy. It was a taste of the Kingdom.
The All-Church Retreat, the UKirk trip to Montreat, the mission trips, and the journey we take together are all joyful tastes of the Kingdom of God.
And yes, the Kingdom of God is the whole earth, made up of lots of communities of faith, which are made up of a lot of humans. But the joy and peace and justice of the Kingdom of God also dwells within each of the hearts of the participants.
And if the joy of the Lord is within us, then perhaps it will show itself at committee meetings, when we are looking at where our brick fits in the larger picture. And perhaps there will a taste of the Kingdom at presbytery meetings. The Presbyterian Church is known as the connectional church, and there is no better way to connect than with joy. And maybe session can be a place of joy: of humor, generosity, and compassion. And maybe our workplaces become a new brick in the Kingdom as we are grateful for our co-workers. And possibly each interaction with another person both outside and inside of these walls becomes for us an opportunity for compassion, to suffer with another person.
The Sunday worship services allow for all of the pillars of joy to stand up tall, even the pillars that include buoying the suffering, and as God is reforming the walls of the new Jerusalem, God’s new Kingdom, God will place UPC right where we need to be: holding up our gate, being bound to other faith communities through the mortar of the Spirit, and being made of little joyful brick pieces.
As we find ourselves in the monthly work of committees and the daily work of being human, may we never forget the source of our strength.
Yeah, there’s that word again: joy.