Today’s scripture readings:
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Recently my family unearthed a trove of old slides that captured images of both my parents’ youth that nobody had seen in decades. The slides had lived in boxes in my grandparents’ homes and were only uncovered when they moved out and we went through all their belongings. When my mom rediscovered these boxes of slides, she found an app for her phone that allowed her to convert them into digital images that she could share just as easily as we share any of the photos we take these days with our phones.
I grew up seeing little glimpses of my parents’ earlier lives: a wedding photo that hung in my parents’ bedroom; my parents’ senior pictures; photos in my grandparents’ homes of mom and dad as children pictured alongside their siblings. But that was pretty much it. I didn’t have access to many pictures from their youth. Many years of my parents’ lives were hidden from view, the images of those years preserved only in my parents’ memories—until these boxes of slides turned up and my mom went to work digitizing them for the 21st century.
What a treasure those photos are! In one of the pictures, there’s my dad on his 21st birthday, hosting a hog roast in my grandparents’ backyard, behind him the same apple tree from which my grandparents eventually hung a tire swing that brought me so much enjoyment as a kid many years later. I didn’t recognize the old farmhouse, which was moved off the property years before I was born to make way for the new rambler that still stands there today, but there in the distance is the same corn crib I would climb on as a kid, much to my mother’s chagrin.
Scrolling through all those old photos of my dad, it was amazing for me to discover that when he turned his head a certain way or smiled just so, it could just as well have been me in the picture. There’s a resemblance there that I hadn’t noticed before. It makes me sad that these slides were hidden away for so long and that I’m only now getting this peek into my parents’ youth. But mostly I’m so glad to have rediscovered these pictures that tell me a little something about who I am and where I came from.
We usually preach on the Gospel reading and I do love today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke. But Nehemiah only shows up in the assigned readings for Sunday mornings once every three years, so if I don’t preach on Nehemiah today, it’s going to be awhile before we have this opportunity again.
And the truth is, that first reading from Nehemiah captures a poignant scene. Let me set the context: The Israelites had lived in their Promised Land for centuries, but over time, powerful empires began to appear just beyond their borders. First it was the Assyrian Empire, who conquered the northern part of Israel in the 700s BC. Two hundred years later, it was the Babylonian Empire, bigger and badder than the Assyrians before them, who dealt a final blow to the remaining southern part of Israel and conquered the capital city of Jerusalem. The Israelites were carried off into exile in Babylon. They lived as exiles there for 70 years, until another empire took control of the region—the Persian Empire—whose king actually allowed the Israelites to return to their land and rebuild Jerusalem. And the rebuilding of the city was led by a Bible teacher named Ezra and a sort of civil engineer named Nehemiah. That’s the context for this reading. As we pick up in today’s passage from Nehemiah, the city has finally been rebuilt and “all the people” are gathered at the outer wall of Jerusalem. Then Ezra, the Bible teacher, brings out the scroll of the Torah and reads the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
Pause for just a moment to consider the scene. Think how much would have changed in seven decades of exile. That’s the vast majority of a person’s life these days, and at that time there was hardly anyone who lived that long. Most of the people in this story would have grown up in Babylon with that as their only home. Imagine if the people who moved away from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina all returned en masse in 2077, how different they would be. Would New Orleans even still feel like home after all those years away? How much change happens in 70 years?
One thing that had almost certainly changed? The Israelites probably felt very distant from the faith of their ancestors. Those earlier Israelites would have had their spirits nourished by worship in the gorgeous temple in Jerusalem, by singing the psalms of David together, taking in the fragrance of incense, celebrating their holy days as a community gathered in that place where centuries of Israelites before them had gathered to worship the God who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. But the Israelites who lived as exiles in Babylon? Memories of the faithful gathering in the Jerusalem temple would have grown more and more faint with each passing year. The Israelite children who grew up in Babylon would have had no memory whatsoever of worship in Jerusalem.
So now Jerusalem has been rebuilt and the temple restored, and here Ezra the Bible teacher stands before the returned exiles and reads to them from their sacred scripture words probably none of them had ever heard before. Stories about their ancestors. Stories about how God saved them from a flood and promised to make them a noble people; how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt and gave them a land of their own; how God had forgiven them when they went astray. Stories about God’s faithfulness to them through good times and bad. It says in this passage that when Ezra read the Torah, the people wept, and I imagine it’s because they experienced such grief at having lost those good words for so long, at realizing these stories of a God who had been so faithful to them had been forgotten. Seeing the people standing there in tears, Ezra and Nehemiah tell them, “Don’t grieve, don’t weep. Today is a day for us to remember once more who we are and who God is. Go home, prepare a feast, and share it with those who don’t have anything, because this is a holy day and the joy of the Lord is your strength.” The story ends with the people celebrating and sharing gifts of food and wine. Their long season of amnesia is over. Their sacred memories are alive once more.
Maybe some of us living in this time of pandemic, who have been worshiping from home or just taking a break from church for nearly two years, maybe we feel something like those exiles—disconnected from our faith, feeling distant from the worshiping community that nurtured us and our ancestors in years past, grieving the spiritual toll this pandemic has inflicted upon us. If that’s you, hear this promise: God’s Word endures. God’s promises to you are as true as ever. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. The joy of the Lord is your strength.
David Jones, “Everything Depends on Remembering,” on Day1.org, published January 24, 2010, accessed January 21, 2022, https://day1.org/weekly-broadcast/5d9b820ef71918cdf20028f6/view