Ezra and Nehemiah were never friends. They came back to Jerusalem under separate steam when the Persians conquered the Babylonians and the people of Israel were allowed to return to their old home. It’s not at all clear that they ever knew each other. And they probably thought that their work had nothing to do with the other’s. Nehemiah’s work was to rebuild, and Ezra’s work was to remember. And Nehemiah’s mother always thought that her son got the short end of the stick - what with second billing in the Bible: Ezra… and Nehemiah. Nehemiah was the politician, the leader, the do-er of things. His job was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed during the Babylonian occupation
Rebuilding Jerusalem is a noble, if a thankless, job. It is always about more than meets the eye – for Jerusalem is God’s own city. And when Nehemiah went back to rebuild its walls, he also went to prepare the city for the return of God’s people to their home, to his home. And he accomplished his mission in 52 days – that’s how long Scripture tells us it took Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. An impressive accomplishment.
It must have been hard to move back to the city after 60 or 70 years of exile. The names of the streets had been changed. None of the same old places were still there – so much had been destroyed. The city was an empty, burned-out shell. It was impossible to find a decent bagel. You move back to Jerusalem, but you never really lived there before – your grandparents did. But who wants to pick up where his grandparents left off? You’d gotten used to life in Babylon. Maybe you’d met a nice girl there, a local girl. Your grandparents told the stories of deportation, and it was horrible, yes. But they’d been tough old birds. They made the best of it, and made a life in Babylon, in what was, after all, a pretty amazing city. Yes, it was a hardship to be driven from one end of the Fertile Crescent to the other, but moving back would be no picnic either.
And move back to what? Jerusalem was no Babylon. It had fallen apart at the hands of various marauders. Was there work there? Who knew? But there was the Temple to consider. That’s what Papa always said. The Temple, the Temple, the Temple. God was in Jerusalem. Not that God wasn’t with them in Babylon – but he wasn’t at home there. “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?” Papa asked, as if the answer was self-evident.
So when Cyrus the Great invaded and routed the Babylonians there was cause for rejoicing. Cyrus decreed that the Jews were free to go back, free to rebuild their old city, and its famous Temple. And Nehemiah was a talented, capable man. 52 days – he was proud of that. 52 days to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. But now Jerusalem was like a ghost town. Walls, yes, but what about the rest of it? What about its soul?
Sixty years doesn’t seem like such a long time – only a couple of generations or so. But you can forget a lot in sixty years. Things that had seemed so important in Jerusalem faded from memory in Babylon, without the shadow of the Temple to protect their memory. As Israel was forced to wander away from Jerusalem, their minds and their hearts wandered too. And it’s not like wandering hadn’t been a part of the Jews’ story. Didn’t Abraham and Sarah wander? Didn’t Moses wander? Doesn’t the Bible tell us that sometimes God tells people to get up and go – and he doesn’t always tell you where you are going. And you pack things when you leave that maybe you don’t unpack right away when you get wherever you are going – wherever God is leading you.
Does God’s law move with you when you are driven out of God’s own city and carried into exile, where you must – under pain of real punishment – learn to follow the new laws? You couldn’t bring one set of dishes with you, let along two – keeping kosher was not so important as keeping alive. So you adapted, you followed local customs – what choice did you have? And if you forgot the details, you could be forgiven, couldn’t you? God understood, didn’t he?
But Ezra’s job was to remember. The boxes with the sacred scrolls that others left packed-up in Babylon had all been carefully un-packed in Ezra’s house. These he studied, as if by remembering the law he could remember Jerusalem – even though that city was the vaguest memory to him. But remembering was his job as a priest.
Remembering is a harder job than you think. Not a lot of glamour in remembering – even less so in reminding others, when the time comes, of lessons that had been easy to forget.
Ezra re-packed his scrolls, when he journeyed back to Jerusalem. He wrapped them carefully in their embroidered covers, and tied them with silken cords, and placed them in their boxes to be transported back to Jerusalem, whence they had come, those generations ago. For what did the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem stand for if not the call to remembrance? Why had the walls been rebuilt if not to define again the boundaries of God’s own city, wherein God’s law must be remembered. Nehemiah did his job; Ezra must do his, too, standing on a platform in the square by the Water Gate, unfurling the words of the law for the people to hear and remember. This was coming home. And soon there would be the Temple again, built again from the force of memory – the memory that this is God’s house, God’s home.
They say that everything is cyclical, and maybe that’s true. There is a cycle in the life of faith that seems to require regular rebuilding and remembering. And although these seem like different kinds of work – as they seemed to be for Ezra and Nehemiah – they are part of the same process. For, if Jerusalem is easily ruined, and if God’s Temple is easily torn down, then what else is safe? Nothing. And being a part of the community of faith, being part of the chosen people, doesn’t guarantee you much – except that probably at some point you will have to rebuild and remember.
There was a time when the Episcopal Church was called the Republican Party at prayer. Those were the days! In those days, we sometimes thought like a party that assumed we would enjoy a permanent place of privilege. If George Washington had been an Episcopalian, how could anything ever go wrong? Nothing would ever have to be rebuilt or remembered!
But it seems that our walls do crumble, and our communities do forget, and I could take you on a tour of Episcopal churches that are hardly more than empty shells, and where the Word of God, if it is ever read, rings hollow against the abandoned or nearly abandoned stone walls.
Has the church been driven in to exile? If so, where has she gone, and when will she return?
Whatever exile the church is enduring is nothing compared to the exile so many people feel in their hearts – where they know God is supposed to dwell. Many, many people of faith, however, feel as though they have been somehow set adrift, wandering from one exile to another, wondering why God is so hard to find, why his transforming work can be so little in evidence.
We live in a world of spiritual exile, anxiety, and fear. How can we sing the Lord’s song in so strange a land? And what can we do but learn to adapt, to get along, following whatever rules seem to govern the world in which we live? After all, Babylon is a very handsome city, not a bad place to live, when you get right down to it. And we suffer from a great misfortune: there is no edict ordering us home, no king sending us back whence we came. No benevolent power is pushing us back toward a holy city. We cannot even be sure where the walls are that we should be rebuilding, or what the laws are that we should be reading in the square until the remembrance of it brings us to tears.
But Jesus comes among us. Something awakens when he walks in.
There is a scroll – we hardly even know which one it is (ours are still packed up in our boxes). But he knows. Deliberately he opens the scroll to the place he wants. He remembers. And now he remembers for us:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year
of the Lord's favor."
We have to remember and rebuild. These things are cyclical. And although they seem like different kinds of work, they are part of the same process: rebuilding and remembering.
Are you poor?
Are you a prisoner of something, someone?
Have you lost your sight?
Are you oppressed and unable to break free?
You are like a holy city, whose walls have crumbled, and whose laws have been forgotten. We are all like this. If Jerusalem can crumble, so can we.
You need to remember and rebuild
There is always the Temple to consider - the Temple, the Temple, the Temple – which God has now constructed in your heart. Within your very body, he has made a Temple for his Holy Spirit. Remember and rebuild.
Do not make the mistake of dismissing the work of Ezra and Nehemiah as boring, ancient history. Everything is cyclical, and they were doing this work back when it was seriously hard to do: rebuilding and remembering.
Are you poor, a prisoner, blind, oppressed? Do you suspect that time has already passed you by, and you have not much hope?
Can you hear the voice of the One who is reading from the scroll? It sounds like hammers repairing stone walls, to me.
Can you hear the law of God’s love being proclaimed somewhere in the square? Do you remember now? Do you feel like you can be rebuilt?
Rejoice and do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!
Rejoice! Rebuild! Remember!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
27 January 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia