Readings: Nehemiah 8.9-18 John 16.1-11
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
The scaffolding for replacing our windows is not a pretty sight, but it is a welcome one. It shows that the renewal of our building is underway. I have been re-reading a book about this, Re-Pitching the Tent by Richard Giles. He makes the point that an empty church should have something missing, because it is a place of assembly: it is incomplete without its congregation, like a theatre set with the cast poised in the wings. Every act of worship is indeed an ‘act’, a performance, except that you are not in the audience but in the cast.
The reading from Nehemiah tonight is our script; but, as we heard it, it is a script with no stage directions. For those you need to go back a few verses, and you see that we are not so far off the scene described: the people gather in a square, as do we, though we are under cover; Ezra the scribe brings out the book of the Law of Moses – which is in the Bible we brought out earlier – and as he reads he stands on a wooden platform that has been made for the purpose – as did Judy from our purpose built timber pulpit (though he reads from early morning till midday); and because some of the writing is hard to understand, there is a team of preachers, the Levites, to interpret – here tonight you must make do with one. But can we play the part of these Jews from two-and-a-half millennia ago? How much are we like them? How different? Let’s see.
When the people hear the Law, they weep. Why? It seems that they weep because they have rediscovered something forgotten and which they cannot measure up to. The Law of Moses was for the ordering of a sovereign state, and here they are, a crowd of ex-refugees, released from exile in Babylon, back on the soil Moses would have called the promised land but now in the gift of the infidel Persians. They weep because the words of the Law are reminder of how they have fallen as a nation. The tears come because the people hear the words and say, This is about us, what God called us to do and to be, and we cannot do it or be it.
True of us? Yesterday I was in Hereford, a small city on which the imprint of the church is great. There is the Cathedral, but also the parish church of the Evangelical social reformer John Venn, son of Henry, who was an ally of Wilberforce in the Clapham Sect. Father helped outlaw the slave trade, son virtually invented Hereford’s social services. Some of those tasks are now coming back to the church as the state shrinks, but how we have shrunk since Venn’s day, such that the BBC Head of Religion Aaqil Ahmed warns about the lack of religious literacy in our country. Read almost any article about the church and you’ll and you’ll see what he means. Not only do fewer people come to church, fewer and fewer know what we’re on about.
Is it enough to make you weep? If I said, ‘Come to Evensong for tears before bedtime’ the numbers would not shoot up, but tears might be a right reaction to what you receive here. This is not a place to come in order to be soothed by the rhythms of the language of a past age. It is not a place to come in order to have ears tickled by beautiful sounds. These things help us towards the real point of coming here, which is to meet God, to come to that point when you say: these words are about me and us: this is what God invites me, challenges us to be and to do; this is what God is warning us against. And a fit response to that might be tears, the tears of those who realise how we have failed as a church; or how you and I have failed, how it is that God offers us his whole self, and we offered half-promises, half-attention, half-heartedness in return. Perhaps it is enough to make you weep.
But Ezra says, Do not weep! Ezra says, Eat, drink, be generous in your celebrations for this is a high and holy day. This is a day to mark not your failures but the grace of God. The ten commandments feature in Ezra’s giant Bible study in Jerusalem, and they begin not with the words ‘Do this, do not do that’, but with ‘I am the Lord the God of Israel who brought you out of Egypt’. God is always gracious before being demanding, God gives before asking. The God who rescued their ancestors from Egypt and gave them the Law, this same God will help them afresh to be obedient in their utterly different setting.
For us too, the question is how to be obedient to God, but in a setting so different from the 1400s, when the arch through you entered was built, so different even from the 1850s, when those now decaying windows were put in. It is question we shall ask as we draw up our Mission Action Plan (something you will be hearing more about) which is an attempt to set out what we think God is asking of us in this time and place, especially as we seek to appoint a new Team Vicar. One enemy of this is nostalgia – we need a sense of the past, but in order to live for God better now – and nostalgia can be born of fear of what is in store.
In the second reading, John describes Jesus preparing his friends for the next stage of their work. They are sacred: they have known the grace of God already in the astonishing experience of being with Jesus, listening to his words, looking into his eyes, but now he is about to die and they are about to face persecution. Where is the grace of God in that? Where did it go wrong? But Jesus says, It’s better for you that I go away. If I don’t go, you’ll never know the next piece of generosity: not my presence beside you, but the Spirit within you to guide you into all truth.
Like the bedraggled ex-exiles of Jerusalem, we may feel the burden of a great past. Like the sad disciples in the same city five hundred years later, we may fear what is in store. But God will never call us to be what we cannot be. God never changes. Now as then, God stands ready to give – not all that we want – but all that we need to be the church, God’s faithful people, in this place and this time, both here and hereafter.
Re-Pitching the Tent Richard Giles, Canterbury Press, 2004.