There were two images that came to mind as I worked through this scripture. The first came from a trip to the grocery store a couple of weeks ago. A little girl, more focused on the candy shelf in front of her than anything else was tugging on a mother’s sleeve. “Mommy, mommy, can you hear me mommy?” The woman looked down and smiled and said, “Wrong mommy.” The little girl rotated back about four feet and began to tug on another sleeve, “Mommy, mommy…..”
The second image comes from my neighborhood. We live in one of the parts of town where hail damage rained down. Construction workers have descended on my neighborhood like a swarm of bees. There are broken windows that need new panes, gutters that must removed and reconstructed, and roofs to be replaced. They buzz about, hammers swinging, nails driven, shingle after shingle set in place. What fascinates is that they all seem to be moving about their assigned tasks oblivious to the people who claim the homes they have come to repair.
When we come to the Book of Nehemiah, our temptation is to become so focused on the huge construction project story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem that we can miss the rest of the story. We tend to so closely tie Nehemiah to the rebuilding of the city and the wall that protected it those we often miss the other things Nehemiah has to say. Nehemiah is more than a construction manager. He provides a remarkable picture of the power of prayer. Every step of the epoch project is bathed in prayer. Nehemiah longed to city the great city reborn. He longed to hear to worship of God rising from the temple. He desperate wanted to see the walls standing again, representing the strength of the city and the presence of God. He knew that this was more than a story of brick and mortar. It required the blessing of God. It has to be done in a way that would bring glory and honor to God. Nehemiah believes everything is on course. The wall is going up the city is under construction; the sounds of rebirth fill the air. Like the construction workers in our neighborhood, everyone is busy at their tasks oblivious to the lives of those around them. Nehemiah is content, until he hears the cry from the margins.
The first six verses of Nehemiah 5 read; 1 now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against Their Jewish brothers. 2 Some were saying, "We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain." 3 Others were saying, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine." 4 Still others were saying, "We have had to borrow money to pay the king's tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others. “ 6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry.
While the brick and mortar replaces had moved forward, Nehemiah learns that many of the people had been left behind. In an effort to survive many of those who had been freed from captivity in another land, now found themselves living in economic captivity. They had come home in hope, only to find their lives now defined by despair. They had lost their status as equals. They had stood on the midst of economic collapse. Their children – their future – their very indemnity now belong to others. The grand city of God has become the home to a growing percentage of those who had become poor and the powerless.
The perception is that the faces of hunger and desperate poverty are found somewhere else in the world. This perception was fostered by the pictures of famine in Sub-Saharan Africa broadcasted internationally during the 80’s and 90’s. The region does face significant issues. But it is not alone. The faces of hunger and desperate poverty are also Asian. Nearly half of Asia’s 1.27 billion children live in poverty — deprived of food, safe drinking water, health or shelter. While 600 million children under the age of 18 lack access to one of these basic human needs, more than 350 million are deprived of two or more of these needs. On the corner of 13th and Classen there was a billboard of a kitten with the inscription, “To bad there is not a soup kitchen for her.” In an email communication with the leadership of the OK Humane Society they argued that this billboard was appropriate because the animals did not have an advocate and that the need was simply so great. While I appreciate my pet, there is a quantitative difference between a dog or cat and a human life. Our reality is that one in every five Oklahoma children lives in poverty and is at risk of going to bed hungry. Of the elderly who receive food through Oklahoma's Food Bank System, 32 percent report having to choose between buying food or paying for medicine or medical care.
Nehemiah had two options. The first was to tell them that they poverty was not his problem. His task was to build the wall and help rebuild the city. There was a governmental system in place to deal with the people. He could have simply directed them to the nearest social worker, DHS office, or community ministry organization. He was busy. He had things to do. The easiest answer would have been just to push them along. But, this is not the story. He heard their cries, got angry, and got involved. Like Nehemiah, we have to choose to hear their cries and respond or ignore their need.
Nehemiah dove in and confronted the leaders who could make a difference. He understood that the poor and the powerless had no voice, so he lifted his; So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8 and said: "As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!" They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. Holds them accountable; Helps them to understand the link between their actions and their faith. 9 So I continued, "What you are doing is not right. Shouldn't you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?
Nehemiah saw the cries of those from the margins as social, economic, and religious issue. How the poor were treated in their midst was a reflection of their faith. He argued for and demanded change. He saw their actions born in a spiritual poverty where they saw themselves above the people. He did not want anyone pushing the people away. He did not want anyone to try to pass the buck and the responsibility to another. He wanted and expected action. I have to wonder how often we get so angry at injustice that we get involved and will not take “no” for an answer?
12 "We will give it back," they said. "And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say." Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, "In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied! “At this the whole assembly said, "Amen," and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised. The impact was immediate. Nehemiah’s message strikes home!
The leaders make an economic decision. They make a religious decision. They make a life decision that ends with the praise of God. Nehemiah’s call for change also became personal. He tells us; But the earlier governors—those preceding me placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. Instead of joining the pattern of others, he chose to make some changes in his own life that would help him make a more personal impact. The rest of the story tells that he and his family began to share what they had and to open up their table to others. Suddenly the princes and the poor both found themselves welcomed and valued, each bringing the best of who they were to the relationship. He modeled a care for the people that said that we do not do things for the economically or spiritually poor, we walk with and beside, to encourage and to challenge. His model is a transforming model of community born in faith and designed to bring glory to God. When we come to the table together we can hear each other and learn from one another.
In one of my first churches I was hosted by a family who lived in a beautiful home. It has museum quality furnishings and everything was in its place. But, rarely was a word of joy or the sound of laughter found in the home. Several months into the journey I was invited to live with another family. They lived in a single wide mobile home. My room was the fold out couch in the den. But, laughter and joy filled the house, and love enveloped the home. Which family lived in poverty? This week I came to a place where I had to acknowledge that I had failed at a task to raise the money for a scholarship for a young Chin woman living and working in the slums of Rangoon. Our hope was that she could take part in a special two year program held by the Baylor School of Social Work. I had dealt with congregations and people of means, all who were trying to be as conservative as they could because of the uncertain economic climate. So, the BSSW had to communicate to this young woman that maybe – just maybe – in two years we will have the money in hand. One of the students, fifty year old single woman from Malaysia, heard that we could not raise enough money. She came to office at Baylor and told them that she thought it was very important for this young woman to take part in the program. She had been saving to buy a car. She told them that she had decided that this young woman was more important than her car – she could live without it – on offered the $5000 she had. One thing you should know. She has never met the young woman. She just understood the need. No, we still do not have enough money on hand to offer the scholarship, but I could not help but wonder as I thought about these large congregations and wealthy potential donors – and this single woman from Malaysia – who is living faith and who in poverty? In both cases, I have come to the table with those with “less” and found they had much to teach me.
We need each other. We need to learn to walk with the economically poor in authentic relationships born in faith and lift our voices in their behalf. We need to learn to walk with the spiritually poor, to help share with them the wealth of faith through Christ. We need to learn to share our resources with one other and with God with generosity, not obligation, so that God might use our resources and transform them and use them. We need to learn to come to the table and learn to hear and be shaped by each other. Our congregation is in a unique position to hear from and speak across the wide social, economic, and religious spectrum of our community. God has blessed us with the means and the heart to make a difference. The question is – what happens when the cry from the margins moves from being a church story to a personal one? How is God ready to use you? What is God ready to teach you? How is God ready to shape you for the sake of His honor and glory?
Let our prayer be the same as Nehemiah’s. 19 Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.