April 21 | Nehemiah’s Action

Texts: Nehemiah 5:1-13; Mark 3:1-6

By Joel Miller

One month from today, May 21, BREAD will rise and meet at the fairgrounds for our largest gathering of the year, the Nehemiah Action. 

We call this the Nehemiah Action because it is based on a story from the biblical book of Nehemiah.  Truth be told, I hadn’t really looked at this story until I had been through several annual BREAD cycles.  When I did, I was surprised and impressed at how closely what we do with BREAD is modeled after this 13 verse story.  So what I’d like to do is walk through this passage in Nehemiah chapter 5, and make some connections between it, almost 2500 years ago, and now, when we have a goal of turning out 2500 people to re-enact a contemporary version.  If you’d like to follow the text from Nehemiah, it is printed in your bulletin. 

A little bit of context: The story of Nehemiah takes place after a massively disruptive and traumatic period.  The people of Jerusalem and surrounding villages had seen their world collapse at the hands of the Babylonian armies – the holy temple, homes, the institutions of kingship and land useage – all destroyed, the people carried away in exile, with only the poor left behind.  But after several generations of exile, the Persians had conquered the Babylonians, and Cyrus the Great had declared for ethnic groups to return to their homelands to rebuild their cultures.

The story of Nehemiah is a story of that ongoing rebuilding process in and around Jerusalem, now about 100 years after Cyrus’s decree.  Like any rebuilding after loss and generational trauma, it was not always a smooth process.

Nehemiah 5:1 states, “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin.”  Now we have to pause right away.  “A great outcry of the people, and their wives” – who apparently weren’t part of “the people?”  That’s reason for its own outcry, but we’ll have to enter the story on its own terms.  The prevailing event of this first verse is “a great outcry.”  There is a collective raising of the voice, signaling something isn’t right.    

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the outcry has an essential place in the redemptive work of God.  Way back under Egyptian slavery, the very first action to counter Pharaoh is that the people groan and “cry out” under their oppression.  It is this crying out that activates the Lord, who “hears their groaning, and remembers the covenant with their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  It is the outcry, of those experiencing hardship that initiates the movement, activates new possibility.  The cry awakens the consciousness of those previously unaware of the pain, alerts even God to the injustice, and causes God and those with ears to hear to remember who they are and what they are to be about. 

There’s a specific cause of the outcry in the fifth chapter of Nehemiah.  There’s a famine.  There’ve been some poor harvests.  People need to feed their families, and those with means are requiring those in need to put up their fields and houses and vineyards and children in pledge for grain.  The only way to get food was to offer your dearest assets as collateral – your land, the labor of you and your children.  And once those are gone, you’re stuck in debt slavery.  And it is their own kin who are doing this.  The people say in verse 5: “we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves…we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”  A key purpose of the Torah was to keep this kind of thing from happening.  To not become like Pharaoh’s Egypt.  But it’s happening.  And the people – women and men – are crying out.

Outcry can awaken the consciousness of those within earshot of the pain.  It is the first signal that something is not right.  It can help us to remember our covenant and commitments.  It’s the first key moment of this story.  The outcry.

A second key moment is this appeal from the people in the first part of verse five: “Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children.”  This assertion of a shared humanity, a common value for life, is at the basis of morality.  “Our children are the same as their children.”  You can almost hear the chant “Black Lives Matter” as a direct descendant of this.  Or, “Refugees welcome.”  “Our children are the same as their children.”  Theologically, we also say that we are all created in the image of God, or that we are all children of God.  This moment is what makes the cry of the other a shared concern.  If we have the same flesh, and our children have the same value and aspirations, we are tied up in a common reality, and your cry becomes a part of my story.

What if we actually felt, and lived as if  “our children are the same as their children.”  Their children are the same as our children.  I think it would change everything, from schooling and health care access all the way up to foreign policy.   

There’s the outcry, and there’s the appeal that this affects all of us, adults and children.

Verse 6 is a pivotal part of the story.  Nehemiah says, “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints.”  This is the moment when the cry from the outside makes its way inside and lodges itself within the hearer.  If you hear the outcry, really hear it, you might get angry.  You might, like Nehemiah, get very angry. 

I don’t know when it was in life that I was introduced to the idea that anger can be a constructive motivating energy, but it has taken a long time for this to register.  I don’t particularly like being angry, and I just generally feel like a better person when I’m not angry.  I have even prided myself on being not angry.  The not-angry white guy.  Anger sometimes feels like a failure of will. 

The Hebrew language has a very physical/visceral way of depicting anger.  The literal translation for anger is to have burning nostrils.  It wouldn’t say “she was angry.”  It would say, “her nostrils were burning.”  Even God gets hot nostrils when God is angry.  Anger is hot, fiery, felt in the breath.    

Anger is a powerful force.  It can be destructive.  It can also be holy.  Mark chapter 3 is the only time in the gospels when it explicitly says that Jesus was angry.  Jesus is in the synagogue on a Sabbath and he brings forward a man with a withered hand.  And he asks everyone if it’s lawful to do good or to harm on the Sabbath.  And everyone is silent.  No one says anything.  Maybe no one wants to risk speaking up, or standing out. 

The only time in the gospels when it says that Jesus was angry is when people are offered an opportunity to do good, to speak up on behalf of a neighbor, and they are silent.  Mark says, “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved.”  How many paintings have you seen of an angry Jesus?  Not many.  Jesus proceeds to invite this man to stretch out his hand, which is restored.  Jesus gets hot nostrils and harnesses anger as an energy for healing. 

Jesus gets angry. Nehemiah gets very angry.  At BREAD house meetings in the fall we are asked the question, “What makes you angry?”  How we answer this question helps determine the area of focus for the coming year.  This year it’s affordable housing.  Hearing these stories draws me in to that hot creative energy of anger.  I am angry that out of state companies are buying up apartment buildings in Colombus, jacking up the rent and charging extra fees without taking good care of the buildings.  I am angry that property tax abatements for developments take money directly out of the pockets of our schools and social services.  I am angry that our housing authority has given control of the section 8 housing voucher program over to a private corporation – with profit motives, with horrible customer service at the end of an 800 number.  I’m trying to get better at getting angry in a Jesus kind of way.  A Nehemiah kind of way.

What makes you angry?

Nehemiah does something with his anger.  Something big, and, ultimately, constructive.  He does not hold his anger in, and does not try to deal with it as an individual.  Verse 7 says he called a great assembly. This great assembly includes the people affected by the problem, the ones who gave the initial cry, and the people with power to change the problem — the officials and, “the nobles.” 

Nehemiah has already lost his Mennonite cred by becoming very angry, but he goes a step further and speaks plainly in the face of conflict.  How unusual and refreshing to say it plain.  He tells the leaders directly: “The thing that you are doing is not good.”  This is the point in the program where I start looking down at the floor, or remember I need to check my phone for something.  But I’m learning there’s a difference between attacking a leader’s personal character, which this is not, and calling on someone to uphold their public duty to serve all people, which this is.  It’s a point where the tension that the people have been feeling in their lives is now made public, put out in the open.  You can feel the tension.

Nehemiah gives specific suggestions for how to address the problem: Verse 11: “Restore to them, this very day, their fields , their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.”  It’s a pretty direct and specific request, complete with a tight timeline.  This very day! 

The very first Nehemiah Action turns out to be successful.  In front of that great assembly, accountable to the people they’ve been entrusted to lead, the officials agree to these requests.  They listen, and change course.  They are restored to their higher calling.  Nehemiah goes one step further and ensures there will be proper follow up to see it all happens.  The whole assembly ends with a collective Amen and expressions of praise. 

And every Nehemiah Action since then has gone just as smooth and been just as successful.

We are hoping for as many of us as possible in May to represent our congregation at this year’s Nehemiah Action.  Are we willing to listen for the cry, wherever it comes from?  To nurture the kind of consciousness that acknowledges we are all one kindred and our children are of equal value?  And as you experience anger at whatever it may be, to do the difficult and necessary soul work that enables that nostril burning anger to be an energy that leads toward healing, in the spirit of Jesus, in the spirit of Nehemiah.  To find a great assembly that takes us out of isolation.  A group that sings and praises together no matter the outcome.  To see this kind of solidarity as a continuation of our faith in the God who delivers slaves out of bondage, in the Risen Christ who invites us out of our guarded silence.  To join in spirit and in body with the great cloud of witnesses dead and alive who witness to the divine reign of justice and peace that is already being realized among us. 

That is, at least, the vision and purpose behind the BREAD Nehemiah Action,  And this story in the book of Nehemiah is the model that guides it.