Sermon Ideas For Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 Part 2
The scene at the Water Gate would strike many pastors of "mainline" American congregations as unimaginable today. The people who were gathered there were spiritually hungry and eager to hear the priest, Ezra, read and interpret the scriptures. Expectant and attentive, they were "all ears" from early morning until midday. If I hear any single complaint from pastors I know, it is about how hard it is to get and keep people's attention these days. People, they complain, seem just too distracted to listen with the quiet, sustained intensity described in Nehemiah 8.
Of course, the scene at the Water Gate is repeated around the world every Sabbath or holy day where religious revival is associated with some group's efforts to re-affirm its faith, its identity and its basic rights in the face of persecution, oppression or discrimination. Indeed, this was a major source of the religious fervor that Ezra appealed to. The Jews at the Water Gate had only recently returned from exile and were still celebrating the right to practice their faith openly again. To such people, the shared experience of reading sacred texts and participating in sacred rituals can neither be taken for granted nor treated lightly. For to them it is an affirmation that their right to be depends not on human decree but on the decree of God, the Ground of All Being. As Paul Tillich (1952)1 suggested, such an affirmation is always an act of courage as much as reverence. For it is always made in spite of and not infrequently in the face of the ever present forces of tyranny and of non-being.
Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect the attitude described in Nehemiah 8 except among those whose right to practice their religious faith is under repression, or those who have been recently liberated from such repression, or those who have been convinced by either prophet or maniac that their rights to religious self-expression are threatened. Perhaps this is why so many leaders of prosperous main-line congregations have come to expect so little of their parishioner's attentiveness during Sabbath worship. Perhaps a certain level of spiritual apathy is simply the price our culture pays for the freedom of choice it affords to at least the majority of its members.
This analysis seems overly pessimistic, however. For one thing, it pays too little respect to the current revival of interest in our culture in matters of a spiritual nature. To be sure, much of this interest seems shallow and faddist. But the suspicion and cynicism displayed by many clergy toward this trend seems unfair and even harmful. It is ironic, but not surprising, that so much of the growing popular literature about spirituality is written by psychiatrists and therapists instead of ministers and theologians.
I am not surprised because as a pastoral psychotherapist I listen daily to clients who are looking for more than symptom relief or the cultural stereotype of psychological fitness. Increasingly, I hear clients who are truly soul searching and asking for resources to help them in this quest.
Certainly, many of them approach this quest initially in over-personal and privatistic ways. Once they've gone a little distance, however, they often long for companionship, and some even come to see that, beyond a certain point, spiritual development requires community.
Many of these seekers do not have ready language, symbols, or communities through which to pursue their spiritual questions, however. They have not grown up steeped in a narrative or ritual tradition like their grandparents. Indeed, they are more like the Jews of Ezra's day who were born and raised in exile. They know the ways of their host culture better than they know the traditions of their forebears. They are more familiar with certain television personalities than they are with Biblical characters. They have tacitly assimilated the values and mores of a modernist culture that until lately placed its trust uncritically in material, technological, and individual achievement.
Thus, the so-called "post-modern" soul is a post-exhilic soul: hungry, eager, alternately suggestible and skeptical, but without tested pathways of exploration and expression. As I listen to these souls as well as to my own, I hear four longings to which the church must respond if it wishes to meet modern soul-searchers at their point of need.
The first longing is for a way to experience the depth dimension of life. There is among many in our culture a growing sense of frustration with superficiality. Among the soul searchers I listen to there is a profound longing to see meaning and purpose in life beyond those being hustled by Wall-Street, Hollywood and Madison Avenue. The purpose of religion is to help humans see below the surface of every day existence and to re-connect with its depth dimension. Modern day Ezra's should not underestimate the importance of this longing and should strive earnestly to speak to it out of their own depths and out of the depths of our Christian tradition.
The second longing is for a way to experience centeredness. Like the experience of depth, the experience of centeredness is one that modern soul searchers both crave and find painfully elusive. In the early days of psychoanalysis neurotic conflict and paralysis were thought to represent the most common pattern of mental suffering in the Twentieth Century. Now, clinicians are just as apt to describe their clients' symptoms in terms of fragmentation (Kohut, 1977).2 Perhaps no experience is more common these days than that of being pulled apart in many directions. Excessive other-centeredness and self-centeredness are both defensive reactions to this threat of fragmentation, and many people find themselves alternating impulsively between the two. The Christian Faith has a great deal to say about the power God's love has to overcome forces that fragment and separate. Another challenge for modern day Ezra's is to show how faith helps meet the need for a kind of centeredness and groundedness that is neither selfish or self-negating.
A third longing is for a way to acknowledge and process feelings of dependence. Schleiemacher (1963)3 once asserted that the core religious emotion was a feeling of absolute dependence. We are relational beings, yet modern Western culture tends to hold up autonomy, self-reliance, and independence as the hallmarks of human maturity. This tendency leads to the denial, frustration, and intensification of normal dependence. It also makes it difficult for people to mature from infantile dependence to a healthy sense of their interdependence with other people, nature and God.
Mature human spirituality begins with the felt acknowledgment of our dependence as an ontological necessity. In our culture, church is one of the few places people feel free to experience and grapple with their dependence directly. This places a heavy burden on Christian leaders to understand the sources of the frustrated and childish dependence apparently grown-up people often bring with them into the church. It demands that we speak the truth about the human condition and show how that truth can lead beyond infantile dependence to the love of God and neighbor.
Finally, the modern soul-searcher longs for a way to experience community. The individualistic mores of modern culture have a high price attached to them when it comes to the human need for intimacy, connection and community. Shallowness, fragmentation and the denial of dependency intensify the loneliness and alienation that epitomize the soul-sickness of modern life.
The post-modern soul longs for a reading of the Christian narrative that speaks to the particular experience of exile from which it is seeking liberation. Like Ezra, today's priests and pastors face a spiritually depleted and hungry group of home-comers. We must not withhold the resources of our faith tradition. We must not refuse to interpret (v.8) this tradition in ways that meet returning exiles at their point of need. We must do so with respect for the sincerity of their quest and without talking down to them.
1. Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952). 2. Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, Inc., 1977). 3. Frederick Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, English Translation of the Second German Edition, edited by H.R. Mackintosh and J.S. Stewart (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963).
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