Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

  Northern Great Lakes SynodEvangelical Lutheran Church in AmericaBethany on Facebook  

Epiphany - 1/21/07

   Not long after I started my call in L’Anse, one woman in the congregation was identified to me as being in a mixed marriage.  I didn’t say anything, but my first thought was, “Her husband is black??”  Where I came from that’s what a mixed marriage was.  I suppose it was possible for that to be the case in L’Anse, but from what I’d seen at the time it seemed highly unlikely and come to find out, her husband was not black, he was Catholic.  These things are defined differently in the UP; could be Lutheran/Catholic, Swede and Finn; did it raise eyebrows when a Pellonpaa married a Holmgren some years ago?  Maybe it was OK because they were both Lutheran, maybe Lutheran trumps Swede and Finn.  Such boundaries may be different depending on who you are and where you live, but even for the most open minded, there is probably some combination of ethnicity and/or religion that would get your attention.

I throw that out to as a way to get a little perspective on the kinds of things that were of concern in the Old Testament lesson from Nehemiah.  A little more background though; you’ve heard me talk before about the exile…not the exodus, but the exile, the time when Israel was conquered by Babylon and large portions of the population were deported to Babylon where they lived…in exile, not necessarily in bondage as prisoners but just separated from their homeland and customs including their religious faith and practice.  It’s good to know about this because it really is the central event behind what is going on in many Old Testament writings.  Knowing whether something was written before the exile, during it or after it can be very helpful as you try to sort out texts that can be pretty confusing at times.

Nehemiah is post-exilic as eventually the exiled people were allowed to go back to the homeland.  Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and told the exiles that they could go.  But there were problems.  The return wasn’t as glorious as some of the prophetic writings made it sound.  There were infrastructure problems first of all as Jerusalem was largely in ruins; the city had to be rebuilt.  But some also saw a need for some ethnic cleansing to take place.  During the exile, some of their ethnic identity, which was also their religious identity, had been tainted due to…mixed marriage, marriage between people of different cultures and customs and gods. 

The somewhat obscure and overlapping books of Ezra and Nehemiah address these problems.  Nehemiah’s big project was to rebuild the walls of the city so that the Lord, Yahweh could be properly worshiped within those walls and…so people of differing beliefs could be kept out.  Ezra was mostly concerned with the mixed marriage problem and the fear that mixed marriage meant the possibility of other gods in the mix.  For Ezra and Nehemiah, as the people returned from exile, it was important to clean this up.  Otherwise they were afraid that all they stood for and believed in, their culture, would be gone.

When you think about it, this kind of thinking is not that far removed from us.  It is the reason why, in a place like Ishpeming, there is a Swedish Lutheran Church and a Norwegian Lutheran Church and a Finnish Lutheran Church.  It was to protect the ethnic culture, especially the language.

But we’ve moved beyond that right?  You don’t have to pass an ethnic test to belong to one of our churches.  We’re perhaps even a little bit appalled by the exclusivist bent of Ezra and Nehemiah where the intent is to exclude anyone who is different.  We don’t see this as a shining moment in biblical history or we say, “Well, that’s the Old Testament, but Jesus changed all that didn’t he?”   “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” as St. Paul says.  So if that’s true, why bother with Ezra and Nehemiah and their concern with establishing boundaries when Jesus seemed much more concerned about removing them?

We bother because, I think Ezra, perhaps inadvertently, highlights something that continues to be important to who we are and especially, to what we do in worship; that is, the public reading of biblical texts.  Ezra brought the law before the assembly and read for six hours (don’t be confused by the word law here, as it refers to the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament so it includes all the great stories of Abraham and Isaac and Joseph and Moses, the Exodus, all those in addition to all the law stuff).  Ezra read for six hours with interpretation, and the people wept when they heard the words. 

If I stood up here and read for six hours you might weep too, but all joking aside, what they found was that it was these words that gave them their identity and defined who God was and who they were.  In kind of a backhanded way, what they may have figured out is that the goal really wasn’t to exclude all outsiders, but to unite around these words and this god.

What this lesson from Nehemiah invites us to do is to celebrate the word as it is proclaimed in the gathered assembly.  I think it is good to be reminded of that because it’s easy to get pretty blasé and casual about it, to kind of zone out as the lessons are read each week.  But these words, proclaimed by the lector, proclaimed by the pastor, sung together by all of us in the Psalm, these words have weight, because these words announce who God is and what he has done and how he has been experienced. 

I’ve written newsletter articles about how important it is for individuals to develop a discipline of Bible reading and Bible study and I know that many of you do it.  But it’s just as important, maybe more important that we hear these words in the context of worship because then, together we say that these are the words, the stories that guide us and tell us about God, and give life meaning.  It’s these words and this God that unites us. 

These words have weight.  Symbolically we should give them weight.  They shouldn’t be read from a flimsy piece of paper which is what we usually do.  They should be read from a book that has weight, a Bible, preferably a large Bible placed at a reading stand that is given prominence in the worship space because this is important.  The gospel, which usually includes some words of Jesus, should be read in the midst of the assembly from a book that is prominent and easily seen which we have been doing for quite awhile now.  And they are words that should be listened to as they are proclaimed.  That’s why I asked you to set the bulletin aside today. 

The way we and most churches do it, we might as well say, “OK, lets take a few minutes now to read the lessons silently and then the worship service will continue,” because pretty much everyone is like this as the lesson are read, head down, following along, maybe hoping the reader makes a mistake.  If you ever go up for worship with the monks at the Jampot, before each lesson is read the worship leader says, “Listen!  Be attentive!” and that really is what we should be doing, listening to the reader, being attentive to these heavy, weighty words that celebrate God and what he has done.

Note too that the Nehemiah text says, “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation.”  The “with interpretation” part of this proclamation of the word is also important.   Christian worship, which is largely modeled after Jewish synagogue worship, has always included interpretation.  Judaism has a rich tradition of what they call midrash, where different rabbis have struggled with interpreting scripture, there’s volumes and volumes of interpretive material which makes sense when you think that after all, we’re talking about God here.  There has to be room for different understandings because God isn’t going to fit neatly into any of the little boxes we might wish him to fit into. 

Christianity hasn’t always been as open to such varied interpretations, some strands of Christianity still aren’t, preferring to force the text to proclaim certainty when by nature much of it just doesn’t do that, unless it is forced; the texts we deal with are open and ambiguous and even playful sometimes.  They call for interpretation, with wrestling with the ambiguity.

Martin Luther was very opposed to the idea that the church, meaning the pope and the higher ups, were the only ones who could interpret scripture.  He came up with some answers and interpretations that he was pretty adamant about, but the legacy he gives us is one of continued interpretation; so that’s what we do, because these words that we proclaim are living words about a living God who continues to move and act in our world.

Like the returning exiles at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah there are things that mix us up, there are things we disagree on; but we still find our identity in these words that tell us about God revealed in Jesus and what he has done, and what he continues to do.  These are the words that unite us.  So Listen!  Be Attentive!


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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