Scripture: Nehemiah 3 (selected verses)
Like most pastors, I didn’t go into pastoral ministry in order to attend Trustees meetings. Still, if you asked me what was the best church meeting I’ve ever been to, my mind would go back to a Trustees meeting here at Arlington Temple back in 2017. We were talking about what to do about our broken HVAC system – that wasn’t what made it good. What made it good was that, as we talked, I looked around the table and saw an electrician, an engineer, an architect, a lawyer. Several folks brought their knowledge of the church’s hardware; one had taken pictures. I added some insight here and there about church polity and resources. Each person brought their gifts and knowledge to the table, and while we didn’t leave that night with a solution in hand, we did leave with everyone knowing their own next steps as we continued getting there. And to me, that was just a beautiful image of church and why it matters for us to be here in ministry together.
In the past few weeks since we’ve been – some of us – back in our sanctuary, where the AC is (yes) once again on the fritz, we’ve been following the story of the exiles who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem after the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia. We’ve heard about how this triumphant homecoming was in reality a lot less triumphant than they had envisioned. We’ve talked about the challenges they faced along the way as they tried to rebuild the Temple. We’ve talked about how we can relate to them, here at the end or not really quite at the end of our own Covid exile.
Today, we move on their story of rebuilding – together.
The Second Jerusalem Temple is, finally, completed. It takes 20+ years from when the first exiles arrive back in Jerusalem, but it does get built. Good! There’s a problem, though, because while the Temple is good to go, Jerusalem itself is still in pretty sad condition. It’s here that the scene shifts focus to a man named Nehemiah, a Jewish exile serving in the courts of Persia as the king’s cupbearer.
One day, Nehemiah gets some news. Some messengers come from Judah, and Nehemiah asks how everything is there. “Oh,” they say, “it’s not good. People are in trouble, the wall around Jerusalem has been broken down and its gates have been destroyed by fire!” (1:3)
Now, if you’re like me, you’re first reaction might be, right, we knew that already. Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon in 587 BCE, Nehemiah lives almost 150 years later, the fact that Jerusalem is in ruins should be a surprise to nobody. It’s not entirely clear whether the message is that Jerusalem is still in ruins, all this time later, or some more recent disaster has befallen it, maybe related to the adversaries in the land. Either way, when Nehemiah hears this news, he sits and weeps.
Then, he starts to put together a plan.
Everyone knows you don’t just ask the king for a favor. But Nehemiah is lucky: he’s one of the king’s trusted servants, with closer access than most. So one evening when he’s bringing the king his wine, Nehemiah puts on his best sad face and sighs heavily. The king asks what’s wrong, and Nehemiah tells him about the state of his hometown. “What do you need?” the king asks, and Nehemiah says, “To go home and rebuild.”
And that’s what he does. He gets his travel documents in order and heads out with several members of the king’s guard on the way to Jerusalem. When he gets there he doesn’t do anything at first – he just gets the lay of the land. At night, he rides around slowly inspecting Jerusalem’s walls and gates.
Only when he’s collected all the data does he finally tell people what he’s up to. He gathers all the people in the city and he says, “Look at these walls! Look at these gates! Look at the trouble we’re in here! C’mon, everyone – let’s start rebuilding!” And the crowd goes wild. That’s my addition, actually, but the text does tell us that they say “Let’s start rebuilding!” and eagerly get to work.
The passage from Nehemiah 3 that you heard Cathy read today, where they actually get started building the wall, probably is not one that’s highlighted in your Bible as one of your top 10 most inspirational Bible passages. I get that. It is, quite honestly, kind of a boring list. One person worked next to this person, and this next person worked on the next section down. I edited down today’s reading, and the long version is even more boring.
BUT, if we pay attention, I posit that this is actually a really beautiful passage. That’s because when I say Nehemiah got everyone together to rebuild this wall, I mean, apparently, everyone. There are priests and Levites and local officials and goldsmiths and perfumers; people from Jericho, people from Gibeon, people from Tekoa. There are individuals and families – one official brings his daughters. There are people of status and people of less status, and they all work together.
I have to assume that not all of these people are especially skilled at wall building and repair. Some of them probably do bring some gifts and experience to the table. The craftsmen among them would have at least known something about working with their hands. The priests must have been another story. Masonry is not a class they tend to teach in seminary. This makes me think of my first summer at ASP (our annual Arlington Temple summer mission trip with Appalachia Service Project) when I had to learn to use a circular saw. The clergy are not usually the ones who bring those particular construction gifts to the table. But it’s part of the ASP ethos to empower people to do things they didn’t think they could do, and it was our project, so I did my part. And back in Jerusalem, it’s their city and it’s their wall, and everyone is going to be a part of the rebuilding.
And again, it seems to me like a beautiful image of what church should be like. Each one of us, contributing our God-given gifts, each one of us willingly learning and serving, all of us with something to share, all of us working together toward one common purpose of welcoming people with the love of Christ and equipping them to be God’s people in the world.
I think the church needs this guiding image in any time – it’s why I always begin volunteer reminder emails and offering moments by reminding us that we are the church together. But I feel like it’s an especially important image for us at this time, when “together” has taken on yet another meaning, with some of us in one place and some of us in other places. There’s the beauty of being one community despite some distance, and the danger that we won’t always feel like one. For some of us it might not be possible to give and serve in the ways we’ve always done before; some of us may now need to step in in new ways so that all the sections of the wall are covered. (Let me take this time to point you to the worship volunteer signup out by the coat closet or in your weekly e-note – worship really does take all of us.)
And, of course, “church” isn’t just what happens here on Sunday mornings. If our mission is to welcome, call, empower, and equip people to be God’s people, that also happens beyond this time and beyond these walls, and that means all of you can be part of that, and all of you are needed – donating food, donating time, leading important discussions, leading mission projects, praying, spreading the word about what we’re doing here. As we figure out our new normal, as we do our own rebuilding, maybe the best thing we can remember is that we are the church together.
Not that this beautiful image is always perfect. It’s not, because communities are made up of people and we aren’t perfect. In Nehemiah’s case, conflict emerges between the haves and the have nots. This isn’t conflict with “enemies” in the land: these are one people, one community, the ones who are supposed to be working together. So yeah, it’s imperfect, but it’s real. And under Nehemiah’s leadership – which includes putting a swift end to any exploitation taking place – that wall is built in record time.
There’s a place in the New Testament, in the letter to the Ephesians, that we heard at the beginning of the service. It talks about how God is building two groups of people, Jews and Gentiles, into one. In this case a wall is being knocked down, instead of built. But then, as the author goes on, something else is being built in its place. “You are…members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:19-21).
It’s not really, you see, just about a building, or a wall, or a city. It’s about becoming God’s people, over and over again, as life changes. It’s about living into our mission, learning and living as followers of Jesus. It’s about worshiping God and loving our neighbor and inviting others in to do all of that with us. And it requires all of us, every last one of us, and all the gifts and skills we do and don’t have and everything we bring to the table. It’s about being the church, and we can only do it together.