April 24, 2022
For our second reading this morning, we turn to the book of Nehemiah… a book we don’t hear from often. And what you’ll notice immediately is that this reading is very different from Meg’s reading from the Psalms… that was a more Earth Care expected scripture passage. This passage from Nehemiah has nothing to do with the glories of nature, but is about the rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem after the return from the Babylonian captivity. Jerusalem is still so much rubble after Babylon came through some 60 years or so earlier. Listen as God speaks to you.
I’m sure it was purely by coincidence that this week while I was having lunch at one of my weekly haunts… a group of men came in and sat at the table next to me. A couple of them had on t-shirts from a local church… I won’t tell you which one… that identified them as “Nehemiah’s Builders”… surely a name chosen in good faith… a name that likely described what I surmised was probably a men’s handyman ministry or something like that… or maybe they did some larger building projects to help folks out. I don’t doubt that their group did good for someone somewhere.
But me being me… and since I already had a piece of my brain thinking about today’s sermon… I couldn’t help but want to tell them… I didn’t, of course because there was six of them and only one of me… but I wanted to say to them… “You know… Nehemiah… if you zoom out a bit… Nehemiah wasn’t a great hero of scripture.” I mean… let’s be clear. He’s not a villain. And at the time… as our reading put it… his rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem was done because he felt that this is what God’s purpose for him was… and that it would benefit the common good. Nehemiah had good intentions… but again… if you zoom out a bit… his good intentions nor what he accomplishes makes him a hero of scripture. Nehemiah teaches us a different lesson today.
So… let’s begin to break this down a bit so everyone can see the zoom out. Let me give you once again the historical context so that we’re all on the same page. This is a story that you all should know pretty well by now… how at one point in the history of the story of the Old Testament… Babylon was the great empire of the time… and the forces of Babylon came and laid siege to Jerusalem. The people of Jerusalem… a city that had never been conquered before… mostly because of the strength of the walls around the city… and the belief that because the Temple of God lay behind those walls those walls would never fall… knew that the Babylonians would also fail in their attempt to conquer Jerusalem. But the Babylonians were not like anything they had seen before. The Babylonians were not like the powers of the past that had gone up against the walls of Jerusalem. And the Babylonian forces broke through the walls… ransacked Jerusalem… burned the Temple to the ground… and took the people away into captivity for the next 60 years or so. Which… instead of destroying the people and their identity and their faith… instead this period of time… that became known as the Babylonian captivity… became a time of great theological creativity and spiritual renewal that was meant to carry them into this new day. The Jewish faith… instead of disappearing into history… looked inward and grew stronger through change… through looking at the world around them, and what had happened to them, and their relationship with God and asking what it all meant for today… what were their timeless core principles that had come to them through the old stories and God’s prophets… and how… with these core principles… were they going to go forward in the new world that they found themselves in… rather than the world of the past, or the world that ought to be but wasn’t. Got to watch out for that world that ought to be… it will trip us up every time because usually it’s us defining what ought to be… and there’s always a good measure of sin mixed into that definition.
So… the people who returned to Jerusalem some sixty years after the walls failed were not the same people. Their faith had changed. The way they understood the world around them had changed. What they saw as their place and their purpose in the world had changed. This is where all those visions from Isaiah come into play… “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them” That’s the spiritual guiding vision.
Then came Nehemiah. And this is what I think is the lesson for us this morning. Nehemiah decided that they needed to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. God wanted him to rebuild the walls. The people could once again put their hope in the walls… like they had done before Babylon. The book of Ezra… the companion book to Nehemiah… in the book of Ezra the move there is to rebuild the Temple. So, between the two of them… we rebuild the walls and the Temple… and… and… this is the point… and go back and reconstruct what once was… instead of moving forward into the visions given to Isaiah. I’m sure the nostalgic belief in the Jerusalem of old was very powerful… and compelling… and hard to resist… the forever city rising again from the rubble with its mighty walls and the Temple of God within to keep them safe from harm.
How interesting that part of the theological renewal and change that Isaiah spoke about was about the people going out into the world to spread the good news of God… to be a light for the world… to bring to the world God’s justice and ways. A world transformed so that walls were no longer needed because hearts had changed and swords had been beaten into plowshares. The spirit that came out from the faith of the Babylonian captivity was not about a people kept safe by protective walls keeping them in and others out. But that’s the spirit of Ezra and Nehemiah… if you just zoom out a bit.
Rebuild the walls… put our trust in the things of the past… the things of the past which… if we can allow some honesty to come through the nostalgia… had failed them. Babylon had not been like the previous empires. It was stronger… more powerful. Walled cities would have been an adequate defense and strategy at one time against other armies… but not Babylon. The world had changed. To do what had worked before was foolishness because all you were doing was reentering a failed cycle of events. Think about this. When Nehemiah starts rebuilding the walls… Babylon was gone… and now Persia was the powerful empire of the world. What kind of strength and power must have Persia wielded if they managed to conquer Babylon? Would the new walls now keep Jerusalem safe from Persia, should Persia turn on them? Would the new walls keep them safe from the next empire to come along after Persia… the next empire that defeated Persia? Or the empire after that? Hint from history… they wouldn’t. The walls never lift the people up… or keep them safe.
But their faith had grown in a different direction than the wall. The good news of God… the good news of God could… perhaps… change the heart of people. The good news of God could… perhaps… make walls obsolete as new ways for the world could take hold. I always felt that that was what Jesus meant whenever he talked about faith moving mountains… about the unrealized potential of faith to actually change the world if… if we truly believed… if we truly believed and didn’t hedge our bets by building the same old walls again and again… even as they get knocked down and broken through again and again… even as they prove again and again not to work as we keep believing they will… this time… this time… this time will be different. And then it isn’t. We say the words of faith and we actively rebuild walls.
And so… what does all this have to do with Earth Care today? The earth is changing. The storms of today are bigger and stronger. Weather patterns are overwhelming the metaphorical walls of the past… and… after disaster strikes… we rebuild and rebuild and rebuild. I wonder how much of our resources have gone into rebuilding after tornadoes, and hurricanes, and floods and severe drought and rising ocean levels? And I also wonder when… when does the time come when we begin to balance rebuilding the old with investing in the change that needs to come to meet this moment in time? Is it only once we’re in calamity that we can pull together? Truly I think this may be one of those times when I might want to break away from my Presbyterian habit of balance and just rebuild less. Maybe embrace that Presbyterian principle of innovation and build for the day to come instead of following the pull of nostalgia for a yesterday that doesn’t exist anymore. This may be the time I want to embrace fully the theology of resurrection and pattern my work on the understanding that God makes all things new… that from death new life comes forward in resurrection. New life that differs from the old. Like those in the time of Nehemiah… the theology is already there for us to embrace. The Spirit of God clearly speaks. We are to be people of resurrection… not builders of walls. But it is hard to both hear and follow at the same time.
We build things… but faith is what brings us together to work for one another… to increase our common social capital when we feel strained and overwhelmed… when we feel we must fight for what is mine and take what is yours… and pull in and build the old walls back. The old walls that socially divide… that we’re rebuilding again… pitting us against one another… this is not the Spirit we’re called to follow after Easter… any more than it was the Spirit the people were called to follow after the Babylonian captivity.
No matter how we slice it up… there is still just this one planet. There is still just one humanity. And there is still just the one God who still calls us to connection and mutual upbuilding for all… through love. Amen.