Sermon: Redemption and Responsibility

January 23, 2022


Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

by Eric Anderson

The palila pass down the stories.

They recall the days when the māmane forest stretched around the mountain, and down the mountain, although not much farther up Maunakea. They recall the first people they saw, and the first pigs. They recall the first cattle and sheep, and the way the trees began to fall or fail so that new grasses would spring up for the cattle.

To their surprise, those great four-legged creatures would actually feed on the tips of māmane, something hardly anything else they’d encountered would do. Their hooves trampled young plants, and the forest receded instead of being re-seeded. Today, there are about 3,000 palila living in a section of forest that’s about 25 square miles in size.

They tried to ask why. They’d sing that song to the people making roads or clearing the trees away. The people didn’t seem to understand. They hoped they’d do better with the cattle, but they best they ever got was a couple of “moos.”

One palila perched bravely in a māmane shrub as a sheep began to chew on the tips of the shrub’s branches. “I know you’re hungry,” said the palila, “I can see that. But look around you. Look at all these grasses that people brought in for you. Look at these other plants and shrubs. You can eat those. I’ve seen you do it.

“But I can’t eat those. Nine meals out of ten for me and my people come from māmane. My family all live in māmane. You and your people have eaten up our homes, our past, our meals, and I fear that you’ll eat up our future. Why do you have to make our lives so hard?”

The sheep, I’m afraid, paid little attention to this question. It shook its shoulders – that’s sort of a sheep shrug, and then it said the thing you’re expecting it said.

It said, “Baaah.”

People now keep the sheep and the goats and the cattle and the people away from those twenty-five square miles of māmane forest where the palila live. None of them have ever answered that question, “Why must you make our lives so hard?”

When Ezra summoned the people of Jerusalem to hear the reading of the law of Moses, it was not the first time that they’d gathered. Some years earlier – it’s hard to say how many – the people had stood in the pouring rain to hear words that would break their hearts.

The story is found in Ezra 10. Cory Driver writes at Working Preacher, “It was a miserable, cold and rainy day (in late Nov or early Dec) when Ezra told the assembly to divorce all non-Israelite wives and send away all mixed-race children (Ezra 10:9-11). The people used the weather as an excuse to delay rending families apart. Since it was so cold, the people would extend the divorce process over the next several months (Ezra 10:12-14).”

Why had Israelites married non-Israelites? Why had they had children? They had been carried away to Babylon in exile. There they would have been mostly surrounded by Babylonians, by the people of Mesopotamia. The number of marriageable Israelites would have been limited. Some may have found no eligible Israelite women at all. And the Exile lasted for seventy years – that’s almost three generations.

How could they not marry and raise families? They’d actually been told to do so. As their exile began, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

The day they heard that they must divorce their wives and abandon their children, perhaps they were grateful for the rain that disguised the tears on their cheeks, that diluted the salt taste on their lips.

Is it any wonder that they wept again when Ezra and the scribes read the full law?

They’d returned to Jerusalem in a series of groups, these exiles and grandchildren of exiles. They’d found a city that had been thoroughly wrecked. Inspired by people like Haggai and Zechariah, they’d rebuilt and rededicated the Temple. They’d set up new homes, planted new fields, led new flocks to the hills. By the time of this great reading of the law of Moses, they’d also rebuilt the city wall despite hostility – and let’s be honest, probably because of the hostility – of neighboring provinces. They’d accomplished amazing things in the middle of great stress.

Ezra – his interpretation of the law of Moses – just made it harder.

Is it any wonder they wept?

Let’s be clear. Ralph W. Klein writes in his commentary on Ezra/Nehemiah for The New Interpreter’s Bible, “The Pentateuch does not mandate divorce for people who have married foreigners, but it forbids marriage to certain foreigners (the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land)…” It was Ezra’s interpretation of the law that broke these families. It was Ezra’s rigid righteousness that broke their hearts (Klein, Ralph W., New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, Commentary on Ezra/Nehemiah (Nashville, Abingdon), p 741).

“This day is holy to the Lord your God, do not mourn or weep.”

Well. That’s gall. “I made your lives harder. I broke your hearts. I broke your families. I put the lives of your wives and children at risk. This day is holy. Do not mourn or weep.”

Cast your memory back a little over three years. Do you remember that time in mid to late summer of 2018 when the eruption was still going on? Much of lower Puna south, east, and within Leilani Estates had been evacuated for months. The enormous lava river had evaporated Green Lake in hours, inundated Vacationland, and filled in Kapoho Bay. A red glow hovered over Pahoa. Evacuees camped outside the community center or slept on cots in the gym.

And everybody – everybody – was anxious.

Do you remember that time? Yes, the eruption was well away from us here in Hilo, but this Big Island is a small community. We feel the truth of Paul’s words, “If one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it.” We had been living with stress for months, and for all we knew we’d be living with that stress for years, and it was taking its toll. Do you remember how hard that time was? Do you remember your own shorter temper? Your own struggles to get things done?

Well, friends, welcome to 2022, occasionally pronounced as twenty-twenty, part two, and we’ve been in the midst of a much larger slow motion disaster for nearly two full years. This latest wave of illness, which has raised our hospitalization rates to what we saw in the Delta wave, and which has infected one in thirty residents of Hilo in the last two weeks, but which has barely changed our precautions or budged our vaccination rates, well… what it has done is make us anxious. Irritable. Cranky. And frankly, less able to make good decisions.

I see it in myself. Look into yourself. Is it there in you?

In these times, people tend to make things harder. They usually start by making things harder on themselves. Sometimes it’s with the addition of new demands. “I think I’ll repaint the kitchen.” Sometimes it’s because they don’t recognize how the stress saps their resources. “I should be able to do this, and I’m going to beat myself up because right now I can’t.”

But people go on to make things harder on other people. One possible example is the nation whose leaders have suddenly sent a hundred thousand troops to threaten their neighbors. The boss demands more. The parent can’t cope with the crying. The things we’ve lived with that were irritating are suddenly intolerable, and when that means others much suffer, well. Others must suffer. Weeping. Yes, weeping.

The message of today’s sermon is this: We are at another bad place in the pandemic, and it’s not just the infection rates. It’s the anxiety level. It’s the stress. We’re in a “making life harder for people” time.

So. Let’s not. Let’s not make life harder for ourselves with expectations that wouldn’t work at any time or expectations that might be OK some other time but aren’t within reach now. Let’s not make life harder for ourselves.

Let’s not make life harder for others. Let’s not take our anxiety and stress and lay it upon someone else. Let’s not impose our interpretations of God’s direction in such a way that it burdens someone else. As Cory Driver notes, “It is frequently the hardness of heart in religious leaders that leads to devaluing certain kinds of families or couples. Jesus interpreted Moses as allowing divorce, but certainly not commanding it. Ezra and Jesus had many of the same texts, and yet they arrived at vastly different interpretations of what God desired. Sadly, both Ezra and Jesus’ teachings on divorce have been interpreted themselves in ways that have caused further weeping. Let us not be the source of such weeping!”

There is, you see, another possibility within these Scriptures, these ancient texts of God’s involvement with human beings. As Debie Thomas writes at JourneyWithJesus.net, “What happens is transformation. As the people consent to listen to God’s word with their whole hearts, to receive what’s read in a spirit of openness and vulnerability, and to express their comprehension as honestly as they can, everything changes.”

Because that can happen, too. Everything can change. Our anxiety can subside. Our stress can decline. Our resources can increase. If we hear and tell and live God’s word with awareness of how it affects us and how it affects others, if we live the word aware that we are one body, well, then: everything changes.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video includes the complete worship service of January 23, 2022. Clicking “Play” will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

The prepared text and the preached text are not identical. Guess what? They don’t have to be.

Drawing of a palila by John Gerrard Keulemans (1879) – The Ibis, ser. 4, vol. 3, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16143255.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on January 23, 2022

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