Sunday, January 21, 2007

Third D.Min Project Sermon

Nehemiah 8
All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

9And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

By now many of you will have heard the legend of the Quarter Chicken White. According to this unfolding legend, Dr. Bill Kervin, Professor of Public Worship at Emmanuel College journeyed to Birchcliff Bluffs to offer advice on the renovation and in particular the design of the chancel. Our humble building committee had reached the edge of their expertise in the area of chancel design and decided to call in an expert. The legend of the Quarter Chicken White (his consulting fee) was born.

Recently I have been struck by the unusual circumstance of having to introduce you to your church. As one of the planners, I knew that there would be moments, especially early on, when I would have to explain or describe something that was happening behind the “big tarp” that separated us from the ongoing work. I knew that there were a thousand details considered at some point in the last year that would provoke questions. What I wasn't expecting was the odd sensation of being a relative newcomer in your midst, and yet someone called upon to interpret or explain the renewed space. For example:

One of Dr. Kervin's key suggestions, one that we are trying to live out week by week, is a more intentional relationship between the worship space and the worship service. He argued that it was critical to expand the front of the chancel, even a little, in such a way that it entered the space normally occupied by the congregation and thereby “inviting you in” to the chancel space. He suggested the gentle curve.

Furthermore, he said, it is important whenever possible to focus the attention of the congregation on three essential elements of worship: font, table and lectern. As a baptized and baptizing community, as guests at the Lord's table, and a people “of the Word,” these three objects help define who we are and how we imagine ourselves in the context of worship. Clearly they do not have to live in these exact spots, but the good doctor encouraged us to keep them visible during worship, as a tangible reminder of our life together.

It is the last of these three objects that I want to focus on today, the place where scripture is read, where anxious preachers practice their “pulpit grip” and the Word of God is proclaimed. I want to look at a couple of questions today, little questions with big answers, namely “why preach?” and for the congregation, “why listen.” If your neighbour just turned to you with a puzzled look, the last question was “why listen?”


They read from the book of the law of God clearly, and made its sense plain and gave instruction in what was read. (v. 8, NEB)

What sounds rather commonplace was in fact a revolution. What sounds familiar to our ears was the beginning of a relationship that has continued for twenty-five centuries. It was the beginning of the relationship between the Bible read and the Bible interpreted. It was the beginning of preaching.

The people re-inhabited the holy city. Returned from Babylon, the people set about to reconstruct the city walls and reconstruct the faith of their mothers and fathers in Jerusalem. During the long years of exile they remembered Zion, they codified their religious texts and longed for return. Now, wish fulfilled, they were left with the task of actually living in the place they longed for. It was not as simple as it sounds. The return to Jerusalem meant that the people would need to transition somehow from longing to living. They would need to approach scripture in the context of a new Zion: a city of possibility and a city in search of new meaning.

Ezra and his peers were doing more that day than simply translating the Bible from Hebrew to the language of the people, Aramaic. They were making sense of the reading, they were adding a layer of meaning, they were making “the sense plain.” There was actually a three-step process here: translation, interpretation and instruction. It required all three.


One of my faithful co-travelers on this educational journey said “instruction [means] to be open to the Word.” It means to be open to the life-changing possibilities that lie hidden in the text. Walter Brueggemann said “The text heard and interpreted offers the community a particular identity and vocation in the world.”* See the movement from the general to the particular: an interpreted text has a context in the lives of the people. People are given the opportunity to see themselves in the text, to find meaning, and then translate that meaning into something concrete in the world.

O, if it were that easy. Brueggemann, always one for a good quote, has another answer to the question “why preach?” He says it is the task of the preacher to “paint the kingdom of God so beautifully that the congregation can inhabit it all week long." No pressure there, Walter. Perhaps it's time to move on to “why listen?”


One of the things I hope to explore a little more during my return to school is the difference between preaching and teaching. When are they synonymous? When does one aid the other? When does one get in the way of the other? Imagine my delight in finding a single volume that seems to answer these questions along with many others. Kieran Egan writes “ a process that awakens individuals to a kind of thought that enables them to imagine conditions other than those that exist or than have existed.”** Sounds a bit like entering a painting of the Kingdom that you can inhabit all week long. And it also sounds like trying to live in a rebuilt city with new freedom. And it sounds like our new home. The link that binds them is imagination.

It takes imagination to leave one world and inhabit another. It takes imagination to translate text into treasure. It takes imagination to be released from former ways of living and being and enter a new place. It takes imagination see the world as it ought to be, as God sees it, and to make it so.

Listening generates imagination, and imagination is a dangerous force that can never be contained. Imagine the world as the Bible demands it and it preaches itself. Hear the Word proclaimed and the runaway power of the text cannot be stopped.

Here we are, before font, table and lectern: by our baptism we were raised to new life in Christ, refreshed at his table we find courage to be his disciples, and in the Word enter his Kingdom and make it our own. Imaginations soar and we stand with those returned from exile as it said:

And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions [to the poor] and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

*Reverberations, p. 219
**Imagination in Teaching and Learning, p. 47


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