The walls have been rebuilt, the city has been restored. It’s one of those holy moments where the workers can look around and see what they have done, and sit back and be proud. But sometimes, it’s easier to fix the structures. It’s easier to rebuild a building than it is to mend a broken heart. It’s easier to change the way that something looks than it is to fix a broken system and the way that it acts.
Nehemiah could see the brokenness of the walls but he couldn’t see the internal brokenness. And those wounds hurt even worse.
Once the people have assembled the walls, and repaired the gates, they begin to sort through the residences, and figure out which portions they want to claim as their own. They begin to mark off their territory, and they begin to realize that deep within them is a belief that they are better than so and so.
In the reality television show Last Comic Standing, comics would survive rounds of tryouts until the last twelve were brought together to live in a house together. Every week, the comics would have to battle each other, determined by each comic’s assessment “I know I’m funnier than…” They would be assessing their talents and their skills and determining that they were in fact more valuable than that person.
On a much deeper, more dangerous level, that’s the case for the Jews who now live in Jerusalem. Some of the families have been more prosperous; they have many children who need food and given the lack of farming that has happened while the city lay broken, there is not enough grain in their opinion. Others said that they had already mortgaged all of their property to get grain. Others still had sold off their own children to buy grain, from the Jews who had more than enough grain to go around.
And the only person who is willing to speak to the problem is Nehemiah. He is angry, and he goes after the leaders of the people. He challenges their system to charge interest, and he charges their use of slavery. The Jews had just bought back any of the Jews that non-Jews had bought, but now they were doing the same thing to their own.
Nehemiah can’t believe the irony of the situation. People buying other people’s children in exchange for food, but not just enemies or strangers, from their own neighbors! He commanded them to stop charging interest unfairly, and to make sure everyone had enough to eat, regardless of their ability to buy it. He told them they were supposed to care for their neighbors, and to live in fear of God’s judgment. He, in essence, told them to stop eating their own young.
While they were feeling oppressed from the outside, they had created oppression from the inside. They had made a space where people were unsafe from each other, and from themselves.
In Luke 10, Jesus is asked, “who is my neighbor?” It’s not because the person asking actually wants to know about treating other people better but because he wants to know what it takes to get into heaven. It’s the way that many of us operate, asking what’s the minimum line, the check box, the “i” that needs dotted, to make sure that we’ve meant the requirement.
And Jesus answers the man with a story, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, that ends with the a foreigner taking care of a stranger, and caring for him like he was family. That’s the kind of thing that Nehemiah knows is what the Israelites have been taught and heard about from the Torah, but it’s not how they were behaving.
Nehemiah knows that if his people aren’t behaving like they should be, then ultimately, they aren’t living into the lives that God wants for them. They are held down by their own fears, and expectations, and their own shortcomings. They aren’t living into the best of what they could be, but they’re instead falling into the kind of life that the people around them are living, the kinds of people we’ve seen Nehemiah battle in the last few weeks.
And Nehemiah, he dreams. He dreams of a place where his nation is healed, the walls of his city are restored, and the people’s hearts are restored. I reflected on this in the weeks after the celebration of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” and I recognize that Nehemiah and MLK were kindred souls. They both wanted people to recognize that their soul, their sense of self was in their position as children of God, as people made in the image of God, regardless of their position, their social upbringing, their race, their dress, their country of origin.
This is my adaptation of his speech, for today:
We cannot be satisfied with the status quo, where some have a bounty, an excess, and others have none. We must push forward and work until real change occurs, but we must never seek to answer this violence or any like it with more violence. We must not satisfy our desire for freedom by assuming that holding others down makes us more free. The freedom of others to love God, to worship as they choose, is bound up in our freedom to live and love as we choose.
We can’t be satisfied, as we see others suffer unfairly, in the court of law or in the court of public opinion. We can’t accept that children of any kind would be treated as less than human, whether it is in our low income communities or in slavery around the world. Some of you have experienced pain and persecution along the way; some of you still remember when you were “without,” when you struggled to understand what God wanted from you. ‘Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.’
I pray that you will leave this church today to go back to work, and school, and home, and community, knowing that you have the power to make real change occur. I hope that you will rally to the truth that while some of us are imprisoned to addiction, or debt, or a lack of enough, that none of us are truly free.
I have a dream that one day, God’s holy church will rise up and live out its creed to love others as God has first loved them. I have a dream that those who have grown up Christian will see the great joy of those who have just met Christ; that those who value the tradition will appreciate the new; that those who strive to push the boundaries will love the strong tradition that they come from; that the hearts of all people would be brought back to God; that those who have wished harm on others would now seek forgiveness; that we would recognize that this is God’s house not our house; that we would recognize that all we have is in fact God’s and not ours to cling to; that the love of Jesus Christ and the death and resurrection of God’s son was not for some or a few but for all.
I have a dream that one day, my children will live in a Church where all are welcome, whether they believe or not, because it is up to us to follow Jesus not to convict those who don’t know him. I have a dream that God’s kingdom will rise up in the world until no one can deny who is truly God.
I have a dream that this kingdom will rise up to throw down addiction, and inequality, and “isms.” I have a dream that God will so use his followers that all will see how much God loves them because He created them and made them in his own image. I have a dream that God will rise up a kingdom of people who see the value of each person for themselves, not as a means of getting ahead or profiting financially or otherwise.
This is our hope, that we will be used by God to make his kingdom a real, living, present thing on Earth.
‘Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring — when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children — black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics — will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”‘
When all are free, then we will be free indeed.
This sermon is for the 11 a.m. worship service on September 29 at Blandford United Methodist Church in Prince George, Va.