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Preaching: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Exegesis helps us to discern an important feature of this text. It offers a kind of idealized picture of community life. While such pictures are helpful, when we hold our all-too-human faces to a mirror like Nehemiah's, we usually find ourselves lacking. Yet, in a way, this is also embodied in the interior dynamic of the text. When Nehemiah's contemporaries hear Ezra reading the law, their initial reaction is not to point to their obedience, but to weep and wail. Perhaps both dynamics of the text, the idealized picture and the honest reflection, can be helpful for us as we plan a sermon for this Sunday.
Fortunately, exegesis gives us a sound theological structure for unpacking the text for preaching. The idealized portrait of Neh 8 (including, by the way, vv. 11-12) gives us a four-fold structure for a sermon: namely, Law, Understanding, Response, and Fulfillment. The moves could look something like this:
Look, worship entails obedience to God's law.
Yet the law must not just be given, but understood as well.
Sadly, we understand the law as judgment on ourselves.
Yet God's law is truly grasped in joyful sharing with our neighbors.
This simple move structure begins with a simple acknowledgment of the centrality of God's will for the worshipping community. Subsequently, it picks up the notion of the law's need for interpretation. Even with that, the law is still grasped with a sense of judgment on the hearer. Yet, as this pericope should conclude with vv. 11-12 (contra lectionary committees), the function of the law here is not to evoke the requisite bad vibes, but a joyful community characterized by communal feasting. Who `da thunk it? The Law just intends a good party for all God's people!
Move one should be a matter of fact exploration of our own awareness of the divine law in worship. We come to church every Sunday and what do we get? At least a little law! We pray prayers that acknowledge things we've done and left undone. When we receive the pardon, surely there's something we've been pardoned for. Didn't John Calvin even set the law to music? The great Reformed theologian made it a point to include a metrical version of the ten commandments as part of the service. Oh, we are indeed a people of the Gospel, sure. Yet we also know worship entails obedience. Worship includes law.
Move two, "Yet the law must not just be spoken, but understood," honors the law, yet also acknowledges its relationship to interpretation. The idea is pretty simple. What parent hasn't instructed a child to do things that in some situation conflict? Rule #1: "Don't cross the street alone." Rule #2: "If strangers approach you on the sidewalk, pass them by on the other side of the road." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to discern that under certain circumstances the rules could come into conflict. Because humans are human, the law can never be just imperiously given—it must be interpreted. If not, we better all brush up on our ancient Hebrew. We do not receive the law, unless it be interpreted—interpreted and understood.
With move three, "Sadly, we understand the law as judgment on ourselves," we then turn to examine our experience of law. With Ezra's reading of the law, the people began weeping and wailing. They saw themselves for who they were. In that respect it's not unlike listening to yourself on a tape recorder for the first time. "Is that what I sound like," you asked nervously. "Oh, yes," they'd respond, "that's what you're like all right!" The law helps us see ourselves real—and makes us afraid. Last year a news program televised the final proceedings in a courtroom at a criminal trial on a negligent homicide case. As the guilty verdicts were announced in court, the young defendants cried, the parents of the victims wept, and even judge and jury broke into tears. At moments like this, we all understand the reaction of Ezra's contemporaries: for us, sadly, the law means judgment.
In the final move we try to put our understandings of "law" in another context. Theologically, law is not just God's attempt to restrain human sinfulness. Law is also part of God's ongoing, creative activity (see Ps 147:12-20). Nehemiah offers a fine homiletical example in 8:11-12. The point of reading the law was not to induce tears among the people (though it would make for a good Oprah show), rather the way to honor the law in worship and life is to feast and share bread. Of course, we who honor God in Christ would understand. Did not Jesus sum up the law as loving God and neighbor as self? Was not his new commandment in John to "love one another as I have loved you"? And was not his specific command to us relative to our most sacred rite of worship to "do this in remembrance of me"? The law is not so much about weeping and wailing here as about joyfully embodying the will of God in the breaking of bread and sharing of food—including, as Ezra noted, sending "portions...to those for whom nothing is prepared." Doubtless the people of Edgehill UMC in Nashville would understand. Like other inner-city congregations, Edgehill runs a feeding program for the poor in its neighborhood. Like others, they serve food to the hungry—probably things like soup and sandwiches, or perhaps at other times full, hot meals. Yet one thing is especially unique about Edgehill's soup kitchen: its name. Edgehill calls its soup kitchen, "Luke 14:12." The Bible text in Luke refers to Jesus' command about banquets, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner," Jesus commands, "do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors..., but...the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind." In this way Edgehill UMC chooses not only to embody Jesus' banquet command, but to do so in a way that reaches out with joy to include all of God's beloved.
David Schnasa Jacobsen
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