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City on a Hill

Nehemiah 5.1-13

Last week, we ended with a picture of the risen Christ, telling the women, “Tell the disciples to go back to Galilee and meet me there.”  At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus goes back.  Back to Galilee – the place where his ministry began and he made a name for himself as a teacher and a healer and a miracle worker.  Back to Galilee – the place where he first encountered the broken and the hurting and the unloved.  Back to Galilee – back to work.  For the risen Christ is not pristine and removed from the pains of the world – he is in the midst of them.

This week, we begin together a series titled City on a Hill: A Light to This City.   And when I say we, I mean we.  Over thirty churches in Lawrence have been working together over the last several months to begin a dialogue about justice.  What it means.  What our Scriptures say about it.  What it means to our community, our own City on a Hill.  Several of us, including members of our Missions Ministry, have been involved in this conversation, and are talking about ways to continue to be involved.  And it makes sense that we as Baptists should be leading the way.  Following in the example of Baptists like Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Tony Campolo, we have joined this effort early and have participated in significant ways.  Baptists have often been some of the loudest voices proclaiming justice.  And one of those ways begins today, as we move that conversation from coffee meetings and church fellowship halls to the sanctuaries of worship.  We gather together with many different faith communities who during this season are talking about what justice means in our context in our community.

One of the primary Scripture texts that pulls us together in this effort has been Nehemiah 5.  How many of you have read Nehemiah?  Probably not high on your list, is it?  The book of Nehemiah tells the story of the Israelites returning after the Exile.  The ruling Persians allowed them to return to rebuild their Temple and the city and the wall around the city, and Nehemiah’s job was to focus on that last part.  Because without a wall, there would not be a city for long!  But, it cost money to build the wall, and the community was already cash strapped, forced to pay taxes to the Persians to pay for their army and their conquests, and suffering the results of a famine.  Enter the opportunists.  There were those who saw this as an opportunity to make a buck, so they began lending to the poor farmers and townspeople.  They gave them food, in exchange for the collateral of their homes, their farms and fields, and even their children, sold into slavery.  Eventually, the poorest members of the community were unable to repay, and they were foreclosed on.  And they were left without food, and without the ability to grow anymore or even rely upon their children to help them restore themselves.

And so, we read this narrative in the fifth chapter: (Read Nehemiah 5.1-13)

Into the middle of this historic book relating the construction process of wall around the city comes this chapter about justice.  Nehemiah responds to this context of injustice and basically calls out the leaders and the ruling class for taking advantage of the poorest, instead of helping them.

The first point that Nehemiah makes, one that is relevant to us today, is that justice is not theologically neutral.  He doesn’t mince words.  He tells those who are taking advantage of the poor that they are not just angering the victims, but angering God.  “The thing that you are doing is not good.  Should you not walk in the fear of God?”  Nehemiah tells those in his community that walking in fear – or faith – in God involves caring for the whole community and not just looking after number one.  This is a faith issue, he says.

And his words speak to us today, too. As soon as we start thinking and talking about justice, you’ll find good church folks start to squirm.  “I don’t know, pastor.  That’s sounds like politics to me.  I don’t think that we should start getting political.”  But here’s the deal.  Justice isn’t political.  This is Biblical.  Justice is not theologically neutral and we cannot ignore the pages of Scripture that call us to justice.

And the faith communities of Lawrence agree.  Perhaps you noticed in the newsletter the list of faith communities who are engaging in this effort.  This is not just churches that are from one narrow theological point of view.  This is a wide swath of faith communities.  Many of us are reading Scripture and saying that justice is something that we all have to agree upon.  Issues of justice and injustice are not theologically neutral.  God picks a side!

So what is that side?  What is justice?  What are we talking about here?  When Nehemiah heard the cries of the poor and realized that there were those who were being mistreated and left hungry and enslaved, he had several options.  He could have sat on his hands and left it up to the poor to take care of themselves – to become more self-sufficient or self-reliant.  But he didn’t.  Or he could have taken action, but done it in a short term sense.  He could have organized a clothes closet, or a food pantry to care for the needs of the hungry and poor.  And it would have cared for their needs for a day, or a week, or maybe longer.  But those responses would have been limited in scope and impact.  But he didn’t do that, either.

Instead, he stood up to the powers that be and prophetically told them that they were doing the wrong thing.  “Restore to them this very day their fields and vineyards and orchards and houses!”  He became the voice for those who had no voice.  Like Amos and Isaiah and so many of the Old Testament prophets, Nehemiah took a stand and named the sinful, broken systems of our world.  He did more than offer ministries of mercy or charity.  He offered justice.  Justice means standing up against the broken systems of our world.

And I think we have to struggle with that same balance.  We do a good job at working to show mercy and charity to those who are in need here at First Baptist, and I fully believe that these ministries are important for us to do, and that we are doing the work of the Gospel when we do.  Our food pantry, our partnership with Family Promise, our partnership with LINK…these are all critical and meaningful mercy ministries that care for immediate needs of the least of these.  These things have to be done!  But they care for those needs of some people for a day, or a week, or maybe longer.  But those responses are limited in scope (in the number of people helped) and in impact (how long they are helped).  They must be only a part of our response to God’s call to serve.  But the example of Nehemiah is a call to stand against the structures and the systems that create the needs in the first place.

I wish I could say that that ancient backwards culture of the Israelites and the Persians is the only place where the poor are taken advantage of.  But you don’t have to look very far – just up to 6th street or down to 23rd – to find those who lend at exorbitant rates to those who will never be able to pay them off.  You don’t have to look very far to find those willing to loan to – and foreclose upon – those who are financially hurting in the middle of a struggling economy.  You don’t have to look very far to find those willing to build luxury apartment on top of luxury apartment and make absolutely no effort to create affordable housing for the majority of community residents.  You don’t have to look very far to find a ruling class that benefits on the backs of their workers – to the ratio of 1000:1 according to one study released this week – the income difference between those who own fast food companies and those who work in them.  And you can make an argument that those owners have more experience and ingenuity and education and ability – maybe – but a thousand times more?  You don’t have to look very far to see that this backwards, ancient, un-evolved culture of the Israelites and the Persians isn’t that different than good old Lawrence, Kansas.  If we are to follow the example of Nehemiah and Amos and Isaiah and Walter Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus, then we have to stand up against those structures and systems that create the needs in the first place.

For it was Jesus who began his ministry in Luke 4 standing up in the synagogue in his hometown and reading from the prophet Isaiah when he said that his mission on earth was free the oppressed and release the captive and institute the year of Jubilee where all debts are forgiven.  And he was not just standing up because there was an asterisk next to his name in the worship bulletin.  He was standing against the powers that be and telling them that this is not the way of God.  And it almost got him thrown off a cliff that day, and eventually got him killed.  Justice means more than helping.  Justice means standing up and saying no to the broken systems of this world, so that we can say yes to the needs of the many.  All of us.

And that’s where Nehemiah offers a final word for us today.  Because Nehemiah realized pretty early in the process that he was part of the problem.  He was a part of that ruling class that was loaning and lending and foreclosing and creating the system of abuse of the poor.  Before he did anything else, he looked in the mirror:  “Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain.  Let us stop this taking of interest.”  He led the way by changing himself first.

Nehemiah tells us that justice is our responsibility.  That we can’t just wait for someone else to do it.  We have to do our part.  We have to ask ourselves how we contribute to injustice in our world.  We have to ask us if there are times when we benefit from the victimization of others.  We have to ask ourselves if there are ways and times that we need to stand up and be a voice for those in need.  We have to ask ourselves if there are times that we need to get a little dirt under our own hands.

Perhaps that is why the call to justice is most appropriate now, as we celebrate the risen Christ.

For Jesus saw his mission as standing up against the forces of oppression and captivity.

Jesus gave his life when he stood up to those powers who would oppress and destroy.

And Jesus’ victory over the cross shows that the powers and principalities will not win.

I wish I had all the answers this morning.  How to create justice.  How to balance the need to help with the need to empower.  I don’t begin to suggest that it is simple or easy or quick.  I am not an economist or a social worker or a politician.  But my job is to open up the Bible and speak a word to us about how those stories and people of faith speak to us in our culture and context today.  And when I open up the Bible, I see a God who hates injustice – from beginning to end – and who holds responsible those who can do something about it.  I see a Spirit who calls us and empowers us to roll up our sleeves in order to help those who need it.  And I see a Christ in Matthew 25 who doesn’t just tell the least of these to work harder, but instead tells those with the means to help that if they don’t, they are going to hell.  I see a Word that doesn’t mince words, so I won’t either.

Let us answer that call together.  In the coming weeks in worship.  In the coming months in partnership with churches around Lawrence.  In the way that our church DNA responds to the call of Nehemiah and of Christ, and makes justice our priority.

Jesus went back to Galilee – back to the place where people continue to hurt and cry out and work their tails off.  And he told the disciples: “meet me there.”  Are we ready to go back to Galilee?  To meet the risen Christ?  To meet him in the midst of the broken and hurting?  To look for the risen Christ already at work, with sleeves rolled up?

Jesus went back to Galilee!  Are we ready to meet him there?

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