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Monday, January 25, 2010

The Law: Burden or Blessing?

Epiphany 3, Year C
Nehemiah 8:1-10

Driving into La Canada from the east or west, one encounters friendly-looking signs that have the city logo and say in big letters, “La Canada-Flintridge:Welcome.” A pleasant way to let people know they’ve entered a new community! The warm fuzzy feeling quickly fades, however, when one sees the fine print on the additional signs posted immediately below the first one:
2 AM-5 AM

2 AM-6 AM
OVER 6000 LBS.
OVER 10,000 LBS


All this according to portions of sections 4 and 8 of the La Canada-Flintridge Municipal Code…

Jeepers…welcome, indeed! The signs seem like a visual oxymoron. Like these posted ones, laws don’t generally make us feel welcome. They carry a weight of “Do this, don’t do that, don’t even think about doing that.” That’s a lot more burden than blessing, potentially more guilt and pressure than freedom and relief.

That’s why this morning’s reading from Nehemiah, which has to do with hearing the Law, intrigues me. The people of Jerusalem have returned from exile and labored with fierce intensity to rebuild the city walls and gates, despite the enormity of the task and repeated threats of attack from those who prefer Jerusalem in ruins. Upon finishing, they all gather as a restored community to hear the priest Ezra read from the Law of Moses, the Torah. Now sure, there are some inspiring and uplifting stories in those first 5 books of scripture, but there’s also a whole lot of…well, law: “Do this, don’t do that, don’t even think of doing that.” Welcome to Jerusalem; now here’s the fine print.

When Ezra opens the book, they stand up, collectively say “Amen,” and then bow their heads in worship… kind of like Episcopalians! We’re told they remained completely attentive, listening from early morning until midday, which is a bit surprising because some of this material is as exciting as a recitation of the complete La Canada-Flintridge Municipal Code. But the text adds that this was done “with interpretation…so the people understood the reading,” which suggests that Ezra and the teachers were gifted in making the words come alive. A reminder to us, perhaps, that reading scripture on our own isn’t sufficient; we all need a community of some kind so that we can help one another interpret what we hear.

The gathered men, women, and “those who could understand” were moved to tears upon hearing that they had done those things which they ought not to have done and had not done those things they ought to have done. They were profoundly affected, overcome with a sense of sin and sorrow for turning their backs on the gift of God’s covenant. Their response isn’t terribly surprising, because that sense of waywardness and repentance, put here in dramatic form, is part of the intended effect of law.

The surprise, the fascinating and inspiring aspect of this passage, comes in the response of their leaders. Instead of telling everyone to continue their remorseful weeping and wailing because they had indeed been a bad and unfaithful people, instead of laying on a thick layer of the burden of guilt in the hope it would keep them on the straight and narrow in the future…Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites did just the opposite. They instructed the people to get up and rejoice with heartfelt jubilation and feasting on the richest, finest foods, making sure everyone received a portion.

So what’s up with that? Well, in this case the Law, with a capital L, is more than just a collection of broken rules and tales of the good ol’ days. What the gathered assembly heard was the epic story of their place in God’s heart, their calling to be God’s people in a unique and wonderful way. And although their history was blemished by one human failure after another, God remained faithful, God continued to call them, God forgave them over and over and over again. That day of hearing was a holy day, because the journey of renewal and return to the relationship was beginning once more…cause for feasting, not fasting. The joy of the Lord—God’s delight in them, expressed in the Law, and the people’s God-given joy—was their strength, a blessing, not a burden.

We all can get stuck in the law, God’s and human’s, whether we’re in flagrant violation or, more often, we’re busy slicing and dicing it to prove that we’re not guilty:
• “Everyone else does it too.”
• “Just this once.”
• “That’s so old-fashioned.”
• “It doesn’t hurt anyone.”
• “I’ll make it up to her.”
• “I didn’t mean to.”
• “This is different.”
And as we gnash our teeth and struggle with our guilt, we feel only the burden, not the blessing.

How we might be transformed if we’d hear the Law as a reminder of God’s enduring presence and patience, as an invitation to try again even if we’ve already tried again a whole lot of times. How our lives might bring forth new, amazing, abundant fruit if we acknowledge and accept the multitude of opportunities to recommit ourselves to a relationship with the God who is dying to hear from us. What a difference if we got up and went forth from this place with true rejoicing, sharing the bounty of God’s love in our eucharistic feast with those who couldn’t or wouldn’t be here.

Welcome to the kingdom of God. And in Ezra’s words, here’s the not so fine print: “You are the Lord, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. To all of them you give life, and the host of heaven worships you…You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake us.”

And the people said, “Amen.”

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