January 23, 2022 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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At last year’s Annual Meeting, the Old Testament lesson was from Jonah, that whining, unhappy, bitter prophet who attempts to escape his calling and to hide from the challenges and difficulties that surround him.  A year ago we were still in lockdown, the insurrection of January 6 had just happened, we were all on edge and ready to be done with the pandemic and political turmoil.  I’m probably not the only one who, like Jonah, wanted to quit, run away or hide my head under the covers.  Many of us have had anger management problems, mental health issues and are just fed up!  We relate to Jonah.

This year the lesson is from Nehemiah, a very different Old Testament character.  Nehemiah is Jewish, serving as a minor official in the Persian court, the court of the empire that has occupied Israel and devastated its capital, Jerusalem.  Nehemiah is no prophet, priest or scribe, but rather an administrator, a strategic planner, leader and manager. 

Nehemiah and the other Jews in exile hear about the state of Jerusalem – the broken down walls, economic distress and lack of secure housing.  They hear that the people have no religious leaders or regular liturgical practice.  They don’t have access to the Scripture and have forgotten the laws, commandments and practices of the Torah.  It is a city and a people who have lost their way, who have seen everything they used to take for granted decay and decline.

Nehemiah appeals to the Persian King Artaxerxes and is granted the King’s support to leave for Jerusalem, bringing construction material and workers in order to rebuild, repair and renew the city and its population.  As surprising as this foreign support may seem, it’s not without strings.  In exchange for help in rebuilding Jerusalem, Persia will get the tax revenue from any economic prosperity.  A flourishing, economically diverse city will benefit everyone.

When Nehemiah arrives, he finds opposition.  He rallies those who share the vision for renewal and they work 24/7 for 52 days until a substantial part of the wall that protects the city is repaired and rebuilt.  It’s a heroic accomplishment and creates some measure of stability and security, which allows the city to begin to recover. 

The rebuilding of infrastructure that Nehemiah leads is accompanied by spiritual renewal, led by the priest, Ezra who reintroduces the people to the words and promises of God in Scripture.  They weep and worship when they hear the message.  Through confession and celebration, they take the words to heart.

The story of Nehemiah is a compelling one as we long for renewal and rebuilding after two years of the pandemic; the loss of in person attendance at church and community events; the emptying of offices, restaurants and buildings; the lack of proper shelter for many of our most vulnerable neighbors; and the departure of the privileged to vacation homes or even outer space!  Our health care workers are exhausted and demoralized.  Parents are simply struggling to get through another day and every family has been touched by illness and even death from COVID.  We need renewal!  We want revival!  We need a Nehemiah to lead us to safety, security and prosperity!

But there is a warning in this text and a corrective that we find in Jesus’s words.  Nehemiah and Ezra pursued the plan of renewal by setting up exclusionary definitions of who benefits, who is in and who is out.  Jewish men in Jerusalem who had taken non-Jewish wives during the exile were forced to divorce them and send them and their children away without any support.  Only those who agreed with the Persian-backed plans for rebuilding were allowed employment in the project.  Religious and social purity codes established one caste over another in power, influence and wealth. 

Similar processes have influenced renewal and wealth development in our nation since its inception.  On our sabbatical trip to civil rights sites, museums and memorials, we encountered a repeated pattern where movements for justice and equality were followed by the backlash and systemic repression like Jim Crow laws, segregation of schools, redlining and excessive policing.  Today in the Central District of Seattle, traditionally African American churches are in danger of losing their land and buildings due to rapid gentrification.

And yet, there is a different prophetic voice that is lifted up throughout both testaments, Jewish and Christian.  It is Isaiah as quoted by Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Our longing for rebuilding and renewal is not for what has always been but rather for the vision proclaimed by the Messiah.  The vision of beloved community as described by the prophet Martin Luther King Jr.  The vision of St. Luke’s as a welcoming and diverse community with Christian worship and service at the heart.

We don’t want to go back, but rather forward.  We want to be about enlarging the tent, creating more homes for the poor, freeing folks from captivity to a narrow vision of who is in and who is out.  We want to proclaim the Lord’s favor to those who never thought they deserved it or who were told that they would never receive it. 

In order to continue to move forward, we will need good leadership, faithful stewards, managers and administrators.  Our plans for affordable housing, continued service to those who are poor and hungry, programs for children and families and space for our neighborhood to come together will require financial and professional partners, wise decisions and a firm hold on our vision. 

We will also need a renewed sense of mission and purpose.  We find that as we encounter the story of God’s people in Scripture.  We are filled with the Spirit in prayer and worship.   We can learn from the experiences of the past as we examine our tradition through the lens of Christ’s call to mission. 

Most of all, we will need to continually align ourselves with Jesus.  As the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, so do we need the guidance, inspiration and creativity of the Spirit in all that we undertake.   

I hope you will tune in for the Annual Meeting today at 11:30 and read the reports on the website.  You will hear about our care for the poor, hungry and unsheltered over this past year through meals, relationships and partnerships that helped move 72 of our neighbors out of tents and shelters in the park into transitional housing.  You will get an update on the development of our property and the support we have received to build affordable family housing.  You will hear about the creative ways we have supported one another through prayer, funerals, weddings and baptisms, discernment groups and pastoral care.  And you will see how well our leadership has managed staff, finances and resources to continue strongly through challenging times. 

All these activities are the expression of our identity as the Body of Christ.  Together we grow in love for God and love for neighbor.  We are renewed and revived by the Spirit and we seek to love as Jesus loved.  Amen.

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