One of the key themes of the Old Testament is exile and return. In the 6th century BC, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and large groups of Israelites were deported to Babylon. They lived there in a foreign country and settled down and had kids and got jobs in that new culture, and this went on for 70 years. It was a time when two things happened: large numbers of believers acclimated to the prevailing culture and let the practice of their faith slide, but then others consolidated their faith, compiled its scriptures, took it far more seriously, and found new ways to stay faithful.
In today’s first reading from Nehemiah, we are in the time when the exiles began coming home from Babylon and finding everything changed. This book (and the book of Ezra which is right next to it) talk about the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the city’s infrastructure. We see today a large gathering there, a sort of renewal ceremony. “All the people of Israel gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses.”
So that renewal, you’ll notice, is based on Scripture, called the Word or the Law. It is not enough that people are physically back. It is not enough that building projects have been successfully completed. It’s not enough that some of the work routines of the Temple and the city have resumed on a smaller scale, or that there is money built up now in case something breaks or an accident happens. That was all important work. But what we see here is a commitment that is far more important. We see the people renewing their covenant with God based on his Word. It says that Ezra “read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday… and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”
If you fidgeted a little during the 10 minute blessing of the solar panels outdoors last week, imagine standing around while Scripture was read for maybe 6 hours. And imagine being so gripped by hearing it, so deeply moved, that it made you cry. We heard Nehemiah tell them: "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”
We aren’t reading the rest of Nehemiah today, but after this extended reconnection with the sacred text that gives them their identity, they move on into practicing that identity. In their liturgical year it is the feast of Booths, so they get out all the stuff and observe those ancient ceremonies again together. They confess their sins, the reason they were exiled in the first place, and then they renew the covenant with God, all of them.
There are some places where the Bible gives the impression of a kind of unified exile experience – everyone left, then everyone came back – but actually we know that it was more complicated. While this very ceremony was going on, some exiles were also still in Babylon and didn’t much want to go back to being active Jews in their homeland. People had come back because they liked Jerusalem, but we see quickly as the story continues that they weren’t planning on actually practicing their faith.
In so many ways this is our own situation – we were away from our space, some have come back, some have used this time as a way of recognizing how our culture also exiles us from the truths Christianity proclaims, others have decided that assimilation to the culture is what they prefer and stepped back their involvement with Christ. We are still in exile and back from exile at the same time. Like the people in today’s OT reading, we have some structures of an active community of faith up and running, but with a different group of people and a new context in which to minister.
Our last Annual Meeting was on Zoom. In between, over the summer, our vestry and some other leaders took a long look at what we needed to consolidate and renew in order to be able to relaunch more effectively. We studied both what has happened in churches and society because of Covid, and also the longer term changes in assumptions and ways of life in the USA that have made organized spiritual practice, and organized Christian spiritual practice in particular, so very implausible. We asked why churches failed so thoroughly to make practicing Christians out of an entire generation of people, and we realized that we just can’t assume that the Christian foundations that used to be common are still there. They aren’t. We have to lay them.
Our shorthand for all this in the long run was that we don’t have the luxury anymore of putting money and time and energy into things that don’t help people commit to Christian truth, acquire Christian tools, or commit to Christian belonging. Our situation is too urgent for that. Like the Israelites, in aggregate we are a people back from exile, still in exile, and both more and less committed than ever, all at the same time. And the future of this people is in your hands.
I would have hoped we’d have the volunteer infrastructure and lay ministry capacity in place to be back to two Sunday services by, I don’t know, maybe last September? But it was a struggle even to fill the lay ministry openings on Christmas Eve! Projects we would have finished over a year ago, like deploying our rectory, were more or less dissolved by Covid and have struggled to restart. I think one of the healthiest things I’ve done in this difficult time (and it took me several months to do it, I admit) is to just accept that we can only do what we can do with the actual people and actual energy we have, and that giving ourselves grace about that is really important.
I am in my 8th year here, which is a long tenure these days, and I’m coming up on 28 years ordained, and I’ve never seen anything like this – but I don’t think any of us have. I’ve done a lot of parish revitalization over the years, but almost no rebuilding from scratch! It’s daunting, to think about all of us laying foundations and doing the work that lies ahead. But there is also, let me say, a lot to be happy about.
I’m glad that we have a small group of our lay leaders going through the Revive program from Forward Movement together – one of the things our vestry groups realized over the summer was that developing more invested and empowered lay spiritual leaders at Emmanuel is crucial. I’m glad that we have a lay team working on creating Christian formation that includes our whole church community across the generations rather than only addressing some age-based slots. Many of you experienced their work at Saints Gonna Saint and during Advent. And I’m glad that we have another lay team working on involving a wider group of people in presenting and maintaining the liturgical environment of this space, a sacred ministry that is such a key part of how Episcopalians encounter God.
If we are going make more practicing and proficient Christians, we have to take care of the resources God has given us, and in that area I’m glad about several things too. Our finances, as you’ll hear, are the best they’ve been in several years. Giving is up, and fulfillment of pledges is up. The year I arrived at Emmanuel your total giving for the year was about $350,000, and in 2021 it was about $425,000. I think you can feel good about the steps you’ve taken in generosity, as well as the transition we made a few years back to using our endowment more responsibly and sustainably.
We’ve also accomplished an astonishing amount of physical plant work so far in my time here, from the new signage to a couple boiler replacements to the sound system to substantial work on the organ to the long list of projects that will be in our Junior Warden’s report today. As they say, that’s not nothin'. If we cannot both fund what God is calling us to do and keep our sacred space in good shape, our work for the Gospel is undercut. But as we come out of this pandemic and look around at where we really are, the question we need to ask over and over – you need to ask, really – is about discipleship. Christian truth, Christian tools, and Christian belonging.
How are we doing at communicating Christian truth and making it plausible in a society that is either baffled or offended by basic Christian ideas like servanthood, forgiveness, and the common good? How are we doing at Christian truth?
How are we doing at equipping each other with Christian tools that we can deploy when life gets overwhelming, or when we discover the first thing we’ve done for the past 24 mornings is to look at our phones? Christian tools that give us the presence to respond unlike our society wants us to when we are faced with a racist or sexist or homophobic action, or when we need the strength to make a moral choice? How are we doing at Christian tools?
How are we doing at Christian belonging? Not just belonging. Christian belonging. How are we doing at making the bonds of the body of Christ stronger than bonds of family, of economic class, of generation, of race? How immediately do we resist the temptation to gather in these walls, only with people we would gather with outside them, to surround ourselves only with people who think and act and purchase like we do? How are we doing at Christian belonging?
Christian truth, Christian tools, and Christian belonging are the foundations that we have to lay now, if we want our exile to end and our faith to be renewed. May God give us the courage, insight, and generosity to lay them together. Amen.