by Lin Hatfield Dodds
Nehemiah 8: 9-12
Luke 7: 36-50
I don’t know about you, but I’ve enjoyed celebrating a month of Jubilee at Kippax. On the first two Sundays in July we spent time with God the great party giver and Jesus, man of the party. The next Sunday we spent partying at home, and this week, our last ‘partying Sunday’, we are reflecting on being a partying community.
The Old Testament reading for today is Nehemiah 8. In this passage, some months after their return from exile and captivity, the Israelites gathered in the town square in Jerusalem and asked Ezra, priest and scholar, to explain the Law to them.
Ezra and some others did so. The bible records that when the people heard what the law required, they were so moved they began to cry. Can you picture that? A crowd of men, women and children. Old and young. Some sitting, some standing. Kids on adults shoulders. Dogs, chickens and goats amongst the crowd. And tears leaking out of people’s eyes. Streaming down some people’s faces. Others weeping, head in hands. People holding each other, passing round cloths for eyes and noses…
I experienced something a little like that once, at our church’s National Assembly six years ago in Melbourne. James Haire, in his last address to the Uniting Church as President, spoke from the heart about peace and justice, and martyrs he had known and loved in our region. A young man beheaded for his faith as he knelt in the church he was studying theology in. Women attacked at home for their connection to the Christian church. James was calling for a gutsy Australian response to justice in our region, so that all faiths and peoples might learn to live in peace. We all stood as he spoke, and some of us linked hands. Many of us had tears spilling down our faces. It was a shocking call back to the core of our faith: love and justice. The shocking part was not so much the violence that James shared but that we had stopped paying attention from our hearts. Our love had atrophied. Six people dead in a week in a small island nation whose name we forgot two minutes after the news bulletin had become again real people with hopes and dreams, people just like us.
When I think of the crowd in the public square in Jerusalem listening to Ezra the prophet exegete the law, or of that afternoon in a crowded hall in Melbourne listening to James make the case for love driven justice, the words of another prophet, Micah, come to mind. “What does the Lord require of you? That you love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with God each day”.
Back to the Israelites. Imagine having been in exile for so long and finally coming home. They’ve settled back in, and it’s been seven months so people’s houses and gardens and animals are in order and thriving, and perhaps for some captivity and exile are beginning to seem like a bad dream. People want to gather and affirm their shared identity, and what better way to do that than have the priest teach the law in a public space.
Something special happened as Ezra spoke that day. For some reason, people who had grown up immersed in the law heard it anew. It may have been that they were grounded again back in their home and more receptive. Ezra may have been particularly eloquent. Whatever the reason, the crowd was moved to tears.
Many of you would know that I was given this beautiful preaching scarf at the service we had to celebrate my dad’s life last month. Each of us got one. They are red for love. About a month before Dad died, we were called into hospital as Dad was not expected to survive the night. At one point, early on, I took all the kids, my two and Dave’s four, out to the public area in Casualty to wait for a room with space for us all to be with Dad. (This may or may not surprise you, but apparently 12 Hatfields in a small space are quite loud.) We talked about Grandpa and what might happen, and as we leaned into each other I said to the kids that this was the moment when our faith had to count. “If our faith doesn’t matter tonight”, I said “it doesn’t matter at all.”
When you are facing something real, all your usual masks and defences and pretences fall away. You’re left with your own naked self – who you really are and what you really believe. At those moments, when your soul is close to the surface, tears often come. Cleansing, healing tears that help carry you through and through which you can begin to make sense of things in a deeper way than before.
Margaret Atwood, brilliant Canadian author and truth-teller says that the only way to see the world clearly is through tears.
I wonder if that’s what happened in Jerusalem on that day so long ago. As Ezra read from the law, and then as he and thirteen others explained it in a way that people could understand and connect with, perhaps people heard the truth of the law for the first time. Under the blue skies of home, in peace and growing prosperity, but in the light of a recent bitter experience of captivity and exile, they could see the law clearly in a way they had never been able to before.
Not rules and regulations, not crowns and kingdoms, power and property – the truth of the law is about who we are, individually and collectively in community. The law is a road map to living well.
I imagine that that realisation, that clarity, produced the tears. People wept as they realised, deep in their guts, that the law was not endless rules, but life giving instruction. Not a cage of do-s and don’ts, but freeing and enabling. Imagine both the relief of this new understanding and the chagrin of not getting it earlier. It’s hard to believe that Ezra didn’t make the point that in living in the law, the people’s relationship with God stayed strong. God was with them through their captivity and exile and brought them home. Truth being told, and being heard. Souls close to the surface. Cleansing tears, and a people ready to go deeper.
Friends of ours were at an 80th birthday celebration yesterday and as we shared a cup of tea in the late afternoon, Robyn was reflecting on the party and what we are remembered for. We are rarely remembered, she said, for the make of car we drive, or the size of our house or even our career. Most of us are remembered relationally. Those of us who are remembered with enormous love are people who live well – people who care, who express love in practical ways, who are an important part of their community, who are real.
As the penny is dropping for the Israelites that the law is a manual for living well and can set them free in the most fundamental way, Nehemiah doesn’t instruct them to go home and study it some more. Instead, the governor declares the day holy and tells the people to go home and feast, sharing food and wine with those who haven’t enough. Go and party, he says. Party with everyone!
So the community partied. The city feasted. You can imagine people partying in the streets, the bright light of morning turning to late afternoon as people moved from inside around tables with their families to visiting with neighbours, dragging chairs and tables outside into the afternoon sun, bringing out more food as day turned to night and torches were lit; kids staying up way too late, food and wine becoming song and dance. Music and the smell of cooking meat and excited chatter overlaid with shouts of laughter in courtyards and down laneways. Everyone included, everyone partying.
What a great image. You can bet that Ezra understood that party is more than an expression of community -he knew that party creates community. Celebration creates a deep sense of connectedness with others.
Henri Nouwen defined celebration as the acceptance of life in a constantly increasing awareness of its preciousness. Life is precious if for no other reason than that one day it will be gone. Richard Fowler, who wrote the excellent book ‘Stages of Faith” describes a developed faith as one in which people love life but hold it lightly.
To be really, truly aware of life’s infinite frailty is to either live abundantly and celebrate each hour and day, or to slide into profound depression or existential angst.
Which is probably why so many people in our culture choose not to attend to life’s precious and fairly fleeting nature.
Our community celebrations here at Kippax should be legendary in our wider community. And I reckon they are becoming that way. Our festivals, garage sales and other community events are developing a well earned reputation for being spaces and times of welcome, acceptance and joy.
Quite a few friends of mine who came to our celebration of Dad’s life here last month were blown away by our community and the strong sense of celebration and party evident at that service. In the weeks that have followed, I’ve had serious conversations with three different households about joining us here at Kippax, because they want to be part of what they experienced at Dad’s service: a community able to look life’s hard stuff right in the eye, and in doing so celebrate our shared lives and love for each other and for God in a way that includes everyone. Being real, being there for others, celebrating, going deeper.
We are already doing what Ezra and Nehemiah were teaching the Israelites to do in Jerusalem. We party together at Kippax in the light of what is true – what we know about ourselves and our wider community and how we all struggle in different ways, and what we know about faith and God – and as we party, we celebrate our community and continue to build it stronger, wider, deeper.
Dad knew about the key role of celebration in building community. He made sure that our family shared regular meals together, and gathered for every birthday, triumph and sadness. We went away together. We told stories, played games, hung out and partied heaps. In many ways, Dad was the keeper of our family’s story. Dad isn’t with us anymore but his legacy of love and faith burns bright. We continue to gather, to share meals and stories and games. We continue to party because there is so much to celebrate – life and love and hope – and because gathering to celebrate keeps us growing together, stronger, wider, deeper.
When Gordon and Steve were laying these scarves around our necks, they said that hearing about Dad and celebrating his life was not about us all needing to run out and become Alan Hatfield clones; but rather that we had all been gifted with the opportunity to reflect on how one special person lived and make some changes in ourselves if we wanted to.
I guess that’s the cool thing about a Jubilee month. You get the time and space to touch base with yourself and with your community. To take the temperature of both, to make sure you are who you want to be, who you know you have the potential to be. Each of us can do those things in an environment that’s both fun and safe as we gather to celebrate together this month and into the future.
American feminist Emma Goldman used to say “If you can’t dance to it, it ain’t my revolution”. Amen to that. Let’s dance as we move lightly with the breath of God in the world. Let’s be a community that’s so fun and so real that there is a welcome place for everyone in it. Let’s keep going deeper, together.