Whenever I’m preparing to write a sermon, I spend a lot of time digging into the texts that our lectionary (the cycle of readings we follow) chooses for a given Sunday. And it always kind of perks my ear up whenever I notice that the lectionary skips over verses in a given reading. I’m always curious to see what it is that got left out, and why. You may have noticed that this has happened in our first reading for this morning: we’ve got kind of a weird mish-mash of verses from the eighth chapter of Nehemiah that leaves a couple of verses out.
There’s a number of reasons why the people who compiled the lectionary might choose to do this: sometimes they omit verses in order to condense a really long story into a more manageable reading; sometimes it’s to highlight a particular theme or idea they want to emphasize; and sometimes it’s for reasons that are beyond my understanding.
So, out of curiosity, I looked up the missing verses from this reading – verses 4 and 7 – and I think I can confidently say that these verses weren’t left out in order to shorten a story or to highlight a theme. Instead, I think the omission of these particular verses was an act of mercy toward lectors everywhere.
Heh, let me show you what I mean. Verse 4 picks up with Ezra reading the book of the law – the scriptures – like we already see him doing, and gives us a bit more detail; it reads:
The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.Nehemiah 8:4
Then, of course, verses 5 and 6 continue:
And 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. Then 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.Nehemiah 8:5-6
And then we get verse 7:
Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.Nehemiah 8:7-8
Between these two verses alone, we get this long list of 26 names, each one wilder than the last! It’s pretty easy to see why the decision was made to leave them out – they’re quite a mouthful. But I do think that it actually takes a little bit away from the story not to have these verses included.
For context, this story happens during the reconstruction period of Israel, after the destruction of Jerusalem. The people are finally allowed to return to their city after spending decades in exile in Babylon, and in this passage, they have just finished rebuilding the city walls of Jerusalem. It’s an exciting moment for them! To celebrate this accomplishment, they ask to have the book of the law of Moses – which we know as the first five books of the bible – read aloud to them. They celebrate a construction project with a bible study; I love it!
In this reading as we have it, you have Ezra – a priest and scribe – standing in front, reading the scriptures out loud to the people and then Ezra and Nehemiah basically explaining to the people what it all means. But in reality, it’s not just Ezra and Nehemiah teaching; there’s a whole bunch of people spread out in the crowd, helping their neighbors to understand the teachings of the law by interpreting them in ways that people can understand. They’re working together as a community to understand God’s word so that, together, they can live it out.
As kind of a side note, I find it weirdly reassuring to see that people who are *in* scripture also need help from others in order to understand scripture. I know I’ve heard folks here and elsewhere confess to being a bit intimidated by the idea of studying the bible; and I’ll even admit that it’s especially intimidating that I’m expected to be the expert when it comes to studying scripture – because there’s still so much I have to learn. But these verses from Nehemiah remind us that the scriptures are intended to be read and studied together. We all bring different knowledge and experience and perspectives to the table; we all bring our own unique lens to the study of scripture. And that’s why it’s often in the context of community that the word of God becomes most clear.
And this is actually exactly what Jesus is doing in our gospel reading! He and the people from his home town are gathered in the synagogue on the sabbath day – and they take turns reading the scriptures out loud so that they can study them together as a community. This story shows how the communal aspect of God’s word is really important. And we’ll see that continue to play out in Jesus’ ministry. Even though next Sunday, we’ll see that the people from his home town really don’t like his interpretation of this passage from Isaiah, the following Sunday we’ll find Jesus beginning to gather other people around him as a community of disciples. Even the Son of God doesn’t go about God’s work alone!
Faith is simply not meant to be a solitary endeavor. It’s not that you absolutely can’t be a Christian in isolation, but you miss out on so much of the richness this way of life has to offer when you aren’t regularly connecting with the rest of the body of Christ. And we get probably the best illustration of this in all of scripture in our second reading for today.
In this well-known passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul compares community in Christ to a literal body. And some of the images he uses are quite funny – like imagining the whole body being just one giant eyeball, or someone’s head telling their feet: get out of here, you useless feet! But the point Paul is making here is that, just like a regular human body, the body of Christ is not made up of just one member, but of many. And each member performs its own unique function. A giant eyeball can’t hear or taste or walk around – it needs the other members of the body in order to be whole.
We likewise bring many different gifts to the table. We read Paul’s words about this last week, from the first part of this chapter. The same Spirit gives each and every one of us unique gifts and talents and abilities. And while these gifts are ours to enjoy, they’re also intended to be shared among a community of people. Between us gathered here, we have many gifts – gifts that range from playing the piano to baking banana bread to shoveling snow – and our community is made all the richer when these gifts are shared. It’s made so much richer when we choose to help – and to let ourselves be helped by – our neighbor. In truth, among all the many gifts that God has given to us, one of the greatest gifts is each other.
That being said, I know we don’t always experience church this way. It’s not always easy to live as one body – especially in a world as divided and polarized as ours is. We are called to be one body with people whose gifts and ideas and opinions sometimes differ wildly from our own. We are called to love and forgive people who sometimes offend us or who drive us absolutely crazy. We are called to risk opening our hearts to more than just ourselves and our own families.
But all this is because we are called to live into the love that God has for all of us. When we choose to be together in community, even despite all that might divide us, we are reflecting the love that God has for us: love that reaches past borders and barriers, love that gives and forgives, love that teaches us to be better disciples, love that binds us together into the body of Christ.
These days, we live among members of the body of Christ whose names are a little bit easier to pronounce than the names in Nehemiah’s day. But the importance of the community of faith remains the same. In community, we experience and share God’s love. In community, we learn how to truly follow in the way of Christ – together.