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. He read from it facing the square 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, for he was standing above 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 the LORD with their faces to the ground...So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. Ezra the priest...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..." (Nehemiah 8:1-12)
Thanks to the pandemic, churches will look a little different than they used to. Some have used this time to make massive, well-needed changes in their worship. Others are waiting until they can return to the old tried and true ways they’re used to. Either way, as churches around the world reopen, they will carry forward certain rituals that date back to this particular reading.
After 60-years in exile, God’s people have returned to Jerusalem from Babylon to rebuild the temple and their city. But there’s another construction project underway. As Nehemiah points out, Ezra and the priest are assembling what will become the Torah – the Hebrew scriptures that make up the first five books of our Bible. Men and women, the religious and common folk alike, have gathered to worship with Ezra and have their spirit refreshed.
You might notice, scripture is the centerpiece in their worship, just as it is here in Anamesa. But just as important as reading scripture, Ezra takes the time to interpret the text. Much like I’m doing now. He taught the people what God’s words meant and how it applied to the situation they were dealing with. Having been reminded of God’s providence, the people go home rejoicing – sharing what they have with those in need.
This last point is important to remember because God’s word cannot be held in a vacuum…or sealed away in a book. It must be lived out and shared. This is how God’s word meets us where we are. And how God makes sure no one is left out – especially those who have nothing to offer.
Now, Blake was a freshman in high school when he signed up to be a reader at the church. There were many people who thought it would be a mistake to give him the responsibility. You see, Blake was born with vision and hearing issues that affected his speech. Some worried that the older members would have trouble understanding him. But I knew Blake’s heart and his desire to serve. So, I went ahead and let Blake do the readings one Sunday. And like I thought, he did a great job connecting the church community to God’s word.
Blake’s story reminds me of another story from our lectionary. One where some people thought Jesus couldn’t do the job either.
“Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:14-21)
Once again, scripture takes center stage. When Jesus is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he follows the example of Ezra by reading the passage to the people and then giving them his interpretation. His was a simple message: “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Like Blake, there were people who had trouble understanding what Jesus was saying. Not because he had a speech impediment, but because they were only able to see him in one way. To them Jesus was just a kid from the hood, a local carpenter’s boy…no one of any prominence. Who was he to bring good news to the poor?
I think what Jesus was saying to them, he is also saying to us right now. Just as Jesus is revealing his true self to his community…he is also revealing who we are or who God has created us to be. Like him, we must embody God’s word, live it out to make sure no one is left without.
The gospels give us numerous examples of how Jesus embodied God’s word in all the ways he response to human need. Stories of healing, forgiving, feeding, and of course, sacrifice - putting the needs of others before his own. In Jesus, the word of God truly becomes flesh and blood, to meet us where we are, and to bring us back to where we need to be. In him and through him, the will of God is proclaimed perfectly. And no one is left out.
The way I see it, worship isn’t just prayer, praise, and preaching. It’s about hearing and doing of the will of God for the building up of God’s Kingdom. As Blake taught us, we all have what it takes to embody the Word of God. To make it one with our own flesh and blood.
This takes us to the third lectionary reading from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians.
“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit…Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body…If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose…As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you…” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,…and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)
While scripture was the centerpiece in the first two readings, the focus now shifts to us…the body of Christ who has called us to carry God’s word into the world.
Paul makes it pretty clear that God wants everyone to partake in the worship experience. More than just butts in the seats, God wants us to actually show up and bring our spiritual gifts to the party. The way I see it, God’s word becomes more meaningful and multi-dimensional when it’s lived out together. And not necessarily in the same building, but in the same Spirit.
As Christ’s holy body, the church is called into Anamesa – that sacred space between heaven and earth. We are called into this space together – to bring good news to the poor; to liberate the oppressed; and provide mental, physical, and spiritual care to the least of these our brothers and sisters.
To follow Jesus means to embody his way. And to make the word of God come alive in our communities. We have been given the Holy Spirit to do just that.
Like Jesus pointed out to those who questioned his intentions, it’s not enough to honor God with our lips. Our words will fall on deaf ears if we refuse to honor God with our hearts and hands as well. True worship – that which is truly pleasing to God – is being the manifestation of God’s glory in all that we do. We see this throughout creation.
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world... (Psalm 19:1-4)
Richard Rohr argues, “Creation is the first Bible.” It’s shear brilliance reveals the path to God. If a beautiful sunset or a grand mountain can awaken someone to God’s greatness and glory, what then does that say about our call as a community of faith? We are the body of Christ, called to be the living incarnation of God’s word.
Katie Hines Shah writes, “The living word is not just text it must be embodied, meeting God's people today in their deepest need. Our hands belong not over our hearts, but at work for our neighbor if we are to have the word take flesh in us.”
Your words and deeds might be the only way someone meets God and discovers their true worth in God’s heart. This is important to remember for no other reason than you might be the only Bible someone will ever read.
So yes, we are a bible-based church.
For we are the Body of Christ whose various gifts work together to reveal God’s salvation upon the world. We can do this in a beautiful building or in a simple backyard. We can do it in person or online, at work or at school. God doesn’t need a steeple or stain glass. God needs us.
For the truest form of worship to God, is being the visible and tangible expression of God’s love and grace in the world. As the psalm continues to remind us:
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
Brothers and sisters, God has entrusted us with the same Spirit that was given to Jesus himself who embodied the Word of God perfectly.
If a mountain can do it, so can you.
If people like Blake can do it, so can any one of us become the body and embodiment of Christ, the very word of God made flesh for us and for all.
May his heart be your heart.
His hands, an extension of your own.
And his words be yours, holy and pleasing to God, our rock and our redeemer.
Based on an original sermon Are You The Word of God? from January 26, 2019.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Hines-Shah, Katie. "Living By The Word." Christian Century, January 12, 2022.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”