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January 23, 2022

These last couple of weeks I have joined the craze.  I’ve been playing Wordle.  In case you’ve missed this latest internet obsession, Wordle is a game in which you get six chances to guess a five-letter word.  With each guess, the game tells you which letters are correct letters that you have in the right spot (those turn green) and which ones are correct letters but in the wrong spots (those turn yellow).

So let’s say the correct word is TASTE, but you start by guessing TRAIN.  That first “T” in “train” would light up green because the correct answer “taste” does start with a  “t.”  But the “A” in “train” would turn yellow because, while there IS an “a” in the correct word taste, that letter is in a different position than it is in “train.”  So now you know that the word you’re trying to figure out starts with a T and that the second, fourth, or fifth letter is an “a.”

There’s only one puzzle released each day, so it keeps you from losing too much time.  And you can share your success or your struggle on social media as a grid of colored blocks that don’t reveal what you guessed but show how many guesses it took you to get it right.

Wordle has reminded me that most people have some degree of willingness to play with language when it’s in the form of a game.  Some of us prefer to try these things individually and keep our results to ourselves, while others of us savor the communal approach. We like to compare strategies, share results, and commiserate when the word is especially difficult. 

I started thinking this week about how great it would be if we could bring that same spirit to the reading of the Bible.  What if we approached God’s word with a spirit of experimentation – with a willingness to try to figure out what we find there?  Sometimes we might engage with it on our own, and at other times we might compare approaches and interpretations with each other.  What if we were willing to take some risks in our reading of God’s Word, knowing that we won’t always be on the right track but that we can be changed by what we find there?

That’s what I see happening in our First Reading.  I see a community coming together around the Word and wrestling with it, letting it shape them as a people.  And God does indeed bring about healing and transformation.

The book of Nehemiah takes place in the post-exilic period for the Jewish people.  They had experienced something called the Babylonian captivity, which meant that they had been conquered and forced to leave their homeland, their lives completely disrupted as loved ones were separated from one another.  Jerusalem had been destroyed, their temple had been reduced to rubble, and so for decades they no longer had a center for their worship life.  Many died during that exile without ever seeing their home again.

This morning we catch up with the Jewish people as they are returning from exile.[i] Nehemiah, after whom this book is named, was a kind of governor of the region to which they have returned, a minor official in the court of the king of Persia. He had started to rebuild Jerusalem, which was not an easy project, and he had also succeeded in bringing the people back together.  At this point in the book, the people have been gathered by the priest Ezra at a place called the Water Gate.  They come with all of the trauma and the struggle of those years of exile, many familiar places around them still in ruins.  Things are getting better, but the healing of their hearts and spirits will take longer.

Ezra brings the book of the law – the torah, their holy scriptures – and reads all the way through it.  It takes hours.  From morning to afternoon.  Imagine if I stood up here this morning and said that as part of worship today, I was going to read through the entire New Testament.  Most of you would be calculating how to sneak out of here before we’d made it to the end of the Gospel of Matthew.  And I wouldn’t blame you.

But notice how the people in this account respond to the reading of their sacred texts:

  • They stay and they listen, even though it lasts most of the day.  Their ears are “attentive to the Word.”
  • They approach the Word reverently.  They listen, and they bow down and worship the Lord, and cry out “Amen, Amen!”
  • In a verse we don’t hear, there are thirteen other people named in addition to Ezra who help the people make sense of the scripture.  These priests and teachers act as interpreters, and as a result, the people understand what they are hearing.
  • The people don’t just take in these holy words with their minds.  They respond emotionally.  They weep when they hear what is being read to them.  It touches their hearts, still so full of grief from those years of exile.
  • And they act.  In the verses just after what we hear this morning, the people follow what their leaders urge them to do.  They go out to eat and drink – and they share portions of what they have with those who need food and drink.

That’s a pretty robust way to experience and respond to the Word of the Lord.  With body, mind, and spirit.  With a full range of emotions.  With hope and fear and worry and weeping, even as everything in their lives is in a state of confusion.  And with an openness to being shaped and led by this Word.  This Word from a God who had been with them in times of prosperity, had been with them in the years of exile, and who was with them now, transforming their grief into joy.  They hear this encouragement from their leader: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

So what we have in our First Reading is a people who had been separated from each other coming back together, carrying their grief but trying to reclaim familiar rituals and rebuild their community.  Does that sound familiar?  And they begin by being rooted in the Word.

I don’t know what the future looks like for this congregation or for the church more broadly.  It’s impossible to know, and if we’ve learned anything in these last two years of a kind of exile, it’s that anyone who says they are absolutely certain about the future is probably trying to sell us something.

I believe two things about our future.  The first is that God is with us in it.  Whatever the future looks like, whatever it holds, God is with us.

The second thing I believe is that our life together will be more rich, more faithful, and more transformational when we are rooted in the Word of God.  It’s a gift that God has given all of us, and too often it’s a gift we leave sitting there wrapped up and unopened.

So let’s commit ourselves in this year to being immersed in the Word of God.  Let’s find new ways and new times to read it – not just in church on Sunday morning.  Let’s play with what it inspires.  Let’s ask questions.  Let’s wonder together about what it means for our lives.  Let’s give ourselves permission not to understand everything about it.  Let’s allow the Word to change our minds and our hearts.  Let’s ponder how not just to see it and hear it and analyze it, but to take it into our bodies, feast on it, be sustained by it.  Let’s ask how we can live it, how this Word is calling us to provide for those in need.  Let’s talk about it and pray about it and sing about it. 

By living in God’s Word in a deeper way, we will find a deeper kind of joy – the kind of joy that comes from knowing that we are part of a much larger story, the kind of joy that flows from God into each corner of our lives.

May we go out from this place filled with that Word, for the joy of the Lord is our strength.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] As is so often the case, I am indebted to Debie Thomas for her lectionary reflections: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3299

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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.

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