November 4, 2013

chapel talk - 11/4 nehemiah 13 1-3, 23-31

This is the text from my chapel talk yesterday. The video (mostly of the top of my head) can be found on the Luther Portal. Make sure you go to the On Demand tab and look for me on November 4.

I’m going to begin today with a slightly different opening litany than we have become accustomed to: When my friend Ann Highum asked me to switch days with her I said “sure” after all one days reading can’t be that much harder than another. Then I got the email from Pastor David. It contained three very ominous words: “these troubling texts”. Not to mention that our reading today is from the book of Nehemiah. Lets begin with our reading:

On that day they read from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, 2 because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 When the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.

OK, discrimination, xenophobia, that sounds troubling enough to get started. We’ll come back to versus 23-31 in a moment. This is not your typical sunday school reading. Who are the Ammonites or the Moabites? What did they do to deserve getting kicked out? I think we might need a bit of context.

Now it turns out that the book of Nehemiah is essentially a blog written by Nehemiah himself, who was the cupbearer for King Ataxerxes. So I thought as a public service I would try to give some context to todays reading by condensing Nehemiah’s blog posts into a series of tweets. A sort of Twitter translation of the bible with commentary from yours truly. Nehemiah himself goes by @cupbearer21 in case you want to follow him on Twitter later today.

Posts from the month of Chislev:

Brother Hanani came to Susa today, brought visitors from Judah

OMG the wall of Jeursalem is broken and the gates destroyed by fire! #JerusalemFire

I’ve been weeping, fasting, and praying for days. Still distraught over the fire in Jerusalem. #WoeIsMe

Next, we get some insight into the incredible guilt and potentially inflated sense of self importance that @cupbearer21 must feel:

Can’t help but feel that the #JerusalemFire is my fault! Me and my family must have offended @God.

Now we skip to the month of Nisan

AtaXerxes told me to buck up. I guess he can tell I’m still sad over #JerusalemFire

Just days later we get the following:

Holy career path! @ataxerxes granted my request to go to Judah and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem! #ClimbTheRoyalLadder

Now to be sure that he does not encounter opposition on the journey he tweets:

If anyone doubts me here’s a link to letters from @ataxerxes granting me safe passage and timber from the royal forest. #TheKingsGotMyBack

But Nehemiah’s glee is short lived, just days later we learn:

Curses! @TobiahtheAmmonite is not happy with me. He will try to foil my plans for rebuilding the wall!

Ahh, so we have a bit of dramatic foreshadowing on this deal with the Ammonites. Our story continues:

Snuck out tonight to inspect the walls on my own. #ThisPlaceIsAMess

Following the inspection, its time for the work on the walls to begin in earnest, but Nehemiah needs workers so he tweets out a plea for help:

Join me! we are going to rebuild the walls! The hand of my God is gracious!

 To which there are hundreds of replies of the form @cupbearer21 count me in!  @cupbearer21 tools ready to go, The hashtag #RebuildTheWalls was definitely trending that day.

But not everyone was on board with Nehemiah’s plans: @SanballatTheHoronite and @TobiahTheAmmonite and @GeshemTheArab who basically responded

@cupbearer21 WT——H

@cupbearer21 Who do you think you are? Are you rebelling against the King?

Nevertheless, Nehemiah we can tell work is proceeding by the status updates:

High priest @eliashib doing good work on the sheep gate

Sons of @hassenaah rebuilt the fish gate today

and so on with tweet after tweet of progress from around the city.

Of course in typical twitter flamewar fashion we see some retweets from our old friends @SanballatTheHoronite and @TobiahTheAmmonite

Ha! what are these feeble Jews doing? Do they think they can rebuild the wall in a day1?

And from Tobiah,

That stone wall they are building — any fox would break it down! #I’llHuffAndI’llPuff

To which Nehemiah replies

Oh @God, do not blot out the sins of @Tobiahtheammonite #FireyPitForYouDude

Some days later:

Big day today!! Walls back to half their original height!

But even with all of that progress those darn Ammonites stirring up trouble again.

Emergency! We need families NOW to guard the walls against @sanballat and his ilk. #NeedMoreSpears.

And although you might think I’m making this one up, Nehemiah has been so busy that he tweets:

I’m starting to smell, its been weeks since I put down my spear and changed my clothes!

After all that, Nehemiah shows that he is a guy who can get things done. After just 52 days he tweets

At last, the wall is done! #PartyAtMyHouse

With the wall rebuilt, Nehemiah gets an interesting assignment:

From @God: Hey! @cupbearer21, You should use your analytics and do a genealogical and demographic analysis of the people

At this point there are several chapters of names of Levites, and prophets and lineages of various families. Clearly could have saved a bunch of time.

So, rebuilding the wall is clearly the signature accomplishment of Nehemiah, But even with all of his success as governor, Nehemiah doesn’t take advantage of food and land allotments that were allowed him, because there was already such a great burden on the people. He also made the other nobles and officials forgive all outstanding debts and ordered them to return all land and money that had been taken as taxes so the people would be able to feed themselves and their families. To keep everyone happy he organizes covenant day which is summarized in the following tweet:

Covenant day! #TithingIsGood #OfferingsRock #FirstBornSonsToGod #FirstOfEverythingToGod

Which brings us again to Chapter 13 and these troubling tweets:

Much reform is needed @Elishib and @Tobiah have made a mess of things #NoMixedMarriages #KeepMarriagePure

Kicked out the foreigners #KeepTheIsreaelitesPure #PureJerusalem

And in what must have felt like the ultimate victory for old Nehemiah:

I chased @Jehoidia son-in-law of @SanballatTheHoronite away! He is gone from the city!

To which I now might imagine a response out of the future:

From @JCSofG, Wait, What!? No No No! #EatWithTaxCollectorsAndSinners! #BadNehemia

So, does our story for today all come down to Nehemiah getting his revenge on the Ammonites for trying to thwart his efforts to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem? It sure sounds like it. The sad thing is that In many ways this story seems all too familiar. Take out Nehemiah and Insert the name of your favorite ruler:

  • Humble beginnings

  • Great accomplishments and rise to power

  • Power goes to the head

  • Stupid policies

Whats maybe more interesting to me is why this particular verse is the verse for the day, with all of the good things Nehemiah did, why highlight this one idiotic policy? Maybe simply to remind us that tolerance is a good thing even when times are tough.

I’ve spent a lot of time this last week trying to answer the question, where’s the grace in this story? I think maybe for us and for Nehemiah it really does come down to his final tweet:

Remember me @God for the good I have done!