Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10;Psalm 19;1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
January 27, 2019 –Third Sunday After Epiphany
Life is a journey. There are many turns in the path. You can’t see what might be next. Sometimes we are looking from a great height, and other times we have trouble seeing where we are, much less where we are going…much less where we should be going.
Through it all, though, we are given the Word as a gift and asked to live it out in all that we see…and all that we say…and all that we are. This is not new. We see this course of events in our reading from way back in Nehemiah’s day this morning.
Israel has been defeated by the Assyrians in the North and Judah has been overrun by Babylonians in the South. Israel has been exiled into Babylon and is now returning.
They have been gone for three generations, but by the time we read this, they have been back four generations. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are one single book in the Hebrew Bible.
Those writings make clear that the Israelites did not simply come back one day, set to work and have the barn up by sundown.
They were permitted to return by the edict of King Cyrus of Persia in 538 BC. His armies had defeated the Babylonians…who had defeated the Assyrians, to rule the Holy Land …until, of course, the Greeks defeated them and the Romans defeated them.
But I digress. After the Persians defeat the Babylonians and the people of Israel are permitted to return from Exile, Nehemiah finally appears on the scene, the walls are rebuilt under his direction and Jerusalem is repopulated in 445 BC.
This is where we enter the narrative today. The day has been a long time in arriving. The people are gathered at the reconstructed Water Gate to the city. The scroll of Instruction is opened and it is read to the people of Israel, gathered in David’s City of Jerusalem for the first time in 140 years.
The people stand as they listen attentively to the Word. At the end of the reading, they all say “Amen.” Then those who had studied the scripture explained and interpreted the scripture as best they could. Sound like anywhere you know?
Of course, you are thinking of 2 Kings 22. After the Assyrians had defeated the Northern Kingdom and before the Babylonians had conquered the Southern Kingdom, the Temple had been permitted to fall into disrepair.
Finally, King Josiah decreed repairs to the Temple in about 630 BC.In doing the repairs, a great discovery was made. The scroll of Instruction was found. It may have been hidden away during the reign of one of his more willful predecessors, Manasseh.
His secretary reads it to him and he sees not only his country’s history, but it’s destiny as well. He tears his robe in distress.
He suddenly was made to see how far his nation had drifted from the practices and traditions of David’s day.The elders and the people were assembled at the Temple and King Josiah read the words of the Scroll out loud.
Reforms were instituted to remind the people that they were the children of Israel… They were God’s people. They knew that, but they had misplaced or someone had hidden the scroll of Instruction and the people had not heard it in living memory.
They had been drifting through a very important era in the history of their nation, the history of God’s people. Josiah reads the law to them to remind them who they are and whose they are. They go into the Word to see where they are in the world.
Today Paul – another seeker after truth who had suddenly discovered the new path in the middle of the historical forest primeval –reminds us that we all have precious gifts and in the giving of those gifts we might all… together…become whole…as the body of Christ. We can still become One with Christ… One with each other…and One in ministry to all the world.
Jesus calls us together, and when we are together in his name, there he is in the midst of us. This morning he tells the people of his home village that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled in their presence…in him.
The words have leaped out of the book, the promises have been made flesh, and here he is among them.
We will see next week that it is so shocking and unthinkable to the people who have known him since he was a little boy that they send him on his way with shouts of disapproval.
And so we see that Jesus was tempted by the devil, then as his ministry began, he was told he was a blasphemer by his own people. It was all too improbable, too far-fetched, they cried.
You are siding with Israel’s enemies with what you say about us today. But Jesus heard that call to ministry and lived it out as all the prophets have…as best he could…as well as anyone has…perfectly.
The lesson I draw from all of these readings is that it all begins with the Word. Our meditations as a body of Christ is grounded in the Word every time we gather in worship.
And we have seen, in the Bible and in our own faith community that you never can tell where the Word might lead you once you hear it speaking to you and you decide to turn and follow it.
It was with the appointment of a new pastor to my church in Billings that I was introduced to Disciple Bible Study 1996. Suddenly, the stories in the Bible would not stay in the Bible.
They reminded me of people I knew or people I had known. The Hebrew Bible suddenly became the history of step-families to me, and I could name people who had played one character or another as if they were people who had walked through in my own life. I began to pay attention to…the Word.
I said, thinking out loud in Sunday school one day, that I would like to work on my prayer life. Another member of the class said, “Oh, you should go down to St. Patrick’s at 9:00 on Saturday morning for Centering Prayer.
I did, and it was one of the richest spiritual practices I have ever known. You sit for 20 minutes and keep your attention on God the whole time.
It is impossible to do. The mind is a chattering monkey. But when you find yourself drifting, you come back to God. You try to watch your thoughts without becoming emotionally distracted by any of them.
Then I became interested in spending a dedicated time in a spiritual retreat. Someone said I should do the Walk to Emmaus. That one was a little more complicated than finding a prayer group.
Every year when the Men’s Walk Weekend came around I had a conflict and could not do it. Then, the third year the weekend suddenly cleared just in time.
It’s something they say about the Walk, and I think it is true of spiritual formation more generally: Whenever it happens for you or to you, it comes just at the right time.
It was a wonderful weekend and I found myself living in a whole new world. All my life I had wanted to invite Jesus into my life, but I wanted to tidy it up first.
Now I realized that Jesus wanted to help me tidy up. If I wasn’t good enough to let him in, I saw, neither was I good enough to keep him out.
The next year I was asked to serve on the team and that was even better. Then I was asked to be on the board and I thought I had found my ministry. I was an Emmaus guy.
Then I went to my first board meeting. Another member had a conflict and the meeting time was changed. I had my children with me full time at that time and I couldn’t make the new meeting time. I was off the board.
Then I found out there was a ‘new rule’: you couldn’t be on the team two years in a row. I was off the team. The ministry I had been called to had disappeared after in the first ten minutes.
I was bewildered and lost. It had been going so well. Now it was gone. I had finally gotten there only to find out that there was “no there there.”
After a couple of weeks I sat down in my living room and said a little prayer, just to get the loop out of my head. I asked God, if there was a calling for me, to please show me. If not I would just be the best attorney I could.
The next day – the next day! – I went to a lunch meeting. When I walked in a friend saw me and started like he had just seen me for the first time. “Let me talk to you after the meeting,” he said.
Afterwards he said he was the rector for the Via de Cristo – like the lay leader for the Walk to Emmaus – and he wondered if I would be willing to be on the team. I was amazed that this had come the next day after my prayer of surrender.
I checked my calendar and agreed and Mike and I had lunch about 10 days out to discuss the differences and clear things up. He was being so nice to me, patting my shoulder and my forearm and telling me how wonderful it was that I could do this.
Finally, I told him that I had been on the Emmaus team and on the board for the Walk then suddenly I wasn’t and the day before the lunch I had said a prayer…so him asking me was an answer to my prayer and he didn’t have to be so nice to me.
“The night before?” he asked. Yeah, the night before, I told him. Well, he said, that’s very interesting.
It turned out that he had lost a team member a couple of weeks before that lunch meeting and he had been trying to think of someone to fill in. He couldn’t and he said he was getting his undies all in a knot.
His wife told him to get over it so he had gone to his living room the night before the lunch meeting and had told God he needed help. He couldn’t do it. Please show me somebody.
Then he said, “When you walked through the door, I knew it was you.” He looked away and back and said, “I bet you and I were sitting in our living rooms praying at the same time.” We both looked around to see if someone or something was watching us.
Well, that was just one coincidence over my lifetime quota and I started the ministry inquiry process to discern what ministry I was being called to…or if it really was a call.
It was looking like local church pastor when the district superintendent called and asked me to pray about leading worship and helping out at Huntley, about 15 miles east of Billings.
He had no idea what he was saying to me. I had history at that one little church. It was the church where my mother had started Sunday school 75 years before.
Oh, oh, I thought…my mother. I hadn’t told her any of this. So I called her and told her about it. She asked me a very direct question: Are you crazy? Where are you going to find time for that?
Finally, I just asked her, “What if it really is God?” She said, “I knew you were going to say something like that. I don’t know why you even call me to tell me these things. You never listen to a thing I say.”
I did it and it has been the most rewarding work I have done in my life. About two years later my mother moved to Billings to live with me for the last three years of her life.
Finally it was time for me to give her permission to go. You’ve been a wonderful friend and a great mother, but if it is time for you to go we will be alright.
My mother confirmed that I had made the right choice. She said, “Do you mind if I stay? The people at the church are so nice to me. I want to go back there.”
So I was at Huntley for 14 years before I came to Bigfork. Now I do the most rewarding work I have ever done in the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
I might have been wrong about it, but it has worked out all right somehow. It is a long and winding road we all walk down, and no matter what gifts we bring or what baggage we carry, as believers we are all called into ministry wherever we are and whatever the task before us.
I cannot tell you that the Lord has anointed me. I am licensed, not ordained. But I know that in this place and doing this work the spirit of the Lord is upon us all.
And I know you are each called in some way and fulfill your calling in some way each day…that you are open…to the Word…and to the world.
Together, as one, we seek to find the way you can give your gifts. For we have been called together to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me…this day. Amen