Nehemiah’s Action | April 30

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

These shirts are going to be great for BREAD gatherings and the softball team and Pride parade and other events, but my favorite part is that I can get away with wearing a tshirt to church once a year.  Very comfortable.

Tomorrow evening members of 40+ congregations across Franklin County will gather at the Celeste Center at the fairgrounds.  We are white, black, and brown;  Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, Unitarian Universalist.  We’ll be joined by public officials with whom BREAD has been in conversation over the last months, and in some cases years.  We’ll ask them to publicly commit to working with us to achieve some very specific solutions to problems we’ve been researching.  Such as: creating a municipal ID card for immigrants and homeless folks to better access city services; preferential contracts from the city for companies that employ workers with criminal records who otherwise find it nearly impossible to get a job, and implementing restorative practices in Columbus City Schools to reduce suspensions and the school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects people of color.

These are all big issues, each one, and I frequently wonder if BREAD bites off more than it can chew each year as we collectively decide on the next area in Franklin County we want to focus our energy and power.  But BREAD has a track record for getting things done.  We helped create a land bank that demolishes homes on abandoned properties.  We worked with the Mental Health board to open a clubhouse that creates community and opportunities for folks living with mental illnesses.  And members of this congregation were influential in helping create restorative justice circles as a way of diverting youth from the juvenile court system.

Since December I’ve been serving on the steering committee for the current campaign for restorative practices in the schools.  BREAD asks a lot of us, and I’ve found it at times exhausting and exasperating, but overall, overall to be one of the best ways we have available to us, Columbus Mennonite Church, to be in solidarity with people across the county most affected by these problems, and to affect systemic change, as slow and incremental as it may be.

This big public gathering tomorrow is called the Nehemiah Action.  It’s called the Nehemiah Action because it is modeled after the narrative of Nehemiah chapter five in the Hebrew Scriptures, a common text for Jews and Christians.  So I’d like to walk through that passage together to see what it has to say and how this applies to the work of doing justice.

The passage is printed on the back of the bulletin insert, but first let me just set it up a bit with the historical context.

Painting with very broad strokes here: The Hebrews , the children of Israel, were formed as a people through enslavement under Pharaoh in Egypt.  Moses emerges as a leader who has an encounter with the god Yahweh.  Yahweh delivers the Hebrews out of Egypt, out of slavery, and through Moses gives the people the Torah, the law, the teaching.  And the aim of the Torah is the creation of a people who live under the laws of justice and love of neighbor as this kind of alternative society to the ways of Pharaoh.  The Israelites settle in the land of Canaan, they have judges and prophets and kings who lead them, they build a temple to Yahweh, but after about 400 years of kingship the holy city, Jerusalem, is conquered by the Babylonian empire under the rule of Mr. Nebuchadnezzar.  The temple is destroyed, and the people are carried away in exile, with only the poor left behind to work the land.  50-60 years later Babylon is conquered by the Persians, under the rule of Cyrus the Great.  The new Persian policy, by decree, is to encourage all these different ethnic groups under its rule to establish their own religious practices and local governance in their homelands.  So over the following decades many of the Jews, as they’re starting to be called, return to the area around Jerusalem.  They rebuild the temple, and they rebuild the protective wall around the city.  Nehemiah comes on the scene as a governor of Judea about 100 years after Cyrus’ initial decree.  We’re in the mid 400’s before Christ.

That’s the back drop of Nehemiah chapter 5.  There’s a rebuilding process going on after a massively disruptive and traumatic period.

Nehemiah 5:1 states, “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin.”  Let’s pause here right away, and not get too hung up on the sexist language of “the people and their wives,” who apparently weren’t a part of “the people.”  That’s reason for its own outcry, but that’s how it was…The prevailing event of this first verse is “a great outcry.”  There is a crying out going on, a collective raising of the voice, signaling something aint 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 Yahweh, who “hears their groaning, and remembers the covenant with their ancestors, Abraham and Sara; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob, and his collection of wives and reproductive partners.  It is the cry, 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 tuned in to the spirit of God to remember who they are and what they are to be about.

There’s a specific cause of the outcry in this chapter.  There’ve been some poor harvests, and 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.  Aaiigghhh.  We’re 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.

Believing this is a vulnerable way to live, and can become overwhelming without being grounded in the Source of Being and goodness and life which we call God.

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

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 still goes against just about all of my peaceful Mennonite-ness.  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.

Hebrew is such a visceral language.  The literal translation for anger is usually to have burning nostrils.  They don’t say “she was angry.”  They 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.  We included the Mark 3 reading today because it’s 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 because there were strict laws about what could and could not be done on the Sabbath.  The only time in the gospels when it says that Jesus was angry is when people are offered an opportunity to do good, 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 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.  I’m trying to get better at getting angry in a Jesus kind of way.

What makes you angry?

Nehemiah does something with his anger.  Something big, and, ultimately, healing.  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 terrifyingly strange.  He tells the leaders “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 someone’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 tomorrow evening to represent Columbus Mennonite, but whether you come or not, this story has something to say.  Are we willing, are you 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, and not destruction.  To find a great assembly that takes you out of isolation.  A group that sings and praises together no matter the outcome.  To see this kind of solidarity as a continuation of your faith in the God who delivers slaves out of bondage, in the 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.