Rev. Michael Livingston
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 • Psalm 19 • Luke 4:14-21

“Mama, you don’t understand.  It’s all a matter of ideas and God is just one idea I don’t accept.  It’s not important…I don’t believe in God.  I don’t even think about it…I get tired of HIM getting all the credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort.  There simply is no blasted God—there is only Man—and it is he who makes miracles!”  You know what happens next.  Mama, in Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, studies Beneatha, rises, slowly from her chair, steps to her and slaps her face, hard.  “Now, you say after me, “in my mother’s house there is still God.  In my mother’s house there is still God.”

So, there are the people of Israel gathered at the Water Gate, in 1972 that would have had a very particular meaning, but that is not for today.  Ezra reads to them from the law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament.  He reads to them from early morning until NOON!  Til noon. Don’t even think about turning that computer on or going to see a show or shopping, or sleeping late or whatever your routine is, on this day, in this house, there is still God, Ezra is telling them, “There is still God in this house, among this people.” And don’t be confused by that sentence, so they read…from the law of God, with interpretation, so that the people understood the reading.  There was no preaching, interpretation means here, translation, from the Hebrew of the text to the Aramaic some of the people spoke and understood.

This translation and interpretation has to do with the fact that there were mixed marriages among the people.  Some of the men married foreign wives who bore mixed-race children.  In an earlier gathering at the Water Gate in the tenth chapter of Ezra, he preached about purity; the men were told, according to the law, to send their foreign wives away, and those mixed-race children with them.  That explains the tears.  We have to interrogate these texts, don’t we?  We have to challenge what men say from what God says in creation.  What we read isn’t always what we know God wants, God desires.  It’s what men want.  Men today use the bible to preach against skin color, same sex relations, gender and non-binary self-knowing, against undesirable immigrants from, “Shithole countries, as Trump” called them.  He was talking about Haiti and African countries but he would gladly extend the term to Central America as well.  Well…

Ezra…just…read…the…law…for three or four or five or six hours.  Depends on what is meant by early morning.  Every now and then you’ll hear about an actor who’ll present the book of Mark as entertainment, a one-actor dramatic show, but this?  Try to imagine it:  Pastor Northern will be reading the books of Genesis and Exodus next Saturday morning at 8:00a.m; come after breakfast but don’t worry about lunch, the African Fellowship and the Men’s Club will be grilling in the Garth—it’s not getting enough use these days.  It’ll be a kind of Pentateuch tailgate party with ribs and root beer, and maybe a little bourbon too.  And next month, Revs. Lamb and Meisenheimer will be reading Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers and Beloved Earth will be making vegetarian lasagna, salad with spring greens, walnuts, tangerine slices and cranberry lemonade.

They built a platform, a tower, for the occasion.  The urgency and the solemnity make sense: The book of Nehemiah is after the destruction of Jerusalem which ends the Book of Chronicles.  And Chapter eight of our text comes after the walls around the city have been rebuilt.  They believed that by hearing and embracing their law, their sacred texts, they could rebuild their lives, their society, and their way of life—destroyed as much by their own negligence and sin as by the invading armies of a foreign power.

That’s us.  American Empire won’t fall because Russia or China gains the upper hand.  Our doom will come because Kentucky keeps electing Mitch McConnell; because Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema aren’t really democrats; because not only did Donald Trump get elected the first time—then 74 million people voted for him again, seeing, knowing, hearing who he is; because he appears to be a viable Presidential candidate, again:  our fall will come because too many of us will not accept the truth of our history and too many of us still don’t believe we all come from the same God, that we are all human beings.  America needs its face slapped.  God does not appear to exist in this house.  We are not a Christian nation.  We don’t need to be.  We could be civilized.  That would be enough for me.  Well…

All the adults were present and paying attention.  And Ezra says, “This day…is holy to your God…for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  Let’s not worry about what we’ve come through, the long night of exile is over, let’s begin again to treasure this life that God has given us.  There is still God.  Obedient to our law, gathered in community, God in our midst, anything is possible for us.  Reminds me of line from Irenaeus:  The glory of God is human beings fully alive.

–One day the world may put this pandemic behind us and we will be able to take Ezra’s advice, “…do not mourn or weep…Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions …to those who have nothing…for this day is holy…do not be grieved…”  Seven million worldwide dead from COVID-19 and there may or may not be another variant after Omicron.

–One day black lives will matter, we will be able to take Ezra’s advice, do not mourn or weep…eat the fat and drink sweet wine and share what you have with those less fortunate.  It is as “the seventies revolutionary” Assata Shakur wrote:  “We must love each other and support each other.  We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

–One day we’ll break the hold of oil rich members of the Plastics Industry Association on legislation and start using paper bags for groceries and save the ocean, and so, the planet from destruction and the earth will be able to breathe again.

I’d go.  I’d go.  If I heard there would be a public reading of bell hooks, “all great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic…that presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well.”   I’d go to hear James Baldwin “I use the word love here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”  I’d go to hear Toni Morrison, Baby Suggs to former enslaved people in Beloved, “Here, in this place, we flesh, flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass.  Love it.  Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh…”

Don’t you wish we could have been there to hear to hear Lincoln’s voice, at his Second Inaugural address:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 

The malice is seething, grace unwelcomed.  The work isn’t finished, charity is most of what there is, not justice.  The wounds are covered, but not treated.  Peace is personal, localized, episodic.  For the nation and the world Lincoln envisioned, the nation talked about in the Declaration of Independence but never fully intended for all—peace is aspirational among those who see as God sees, who hope with the heart of God.

We can listen again, and should, to Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb: “…While democracy can be periodically delayed. It can never be permanently defeated.  In this truth, in this faith, we trust.  For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us…So while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?  Now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?  We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be.  [A country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.  We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation, because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.  Our blunders become their burdens…if we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright.  So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left with.”]

So, here’s Jesus, fresh from his baptism and his wilderness wandering, dove and devil behind him.  He does a few trial sermons in Galilee and then goes home to Nazareth and you know what he does?  He reads to them from the poetry of the prophet Isaiah.  He uses it like a mission statement to say this is who I am, this is what I am about.  I’m here to bring the poor good news, to release the captives and help the blind to see, to let the oppressed go free.  And after reading from the text, in Luke’s gospel, the first word Jesus speaks Today.  God’s reign is here and now.  There is nothing to wait for, the time is now!  Today!

The president says get vaccinated and don’t go to work at a big company that could become a super spreader and the Supreme Court says do as you please, he’s not in charge.  The right is running things these days.  Today.  We’re still expressing condolences after horrific mass shootings…and changing nothing about the laws that grant easy access to assault weapons fit for battlefields, huge profits for gun manufacturers.  Today.  A man with a history of mental illness pushes a woman from a subway platform to her death on the tracks.  She is Michelle Go, a wonderful human being, Asian American from San Francisco.  Asian hate?  In sufficient attention to our ongoing mental health crisis.  All of that.   One day people of color, too many of them poor, will be able to do as Ezra says, do not mourn or weep…eat the fat and drink sweet wine…This day…is holy to your God…for the joy of the Lord is your strength.  You know, most days, I believe that.

MLK, Jr. April 4, 1967, one year to the day, almost the hour, before he was assassinated, Dr. King Preached here against the Vietnam War and so much more.  This was about seven years before the last American soldier left.  He said Today.  He said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.  The earth matters, voting rights matter, you matter…Today.

“I’ll work!  I’ll work twenty hours a day in all the kitchens in Chicago!  I’ll strap my baby on my back if I have to—and scrub all the floors in America and wash all the sheets in America if I have to—but we got to MOVE!  We got to get OUT OF HERE!!  That’s Lena, we’re back in A Raisin in the Sun….  The money is gone, oh Walter Lee Jr.  But Lena is ready with the fierce urgency of now, the hope that will not die, the heart and hands to get the work done: TODAY!

What’s your mission statement, what are you and I, Riverside, about today?  Our Mission and Social Justice Commission had a retreat yesterday, as fine a Saturday morning and early afternoon as any I’ve spent at Riverside.  The priorities for understanding the work to be done were summarized as:  Profound inequality, preserving our democracy, and climate crisis.  Or, as I listened to their work together: earth, equality, democracy.  What an agenda for a church wanting to build upon its progressive history in these still early years of the 21st century.   These are areas of mission we can all take part in, in small and large ways.

I wish it were enough to read and hear our sacred texts and to say and mean “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled…”  We have a world to shower blessings upon with love and good works.  As Paul urges in Romans, as Lena is fired up to do:  “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God.  Today.  What are we waiting for?  AMEN.