Hearing Deuteronomy

Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-12, Deuteronomy 5:6-21

In our reading, we see that the people spent all morning hearing the Torah. The passage tells us that it was read from dawn until noon — a period of time that is roughly six hours. The passage also tells us that it was read with commentary so that the people might understand what was being read.

It is somewhat overwhelming to think about what they might have heard in this reading. Earlier I read what is called the Ten Commandments. I read it because for many people, it is the core of the Torah. Last week, I told you that my core of Torah is Genesis 1:27, where we learn that Humanity is created in God’s image. When Jesus was asked: “what is the greatest commandment?”, He answered: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind — and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Looking into what this morning must be like, I first checked to see how long it would take to read through the first five books of the Bible — to read from: “In the beginning God Created the heavens and the earth” until you reach the final words of Deuteronomy:

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:10-12 NET)

When I checked, I saw that it would take 16 hours to read this entire section. Considering that not only was the Law of Moses read, but it was also explained so that the people could understand it, clearly only a subsection was read. I am still left to guess which subsection, and what would the people have taken away — but I do have a guess.

I think, most likely, Ezra’s reading is what we call Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy only takes a little under 3 hours to read, which would have given an equal amount of time for commentary and teaching. Genesis and Exodus are largely narrative, Leviticus is largely directed at the priests and Levites. Numbers gives the result of three censuses. Deuteronomy is the best book for telling the general population what it means to follow God’s law. If I were to plan this 6 hour event, I would use the narrative in Genesis and Exodus to explain the references in Deuteronomy, but Deuteronomy would be the passage that was read — the rest would be a resource.

Now that I made a guess about what might have been read — I can tell you what comes out when I listen to Deuteronomy: What I hear as a continuing refrain is the words — “Remember when you were slaves in Egypt,” or in other cases “Remember when you were strangers in Egypt.” I would like to read a number of these to you so you can hear some of what I heard.

I will start with Deuteronomy 5 — the Ten Commandments. One of the laws was: “Remember the Sabbath”, and it goes on to say that foreigners are to be given a Sabbath as well as everybody else, slaves are to be given the Sabbath as well as the free. The reason given, if you recall is: `Remember you were a slave in Egypt.” Rest is not a religious obligation, it is a physiological need — and the law demands that everybody be given this. Nobody is to be so helpless that they lose the right to rest.

Deuteronomy 10:17-22 reads:

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who is unbiased and takes no bribe, 18 who justly treats the orphan and widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothing. 19 So you must love the resident foreigner because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. 20 Revere the Lord your God, serve him, be loyal to him and take oaths only in his name. 21 He is the one you should praise; he is your God, the one who has done these great and awesome things for you that you have seen. 22 When your ancestors went down to Egypt, they numbered only seventy, but now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of the sky. (NET)

When the people of Israel first went to Egypt, they were economic refugees. Jacob, his children, grandchildren and their families were invited to settle in Goshen by the Pharaoh. Egypt treated Jacob and his family with every kindness, supplying them with food when they needed food and offering them ample and good land to graze their livestock. Deuteronomy reminds the people of Israel that they were once foreigners in a strange land, and their survival as a people was dependent upon the kindness of Egypt — and, when they needed it they received this kindness. In other parts of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are told never to hate the Egyptian, out of memory of this act of kindness.

In Deuteronomy 15, we learn that after a period of seven years, slaves are to be emancipated, and when they are emancipated they are to be supplied generously from the wealth of the master. The reason for this is that the people are to remember when they were slaves in Egypt. The descendants of Jacob eventually became slaves to the Egyptians, and this was a generational slavery, with no hope of escape. It took an act of God to release those enslaved by the Egyptians — so there is a call to remember this, and have compassion.

Deuteronomy 24 again reminds the people of Israel that they were once slaves in Egypt. They are commanded to remember this whenever a foreigner or widow seeks justice. They are also told to remember this if a widow ever needs a loan — “Do not take a widow’s garment as security for a loan” is the exact words of Deuteronomy 24:17. It goes on to command not carefully harvesting everything that is grown, but to leave something in the fields and vineyards for landless gleaners — saying that this is for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner — the reason being again: “Remember when you were slaves in Egypt.”

Remember when you were in Egypt is a reoccurring phrase in Deuteronomy. I only gave a few examples; but the point is that when I listen, I hear again and again, remember when you were in Egypt. Every Sabbath is a memory that we need rest, and slaves were not given rest,therefor we should behave differently. Every Passover is a memory that the people were once slaves, every feast of Booths is a memory that they wondered in the wilderness as a landless people for 40 years after they escaped slavery.

Remembering where we came from, and remembering what our ancestors faced is very important. Every festival is a memory, when a justification is given for a law, it is a memory. Deuteronomy is a system of law that calls for empathy. Remember when your ancestors faced famine, and risked being wiped out — remember, somebody showed mercy on them; be merciful in the same way. Remember when your ancestors were powerless, and somebody took advantage of them? Don’t take advantage of the powerless — treat them better than your ancestors were treated. In Deuteronomy, justice is about treating the poor, the landless, and the powerless with empathy. Deuteronomy is about remembering the history of Israel, and seeing what their ancestors overcame whenever we see somebody struggling in life.

When Ezra read the law, the law reminded the people of their common story, and it reminded them that the had a common experience that brings them to compassion. They were taught a sense of justice that is defined by compassion and mercy; and always remembering that we come from a long line of people who needed compassion — if they had not received it, perhaps we would not even have been born. We also come from a long line of people who have been oppressed — in honor of those ancestors, we should not oppress others. The lesson of the Torah is simple; it is the lesson we call the golden rule, that we do to others as we would have them do to us; and of course its corollary — that we not do to them what we would not want done to us.

Isaiah 31: Do not put your faith in Egypt

Reading: Isaiah 31

Last week, I spoke about Nehemiah’s work to rebuild Jerusalem. Today in Sunday School, we are still talking about Nehemiah. Today I choose to remind everybody one of the things that brought the fall of Jerusalem. Some of the later kings such as Hezekiah worked to turn the nation back to God, but when it came to security, they believed in foreign armies. The best of the kings, Josiah, failed in this and his attempt to play international war politics likely hastened Nebuchadnezzar’s armies burning Jerusalem.

I read this, because I feel that we are in a similar position. I believe that many in the church have been trying to make alliances with the world, and sometimes these have been to our own destruction. I have something that I must say and I cannot say it without talking about politics. Do not take anything I say as an endorsement of a candidate. Not only does the Johnson amendment say that I cannot, but I would not want to even if I could. I don’t believe we can find salvation in government, I believe Salvation is God’s domain. I am also perfectly aware that if I told you how to vote, you’d roll your eyes and make up your own mind. Anyways, I’m afraid that no matter how I vote, I’m going to feel quite dirty.

You see, my faith teaches me that Humanity, both men and women, is created in God’s image. I believe that the way we speak and act towards others either honors or dishonors God’s image. If you want to know how important images are, think about how much anger there is when somebody burns a flag in protest. Think about how offended we are when somebody vandalizes a cross. If we truly believed, as scripture teaches in both the Old and New Testaments, that humans are the Image of God, we would be just as offended when someone is dehumanized as when somebody burns a flag. This understanding shapes my personal sense of morality and my political views. As you might guess, I have much to be offended over. I refuse to argue about which politician is less offensive. To endorse a politician would be to compromise one of my core beliefs. Anything I might say against one is not intended to excuse the other.

I am, like everybody, a product of my background. My mom’s family were democrats, my dad’s family were Republicans. My dad’s family had been republicans since about the time of Lincoln. Many of my heroes were the people were the abolitionist voices of the early Republican party such as the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and the former slave Fredric Douglas. I think that some of the greatest advancements in human rights were the civil war amendments, which gave full rights to citizenship to the stateless people living in the borders of the US: At that point, the displaced Native Americans and the freed slaves, and the children of the freed slaves were all stateless people without the rights of a citizen. I feel that the 19th amendment, granting the same rights to women that men have such as participating in elections was equally important. These amendments are the successes of the Republican party. I am proud of these successes.

I don’t remember when Jimmy Carter was president — I do know I deeply respect him. I was born the year Jerry Falwell became politically active. I grew up with Christian media. I’ve listened to Christian radio and when I followed news, I paid attention to the Christian commentary. I grew up in Kansas District 1, where democrats do not bother to nominate a candidate. Kansas is a closed primary state, meaning only Republicans get to vote in a meaningful election if they live in the Western half of Kansas; this means my mom eventually joined the Republican party and got a vote. Needless to say, I was pretty embedded.

In the 2000 election season, I became disillusioned with the religious right. That year, I listened to Christian Radio and followed some other sources. I listened to the issues that were important to Christians; and, having a pretty good idea what scripture said and what I believed, I came to wonder if there were not some compromises being made. I watched the election on TV, and listened to the Christian radio commentary the day after the election. I heard the names listed, and whether it was a victory for God, or where God’s side was defeated. I noticed God’s side seemed to be a party, and it had nothing to do whether the person elected was of good Christian character or worldly. I began to suspect that the religious right was being used by politicians and then ignored. In 2000, the whole idea that Christians had a real influence in making our government had dissolved, because the people trying to promote Christian influence were promoting party above character to Christians everywhere. It was like they really believed that God didn’t know what God thought this year until the Republican party platform came out.
Since 2000, my view of the culture war has been that it is the wrong fight. Both of our political parties are, ultimately, secular. They are both part of the world. As much as I would like everybody to see how sacred human life is, no law will make this happen. As much as I’d like to see justice in the world, no law will cause people to seek justice. Laws, at most, cause people to avoid punishment. The culture war is unwinable by the use of government. I’ve known this for 16 years now.

We’ve seen the walls we built crumble, our churches are empty, and when people outside the church talk about what Christians believe, they make a list of political positions, completely missing the gospel. Jerusalem is burning the temple is in ruins, and the wall has fallen down. For 16 years, I feel like I’ve watched the church crumble, while it’s spokesmen tried to sell a part of the world as part of the church. I’ve watched more and more compromises, to the point that you can be accused of being on the wrong side if you quote the wrong scripture. When we put what is politically convenient before what scripture teaches, our walls have crumbled. The Babylonians have come because we put our faith in outside chariots. I see my Jerusalem burning.

Now things are more disturbing than ever. As you cannot possibly have missed, one of the candidates said some very unfortunate things in interviews held before he considered running for president. Now, these unfortunate things are not news; he says unfortunate and vulgar things on a very regular basis; what came out of his mouth was a very real discussion during the nomination process. The party, apparently with the support of the religious right, minus Max Lucado and Russell Moore, was able to put up with vulgarity and support his nomination.

The interviews that have been released have a presidential candidate bragging that he can commit sexual assault because he is famous. He brags in a way that suggests he does so whenever he likes. Old interviews also have him saying that he walks into the dressing room of beauty pageants, because he can. I will not quote, and I do not want to go into detail because bluntly, I feel like we should have known what we were getting. I consider a political party to be part of the world, and I take no religious offense when the world acts like the world. In this case, I leave judgment to the courts.

There is a place where I step in and make my judgment. I might not be a national voice but there are people who call me pastor. My realm is the church. I don’t care who gets elected, I do care about destroying the reputation of Christianity. I do not stand accusing a man who condemns himself, but those who defend what he has claimed to do. The public Christians, who spoke to my younger self about wanting a more Christian America, and leaders who would be good for our society are now saying things such as bragging about sexual assault is no big deal, simply macho talk. The worst I’ve heard is one who actually said that groping a woman without her consent is not sexual assault. Unfortunately, those who listen to Christian talk radio or watch Christian television are hearing our moral authorities telling us that this is no big deal. The spokesmen for the church cannot become rape-apologist. There is no prize worth such compromise.

I know one of the biggest reasons that people jump to defend the nominee is fear. There is a strong sense that we are less secure than we once were. Statistics tell us that most of this is a matter of perception. Before 1994, communities were isolated by geography. It was unusual that what happened in one city would be news in another. Today, if four people are shot in Italy, it is news here in Indiana. I have Facebook friends that I keep up with in China, Russia, Denmark and South Africa. I am as likely to get my news about the United States from the BBC as I am from CBS. The world is so connected that my international friends know when a tornado hits within 100 miles of where I live; even if I never mentioned the weather. Violent crime is less common than it was 30 years ago, but due to the information revolution the entire world is now our community.

We do however have a safety issue that is not just perception. Our government estimates that about 1 out of 5 women have been sexually assaulted. We now have people who are seen as moral leaders, people who are known to support family values and strive to maintain an America that is a good nation to raise children saying that bragging about groping women without permission is simply macho talk. I’ve heard one go so far as to say that groping really isn’t so bad. One out of five women have been sexually assaulted, and people are so desperate to get a candidate into office that they deny sexual assault is a bad thing. The church can survive Nero, and the worst persecution the world can offer; but if those who are seen as God’s prophets become rape-apologists because that is compromise they have to pay for a little political influence they do cause God’s name to be blasphemed. They are blaspheming God’s name themselves.

Again, I endorse no-one. Vote your conscience. Vote issues if you cannot vote for a person. No matter who you support, don’t be a rape-apologist. Some of the women you know have been assaulted. One fifth of American women is over 31 million people. If we marginalize those who have suffered violence at the hands of the powerful, in order to defend the powerful, we are not acting like the church, but quite the opposite. No matter who you want to win, it is not worth throwing a large group of people under the bus for a Pyrrhic victory.

We as Christians need to consider how we can become sensitive to those who’s wounds have been freshly opened by truly evil rhetoric. When we speak, we must remember some of the people who hear us have deep pain in their lives. If one must choose between an election, and the integrity of the church, the choice must be the church. When we speak, we must be careful to speak with grace. We must remember that words can hurt. I do indeed feel that the church is under attack. I feel Jerusalem has been set on fire. I regret that those burning our great city are not seen as invaders, but it is those claiming to speak for God.

Nehemiah 4:1-12: Facing Opposition

Reading: Nehemiah 4:1-12

Nehemiah was a reformer — and, one thing reformers have in common is that they face opposition. Last week, I mentioned that systems protect themselves, people who have an advantage do not want change, and even those who are at a disadvantage fear change. There is a saying: “Better the devil you know.” that applies.

After Nehemiah explored Jerusalem and announced his presence. When the process of rebuilding started, the neighbors to the north immediately started a campaign of opposition, including harassing the workers. You might remember, I have some sympathy for the Samaritans. I think that they had a valid grievance due to how the governors behaved in the time of their grandparents; however I don’t think Nehemiah was personally responsible — he merely had to deal with the situation he walked into.

In order to know what Samaria had to protect, we need to consider the situation. Last week, we learned that Jerusalem was in ruins. Even if the temple were finished, it would not matter. Jerusalem was not inhabited, and if you asked for directions to the temple in Jerusalem, the answer would be: “you can’t get there from here.” If you put ‘temple in Jerusalem’ into your GPS, you would get the error “No route found.”

Judah had been plagues with corrupt leadership, poverty, likely as a result of that corruption. The roads were terrible, and the historic capital was a ghost town. Archaeologists tell us that the population of Judah was smaller than the number of people who came to colonize it. Samaria didn’t want Jerusalem rebuilt, and there really was not much of a Judah to do the rebuilding.

The border of Samaria was about 40 miles north of Jerusalem. Shechum is 42 miles north of Jerusalem, or basically on the border. There was a temple in Shechum, served by Hebrew priests, and sacrificing to the Jewish God. Torah was read in Samaria, and there is an excellent change that there were a large number of Jewish refugees in Samaria. No matter what, Jerusalem was abandoned and Shechum was an economic and religious center. Judah might have been it’s own province on paper, but functionally it was a wasteland. The temple in Jerusalem was unfinished, unused, and inaccessible. If you asked for directions to the temple of the God of Abraham, you would be sent to Shechum.

If Jerusalem were rebuilt, and the Temple were restored and put back into use, Shechum would lose it’s position of being the religious center of both provinces. If Jerusalem were rebuilt, inhabited, and established as a proper territorial capital, Shechum would compete with another major city just 42 miles to the south. The result would certainly be a diminished economy, and diminished regional influence.

Perhaps even more importantly, there was a personal element to this. Even if the Samaritans offered to help rebuild Jerusalem and the temple decades ago, the grandchildren would have several grievances to remember. They would remember that they were told that there was no place for them at the temple. They would remember when those who were in mixed marriages were exiled, presumably to Samaria — and, this is especially important because Jewish Historian Flavius Josephus tells us that the Samaritan governor Sanballat was in a mixed family, such as those who were exiled. There is likely not only a fear that any wealth or influence Judah gains, Samaria will lose – but, a personal grudge, possibly held by the leader of Samaria.

None of this, of course, is Nehemiah’s fault, but he very much has to deal with this. It is very hard to accomplish anything when you have somebody who is more powerful and more connected actively working to make sure you fail. Nehemiah might have been paying for the sins of his predecessors, but this is a steep price to pay. The easy thing of course is giving up — but, Nehemiah found a way to work in spite of all these problems.

Nehemiah drafted a group of people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. When they were harassed by enemies, Nehemiah armed the workers and provided some security. Now, conscripting people for a building project is nothing new, but I particularly like who Nehemiah conscripted — the third Chapter of Nehemiah is a list of workers, and the workers include the high priest, a bunch of Levites, and a number of other priests. Now, as you know, the high priest had a mansion and a salary, but without a temple, he didn’t have much of a job. Nehemiah had people doing manual labor who had paying jobs, but no office to attend to — and wouldn’t until Jerusalem was rebuilt. There is, in my mind, a poetic justice to having people such as Eliashib doing manual labor. For context, not only had he been drawing a salary for a job that was not being done, but later, he would misappropriate the temple treasury — but, more on that in 3 weeks.

Eventually, Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Just as Nehemiah had to conscript people to work to rebuild the capital city, he had to order people to move in and make it a community, but he would be successful. Because of this work, Jerusalem became a major city again. Jerusalem became such a major city that people would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem: People still go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
This story is about the rebuilding of the capital and reestablishing the temple as the temple. This was a major project, and I think we have some things that we can learn from this project.

First: If it is worth doing, it is worth doing even if there is opposition. I really do empathize with the opposition. I understand personal grievances, but there are some people who will always be opposed. As a kid, I really wanted people to be happy. One of the hard lessons my teenage self had to learn is that some people are never happy, and there is nothing you can do to please them; so trying can be a terrible waste of effort.

In this case, the goal was not to make Sanballat happy, the goal was to re-establish the city of Jerusalem, and bring the Temple back into use. It would not be possible to make this guy happy, so there comes a point where they did what they had to and built anyways.

Second: I notice that Nehemiah got this rebuilding done by changing the system. The old way of doing things was one where a few people benefited while the rest sacrificed. The high priest lived in a mansion, and received a salary out of tax revenues; yet the Temple remained unfinished, and even if it were finished the roads were not passable.

Nehemiah had the high priest moving rocks along with everybody else. The high position did not exempt him from the work that needed to be done for the position to even be relevant. I know that when one person does the work, and somebody else takes the credit and gets the reward there is no shortage of jealousy. There already was enough problems from the people who are never happy; jealousy is un-needed, so the High Priest was there with everybody else doing manual labor.

Finally: I notice that this was a well managed task. If we read Chapter 3, we see a list of workers and the tasks that they were assigned to complete. When Jerusalem is resettled, Nehemiah orders a list of people to move there and create a city. I know this is obvious and pragmatic — but, if we want to accomplish anything, we have to know our goal, how we will work towards our goal, and who is responsible for doing the work.

Any big project needs a lot of organization. A big dream without organization is something that sits in a notebook until everybody forgets that they ever had a big dream. If we go so far as to make a strategy to build up to a big dream, but nobody is responsible for the various parts of the strategy, the big dream goes nowhere — because nobody knows what to do with it. There are few things more frustrating than working alone at an impossible task; and few things more rewarding than finishing a possible task, that combines with other possible tasks to form what looked impossible.

Always Reforming

When I read stories, sometimes it is great to have something straightforward. What Nehemiah does when he returns is quite straightforward. He does not march into town, display his credentials, and occupy the governor’s mansion; instead, he spends three days looking into the ruins that were Jerusalem. Before taking his position, he went and looked at things for himself.

Nehemiah was a reformer. When he came back, the rebuilding of Jerusalem was decades overdue. He heard reports that the old administration utterly failed. They did not rebuild what was to be rebuilt; the people did not have what they needed to survive. The harsh truth is, the biggest problem Jerusalem had was a corrupt leadership. Nehemiah saw for himself before he took a position and continued to do exactly the same things that had been done wrong for decades. Nehemiah was a reformer who cleaned house, and who called out the bad behavior of every level of leadership. A reformer is somebody who embraces a prophetic message and an takes on an administrative role; a reformer is that rare person who both calls for change and implements it.

In today’s Sunday School class we read the words of Priscilla Hochhalter who talked about Quakers work in Abolition before the civil war. This is my favorite part of American Quaker history — perhaps because my Quaker ancestors moved to Kansas to vote “Free”. Today, there is a picnic at the meetinghouse where Abolitionist Friends in Indiana met and organized. They are going to take a tour of Levi Coffin’s home. Levi Coffin, as you might know, is known as the president of the underground railroad.

I think that this is something that we should expound on; When our nation was formed, we might have said that all men are created equal — but it is clear that there were some men who we did not feel were truly men. We built a system that was very different than the ideals that our nation claimed, and there were a number of people who worked very hard to reform the system that is the United States of America.

We live in a place that is rich in this history. Back before the United States became a nation, Friends ended slavery within the Society of Friends. Participating in the system of slavery by owning, or trading in slaves became a disownable offense. In the following century, Friends such as Charles Osborn who preached that those who bought cotton grown and processed with slave labor and used that to make textiles profited from the slave economy just as the slave traders and the slave owners did. Osborn preached that those who bought goods that depended on slave labor to create were supporting this evil system, and shared some of the guilt of the system.

Levi Coffin took on this message fully, and he operated a store that sold slave free items. Like Charles Osborn, he called for people to be free of this economic blood on their hands. Coffin, Osborn, and many others called for a reformation among Friends where Friends would do more than let somebody else do the dirty work — but to find a way to live where nobody had to have their hands dirtied by slavery. Coffin, as well as many others, also got involved in an act of civil disobedience called the underground railroad. The underground railroad helped runaway slaves escape to Canada, where they would be safe from being captured and returned to their owners.

As you might expect, the majority of Friends in Indiana were offended by the suggestion that they shared guilt for slavery. Many felt that it was not appropriate to break the law and help runaway slaves. Levi Coffin, Charles Oswald and other outspoken leaders were kicked out for condemning the economy. A number of people followed them to build a new Yearly Meeting in 1842. Some Meetings in our Quarterly meeting had as many as 40% of their membership join the antislavery yearly meeting. Indiana Yearly Meeting Antislavery lasted from 1942 to roughly 1957. The reason the Anti-Slavery yearly meeting ended was that the larger body invited them to rejoin the Yearly Meeting. It took time, but eventually Indiana Yearly meeting decided that they accepted the prophetic message, and that they would accept those who took part in acts of civil disobedience against slavery back. Levi Coffin, Charles Oswald, and the Hinshaw family living in Henry County, and so many others built an organization from nothing to stand against the evil of slavery. When their organization collapsed, the message continued.

At the same time, there was another voice that was speaking out and doing something in New England. Before John Greenleaf Whittier was a famous poet, he wrote for anti-slavery newspapers. Whittier was a boy who’s love of books was not appreciated by his parents, but he dreamed of writing. When he wrote against slavery he found himself blacklisted by the mainstream. He worked hard for the anti-slavery movement. Not only did he write for anti-slavery newspapers but he became involved in politics. Whittier worked hard building the free soil party, and recruiting candidates to run on that ticket. When the Whig party collapsed, Whittier became active in a new opposition party that included Free-Soil voices called the Republican Party. His hard work was part of the reason legal slavery ended in the United States. While the political work was massive, a big part of what he did was he humanized those who were seen as less than human — let me read one of his anti-slavery poems!

After the Civil War was over, and the thirteens, fourteens, and fifteenth amendments were passed, there was still a lot to be done. There were millions of former slaves who had nothing of their own, could not read, and had never learned the skills to take care of themselves. Levi Coffin continued to work for the cause of bringing the slaves to freedom from 1826 to 1870. After slavery was ended, he worked hard to raise money to provide relief to those millions who were released with nothing of their own. He also worked, along with many others, on educating freedmen so they could take care of themselves. 1870 did not only mark when the 71 year old Levi Coffin retired, but it was also the year that the fifteenth amendment was finally passed, guaranteeing that former slaves were not only free but had full rights as citizens.

Levi Coffin wrote in his memoirs that: “I resign my office and declare the operations of the Underground Railroad at an end.”. By law, the reform that the abolitionists worked for was finish. Reform was hard — Coffin identified with the cause of Abolition or it’s aftermath from age 7 to 70. Even after the government was reformed, people worked hard to ignore or undo it. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for his work in civil rights almost a century after Levi Coffin’s work ended. Even today, there is a population who wants to reverse such things as the right of all citizens to vote.

Reform is hard. Systems protect themselves when the system is bad. When there is corruption or injustice in the system, those who benefit fight to keep what they have. There is an old phrase that protestants every where know: “The church is reformed, and always reforming.” While I don’t know who said this first — only that it has been said since at least the 17th century. This is the issue with reformation, whether personal or institutional. The job of reforming is never finished.

Last week, I know Karla asked you what difference we will make. This is still an important and powerful question. Levi Coffin started by asking a slave why he was bound back when he was a child. Nehemiah started by listening to his brother, and then seeing the ruins for himself. What reform do we seek, and how do we move forward?

Nehemiah 1-2: Starting over

Reading: Nehemiah 1-2

Before I say anything else, I will tell you that until relatively recently Ezra and Nehemiah were considered the same book. If you read all of Ezra, you might call Ezra the book of false starts. Ezra starts with Zurubbable and Joshua being sent to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem; and they build their own executive mansions, leaving the temple in ruins until God’s prophets condemn them for their behavior. Ezra then is sent to rebuild Jerusalem, and he engages in an ethnic purity purge, increasing and strengthening Judah’s enemies. The Persians show so much confidence in Ezra’s leadership that they appoint Nehemiah as his replacement.

Now, Nehemiah is sent with the task to rebuild Jerusalem, and I’m going to give some spoilers to what comes up: Nehemiah is the one that accomplishes his tasks. Nehemiah rebuilds the wall, he hears that the people are not being ruled justly and that the temple treasury is being misappropriated; and Nehemiah works to reform the system. Right now, we are looking at the leader who accomplishes the task that he was sent for, and attempts to create a just government that prevents the wealthy from exploiting the poor. Nehemiah succeeded where the two governors before him failed, and under his rule, decades after Zurubbable was sent to rebuild Jerusalem, Nehemiah not only rebuilds the walls, but he re-populates the city so that it can take its place as a provincial capital.

The Biblical account of Nehemiah is one of a reformer, who works hard to correct decades of corrupt and unjust leadership. He works hard to overcome the various problem that he inherited; many of which would not be there if it were not for the mistakes of those who came before him.

The story of how Nehemiah got his start as a reformer comes in three simple steps; of course he had to do a lot of work after this; these three steps were steps that he had to take before he even began. The three steps were: first, he listened. Second, he repented. Third, he spoke up.

The book of Nehemiah starts with Nehemiah’s brother Hanani visiting the capital Susa, and his brother Nehemiah. Nehemiah asks how things are going back in Judah, and his brother tells him about it, specifically about the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah learns that the gates are burned, the walls and buildings are in ruins, and the place is virtually empty. The people who live in the province of Judah are “in great trouble and shame.” While it is unclear what is meant by this, our last two weeks give a few hints: Already there have been two waves of colonists who went with a commission and supplies to rebuild and yet the former capital city is still in ruins. Those who Persia appointed to rebuild have failed.

Now, Nehemiah is in a rather comfortable position; he is a trusted servant of the Persian emperor — the person who gives the king his drink. The cup-bearer was a person that a king would trust with his life, because it was his job to make sure that the king’s drink was safe. The person chosen for this position is somebody willing to give his life for the king, and can be trusted to never be a poisoner. The cup bearer would however be the first to drink the poison as his job was not only to bring drinks to the king, but to make sure that these drinks are safe. As cup bearers were completely trusted, they often heard the secrets of kings. Nehemiah could not benefit from listening.

I don’t know how much detail his brother went into, but Nehemiah heard him. If we look ahead and see the kinds of reforms that happened, we find that the wealthy were squeezing the poor until they lost everything. We find that there was corruption in the temple, and corruption in the governor’s administration. Nehemiah had to reform the entire system to bring justice — and, it started with hearing that it was bad, the people were suffering, and that what should be the capital was a pile of ruins.

The second thing that Nehemiah did is that he took responsibility for the situation. In his prayer, he confessed the sins of Israel. In his confession, he confessed the sins of his family, and even his own sinfulness. Nehemiah, in his prayer spoke of the sinfulness that caused Israel to be scattered. I don’t know if you remember our reading of Isaiah and Jeremiah — but, among the sins were the wealthy squeezing the poor for everything they had, and seizing up all of the land so that there would be no hope for the poor to get out of their poverty. I mention this, because one of the reforms that Nehemiah instituted was debt relief to give the poor a second chance.

When Nehemiah confessed the corporate sin of his people and his family, and even his own complacency of sitting in comfort while his people were suffering under corrupt leadership, oppression, and general hopelessness he did something that always has to happen before things can change.

Repenting is literally rethinking. When we repent, we are second-guessing our actions; we are looking into how things could be different. When we confess and repent we are stating what should be done differently; we are taking responsibility for what was done wrong, and we are stating what is right — if this takes, we do that right thing next time. Nehemiah repents of the sin of his people. Without repentance reformation is impossible.

The third thing that Nehemiah does is in next week’s chapter (chapter 2): he speaks up. As cup bearer, Nehemiah has the ear of the king. After he spends time praying, repenting, and agonizing over the position of Israel, he and the king have a conversation about it. Nehemiah asks to be sent to Judah, and the king writes him a letter of introduction, and he goes along with materials to rebuild Jerusalem, and to expand the temple.

Nehemiah was a person with privilege. He had a voice that few people have. If he had heard, prayed, and cried — but then went back to his comfortable life, nothing would have changed back home. Because he risked his high position, and spoke to the king, he was able to start this great reformation and finally rebuild Jerusalem and finish the temple.

Examples of positive leadership are, unfortunately, hard to find in scripture. Good leaders are most often given a couple sentences to say they ruled well for 20 years. Long narratives tend to tell where the leader went wrong. Nehemiah is quite possibly an exception; it tells how one person worked to reform decades of disastrously bad leadership, and bring justice to the people — even those who were not wealthy.

I know that our lives often have things that need reformation. Karl Barth wrote that “the Church is always to be reformed;”  Many people are in full agreement with Barth on this point. I know that there are many times when my own life is in need of reformation. I believe if we look carefully at ourselves and our own community, we can find places where a little reformation would do us good.

To tell the truth, even though I know reform is necessary, I don’t know what needs to happen. Like Nehemiah, there are some steps I need to take before I can get started. Like him, I need to listen, repent, and speak up. To be fair; sometimes I see that I live in a culture that does what it can to silence voices that it does not wish to hear. We live in a culture that hides people we don’t want to see. We find ways of saying that the experiences of others is not valid. Sometimes, it seems that it is so bad that we must repent of not listening before we even listen.

There are a lot of voices to listen to, and sometimes the reform that is necessary seems beyond us; but there is one voice that keeps reminding of a way that we should continue to reform: it is traditional to pray a prayer of confession before Eucharist, and one of the prayers that is common in the English speaking world goes like this:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen. — Common book of Prayer

I might not know what I can do to change the world, or my community. When I listen to voices calling for political reform, I might not know which vision of reform is the best for us. When two groups of people claim grievances against one another, I might not know which side is in the right, or even if there is a right side — but, I at least have learned a way that I can pray.

I can confess that sometimes my words and actions are not loving — I can repent of this, and seek ways to reform myself to better live out love. Once I reform myself to love my neighbor, I will finally take that first step and listen.

Ezra and Ruth – a rebuttal

This was given following a message on Ezra 9-10 on repentance which assumed that Ezra was following God’s will perfectly and was an example of good leadership.  As the passage is unclear on this matter I gave the rebuttal.

Reading:  Ezra 9-10, Ruth 4

For the past year, I’ve been, with very few exceptions, following the passage that was used in Sunday School class — or a related passage. I personally think that it is important to have multiple perspectives. Even on those points where I disagreed with the author, the disagreements have been largely unimportant: such as a matter of style, or disagreement on what date the book was written. I have been overall pleased with these studies, both for how they give an overview of the scripture and how they encourage the class to connect with it.

Last week we started a new section, and as you might guess, I’m not satisfied with the work of the current author. Last week, this was largely bristling against an attitude that authority figures are right because they are authority figures along with a feeling that the writer might have had a different opinion if she read Haggai, Zechariah, or Malachi while working on this lesson.

As you read this lesson, it should be obvious why I feel it is necessary to offer a rebuttal to the author for last week and this week. If it is not obvious, I will point out that the staunchest defenders of the idea that Ezra was doing God’s will when forcing people to divorce, and exiling the wives and children are white supremacists. When I searched the internet for commentary and sermons on Ezra 9-10, I found a number of “Christian identity” websites. I will also point out that all of you have met my wife, and it should be obvious that I’m not very comfortable with a tacit acceptance that God is fundamentally opposed to miscegenation.

The author’s argument is dependent upon the following:

  1. Ezra was appointed leader by God
  2. Because Ezra was appointed by God, he is an example of good leadership.
  3. The people who resettled Judah married pagan women who worshiped false gods
  4. The Holy Seed of Israel must not be mixed, therefore mixed race people must also be expelled

The leader is appointed by God

The book of Ezra hardly mentions God. Specifically absent is any mention of God taking part in the process of appointing leaders or guiding their leadership. Ezra, specifically was appointed by Artaxerxes who was a pagan ruler. Any authority he had was subordinate to the authority of the Persian empire.

The problems that this causes appear in Nehemiah and Malachi; the governor of Persian Judah is not only responsible to the people of this province, but also to the Persian empire. This double-loyalty makes it so that it is hard to decide what needs to be done. One example, taken from Malachi and Nehemiah forces people to ask the question whether it is better to raise taxes, or to use the temple treasury to pay tribute to the Persians. The Persian appointed leaders chose to use the Temple treasury and this decision apparently resulted in widespread corruption as there were people who needed to go unpaid due to this decision.

Leaders appointed by God are examples of good leadership

Even if circumstances were different — and instead of a foreign king, one of God’s prophets would have anointed Ezra to govern the people of Judah, this would not assure that his leadership would be a model for us to follow. Scripture tells of two leaders who prophets anointed with oil, and announced that they were the one that God appointed as king of Israel: Saul and David.

The first, Saul, is generally not considered a great example of leadership because part of his story is where he lost favor with God. As you might remember, he did not wait for Samuel to offer sacrifice, but instead took it upon himself to do so.

After this encroachment on another person’s authority, Saul became jealous, and developed a personal vendetta against one of his successful and popular generals — David.

David, who was anointed as Saul’s successor, was only a little better. While I don’t have time to make a laundry list of mistakes, David’s big one was huge. David had an inner circle of about 30 people who were with him, and loyal to him when he fell out of favor in Saul’s court — these people became important leaders in his administration when he was king. One day, he noticed a girl — when he asked about her he was told she was the wife of Uriah and the daughter of Eliam. Uriah and Eliam were both member of this inner circle — so, David has her brought to him and rapes her. When she gets pregnant, David tries to keep away suspicion by making sure her husband gets some leave from the military, and some time at home. After he returns, he asks Joab, another person in this inner circle to make sure that Uriah dies in battle.

Such a betrayal seems to have destroyed David’s ability to lead the nation. Soon after this, David is no longer in control of what happens and the nation falls into civil war. David and his forces manage to win the war, but at a very heavy personal cost. David never again becomes an effective leader.

While a divine appointment is clearly significant, it is not enough to show that the leader’s actions are the correct ones, nor that the particular leader should be emulated.

These foreigners worshiped false gods

Back before the Babylonian captivity, the Northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Like Babylon, the best of the people were carried off, and the elite of other nations were moved into their place. Records tell us that about 22 thousand were taken away from the Northern Kingdom, and a similar number were brought back in.

2 Kings 17 tells us that the foreigners who were brought in place of the elite of Israel asked the king of Assyria to send them some of the priests who were taken away, so that the organized worship of God could resume. This happened before 700 BC, and Ezra’s rule was after 500 AD. The foreigners had lived in this land, and worshiped God for 200 years. It would be fair to say that by any measure, they were no longer foreigners — and, if one insists that they were, it would be difficult to separate them by ethnicity. By this time, the most foreign of them would be more Hebrew than foreign.

What stands out when I read the book of Ezra is that there is not a single mention of idolatry. When foreigners are mentioned, they self-identify as worshipers of the same God the Jews worship — at the beginning of the passage, these people who’ve lived in the region, and worshiped God for well over a century were told they can have no part of the temple. When the women are expelled, there is no mention of idol worship — and, if the cause were idol worship then there is no reason why the children must be expelled also except the reason given in Ezra 9:2 — that they mixed the Holy Seed of Israel with foreigners.

Mixed raced children must be expelled to protect blood purity

I never understood the idea of blood purity. It does not seem reasonable to me, because I am not convinced that it exists. In the United States, there are places where race is determined through so called `one drop laws.’ I had heard of such things, but I did not really know what they implied until I worked as an enumerator for the United States census. My supervisor asked everybody under her what race she was — and here was a woman who had blond hair, very pale skin, and blue eyes — you could tell by looking at her that her ancestors came from Northern Europe. It turns out that her birth certificate said: “Black”, because she was born in a one drop state, and one of her 19th century ancestors was black. If she would have been a generation older, there would have been a number of states where she would be unable to obtain a marriage license due to the crime of miscegenation. She also told us that when she served in the Army, the response was: “We can’t put black on your record. If you are ever missing in action, nobody who was looking for a black woman would be able to find you.”

The policy that was established from the time the Samaritans were excluded from helping build the temple was one of preserving blood purity, and this policy was one that treats the population that was there to welcome those who came back as foreigners — even if one could not see the foreignness. There were multiple actions like this that created grievances between the Jews and the Samaritans. The problem is that this policy does not represent the history of Judah, nor is it necessary.

Leviticus 19:33-34 reads:

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

In addition, the story of Ruth should be familiar to everybody. Ruth was a Moabite woman married to a Jewish man who he met while living in Moab. Her husband died in Moab, and she returned to Judah with her mother-in-Law Naomi. When she returned she claimed her rights as a widow, and married her husband’s cousin Boaz. Ruth was treated as family, and not as a foreigner. It did not matter that she was a Moabite — and, her descendants were not treated any worse for her pollution to the bloodline.

Ruth tells us that Boaz and Ruth are King David’s great grandparents. If Obed and Ruth were exiled, then there would be no Jesse nor would there be a David. By the standard that excludes the people who were still in Israel, because their bloodline was polluted, those who returned were also polluted — including the most prominent family that returned.

There is much debate about when Ruth was written; but many scholars notice that it uses some idiom that is associated with the second temple period. No matter when it was written, it appears that this story was retold fresh during this period — and it is a story about how a completely foreign woman who entered Israel as a foreign woman was fully accepted. It is a story how her husband’s family recognized her rights, just like if she were a Hebrew woman, and how her decedents were not only fully accepted, but became a dynasty that would reign for over 400 years, who would continue to have a pretender waiting for their throne to be re-established for another 1500 years following that.

When the story of Ruth was told during this period, I have no doubt that these details stood out as a criticism to Ezra’s policy of expulsion of women and children. The story of Ezra is one of turning people out, even people who are fully innocent and who should have every right to belong to the community. Ezra is the story of injustice. The story of Ruth is one of embracing somebody who’s claim to any rights are tenuous at best. It is the story of mercy and justice that goes beyond what is required by law. We must always remember that there is more than one story that needs told.

Haggai 1: Living in luxury while the temple lies in ruins

Reading: Haggai 1, Ezra 5

One year ago we started a study of Isaiah and Jeremiah. We went through the part of the Holy history where both the nations of Israel and Judah were destroyed, the temple was destroyed and looted, and the best and brightest were removed and settled somewhere else. Last year we studied the fall of Judea and the Babylonian captivity and we read the prophets who looked forward to a restoration.

At this point over 70 years passed since Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. The kingdom of Babylon has fallen, and Medes and the Persians have taken over the land that the Babylonian and Assyrian empires once held. The Persian Empire decides that Judea is to be re-populated and the temple that was destroyed and looted by the Babylonian empire is to be rebuilt, and the treasures of the temple are to be returned.

We start Ezra with the characters Zurubbable and Joshua. Ezra is a scribe who is tradition says wrote I and II Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. Zurubbable is the appointed governor of the Persian province of Judea. I have no doubt that the Persian empire appointed Zurubbable because his grandfather was king in Jerusalem just before the Babylonian captivity.

When those in captivity return to Judea, they have control of the land where they once lived, they have a high priest to restore temple worship, and they are governed by a descendant of David who would sit on the throne himself if he did not answer to a Persian king. Things look good for Judah. The Babylonian captivity is over!

You notice that I didn’t name the Persian king — the names of several Media-Persian rulers are given in this process: Cyrus, Artaxerxes, and Darius. The final words of II Chronicles tell us that King Cyrus of the Persians commanded that Judea be repopulated, and that a temple be built in Jerusalem. The first chapter of Ezra gives a longer version of the edict, including an order that their neighbors give them gifts for the journey, which turned out to be pretty significant. This group that returned to resettle Judea was, according to Ezra, about 50,000 people.

If you think fifty thousand is a small number, you need to remember two things: First, that this order to repopulate Jerusalem was voluntary. Those who made a home in Babylon, and did not wish to leave were not kicked out, and there remained a Jewish population in the East. The second thing we need to remember is that there was a remnant left in Judea, so when these 50,000 people returned, there was a group of people to greet them.

This is the first thing that stands out in the story: There is an argument between the repatriated people and those who live in the region. There was an argument about who would be involved in building the temple, and when Zurubbable made it clear that only the people who came to resettle Judea would have a place to worship God at the temple, whether or not the temple and Jerusalem should be restored at all. The people who lived in the area wrote to king Artaxerxes, saying that the people who resettled Jerusalem have a habit of being rebellious, and should not be trusted; with the result that the work stopped until Darius became King. For those who are paying attention, Zurubbable just created Samaritans as a distinct, and hostile people group. Before this, they were the remnant of Israel — with some integrated foreigners.
At this point, we reach our readings for today — Chapter 5 of Ezra and the prophecy of Haggai. Something like 16 years had passed from the original expedition to rebuild Jerusalem and when they were allowed to continue. Haggai gives a rather unique prophetic oracle; if you want to know how unique, Haggai is the only prophet who calls for the temple to be built; most of the prophets call for justice, and insist things such as “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”

This, however, is a unique situation. As Haggai writes: “Is it right for you to live in richly paneled houses, while my temple is in ruins?” The situation is that a group of people were moved to Jerusalem, with gold, silver, supplies, and those contents of the old Temple that were still available in order to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem. When the high priest Joshua and Zurubbable arrived, and were offered help with the words: “Let us help you build, like you we seek God and have been sacrificing to Him,” (Ezra 4:2) the response was to tell them they had no right to help with the restoration of the temple.

Zurubbable and Joshua had no excuse to live in luxurious houses while the temple was still in ruins. They came to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem, not to build an impressive mansions for the provincial governor and chief priest. They received gold, silver, the contents of the old temple in order to rebuild it. They were offered aid in rebuilding the temple by the local population. Where they could have had allies, they made enemies of the Samaritans. Haggai was speaking to leaders who did not even attempt to keep up appearances of worshiping God, let alone practicing justice.
The family of David did not hold onto the power that the Persians gave them. While it appears that the province of Judah might have become a vassal-kingdom, with a hereditary king that paid tribute to the Persian empire, this did not happen; instead, the governorship was eventually given to a priest. For 1500 years, everybody would know pretender to David’s throne was — but, no descendant of David would sit on the throne nor govern again.

When I read this story, I don’t see an example of great leadership, nor people to emulate. I see something where a couple of people were given all the tools they needed for the job: Money, supplies, labor, and a population that welcomed the building project, and who managed to only build for themselves and then live in luxury while their people suffered famine. I see somebody given every opportunity to re-establish the throne of David, and then throwing it away by failing at the one task he was given. When the prophet Haggai spoke of luxury and richly paneled houses while the temple lay in ruins — it is pretty clear to me who’s mansion he was talking about, it was the people who received the materials to build a richly paneled temple, not those struggling to survive when their crops failed.

The hard thing about preaching a sermon based on a narrative is that unless the moral of the story is spelled out, I get to decide what I learned from the experience of those characters in the story; and then everybody else gets to argue the lessons they learned.

Now the most common lesson that people learn, based on sermon’s I’ve heard on the first part of Ezra, is that God keeps promises. When the Jews were taken into the Babylonian captivity, and the temple was destroyed, they were given a promise that in 70 years, they would be able to return and rebuild; there would again be a Judah and a Jerusalem. God’s faithfulness is a good lesson to learn — and, I think it is good to point out that God’s faithfulness is not dependent upon our own. God is always faithful, even if we are not.

The lessons I learn from the book of Ezra, in general, are lessons on how things should be done differently. First place where I would suggest doing something differently is that it would have been better if Zurubbable made peace with his neighbors. Making the Samaritans into enemies caused the temple-project to stop, along with the project to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and caused a rather unfortunate legal battle, where the position given to the people of Judea was reviewed.

I think that it is important that whatever we do, we do our best to be good neighbors. No matter what project we engage in, we should respect the people around us. We should not fight with them, or make it clear that they are unwelcome — but, instead we should be inviting. We should be the type of church where our neighbors thank God that Raysville Friends is here.

The second place I think Zurubbable should have behaved differently is the place from the Haggai reading. In the passage I read, the prophet condemned Zurubbable and the priest Joshua for living in “richly paneled houses”. These leaders collected donations, both in Persia and in Judea, in order to rebuild the temple. During a 16 year period when the temple lay in ruins, they build themselves richly paneled mansions. Quite bluntly, they raised money to build a temple, and instead built a governor’s palace and a High Priest’s mansion. If we raise money for a project, things will go better if we actually do the project we raised money for instead of finding an alternative one.

As a church we must be careful to honor the wishes of those who donate. The behavior we see here is the type of behavior that destroys reputations, and makes it so people are less generous in the future. In cases where I’ve seen churches that raised money for one thing and spent it on something else, I’ve seen them lose members, including those who were previously generous supporters. Out of all the destructive things that can happen to a community, the loss of trust is pretty high on the list.

The final thing that I will observe is that Haggai told Zurubbable and Joshua that Judea was being punished because they neglected the temple. They were given materials, money, and offered help to rebuild the temple but they let it sit while they had their own mansions built. If they had done the right thing, the temple would be built. Construction on the temple started when a prophet let them know that they, and those under their rule were being punished for their personal negligence and apparent misappropriation. Judah suffering because their leaders embezzle is a reoccurring theme in post-exilic literature — and there is the promise that things will get better when leadership changes their behavior.

What we read is a passage about Zurubbable and Joshua doing the right thing and starting construction on the temple — but it took them 16 years to do this. A prophet Haggai came and condemned them for their negligence, pointed to the hardship that Judah was facing, and told them that it came from their behavior. It took the desire to escape punishment them to finally go and do the right thing. I believe that good leadership is doing the right thing without the threat or experience of divine punishment. If they were good leaders, they would be doing the right thing from the beginning.

The principles of leadership that I learn from the failures of Zurubbable are as follows: First, I should live at peace with my neighbors, and lead in a way that maintains peace. Second, I should not put luxury ahead of my vocation, and third I should do the right thing, even without the threat of punishment.