The Third Sunday After Epiphany

Chris LandonSermon

Arbor House is a community of Northgate Free Methodist Church in Batavia, NY

How do we know and relate to God?
Scripture and Worship

In the biblical story the Israelites, after years in captivity in the exile, are allowed to return to Jerusalem. The city laid in ruins from when the Babylonians came and laid siege to it and conquered the nation of Israel. Much of the book of Ezra and Nehemiah is concerned with the rebuilding of the city, the walls surrounding the city and the temple. The rebuilding of their city was not a painless experience. The rebuilding was ridiculed and attacked by their neighbors, and there was infighting amongst the people of Jerusalem. As they reach the end of their rebuilding project, the story from the Old Testament reading takes place.

The people gather together and they ask Ezra to read the book of the law, likely the Torah, to them. It says that they spend the whole morning listening to Ezra read the stories. The stories of creation, Abraham, exodus, law, and promise. It says that they listened from early morning to mid-day. I don’t think that we could get away with that in church. But the people listen and they respond with weeping. As they listen to the retelling of their history, they hear the ways that they have gone wrong, how they strayed from the promise time and again. They hear how their ancestors distanced themselves from God, how they violated the covenant. They heard the story of the near destruction of their people. And they are the ones living in the shadow of the exile, the first ones back to the land of promise.

We read the stories of Israel and the early church and we can learn what God is like and how people have related to him in the past.
Retelling The Story

This story shows us the first two ways that we can come to know God. First, scripture. Scripture is a way of looking back at the relationship between God and humanity. We read the stories of Israel and the early church and we can learn what God is like and how people have related to him in the past. We hear the promises of God, and we hear about what God expects from his people. We can read the stories that tell us how God has related to his people in the past and how people have related to God.

Scripture is like a rearview mirror. We can look back at the history of God and humanity and their acts. The question we then have to wrestle with is, how does this look back relate to where are now? How do the lessons that we discern from the history of God and humanity, relate to our present? Scripture is a historically located story. It is specifically the story of God and Israel and the early Church, of which, we are not a part. We are not ancient Israelites, so then we have to think about how do the lessons and ethics, that God mandated to them in their social context relate to our social context, which is undoubtedly different. This is not to say that scripture is a relic of the past and a different social location. On the contrary, I think that it requires us to think more deeply about scripture. Even in our story the levites, after reading the scriptures to the people interpreted the scriptures for them. They needed the stories explained for them, and related to where they were in life, and as a nation.

Participating in The Story

The second part of the story that shows an example of how we know God, is through communal worship. The people are gathered together for the specific purpose of hearing the story and worshiping God. We live in a very individualistic culture that puts priority on the individual over the communal. My desires and my preferences are give priority over the communal, at least from my perspective.

I think that the diversity of churches and stills are a testament to this. We search for the musical style and preaching quality, that suits us, separate from the community. We can even sit at home and watch church on t.v. or online and not have to interact with anyone else. I must admit as an introvert, the idea of not having to talk to anyone or participate in the greeting time, seems like a dream. But again that is a reflection of my individual desires. On the other hand the communal worship of the church is an inseparable part of our ability to know God. Because when we gather together, we hear how God is active in the lives of others and we participate in the story of God and humanity. We get a bigger picture of who God is because we hear the ways that other experience God. The diversity of our experiences leads to a fuller picture of God. When commenting on the Nehemiah reading Johanna van Wijk Bos wrote,

“The initiative for both meeting and reading of the law lies with the people, rather than the leaders. The assigning of initiative to the assembly is significant, for this is the very crowd in which divisions and injustice have divided neighbor from neighbor, according to the previous narrative it is as if the fractured community goes in search of its own healing.”
Johanna van Wijk Bos

The people in spite of their differences, came together as a community seeking healing through worship. Communal worship is not because someone said we need to do this, but because we as a community recognize the importance of it. We as a community recognize the importance of joining together to worship God and to seek healing, personally and communally.

As we gather together here at Arbor House we are participating as a community in the story of God. We hear the stories and reflect on how those stories shape our lives, both in the reading of scripture and in the eucharist. And then we are sent out as a people to continue our lives as a part of that story.

How We Relate to One Another is a Result of How We Relate to God

But there is another way that we can know and experience God and this final way is shown to us in the psalter reading. We often think of life separated into the sacred and the secular. We think of communal worship and the reading of scripture as acts that are sacred because they are explicitly done in relationship to God. But the rest of our lives we, incorrectly, think of as being secular and separate. The psalter reading begins, “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.” All of creation reflects the glory and character of God. And so while we read the story of God in scripture, we can also experience God in the world around us. In the sunrise and the mountain. In the power of a hurricane and the delicateness of a hummingbird. We can see God reflected to us in the beauty of architecture and other human creations. Of course, the picture of God is not perfectly reflected to us as humanity has distorted the image of God in creation, but the point is still valid. We should be seeking to experience God in our daily lives, not just in the pages of scripture or when we are gathered together. I must confess that this is often a difficulty for me. I often find that I am more concerned with daily tasks and what I am doing that I am not attentive to the ways that God is speaking.

Our lives should not be divided between the sacred and the secular because creation is not divided into the sacred and secular.

How we relate to one another is a result of how we relate to God

The question of how we know and relate to God should not be separated from how we relate to one another because how we relate to one another is a result of how we relate to God. The life of Jesus, as we read it in the Gospels, sets the example for us of what the Kingdom of God is about. Jesus’ life and resurrection is the founding moment of that kingdom, and we see the ethics and practices of the kingdom realized in Jesus’ life. In the gospel reading we read of Jesus teaching in the synagogue.

The life of Jesus, as we read it in the Gospels, sets the example for us of what the Kingdom of God is about.

He is handed a scroll of Isaiah and reads, “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.” He then sits down and begins to teach the people.

As I reflected on the passage that Jesus read, I thought about how, we have a tendency to spiritualize the words of Jesus. He speaks about the poor and we think of the poor in spirit. He proclaims release to the captives and we think of those bound by the chains of sin. He speaks about recovery of sight to the blind, and we think of the spiritually blind. He talks about the oppressed and we think about how we have been oppressed. And while those may be lessons that we can eventually draw from Jesus’ words, it is not what he says. When Jesus speaks about caring for the poor he means those who are financially poor, and locked in systemic poverty. When he talks about those who are in chains, he means those who are imprisoned as a result of inconsistently applied justice and those who are trapped in a system that requires the imprisonment of people for financial gain. We cannot separate the kingdom of God and the tangible needs of people. There is a lived and tangible reality of the kingdom of God of which we are to be a part.

The 1 Corinthians reading encourages us to see this vision of the kingdom of God with greater diversity. 1 Corinthians shows that this requirement to live out faith is as individual as are our gifting. We are not all playing the same part in the kingdom because we each have different gifting and skills that have been given to us by God. Our mission should be as unique as we are, so that the body may be complete. When we reflected on the Nehemiah reading we saw that the worship of the people arose organically from their desire to encounter God. So too should our mission, it should arise from who we are as a people, the gifting that we have, and the needs that we have experienced.

Conclusion

How are we being attentive to the ways that God is inviting us to be apart of his story with humanity? How are we tangibly living out that story, addressing the needs of our community?

About the Author
Chris Landon

Chris Landon

Chris Landon is the Pastor of Word and Table at Arbor House. He has served at Arbor House since 2016. He is also the Camp Manager of Covenant Acres Campground and Retreat Center. Prior to that he was an Assistant Pastor at Gowanda Free Methodist Church and Youth Pastor at Ransomville Free Methodist Church.