Rev. Stacy Swain
This morning, I’d like to tell you a story from ancient times. Scholar’s believe this story is the first extant autobiographical account that was written by a common person, not a king. This story is the memoir really of a man named Nehemiah who lived in Persia in the fifth century before the common era. But before we begin, let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. AMEN
Let me begin by setting the scene:
It was a time of challenge and upheaval.
It began when the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to the great city of Jerusalem. Its mighty walls were tumbled. Its gates were burned. The Babylonians military strategy was not only to destroy the physical city, but also to destroy the way of life of the people that lived there. And so when the walls of Jerusalem were in ruins, the gates were smoldering ash, the people of Israel were rounded up and marched off to exile in the foreign land, in the land of Babylonia. Some Israelites were allowed to remain in Jerusalem, but those that were allowed to stay were considered to be rather nobodies, poor, of little threat.
Years passed in the wake of this Babylonian destruction and bit by bit, a tired and dispirited people tried to make their way.
Then about 50 years later, with the might of the Babylonians weakening, a new superpower emerged. Persia under the rule of Cyrus the Great rose up, defeated Babylon and became the ruler of what was called “the civilized world.” But the political and military strategy of King Cyrus the Persian, was different than that of the Babylonians. King Cyrus believed that a content people, not a displaced people, were easier to rule and so Cyrus issued a decree stating that all conquered people, including the Israelites were free to return to their homelands. The Jews were free to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple and reinstitute their religious practices that framed their way of life.
The exile was over and those that had been displaced made their way back home. But the Jerusalem they returned to was not the Jerusalem that they once knew. The Babylonian invasion had broken the city and then years of neglect had ruined it further. And those that returned met with resistance at best and animosity at worst from those that had remained. There was division among the people.
Now Nehemiah’s people were among those who were displaced to Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem, but unlike others, they chose not to return to Jerusalem when the Babylonian reign of terror had ended. They decided to stay in the east and began to assimilate into the Persian culture.
This is where our story of today begins. Nehemiah has become so at home Persia that he has actually found employment in the high court of the Persian King. Nehemiah this Jewish man living in Persia, not only found employment in the high court of the King but was actually the King’s cup bearer. The cup bearer was the one who was literally in charge of the King's cup since death by poison was a popular form of assassination at the time. And so to be a cup bearer, one had to be one of the most trusted and highly valued people in the King’s inner circle.
One day, as Nehemiah was going about his duties in the court, his kinsmen Hanani approached him and told him that a delegation of Jews had come from Jerusalem and spoke of the “great trouble and shame” of the brethren there. There was division and discord among the people. And the people felt exposed and threatened by hostile neighboring kingdoms to the south.
When Nehemiah hears all that is going on in Jerusalem he is deeply troubled. Despite all of the years and the distance, he feels care and concern for the people. But it is hard for Nehemiah, for he has made a life for himself — a good life.
His people may be living with deep insecurity and want, but he is well off and secure. His people may be being scorned as nobodies in their own land, but he is well respected and trusted in the court of the Persian King. Why has this news come to him?
I can appreciate the mix of emotions with which Nehemiah struggles. Sometimes I find myself in a place of protective denial, that if I just don’t read the news then I will be freed from the struggle of wondering how I am to respond to it.
But instead of just shutting this news out and going on with his daily routine, Nehemiah takes his struggle to God. The text tells us that he prayed and fasted listening for what God would have him do.
I do not think that we individually are called to respond to all of the needs that we hear about. How could we? To do so would be to succumb to what Thomas Merton calls the “violence of activism” where we do so much that we end up being so frazzled and spent that we are not much use to anyone. But I do believe that there is a particular call for each of us. There is a place where the need of the world and our own passion intersects and it is to that place we are called.
There are some in this congregation whose passion intersects with issues of violence and lack of educational opportunity especially for urban youth. Do you feel that passion? Will you join them? There are some in this congregation whose passion intersects with the people with disabilities and the need to be seen not as “other” but as people deserving and seeking full inclusion in our communities. Do you feel that passion? Will you join them? .
For Nehemiah this place where the worlds’ need and his passion intersected was Jerusalem. He was moved by the plight of people which whom he discovered he felt kinship even across all this time and distance. And so Nehemiah goes to the King, and the King sees such sadness on Nehemiah’s face, sadness the King has never before seen. The King asks Nehemiah what is troubling him. Nehemiah then tells the King about all of the hardships that the people in Jerusalem are suffering. And the King, saw the suffering in Nehemiah and was moved and so when Nehemiah finished the King asked him, what is it that you would like?
Nehemiah knows. From his praying and fasting, his going to God, he knows what is the need on his heart. He feels a deep need to go to Judah and work to rebuild the city. And he goes on to ask that the King send him with letters to the governors of the region to make safe passage for him and for a letter to the keeper of the King's forest giving Nehemiah permission to take timber to make beams for the gates.
And so with the blessing and letters of the King, Nehemiah after years returns to his homeland, returns to a city, he himself had never seen.
And now it is night, Nehemiah approaches the once great city. He is on the back of a horse or mule perhaps and he wants to see for himself what has become of Jerusalem. You see he is not “Polly Annaish” about his hopes and dreams. He is a realist and wants to know the scope of what he faces. The city is in such ruin that the sure footed mule cannot even find safe footing so he leaves the animal and continues on foot. Picking his way in the half light of the moon. Running his fingers across the great stones that lie in heaps. Touching the hinges where the great gates once hung. It is a silent walk of mourning and a pilgrim’s walk of reimagining. By the time morning's dawn alights Nehemiah has circumnavigated the city and his own soul, he knows well the scope of what must be done and what he and the people are up against. But rekindled in him is also the memory of who the Jewish people are. God’s beloved. Called and blessed to be a light to all nations, not scared and crumbling, fighting among themselves and forgetting who and whose they are.
And when the sun has cleared the hills, he calls the people. I imagine his face glowing with the same light that shone on Moses' face when Moses came down Mt. Sinai after having received the covenant of God. There amidst the rubble, Nehemiah calls the people together and says “you see the trouble we are in, Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. For we are not alone, God is with us and we are not without resources.
Sometimes it takes someone with a vision to reawaken the passion that lies dormant on the people’s heart and realign it with the need that lies before them. For when those that gathered heard Nehemiah’s words and felt the warmth of the rising sun on their faces, they replied, “Let us start rebuilding!” and as another translation states, they “committed themselves to the common good.”
And they did. It was hard. They faced the scorn and threat of the War Lords in the surrounding region and more than once they were so scared and tired that they thought about stopping. But they didn’t. In fact, once when they learned of a plot to come and destroy all that had been rebuilt, the people themselves stood in the breach in the walls, becoming in their bodies the gate that had not yet been rebuild. They committed not just their labors but their lives to the preservation and thriving of the vision they held now together.
And Jerusalem was rebuilt. And the people re-gathered and the truth of God’s grace was rekindled, and the glory of the LORD shone through them.
What a story! A story from so long ago but surely a story for us now.
For we, like Nehemiah, are living in a time where much in our national life together has crumbled and lies in ruin. The Babylonians are gone but our people still feel under siege by economic, political, social uncertainty.
And I am convinced that we, like Nehemiah, have a role to play. Part of the purpose of the church is to call us as individuals to a life of faithful living, but the purpose of being church is also to speak with the voice of the prophets calling the world to faithful living, calling the people, as Nehemiah did to commit ourselves again to the common good.
I was reminded by one of you this week, that it was out of the Quaker and later Congregational Church that the call for the abolition of slavery first came. And Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, stood rooted in his faith as he called the country to full civil rights for all people.
In this our time of challenge and upheaval, I wonder how we like Nehemiah may wander through the rubble learning and seeing for ourselves what the needs really are.
I wonder what are the breaches in our walls, in the structures that frame, define and support our society, and how may we be called to stand in that breach?
And I wonder, how not only this church but people of faith across traditions may lead and inspire people to once again work for the common good.
Hear again, these words from Paul’s letter to the community at Philippi,
“The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation by prayer and petition, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds.
For whatever is right, whatever is admirable – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
In this time of upheaval and challenge, may our passion and the world’s needs intersect not just for ourselves but for the common good. AMEN
 Adapted from Howard Thurman's quote “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”