It’s that time of year again — time for budgets and meetings and reports; time for organizations everywhere to refocus on their governance. And the church, as part of this world, is no exception. I’ve heard folks say at times that they don’t want to be a part of the “politics” of the church; or that they don’t want to hear sermons that are too “political”. And yet, our structure, our governance, and its reflection of and effect upon the systems of this world are a big part of what Jesus came to address. If we look deeply into today’s lectionary, we can see that.
Our reading from Nehemiah — really a part of the book of Ezra — clearly outlines the three branches of governance for the people of Israel. Nehemiah was the “executive branch”, governing the people; Ezra, the prophet, served in the “legislative branch”, teaching the laws of Moses to the people; and the Levites served as the “judicial branch”, interpreting the laws and judging the people. This is not so very different than the governance of our nation.
In the three branch of government in these United States, the Supreme Court interprets laws written by our elected members of congress, in keeping with our Constitution. And that interpretation happens within the context of the particular time and culture. Regarding interpretation of the law, our most senior and well respected Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says,
“This is a constitution, not a law meant to last a certain period of time; it was meant to govern through the ages. And of course, to govern through the ages it has to be kept in tune with the people that are governed. It can do that because it has broad themes that were meant to grow with an evolving society.” So, too, our sacred Texts contain broad themes and metaphors, meant to grow as the people of God grow and evolve in over the centuries.
Even our own Episcopal Church contains structures and polity to help us govern ourselves responsibly. As the people in the times of Nehemiah — both lay and ordained — gathered at the Water Gate east of the Temple, we gather too in many, many, MANY meetings. We meet as congregations, as regions, as Diocese, and even as Provinces. Our Province VIII (of IX) includes 19 Diocese, including Navaholand and Taiwan. Our laws are called “Canons”, which is Latin for “measuring stick”. We also have people who are canons, which is confusing. And there are different “orders” each with different functions: Deacons, Priests and Bishops, all within the order of our baptisms.
The lyrical poetry of Psalm 19 sings praises to God with many names and functions: God as creator, God as judge, God as teacher, God as Redeemer. It expounds the sweetness of God’s law, as perfect and just and righteous. At the same time, it acknowledges our own imperfections and presumptions that can cause us to ignore and stray from God’s path for us. As they did in Corinth.
Paul writes to the Corinthians at around the year 50 CE, decades after Jesus’ resurrection, building on Paul’s three year relationship with this growing Jesus movement. Corinth was a city known for its “wealth without culture and abuse of its poor” Economically they were structured as a pyramid, with a few on the top, and a lot of folks on the bottom. Worldwide, they enjoyed a high status, and many of them claimed special status even within the new Church. Paul uses the popular ancient symbol of “one body”– both unified and diverse — to remind the people of their connection to one another, and to tip the hierarchy on its ear.
After all, Jesus came to include, not exclude; Jesus came to bring good news to the poor and to free the oppressed. In Luke’s Gospel, the term “poor” refers to those who are marginalized, not included, because of their gender, their age, their lack of money, their culture, their maladies, or violating religious purity codes. Coming into a world that was suffering, seeing those who were lost and forgotten, Jesus interpreted the “law” differently for those times. Jesus read the words of Isaiah 58 and 61, and had the audacity, the vision, the courage to not only interpret this proclamation of hope for the people, but to live it, to incarnate the Word. And all the people of Nazareth loved it! Just kidding. They ran him out of town! Jesus also brought divisions, they were
just different ones. Jesus changed the system, the order of things; he redrew the lines so that more people were included.
So today, when we gather as the Body of Christ here in Kent, Washington; as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement alive at St. James Parish, how shall we draw the lines? Who shall we include?
If we were to draw a picture of ourselves as a Parish, what would that look like? And how do we measure our value in God’s kin-dom? Is our worth determined only by the size of our budget, or the number of people in our pews? Or are there other indicators: how do we welcome new members? How do we partner with our neighborhood? What impact do we make in our community? Are these indicators as important as pledges and ASA’s (average Sunday attendance), and where do we reflect that data on our parochial report?
Friends, today when you draw near the Table of the Lord, I invite you to not only look up at our beautiful stained glass, but also to look into the eyes of your fellow parishioners, perhaps especially those whom you don’t know yet. To rejoice in the mosaic of ways in which God’s Word is made beautifully manifest in the lives that gather here, not only on Sundays at 8:30 and 11am or even Wednesdays at 9am, but all week through! For that is our “polity”, our group, our community, and you, each and every one of you, are an essential part of it! Let us rejoice together as One Body, and let all God’s people say as one, AMEN!
 New Interpreter’s Study Bible, pg. 2035