Joy Is Our Strength - Reservoir Church
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Summer at Reservoir 2023

Joy Is Our Strength

Lydia Shiu

Aug 27, 2023

Nehemiah 8:5-12 Common English Bible

5 Standing above all of the people, Ezra the scribe opened the scroll in the sight of all of the people. And as he opened it, all of the people stood up.

6 Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all of the people answered, “Amen! Amen!” while raising their hands. Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah[c]—helped the people to understand the Instruction while the people remained in their places.

8 They read aloud from the scroll, the Instruction from God, explaining and interpreting it so the people could understand what they heard.

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all of the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep.” They said this[d] because all the people wept when they heard the words of the Instruction.

10 “Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength!”

11 The Levites also calmed all of the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy. Don’t be sad!”

12 Then all of the people went to eat and to drink, to send portions, and to have a great celebration, because they understood what had been said to them.

Holy and Loving God, You gave your people the laws to guide them. You gave yourself through the person of Jesus to be with them. For us to know and experience your love, your compassion. To show us a new way forward, a new life forward. God, give us the courage to see your light. God, give us the eyes to see your good news. We thank you that you reveal yourself to us. Show yourself to us now, We pray, Amen. 

I moved to Boston about five years ago from California. There are some adjustments you need to make, when you move to a new town. There were winters getting used to. And the vibe of the town. The people. And an adjustment, to how. you. drive. 

Driving around greater Boston, Lord Jesus, is quite the experience transition from driving around northern California. First of all, we’ve got these things called a Rotary. If you don’t know what it is, it’s this round thing, and there’s usually at least four intersections coming into it, and we all have to go around. We should simply call it Pure Chaos. I go. You go. Everybody yields. While we all go around and around in a circle. Try following that and Google maps and cars and pedestrians all at the same time and after a while you’re like, I know this dance! 

When you move to a new city. Into a new house. Starting a new job. Beginning a new relationship. Beginning of a new school year. New Season. These are the times when we take stock of what has served us. What changes we might make going forward. What I will keep and promise and agree with others around me to do. New land. New laws. Adjustments. And a hope for the future. What this new venture will offer to me and me to it, and how we will move forward. How I will make meaning on this new landscape.

This is actually what’s happening in today’s text. The Jewish people had been away, held captive in Babylon, and now, they were back in Jerusalem, ready to rebuild their land. They were returning from years of exile in someone else’s land, and as they were re-landing back to their own, it was time to regroup and lay down ground rules together again.

The priest and a teacher of the law, Ezra pulled together the old laws, reviewed them, made revisions, and then brought the people together, standing on a wooden platform, he read the laws out loud to everyone. He read, and they apparently interpreted for each other, maybe there were some breakout groups to discuss and process together, explaining to each other so that they’d understand the laws, they did this all morning from sunrise to noon.

As they were listening, and this is the part that’s the most intriguing to me, the people cried. They cried listening to laws. Why? Were they upset? Were they like, this is gonna be impossible to abide by? I really wonder why they cried. 

Our scripture reading today actually comes from our Kids Church “curriculum” from July. I say “curriculum” in quotes, because, for one thing, we don’t call it Sunday School, and call it Kids Church on purpose. It’s not just a place you learn. Schooling, teaching, learning is not the center of it. And so it’s less a “curriculum” but a more framework and approach that shapes what we do with kids on Sunday mornings here at Reservoir church. It’s simply a story from the Bible that we tell, as is, and then just listen, ponder, wonder, ask questions, and discuss with and around it–is the main point. 

The “curriculum” is based on one called Godly Play. It’s been one of my favorite children’s ministry curriculum in the past decade or so, one that’s a mix of spirituality, wonder and play and the Montessori approach. 

Our pre/k program actually uses the Godly Play method pretty intentionally. Our elementary program more or less does kind of Godly Play lite. 

And what they do is, they tell a story from the Bible and then afterwards, the kids cry, just kidding, afterwards they ask these things called, “wondering questions.” The questions are not a set up answers for memorization or to conclude the moral of the story. It’s to literally just get their reaction. I wonder why the story happened like this or like that. I wonder what’s your favorite part. I wonder what can be left out. 

So we’re going to actually do that now. I’m going to first give all of us a moment to think, for like a minute. Cause I’m really curious. Why do you think they cried? 

So close your eyes if you want, to really wonder and ponder on it. Maybe imagine all these people and Ezra standing on a podium reading the law, and people crying. Why do you think they cried? 

Let me gather us back together. 

So in the spirit of Godly Play, my message today is not an offering of any answers but an invitation to wonder together this story and just to make space. 

The beauty of it all is how you resonate with the story with each of your unique stories. 

It may be that there have been times when you heard some news, it made you cry and at the same time you also celebrated. Maybe you also know what it means and feels like to be both really sad and yet also joyful at the same time. When something touched you deeply and you felt it, it made you feel like you could cry and laugh.

I was just so struck by this story because I love tears. I’m a person who is very close to their tears. I see a touching commercial and I cry. I imagined that after being in exile, and coming back to their land, hearing the laws might’ve even felt unreal. Are we really here? Back? Can I dare live as if we’re not slaves? 

And I still don’t know what to make of the priest and Levites (side note: apparently Levites doesn’t just mean descendants of Levi, yes and it’s a group of people referred to that were the priest assistants). It kind of feels like they were cutting off the grief and tears and encouraging them to go eat and celebrate for this is a joyous occasion. I sense on one hand, maybe this was good leadership. “Stop crying, we’re done grieving having been exiles. We’re done now. Let’s lean in and enjoy our life now!”, helping them move on as a nation? And on the other hand, was there a real mix of responses and were the leaders trying to just shut it down and diminish it? 

A theme of the book of Nehemiah and the book right before it, Ezra, which often are found in manuscripts as just one book, and most attribute the two books to one author, is that one of the glaring issues was one of identity. Particularly since while they were in exile, there was some mixing… mixing of races and intermarriages, that at that time, under their original law, was frowned upon. There are prayers of Ezra, confessing the sins of so many intermarriages, and even a list of the names of men who did so. We don’t know for SURE what they exactly decided to do with this issue. And we don’t know exactly what laws were condensed, or rewritten, either to further reinforce the tradition of not intermarrying, or somehow made efforts to include them in some way or form. It’s unclear from the text. 

The response was real. People cried. Audibly. Visibly. I just think it’s so funny, this call to rejoice right at the heels, right in the midst of grieving, weeping, crying, but go eat rich food and drink something sweet. I mean that’s what I do when I’m sad. I eat chocolate. 

This text reminded me of a text in the New Testament. Another time when some folks heard some news and were bewildered. I don’t know why the connection came to me, but that’s what I’ve been wondering with, the connection maybe between these two texts. I’ll read for us. It comes from the end of the Gospel of Mark. 

Mark 16:1-8 – Empty Tomb

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body.

2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb.

3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?”

4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!)

5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled.

6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.[a] He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him.

7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.”

8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.[b

Overcome with terror and dread, at the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. 

This is actually the original final ending of the book of Mark. In our Bible there’s more. Verse 9 to 20, that has a reappearing of Jesus, a kind of a few more words from Jesus that wraps up the story better. And you’ll see in your Bibles, between verse 8 and 9, a tiny footnote that says

“The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.” 

The original ending of the story of Jesus that Mark wrote ended with, verse 8,

“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

That’s it. 

  • How are we to respond to the Laws?
  • How do we respond to a vision of a more idealized hope of how we should live (that’s what a law is, or at least should be)?
  • How are we to respond to the fact that when all we knew was death, and here was a man named Jesus, who spoke of heavenly things, apparently raised back from the dead?
  • How are we to respond to the Good News or the Gospel?
  • How do you respond?

I think it makes sense for us to be utterly shaken. If we are not, I wonder if we really heard it at all. And I think it is natural to have a mix of emotions. One of fear, like a fear of God, and also at same time, a nervous excited joy of the unknown future. I think the story of Nehemiah and the story of Mark both show us the depth and breadth of the range of responses and the permission to have them all. There’s not just one way to respond and the response might feel very visceral or intense. It’s okay to have a mix of feelings of being sad and happy at the same time for the same reason. 

A few weeks ago I met with a fellow Asian American woman for coffee. This kind of similar socio-location is fun to do. It’s like if the intermarried women of Jewish exiles got to chat after they heard Ezra’s laws. There’s this shared experience and wisdom. We shared our location, our settlement and the timing. She was born here, in America. I moved here when I was nine. She talked about being a child of poor immigrants, seeing their parents not being able to fully be honored or accepted and seen for who they are and what their gifts were. And at the same time, I saw a woman in front of me, who was gifted in her career, successful in many ways, blessed with a good life as good as anyone next to her.

And I asked her,

“so how does that feel? Like being a child of a poor immigrant, and now living the life you have now?”

She was a little stunned by my question, like who asks questions like that haha, saying,

“oh right you’re a pastor”

and I was like,

“yes and I’m also projecting, because it’s a thing, that specific experience… I have feelings about it.”

Well I let her go first and she said this… The first few emotions that she shared with me were not like, I’m so blessed and I’m grateful I’m so lucky, but that she feels guilty. She felt guilty that she’ not maybe having more joy like she’s supposed to. She felt guilty that sometimes she felt down like she’s not allowed to do that. And she felt guilty for feeling guilty. She’s grateful of course for the life she has now, but yeah, it was a mix. And I felt the same. Like I didn’t know how to live this life. A life that has been gifted to us too abundantly, too mercifully. And the pain and the suffering of our past, of our parents, our people, that that still is with us and lingers in us and that still hurts. 

I wonder if we feel like that after God has brought us back from what might have felt like exile, or suffering, or near death. I wonder if we have a hard time coming to terms with the extravagant love of God that God has bestowed upon us. Do we even know what to do with that? You can even be bewildered and not know how to process it all in the moment and feel speechless, the women at the tomb did. And I think the Bible tells us today to go eat something sweet. I’m… kidding… kind of. 

I wonder how it’s felt for you when God’s spoken to you. Or when you first encountered the resurrected Jesus. I wonder if you cried. Or if you were a bit scared. I wonder if you were told to rejoice cause you’re supposed to but you found it all a bit confusing all at the same time. 

I do like the added ending of Mark too though, verse 9-20. Jesus appears to them and says to them,

“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.”

I don’t know, I mean I have mixed feelings about it. I kind of feel like some other author added a happy ending to it and I don’t know if I agree with that. But the part I like is, “Go.” Just like Nehemiah too, “Go.” Go talk to people. Go eat with them. Go party. Go Celebrate. Go. 

And actually this brings us to the exact format of the Godly Play curriculum. In the classrooms, after the children hear the story, discuss, they respond, and then they GO to a time where they might interact with the theme but also just play games, build something, paint/draw, whatever you want to do, but the intention behind really is all about just being in community. Go and be in community with whatever you just heard, however you heard, whatever it might be bringing up for you, wonder and play and interact with it with others and see what it does. 

This was my teaser for a class I will be co-teaching with pastor Dan in October called Godly Play Spirituality for Everyone: Deconstructing and Reconstructing Faith Traditions in October. It’ll be a three part series on the Bible, Spiritual Practices, and Community. I feel like for so many of us, we’re asking the question, what does faith look like for me in my context, in my life. What do I keep from traditions of Christianity and what can I part with that no longer serves me. Again, a way forward that will begin to shape your own faith identity. We’ll do that together as a community. And yes, it’ll end with a meal.

 Hopefully with rich food and some sweet drinks. Because no matter what we go through together, even if it’s through many seasons of grief and through tears, not despite it but with it and through the crying, we are called to go and celebrate, to claim joy. The joy of living. The joy of our God who delights in us. The joy of our resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s invite one another, to be together, share dinners, tables, and meals together, even cry together, and choose joy again and again.  May joy be our strength. 

Okay, let me pray for us. 

Lord, you have our hearts. And we search for yours. Let us be your living sacrifices, a fragrant pleasing to you oh God. Let our tears fall on thee. Let our joy rise to thee. And give us one another to do so as a people, who can remind one another of the law you give us, of the life you give us, of the joy you give us again and again, in and through all that we might be facing in our own lives in work, in family, in relationships, in our nation, in our society, in our world, give us your strength. The strength of joy through it all. We pray. Amen.