“Read It and Weep”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
January 24, 2016
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
When I was eleven years old, my parents sent me to summer camp for a whole month. I know that may seem shocking to those of you with young children, but parents used to send their kids to camp for four — or even eight weeks at a time!
They knew it would be good for me and it was. I have maintained a lifelong relationship with Camp Dudley, which sits on the southwestern shore of Lake Champlain in upstate New York, and I currently serve on their Board of Trustees.
I was exited to go to camp that August in 1974, but I didn’t realize how homesick I would feel in the first few days. Thankfully, I was having the time of my life and I got through that first week just fine.
But at the end of the week, on Sunday evening, we had a hymn sing, a Camp Dudley tradition. The first half is a raucous affair, with lots of clapping and foot stomping and singing at the top of your lungs. The second half is more melancholy. And when we got to, I Would Be True, the tears started and didn’t really stop until I went to bed that night.
You see, that was a hymn I’d grown up with in my home church, and to hear 450 boys and men singing it was so powerful that I had to cry. It wasn’t that it made me feel sad, exactly. I felt embraced by camp and I knew that I would be OK and that I’d see my parents in a few weeks. It’s just that I had a very clear feeling that
my life was in transition, that I was away from home and that I was really fine, which meant that my young childhood was ending.
Even if you never went to summer camp, you might relate to what I am saying. The idea is that music — especially hymns for me — gets right at the heart of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we believe God is leading us.
I know that many of you feel the same.
There are lots of stories out there — on the internet and in popular culture and in our own families – about how Christmas carols and other familiar hymns can reach into the minds of people with dementia and bring them to the surface, at least for a little while.
The same can be true of scripture.
When I’ve visited with folks with Alzheimer’s or similar challenges, I’ve often read Bible passages to them. And it’s amazing how, just one or two lines into the 23rd Psalm, they start saying it along with me, although they may have no idea where they are or who I am. Usually, tears will fill their eyes.
So, it’s not surprising to me to find this account in the book of Nehemiah. Ezra the priest reads scripture to the residents of Jerusalem as they stand in rapt attention — and they weep when they hear it.
At this time, Nehemiah is the governor and the people of the holy city have recently returned from exile in Babylon. They have set to the task of rebuilding the city. For the first few years, they’ve focused on the basics of survival: finding water, food, shelter, and clothing. They’ve also rebuilt the Temple, and under Nehemiah’s leadership, they’ve repaired the city walls.
But after a time, they are settled in enough to get down to the business of remembering who they are and to whom they belong.
This is where today’s reading comes in. Nehemiah is not just interested in rebuilding Jerusalem physically; he knows that the people need to remember who they are spiritually.
Just like us, they have to consider their practical needs, of course, but Governor Nehemiah and the priest, Ezra, are there to remind them that they have other needs as well, deeper ones that most of us ignore too often. These two leaders believe that their people have forgotten what it means to be Jewish, to be people of God.
So, they organize an outdoor worship service where Ezra reads scripture – specifically, the law of Moses, which is found in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. As a whole, this would take hours to read. In addition to the reading, the priests translate and interpret the scripture, helping the people to understand.
You and I might balk at the idea of standing in Hingham Square for most of a day with our kids listening to three of the most repetitive and demanding books of the Hebrew Bible, being read aloud — and then, on top of that, listening to a long sermon. I mean, when we go over one hour here, we get antsy.
But to them, it’s like coming home. I can imagine the people hanging on every word and whispering questions and comments to one another. To them, the whole scene is a festival, a time for remembering and for hope and for celebration.
Do you remember receiving your first Bible, maybe in 3rd grade? Do you remember hearing the old stories in your Sunday school classes or your parents reading to you from the Bible at bedtime? Or were those experiences not a part of your childhood… and are you feeling some emptiness because of that?
Is that where the Jerusalemites’ tears come from? Are they remembering how they were raised and what they were given and how far they’ve drifted? Or are they feeling the hard absence of spiritual instruction and a deep gratitude that it is finally happening? Are they missing the past… or a past that wasn’t and might have been?
As they listen to each law, each commandment read aloud, perhaps they think to themselves: I’ve broken that one… and that one… yup, that one, too! And this brings tears of regret to their eyes.
Have you ever had the irrational, but very real feeling — here in church or in another religious setting — as you’ve listened to the scripture being read or the sermon being preached, that you were being personally accused? Love your enemies… Forgive each other… Turn the other cheek… Thou shalt not covet… Thou halt not commit adultery… Eat, drink, and be merry, but don’t get drunk… Don’t judge other people… Lying is wrong.. Gossip is hurtful to community… It’s harder for a rich person to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle… Etcetera, etcetera…
You get the idea: All of us feel called out by scripture from time to time, or we’re not really listening.
And it might make us feel a little weepy, in anger or in sadness or in regret… or as we feel helpless to change.
As it turns out, this is a story of hope, not of despair! It is a story not of judgment and condemnation, but of liberation.
What we do here on Sunday mornings is not about making each other feel guilty or binding on another up in shame. It’s about looking to God to free us to live our lives fully and joyfully. And it’s about encouraging one another in that process.
Let’s remember together what the priest, Ezra, says to the crowd at the end of the passage. When he sees them weeping, whether with tears of sentimentality or of regret or of shame, he says:
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.
In other words, shame will get us nowhere. Yes, listen to the word; yes, absorb it; yes return to God. Yes, become the person God is calling you to be.
But do so with a deep sense of God’s liberating love and generosity. Receive God’s gifts and enjoy them! Share them with others! And know that life is very, very good. Then, hopefully, when we weep, our tears will be tears of joy.