More Than Words

Nehemiah 8:1-12
The Rev. Helen Havlik
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 9, 2018
School’s in session just about everywhere now, and so we, too, have come to the beginning of our Sunday School year, with classes beginning today. During September, we’re going to look at the joy of lifelong learning with a sermon series called, “Grow in Grace.” This week, we’re reminded of how important Scripture is to a life of faith. The Bible, which we also call God’s Word, is crucial to our connection with and understanding of who God is, who we are, and what it means to be God’s faithful people. Yet it’s sometimes shocking just how little many of us really know and understand what Scripture teaches us. This is the task of lifelong Christian education, to help us—myself included—keep growing in knowledge, in faith and in relationship with our Creator. If we don’t keep growing, we can end up facing the struggles of life without a solid foundation—much as the people of Israel did many centuries ago.
Would the elders who are here this morning please come forward to join me in our reading? There’s a part for the rest of you, as well! I’m reading from Nehemiah, Ch. 8, beginning with vs. 1. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
Some of you remember my mom. She’s been gone awhile now—so she missed I-phones, GPS, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc.—and she would have loved all of it! You may have heard me tell about a conversation I had with her when she was 75 years old where she was thanking me for the computer I’d gotten her for Christmas. “What computer?” I asked. “I didn’t even know you wanted a computer.” “Of course,” she said with great passion. “Of course, we want a computer! We need
to keep up with what’s going on in the world or we’ll be left behind!” That “we” was the royal kind—my dad had no interest in computers. But it seems my siblings and I had indeed bought her a computer (my brother got it from his company when they upgraded), and she proceeded to learn the ins and outs of word processing (remember what that used to be called “typing a letter”?), Internet access and e-mail. She learned how to make her own greeting cards, which she sent for every occasion, including Veteran’s Day! And she began bugging all her friends (many of whom were already 80 years old or more) to get computers of their own so she could e-mail them! (And at least a couple of them did.)
Such lifelong learning was my mother’s strong suit. She began piano lessons at age 65, she learned how to use a knitting machine at age 70. At one point she changed the piecrust recipe she’d used all her adult life because my Aunt Lucy found one that was easier and guaranteed fool-proof. She read the daily paper from front to back, including the classified ads, and participated in weekly Bible study at her little Methodist Church in Bowne Center. And two of her favorite expressions were “I didn’t know that…” and “I was just thinking…”
Want to know the secret of staying young? You know already—nurture your childlike curiosity. Want to know the secret to a happy marriage? Keep discovering something new about your partner. Want to lessen your chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? Work on a lifetime habit of learning something new every day. Looking for the kind of faith that will move mountains and endure the hurricane winds of life? Yup—keep learning and growing in faith.
The people of Israel have lost track of their faith because they’ve been in exile for a couple of generations. And when their Persian captors relent and let them
return to their beloved promised land, they are truly at a loss. Both their nation and their faith are in tatters, and like someone who’s been out of touch with a best friend, they are feeling awkward, discouraged and shy. In their temporary home, no one had bothered much with Bible study and worship and now that they’ve returned home, they don’t even know where to begin. It’s embarrassing how little they know about the faith of their ancestors! It’s painful to think their special relationship with God may be over. It’s daunting to think about how hard it will be to catch up—why even bother?
Into this situation came three leaders, Zerubbabbel, Ezra, and Nehemiah—and among the three of them, they had a plan to make things right. Nehemiah will rebuild Jerusalem, Zerubbabel will rebuild the Temple, and Ezra will rebuild the people, beginning at the beginning. Just as the Temple and the city walls will be built on a foundation of sturdy stone, the people will be rebuilt on a foundation of God’s Law. This law, also known as Torah, had been lost to the majority of the people as they’d gone about their lives in exile. But now, having returned, the people know they as a community must have the firm foundation of the law to stand on. So they summon Ezra and all the people into the square before the Water Gate not only to hear but to have the opportunity to understand what God is saying to them.
What we see in this gathering is a model for us in the here and now as we, too, attempt the daunting task of being God’s people. Notice first that this is a community event—the hearing and understanding of the Word of God is meant first and foremost to be done together with each other, through worship and study. In community we offer both our questions and our insights, as we help and support each other to grow in faith. Individual study is important, too—but even that’s
meant to be done in the context of a community of fellow believers. It’s trite but true: you can’t be a Christian by yourself—as hard as it is sometimes to be in community, it’s still the place where faith is best nurtured.
Also notice that it’s important not just to hear the Word of God, but to understand it. Understanding Scripture is both easier and harder than it seems. Taking time not only to read but to study together is crucial to our lives of faith. To have the kind of faith that moves mountains requires some effort on our part. We need to immerse ourselves in the Word of God and soak up every last drop possible —and keep doing it over a lifetime. For people of faith, Sunday School never ends as we keep diving into the texts and coming up with new and exciting treasure. This isn’t a matter of intellect or intelligence, but of our willingness to be open to the Holy Spirit’s teaching us.
And finally, notice that having heard the text, the people are encouraged not just to hear and understand, but to act on it. It’s certainly not easy to hear where we fall short. No one likes to be criticized, no one likes to admit to a mistake. Yet, the Word of God corrects us, points us in the right direction, and offers us forgiveness for not hitting the mark. We truly are given multiple second chances—and the people are encouraged to weep for their sins and then get on with it. “Go home; enjoy your good food and wine and share some with those who don’t have anything to bring…” Later in the New Testament, we’re told not just to be hearers of the Word, but doers also. Be joyful because of what God has done—and as the song says, “pass it on.”
All of the learning my mother did over the course of a lifetime certainly benefited her in many ways, including giving her and the people in her life great joy.
For example, taking piano lessons kept both her mind and her fingers active—and her quality of life was so much better for it. My father would say that his quality of life also was improved, because he got such a kick out of hearing her play. Whenever she practiced, he turned off the tv and listened with great pleasure to his own private concert. But they weren’t the only two to benefit from my mother’s lessons. You see, she was her teacher’s oldest student. And when her teacher planned the annual students’ recital, it would have been understandable, given her age, for my mom to pass on that usually humbling performance. “You’re really going to play in the recital?” people would ask her in disbelief. “Of course,” she’d say with great passion. “Those kids need to see that even an old lady can keep learning and improving.” And so she played—and so she kept learning and improving.

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