One of the questions most frequently asked of any stage actor is, "How do you remember all of those lines?" This is especially true with me, given that the "script" I have memorized and perform is the entire GOSPEL OF JOHN, word for word. Following a performance of John's Gospel in Chicago a few years ago, I was approached by a somewhat speechless fireman. He grabbed hold of my arm and stared at me. Finally, he asked the question: "How did you do that? How do you remember all of those words?" I embraced him and replied, "What are you talking about? How do you run into a burning building when everyone else is running out?"
My point was that God has most graciously given each and every one of us our own unique gifts. One of mine happens to be the ability to memorize large amounts of scripture and then perform them in churches and theaters throughout the country. I always hesitate to use the word 'perform" or "performance" in describing what I do, because I feel that my work is more accurately a proclamation of God's word. But if you were to tell people, even people of faith, to come and hear a "proclamation," nobody would show up!
I have performed THE GOSPEL OF JOHN just over 600 times in the past twelve years. The performance, which includes a fifteen-minute intermission, lasts about two and a half hours. This means I've spent roughly 81,000 minutes, or almost two months, of my life standing in front of gathered communities and proclaiming God's word.
Perhaps you can see why I might have a modest affinity for Ezra the scribe in today's text.
For it is Ezra who stands on an elevated wooden platform, a stage if you will, and from dawn until noon, (and with a little help from his friends, the Levites) proclaims the book of the Revelation of Moses to an attentive and emotionally moved crowd. The word of the Lord, as it is apt to do, works on them!
There have been times, of course, during my performances, when my memory has failed me. I have been sick, jet lagged, briefly distracted by something and my mind has gone blank. I have learned over the years not to panic when this happens. Even with all eyes and ears focused on me, it's not about me; it's about those words and those words being proclaimed in an exciting, clear and accessible way. So when I can't remember, I simply walk over to a copy of the Bible that I keep nearby, find my place in the gospel, and then continue speaking. Returning to the book restores my memory.
I think a people's return to the book and a restoration of memory lie at the heart of this text from Nehemiah.
The long Babylonian captivity is over and the exiled Jews have finally returned home to Jerusalem. The temple and the walls of the city have been rebuilt, and Ezra the scribe steps forth before the gathered community to restore and re-establish the Torah once again in the hearts and minds of his people. It seems that for many of the returning exiles and for many of those who had remained at home, the oral hearing of the book had been set aside.
The psalmist laments, "How shall we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" Well, not easily and only with great intention. Exile can't help but change us, no matter how hard we try to hold on to where we came from or hold on to what makes us who we are. In exile, many of us adapt. We adapt to new customs, to new economic and political realities. We may even find that essential practices of our faith are neglected or put aside.
And so we gather. The shofar trumpets and calls us forth; dawn breaks on the horizon. It is the first day of the year, a day of remembrance, a day of looking ahead, a day of renewal. We gather as one, in unity; men, women and children. We gather in the square before the Water Gate, just opposite the temple. It is the Water Gate, because it is here that fresh, flowing water, living water, from an underground stream is brought in for use at the temple. We gather because we are thirsty for the word. We desire to hear it, to bathe and cleanse ourselves in it.
Ezra is handed the scroll. He unrolls it and we stand out of respect. Ezra blesses the Lord and we cry out, "Amen, Amen." We lift up our hands, bow our heads, and with our faces to the ground, we worship the Lord. Then Ezra, with interpretation, begins reading from the scroll. Our ears are attentive, our hearts are open, and the words of the Lord flow over us like streaming water. And with the help of Ezra and the Levites, we understand the reading.
And then we weep. We weep at the Water Gate, tears streaming down our faces. We weep, we weep, because on hearing the word our collective sins, our individual sins, are brought to our remembrance and we are filled with remorse. Our catastrophe, our captivity and exile, came about because of our sins. We broke our covenant with the Lord. We exalted in our own power, our own wisdom, our own wealth. We did not exalt in the love, justice and righteousness of the Lord. We also weep because on hearing these words, we remember the Lord's impeccable love for us.
Then we are told, "Do not weep! Do not mourn! This day is holy to the Lord your God. Go your way. Eat the fat; drink sweet wine; send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."
And so there is great rejoicing! It is a feast day after all, and the people have feasted on the word. This bounty of the Lord requires that they, too, be bountiful, and so the people's hearts are drawn to the poor, to those who have nothing prepared. They share their food, share their wine, and, as one, they celebrate.
As modern communities of faith, with modern, challenged attention spans, we are sadly unaccustomed to gathering together for extended periods of time for the sole purpose of hearing God's word. We think: how boring, how dull. Perhaps it's hard for us to believe that this event in Jerusalem even happened--that people gathered and listened for six straight hours to a scroll being read! But I believe it happened. They were thirsty for a challenging, healing word.
Occasionally, I have been asked by churches who are interested in hosting a performance of THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, "Is it really two and a half hours?" "Well yes," I tell them, "it's the entire gospel." They ask, "Is there any way you can shorten it? I don't think our people can handle two and a half hours." Such a response is disheartening. I often feel like saying, "I bet they can handle two and a half hours of college football or reality television."
Such a disheartening response assumes that the active, quickening word of God isn't powerful enough to hold our attention or transform our lives. We know this simply isn't true. Time and again throughout my ministry, I have seen children of five or six sit rapt and engaged for two and a half hours. I've had parents come up to me afterwards and say, "I've never seen my child sit that still for anything." So, yes, even for children, the living word has the power to captivate. One little girl, after those two and a half hours, told her mother, "Why can't church be like that?" And all she had done was listen to God's word.
Now such responses aren't about me. Trust me, there's nothing particularly fascinating about me. Such responses are about the power of God's word, the power of God's revelation, the power of God's spirit at work in our lives.
In responding to the crisis of biblical illiteracy within the church, researcher George Barna stated: "There is shockingly little growth evident in people's understanding of the fundamental themes of the scriptures and amazingly little interest in deepening their knowledge and application of biblical principles. The problem facing the Christian Church is not that people lack a complete set of beliefs; the problem is that they have a full slate of beliefs in mind, which they think are consistent with biblical teachings, and they are neither open to being proven wrong nor to learning new insights."*
According to the sad statistics, it would seem that many of us, indeed, live in exile, exile from the word.
So let us, with intention, return home and gather where the water flows, at the Water Gate. Let us bathe ourselves in the word, allowing this library of diverse voices to comfort and heal us, to radically challenge and transform our lives. Let us be attentive to these texts. Let us also, without fear, ask ourselves some hard questions about them.
Let us also, with great humility, and with the knowledge of our own fallibility, realize that while these words are eternal, many of our conclusions and certitudes about them are not. Each new generation interprets the word for their own particular time, place and experience. The word is a living thing and it will live well beyond our brief lives. The word is a stream which moves, not a stream stagnant and frozen in place. Our understanding of the word, our interpretation of it, is not the final say. These texts will not be tied down, even by us. To believe so is arrogance and an insult to the Spirit of God's revelation.
Whether in private contemplation, in group Bible studies, or during our communal worship hour, let us locate ourselves in God's liberating, redemptive narrative. For, indeed, we are to be found there. And when our reading, studying and listening are done, let us embody the word. Let us embody God's impeccable love to the world.
People often ask me, "Do you have any tips on memorizing scripture?" I tell them, "There's no secret trick to it. Just take the text word by word, line by line." I tell them, "repetition, repetition." I tell them, "You can't imagine how this discipline will enrich your faith."
So let's start our memorization, our remembering, with a short passage. It's only fifty-one words. We can handle that. After all, most of us know the first verse of The Star Spangled Banner and that has eighty-one words! We boldly sing those eighty-one words, covering our hearts with our hands, so fifty-one words should be no problem.
Let's start where Jesus started. For Jesus, like Ezra of old, was also handed a scroll. He unrolled it, found his place in the text, and then, quoting the poetry of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus boldly proclaimed his manifesto to an aching world:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
And when we have memorized this text, let us welcome each new day by covering our hearts with our hands and boldly giving these fifty-one words our voice and utterance. When we have given these words our memories, our hearts and our voices, we will stand a better chance of embodying them to the world.
Will you join me in prayer? O God, we seek your face. We seek your guiding hand. In this week of Thanksgiving, we give thanks for your presence in our lives. We give thanks for your Word and ask that you write your Word on our hearts. We give thanks for our neighbors, here and throughout your world. O Lord, give us the courage to love our neighbors, for in loving them, we are loving you. Amen.
* "Barna Studies the Research, Offers a Year-In-Review Perspective." Barna Group, Copyright 2009.