Building Community Together

Rev Sue preached this sermon on Sunday 23 January 2022. Here it is for you again:

The Bible can be read in many different ways. Today’s gospel, for instance would repay hours of study and meditation – there is so much to get out of it. But the Old Testament reading from the book of Nehemiah is a bit perplexing. Why were the people gathered to listen to the scriptures, and what made them weep? To make sense of it we need to know the story of Nehemiah. Here we have it in his own words.

I was born into the beautiful Persian city of Susa. The countryside there is fertile and fruit, vegetables and flowers all grow in abundance. The palace is breath-taking. It has magnificent marble pillars inlaid with precious stones and is furnished with luxurious hangings. But it was never my home. My parents were Jews. No one was ever unkind to us, and we prospered in the city, but we knew that our real home was Jerusalem, where our ancestors had lived. Some of our friends had gone there, now that we were allowed to settle there again, but we had a prosperous life, and we chose to stay.

I was really lucky. I was chosen to be a cup bearer to the king. The duties were not onerous. I would taste his wine to make sure it wasn’t poisoned and then present it to him. He treated me as a favoured servant. But it was a very risky role because a poor servant who offended the king might find himself in prison, or even beheaded. So it was with trepidation that one morning I decided not to put on a brave face but let the king see how unhappy I was.

My brother Hanani had recently visited Jerusalem and he reported back to the family that the walls were broken down. Robber bands and rival tribes made incursions that terrified the inhabitants. They took whatever they wanted. The people had lost their self-respect. Even the tomb of my ancestors was defaced by barbarians.

The king knew that I was never ill, so he concluded that some great sadness had befallen me. I told him the cause of my woe, and to my great relief he sympathised with me. I dared to push even further and asked for something far above my rank. Would he make me governor of Judah, and would he send me there with papers to requisition building materials, so that I could rebuild the city? God was truly with me that day, for the king looked with favour on me and gave me his permission.

The first task of course was to get my own people behind the project. I might be a Jew, but I was born and bred in Persia, and I had a foreign accent and strange clothes. At first, they treated me with suspicion. But I spoke to them of the future when we would have with the walls rebuilt. Jerusalem could once more be a prosperous city.  The people cheered and they volunteered for the arduous work of rebuilding the walls.

My second problem was the Samaritans. Always local rivals they had rejoiced in the downfall of the city. Now their leader Sanballat wanted things to remain as they were. He tried everything to undermine the project. He and his foreign friends mocked and tried to discourage the builders. He mustered a fighting force, so half the builders had to act as guards, slowing down the work. He sent false prophets to me to tell me that my life was threatened and to advise me to hide in the temple like a coward so that I would be discredited. But the people were behind me and exhausted though they were, they carried on. At last the walls were repaired and the doors fitted and our city was safe.

My next task was to establish justice. Over the years the city had been impoverished by the robber bands and the aggression from Samaria. The king had demanded taxes. People had been forced to mortgage their land or sell themselves into slavery. As always, there were those who took advantage, and there were those who profited. I put a stop to it. The law of God says that you must not prey on a fellow Jew or treat him as a slave. There must be an end to exploitation.

In all of this the prophet Ezra had been an inspiration and support. We called an assembly of all the people. He brought out scrolls containing the law of Moses and he read from them and explained them from dawn until noon. The people stood for all that time and listened. When Ezra had finished, he blessed the Lord and the people shouted Amen, raised their hands to the heavens and bowed down to the ground. Tears ran down their faces as they realised that God had been with them through all those years of exile, through the poverty and the disgrace. Far from abandoning them, the barren times were times of growth.  We said to the people, “Do not weep. go home. Rejoice. But do not forget the poor who have not enough to eat or wine to drink. Share with them. It is a holy day, and the joy of the Lord is your strength.

God is not just a Higher Power or Absolute Truth; God like us has feelings. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem he shared our humanity and in the clearest possible way showed us that our bodies and our emotions, not just our rational minds, are in the image of God. How do you think God actually feels towards us? After all, we do some terrible things. Does he look at us and pity us, in our stupidity and inability to make things better? Is he really impatient with us, angry for making such a mess of both our relationships and his creation, but he tolerates us because it would be such a waste to destroy us and start again? Does he love us, but roll his eyes, as we might at a toddler yet again throwing a tantrum? Or, just perhaps, does he not only love us, but like us too. Sometimes that can be hard to imagine, when we don’t like ourselves very much. Yet he feels joy in our presence, as we feel joy in his. He made us and pronounced us good, and he gave us the responsibility of genuine choice, the need to discover and test out, and the inevitability of making mistakes. We are not malfunctioning beings that needed a saviour to make us acceptable, but daring and creative people who get things wrong. He loved us enough to come to earth to show us how to do things better. We give him joy, and he laughs with pleasure when we learn and get things right and become the people we were created to be. The joy of the Lord is our strength.

Our strength makes him joyful. And that strength is found in community. The reading starts with words “all the people gathered together”. They worked together, they listened together, they wept together, and they worshipped the Lord together. And their governor, their priest and all their teachers together told them to go and celebrate, to party together, and to share their food and drink with those who were without. For there can be no true community if any are excluded.

We often try to counterfeit the gifts of God by settling for less, for the thing that is less costly, but also far less rewarding. One way we do this is to parody community by excluding other people. I’ve recently been watching Ridley Road, the utterly shocking portrayal of a neo-Nazi organisation in the early 1960’s. Although the series is fiction, the existence of the movement and the identity of its leader were historically accurate. Young men from borstals and orphanages were targeted by the party which channelled their rage and sense of grievance and deluded them that they were loved and cared for in an organisation motivated by a sense of superiority and a hatred for Jews and other minority groups. This is a shocking and stark portrait of exclusion at its worst, yet we see it around us in more subtle forms every day. Every racist joke, every homophobic slur, every demonising of asylum seekers gives a false sense of unity and undermines real community. We are all in it together, or it is not the work of God.

If you happen to look at the church website, you will see the new theme for 2022: Building Community Together. It’s not about building a community – a congregation-based focus for all that we do, or about building communities – participating in every separate organisation we belong to. It is about building community wherever we are and whoever we are with, including them in the bigger picture, forging links and building trust. It’s about unity, based on our faith that everyone is a beloved child of God and on our common humanity. It is about respecting the whole of creation so that every human being has the best chance to thrive in his or her own local community. And it is about starting at the most fundamental level with the relationships we have with our families, our friends, our neighbours and our congregation. They are the building blocks of a better future.

The joy of the Lord is our strength. May we go forward together to do his will.

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