Archive for March, 2018

We are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves  (Nehemiah 9.36)

It is hard to think ourselves back into the situation of Nehemiah and his community.
They came home to Jerusalem, but it was no longer the capital of a nation state
The ruins of the city now lay in the Persian province of Palestine

They had been released from captivity, but they were not really free
Most of what their land produced had to be handed over in taxes to their new rulers, the emperors of Persia
That is what the word ’empire’ means – exploitation
Empire is a system where one country controls the productive assets of other countries, and uses them for its own benefit

Nehemiah puts it very clearly
We are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9.36-37, esv)
He feels the pain of living in a situation which does not echo God’s design
Of being prisoners in their own land, of working the soil but being denied the fruits

This Lent, we have followed a course devised by the Centre for Theology and Community.
The Centre links the exploitation of the least well-off in society by payday lenders directly to the breakdown of community

We have abolished slavery, haven’t we?
Although we’ve only just finished off paying off the debt the State incurred in compensating the slave owners of the Caribbean
And the police are giving increasing attention to the problem of modern slavery

What forms does slavery take in our society? The answer is, many
Someone at a training session on modern slavery, someone I had met several times before, suddenly shared that she had been trafficked into this country and made to work as a domestic servant, abused and unpaid

Many forms of slavery are more subtle than locking someone in a room to sew fashions, or forcing them to sleep in a shed between long shifts picking vegetables in the fields
The free market our society is basically in favour, has voted for in elections, of creates opportunities for unscrupulous people to profit from poverty

Market freedom is economic freedom – freedom for people with money
The market is free, but it treats people differently depending on their circumstances
The more money you already have, the easier and the cheaper it is to borrow
The more desperate you are for money, the more it costs you to take out a loan

The market is free, but for some people it creates traps
When you take out a payday loan, it appears on your credit record
Even if you repay on time, it’s more difficult to borrow from mainstream lenders in future
So when you need money again, you might find yourself driven back into the arms of the payday lender you borrowed from in the first place – you might become a regular customer

Payday lenders deliberately target vulnerable people at moments of difficulty
Think of the adverts on television: a
A young driver broken down at the roadside, who needs his car for work
A harassed working mother whose son is complaining because the boiler has broken down and he can’t have a shower

A payday loan looks like a convenient solution to problems like these
But it creates more problems and more pressures further down the road

Financial pressures are a leading cause of relationship and family breakdown
Relationship failures and family breakups have an impact on society as a whole
In other words, everyone bears the cost of payday loans and poverty more generally

We are sometimes tempted to blame people for having got themselves into financial difficulties
We are tempted to believe we are morally superior, because we are more careful – more responsible
Blaming the victims makes problems easier to tolerate – it does nothing to solve them

How do we break the cycle of blame and disadvantage that leads to social division?
The whole thrust of the gospel is, we cannot be an island of perfection in a sea of corruption

In the first recorded sermon Jesus preached, he proclaims good news to the poor and liberty to the captives (Luke 4.18).
How do we as a church proclaim this good news in our community?
The course we have been following says we should do it through specific, visible actions

Nehemiah does this – he rebuilds the walls of his city
He doesn’t stop there – he rebuilds the community and family life by attacking the problem of exploitation, and the slavery that proceeds from debt
He attacks those problems by appealing to the law of God, that says no Jew shall enslave another, take away their land, or take advantage of their poverty by charging them interest on a loan

In the passage we heard today (chapter 9), Nehemiah implicitly brings all of these things together
He produces a covenant, and has it signed by the political and religious leaders of the people

Remember what the biblical covenant is: a divine decree, that binds the people to the land, to one another, and to God
It tells them how they are to live in the land, how they are to behave towards one another, and how they are to love and obey their God

Nehemiah draws up his covenant to set the seal on a new way of living
A way of life that binds everyone together and binds everyone to God
A testimony not just for themselves, but for all the nations round about who have mocked the collective poverty and humiliation of the Jews and their struggle to rebuild

It’s a good ending – it’s not a perfect ending
Nehemiah calls the people to re-affirm their status as God’s chosen people
Yet there they are, still living as slaves in the Promised Land

That is the point where the New Testament begins
The people we read about in the gospels live under the dominion of Rome, not Persia
But they, too, thirst for release from captivity – for redemption
They long for salvation history to reach its climax – for the kingdom to come

We are in the same situation of hoping and longing, now and not yet
We have a new covenant, sealed in the blood of Christ
As Christians, we exist to proclaim this new covenant – the covenant of hope and life
We proclaim it, while we wait for the coming of our Lord in glory

The best way to proclaim the covenant of hope and life is to make it real for others
The best way to make it real is to do something concrete and visible for the people who suffer most from the loss of hope

We try to act in ways that bring real hope – as a testimony that our faith is real, because the gospel hope is real
We’re not rich, we’re not powerful, so we act in small ways
But we try to act in ways that are real and authentic, and ways that make a difference
Ways that build relationships with people in our community
Ways that speak of salvation; ways that are prophetic

18 March 2018, St George’s, High Heaton

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Nehemiah lays down the law

Posted: March 11, 2018 in Uncategorized

Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly. … He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday.  Nehemiah 8.2-3

It’s a struggle combining Mother’s Day with the themes we’ve been looking at during Lent
You probably know, Mothering Sunday was a day when people returned to their mother church – the church where they were baptised
Which meant it was also a holiday people could spend with their parents – and perhaps bring their mother a gift
So it eventually became a day devoted to celebrating mothers and thanking them

Mothering Sunday from medieval times was also a day when fasting rules were relaxed
Before the final weeks of fasting leading up to Easter

The theme of the whole season of Lent is repentance
And it’s certainly true that family relationships hinge on repentance – the willingness to admit it when we have been in the wrong

On Tuesday evenings in our Lent course, we’ve been making our way through the book of Nehemiah
How does the book of Nehemiah relate to Mother’s Day?
You could say, the overarching theme of Nehemiah is God’s love for his people

God’s people often act in ways that seem to show they don’t deserve his love
God responds in ways that demonstrate his disapproval
Sometimes quite drastic ways – like allowing the armies of Babylon to burn down Jerusalem
But he never disowns them – he is always there for them, the moment they turn back to him
A bit like a mother

We’ve had some debate about how to pronounce Nehemiah
The correct Hebrew pronunciation is nee – chem – yah
The yah at the end means ‘God’
The whole thing means, ‘God is compassionate’
His story is designed to show God’s compassion in action, working through Nehemiah

Nehemiah about rebuilding – rebuilding the city, but also rebuilding social relationships and the people’s relationship with God
This rebuilding is a work of repentance

I’m only here once a fortnight, so you’ve only heard half the story – so let’s recap
Nehemiah is one of the Jews living in exile in Babylon
But the Babylonians have now been conquered by the Persians

Nehemiah is a high official, serving the Persian emperor Artaxerxes
When the story begins, he’s with the emperor in the city of Susa, the main capital of the empire and the emperor’s winter residence

Jewish visitors tell Nehemiah how bad things are for the exiles who have gone home to Jerusalem
The walls are broken down, the gates have been burned
The people are in trouble and ashamed – humiliated in the eyes of their neighbours

Nehemiah prays (he prays before every action he takes), then he asks the emperor if he can go to Jerusalem and give them his help
The emperor agrees – he sends Nehemiah there as governor, but we don’t find that out till later

Nehemiah sets the people to work to rebuild the walls
They succeed, even though their enemies try to stop them

But that’s not the end of the work
The real heart of the book is the passage we looked at last week, from Chapter 5
The poor come to Nehemiah, and complain that they are being exploited by the rich
They can’t afford to feed themselves or pay their taxes, so they are being forced to borrow at high rates if interest; to sell their lands, and even sell themselves and their families into slavery

Nehemiah gets the rich and powerful together, and tells them off
He says, this isn’t good enough – the way you’ve behaved is a disgrace
You’re dragging down our reputation in the eyes of the whole world

He says, I and my friends are having to give food and money to the people you’re exploiting
We even have to pay out of our own pockets, to buy back Jews you’ve sold as slaves to foreigners

He says, no one should exploit a fellow Jew who is poor or in need
If anyone needs help, give it to them – expect nothing in return
Don’t charge interest on the money you lend them, don’t take their land, don’t enslave them

In chapter 8 Nehemiah goes further: he realises, this people needs some religious re-education
The reason they’ve wandered so far from God’s law is, they don’t actually know it

I admit, it’s hard to believe this part of the story in the form it’s told to us in this chapter
It’s hard to picture the whole people standing outside, from dawn till noon
While Ezra the priest reads the whole of Deuteronomy, chapters 1 to 34, and other priests give a running commentary
It’s hard to believe they listened to the whole thing, never mind that they broke down and cried tears of repentance
But apparently, that’s what happened

What were they listening to?
The book of Deuteronomy is a series of sermons preached by Moses to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land – instructions about how they were to live there

God brought this people out of slavery in Egypt and gave them the land of Canaan
But along with the land, he gave them the law
The law sets out the relationships God wants the people to have with the land, with one another, and with himself

Nehemiah reminds the people, God punished your fathers by driving them out of this land
If you want to remain here and do well here, obey God’s law
Not just the bits that suit you – all of it
Not just the bits that seem to condemn other people’s sins – but the bits that seem most immediately to condemn your own
The bits that speak most forcefully to every individual are the bits that speak about how they are to treat one another

How does all this relate to Mothering Sunday?
Mothers are home-makers – and Nehemiah dedicates himself to rebuilding a home for the people

Meaning not just the physical laying of one stone on another
But restoring the spirit of love and justice within the community

The end of the passage shows the people have learned this lesson
They weep tears of repentance, then they rejoice and hold a feast
But the poor are not forgotten, and they are not left out
The well-off send portions of food to those who have nothing, so that they can join in

The rebuilt city is not just a physical symbol of the nation’s greatness
Not just a dwelling place for God’s people
But a home, a dwelling place, for God himself – a place that proclaims, God is with his people

Which brings us back to the difficult questions, the challenging questions
We, too, are rebuilding; every church is a temple of living stones, that is constantly being rebuilt
Because people die, or move on, and new people come

What kind of home are we building here?
And who is it for? Ourselves, our God, our neighbour?
Which of these comes first? And which should come last?

11 March 2018, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years. … You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you  Leviticus 25.8-10, esv

We take our calendar so much for granted, it’s easy to forget that ancient cultures had calendars of their own
We may not realise that these calendars embodied different ways of thinking about time
In nearly every case, that was a religious view of time

To the ancient Hebrews, the universe is a divine creation
Each new day, each season, each new year, is a new act of creation –a divine gift
God has his times and seasons, and these must be our times and seasons, if we want our will to agree with his

We sang, :Lift your voice, it’s the year of Jubilee; out of Zion’s hill, salvation comes
The year of jubilee – what does that mean?

It’s got nothing to do with the English word jubilation
It comes from the Hebrew yobel or qeren hayyobel, the horn of the ram meaning trumpet – the trumpet used in temple worship

The Jewish calendar is organised around cycles of seven
A week is seven days, mirroring the days of creation, and the seventh day is the Sabbath, a day of rest

The years follow the same pattern
Every seventh year is a Sabbatical Year – nothing is planted and the earth is allowed to rest

Every seventh Sabbatical Year, in other words every 49th year, is a Year of Jubilee
The Jubilee is a great religious festival
It is a time of redemption, and restoration; it marks a new beginning

Jubilee is a time to focus on relationships with neighbours, with the land, and with God
Sometimes, people in this society sold themselves into slavery to clear their debts
Jubilee is the time when the law says, they must be set free

If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee (Lev 25.39)

The Promised Land is God’s land – he gave it to his people as their inheritance
The land was divided among the tribes and their clans, as described in Scripture

The land cannot be bought and sold – it can only be rented
When the year of Jubilee comes, the land returns to its original owner

In writings from before the exile, Scripture promises judgement on people who try to build enormous estates for themselves

Woe to those who join house to house,
who add field to field, until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
“Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.” (Isa 5.8-9)

You know the story of Naboth’s vineyard – he refused to sell his land to King Ahab
Because it was not his to sell – it was his children’s inheritance
An inheritance which came not from him, but from God

We know if the Bible condemns anything, it must have been something that was already happening – you don’t pass laws against crimes that no one commits
The Bible’s books of the law tell God’s people their actions have divine consequences

Every Jubilee is an opportunity and a summons, to make a fresh start
A time for people to repent of their disobedience, forgive their debtors, free their slaves, restore the property they have taken, and turn back to God

According to tradition, God’s people entered the Promised Land in a Jubilee year
The exiles return from Babylon in another Jubilee year
The timing of their homecoming is a sign that God is making a new covenant with his people – which means a fresh start, a new obligation to live according to the laws of God

Nehemiah comes to lead the people who have come home
And he’s upset to find already they have departed from the law of the covenant

They are doing three things to their poorer neighbours which the law explicitly forbids:
– Lending money to them and demanding interest
– Taking over their land
– Forcing them and their families to work as slaves

Nehemiah only came to Jerusalem to help the people rebuild the walls
But he finds there is a much more important work to do
To rebuild the community, and restore justice

He takes the wealthy to task; he forces them to make restitution; he declares a jubilee
In doing so he tells them, in no uncertain terms, that the blessings of God are meant to be theirs; that their poverty is not a sign that God favours others more than them

That presents us with a challenge
The poorer you are in our society, the more likely you are to suffer exploitation
Poverty breeds poverty, and disadvantage breeds disadvantage

What does salvation mean, to people who live in poverty from day to day?
How can we talk about the promises of God, to people who have only known disappointment and broken commitments?

How can we talk to people who have nothing, about the riches of Christ?
What does it mean to say to people with nothing, as Jesus did, I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10.10)?
How can we demonstrate to people, who can’t get themselves out of debt, that coming to Christ is a new beginning, that wipes out the past?

Unless and until we find ways to do address the material problems of poverty, it’s not likely they’ll believe that the kingdom we speak about is something real

3 March 2018, St George’s, High Heaton