I come to you today as a voice from the past. The other day, Ezra read the Torah to us. That day was one of the most powerful moments in my life. Our city was devastated. We were rebuilding from nothing. The neighbors didn’t want us there. We were foreigners coming to take what they had claimed for their own. Building and fighting at the same time. We were exhausted and our hope was lagging. We weren’t sure why we were doing this. Then we heard the Torah – many of us for the first time ever! Imagine! I have to go back a bit to tell this story. It has deep, long roots.
I hope that my story may give you help for what you face now. My grandfather told me that people who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. And, the truth my grandfather was telling, is that our story is full of pain, and violence, and endings. These are the things time lines record. These are the markers of history.
But they carry nothing of the beauty, joy, strength and blessing between the hyphens on the date lines.
Long before I was born, my people became a nation, with a king, an army, walled cities and taxes. Grandfather Abraham is the blood in our veins, the one who believed first that God would be in relationship with human beings, that the One great God, Creator of all, was the One God of all beings. And this One God would make covenant – an agreement to be in relationship – with human beings. All this was before history was written down. But it is the story which gives life to all that follows.
Our Great Story is the that we are former slaves. Former, I say. The great birth story of our people is that God thrust us out of slavery into the desert of freedom, and finally our own land. From what I know, our grandmothers and grandfathers got hungry during a drought – the desert life if full of drought years – and they went to Egypt where the great river would supply their needs. They were a whole village of people when the went. But not enough to be of great concern to anyone. The trouble was that they did not go home. Why? We always wonder. If you have ever lived on the bank of a river or a stream or a lake, you know that it speaks to you. The water draws you to it. It is cool when you need it, wet when you are thirsty, food when you need a fish, and water when you need to grow wheat. Ahh, the great river!
But the land given to us was desert. Oh, it has its rivers, too, and lakes. But in our land we were nomads, living in tents, following the animals, who followed the grass, which follows the water. You understand, I am talking about my great, great, great, great… grandparents. If it were me, I would stay by the river, too, I think. But at the river, we got lazy. We did remember Grandfather Abraham and Grandmother Sarah, but we did not know the God they knew. We only heard the voice of the river, and its gods. We knew we were in land not ours, but still, it began to feel like home.
Until it didn’t. Suddenly a new law was passed and we were all reduced to slavery. God sent Moses to get us out of Egypt, out of slavery and back into the desert. This was a hard time. We had forgotten how to live in the desert. We liked the river. In the desert, we had to live and die the river out of our hearts.
But we did it! Finally, we were back in our desert. And it had beautiful land for farming, too, like your California desert land. At the river, we had learned how to farm. We settled in and got to work. Now that we knew how to produce food, others wanted our land. We needed protection – a king, walls for our cities.
David knew how to be king. He was a warrior who knew the God of Abraham. He secured our land and gave birth to the greatest dynasty of our people. But it didn’t last long. As we got settled, our leaders wanted to be esteemed by the other nations. Solomon, David’s son, built armies and collected taxes and drafted our young. By the time he died, his heirs could not hold it together. It was too much of a burden on a people. How quickly we forgot the voice of the God of Abraham!
The Northern majority withdrew and formed their own nation, with their own gods. That worked for a long time. We lived side by side for about two hundred years, almost as long as the United States has been a nation separate from England. But the Assyrians were too strong. The northern nation of Israel, with its capital in Samaria, were completely destroyed, ground to powder.
Refugees flooded to Jerusalem and the villages of Judah – those who could escape the deportation or sword. The influx of our family from the north was so great that Jerusalem had to build a new water system – the Siloam Tunnel, at the Water Gate. We built it so we could live together, a nation re-united, refugees and long-timers together.
But our successes made us lazy. We forgot who we were. King Josiah decided to revive us by cleaning out the unvisited Temple. He found the book of Moses, and read it to the people. It reconnected us with who we were.
But it didn’t last. Terror struck again. From the east came the armies of Babylon. Jerusalem’s walls were deconstructed stone by stone. The Temple was ground to dust. Everyone who could read, or keep track of matters of state was taken into captivity. The Torah was gone from us. No more Temple. No more Torah. The scrolls and all those who could read it were lost to us. My people were the ones left behind. With nothing.
Until one day. And here is where I pick up what you read today. One day, a caravan of people so long no one could see its end came into Jerusalem. We trembled with fear. We took up guard stations. We had no real defenses. But we could hide. And so we did .
It turned out that this hoard entering our land was the remnant and the children of those who had been taken from us more than forty years earlier. The Babylonians had been defeated in their own land, and the new government didn’t want to take care of these exiles So they sent them back, to make of their country what they could.
Back in Persia, this new ruler had given them freedom to worship as they pleased. And so the Torah scrolls had come out of hiding. The people gathered in community groups called, “Synagogues,” and listened to the Torah being read. They heard again the ancient words, our stories.
But here in Jerusalem, it had been dark. We had no one among us who could read. And no scrolls, anyway. The words were a mystery to us. We did not know who we were.
Nehemiah and Ezra made us get to work. Like slaves again. We started to rebuild the Temple and the Jerusalem wall. No houses.
We wanted more. We wanted a place to call home. But we needed to know who we were. So, we asked Ezra to come and read to us. And so, in the courtyard of the Water Gate, where our Northern and Southern states joined forces to build a water system generations ago, we gathered. In the space made holy by our work together, we heard our story, and the way we are called to live.
We built a platform for the reading, so we could hear. Ezra brought a host of Levites who could come among us and help us understand. At first light the reading began. We heard the words once given to Moses. We were all there. Children, mothers, fathers, young women and men, elders, too. No one was excluded. And we listened – hour after hour – to the great words.
It was the most powerful moment I have ever experienced. All the world came to a great pause, it seemed. Children were quiet, recognizing the thing which was happening. Even they knew the voice of the Lord coming to our ears.
We wept. We grieved. As Ezra read the words of Scripture, we heard how far we had fallen from the way we were to live with God. We were reminded of all we had lost, not only the city, the Temple, the kingdom David had built. We had lost track of our unique relationship with God. We did not know. We had forgotten.
We wept. Wailed. Nehemiah, Ezra, the Levites, they were moved with compassion. They saw us weeping and quickly moved among us to reassure us. Don’t sink into shame. God is so much more faithful that we, or any of those who have gone before have ever been or could be. God is still faithful to God’s promises. God is still at work and the rebuilding of Jerusalem was evidence of God’s unfailing love.
And joy began to break out among us. Joy which we had lost. Because finally, we heard the voice of God among us again. We knew in our bones that this was the voice our lives were tuned to. How can I explain it? It was a moment of deep knowing and being known, and that alone gave birth to joy. Nothing had changed. The city, the Temple, the wall were not magically restored. But WE were restored. We knew who we were. We had heard the voice of God.
Nehemiah called a feast! My family had nothing to feast on. But there were those who did. Everyone shared. We made make-shift huge tables. Families made room. We looked each other in the face around the joy of food and wine. And suddenly rather than refugees and the poor of the land, we were sisters and brothers. This joy of the Lord’s voice had become our strength. It made us one again. And in oneness, in family, in our community with God, there is strength.
The same Word that made the universe in the beginning was still making all things new. It was happening all around us.
So, maybe this is true for you as well. Perhaps it is the day when the voice of God will be heard in your land. And it will be the joy of seeing each other as the brothers and sisters you are. And the joy of the Lord will be your strength. We needed this strength to get us through. Life didn’t turn easy.
So may it be in your time and place. There is always a new beginning. So, weep when you need to, but remember that there is always a strong joy moving among you – the joy of the very presence of God.