Do you all want to hear a really terrible joke? Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Who was the shortest man in the Bible? Nehemiah (Knee-high-miah)
Nehemiah was governor of Judea in the 5th century BC, a time when the area was ruled by the Persians. The glory days of King David and Solomon were far behind. The walls of Jerusalem had been broken down in war and Nehemiah was sent from Persia, where many of the Jews had been relocated, to rebuild the city and make the area prosperous. Even though, theoretically, the government supported Nehemiah, the local tribes in the area were hostile and he faced a number of challenges. He overcame them all and rebuilt the wall on only 52 days.
When he left Babylon, he took with him a man named Ezra who was of priestly lineage, and along with the rebuilding of the city, Ezra recovered the writings of Moses, which are now the first books of the Bible, and he taught the people what it meant to follow God’s law. They began to rebuild their culture and their religious practices which had been forgotten and lost. Ezra found the scrolls and he stood reading to the people from daybreak until midday, a fact that I will remember when I get impatient when our readings in Mass have the audacity to be longer than a single page and take a full two minutes(!) to read. Ezra also explained for them as he read, which is just the excuse I need to justify a six-hour homily. Here’s where it gets serious. As the people heard the Word of God read to them for the first time in their lives, they wept.
Ezra reads to them at a place called the Water Gate, which is part of the wall of Jerusalem where a protected area was built around a natural spring. It may have been the only place in Jerusalem to get fresh water, and was the source of life for the community. Here is where Ezra gathers them to impart spiritual life to what had been a dying community. The people weep and are overcome because, for the first time, they understand that they have an identity, they have a place in the world. For all of us, there are doubts and confusions about why we are here, what life is all about, and how to make the most of it. Those questions linger in our quiet and vulnerable moments when we’re being really honest with ourselves, and they stick with us because we’re in this strange position in which we yearn for something more but so easily frustrated in attempting to attain it. You might say that we have a sense of transcendence but yet are in these bodies that are quite obviously temporary. There is a boundary across which we cannot pass, and beyond it are the only answers to questions about reality and identity. There is one gate in that boundary – the Cross, a half-way house in which the abrupt and unintelligible is suddenly infused with power and wisdom. When all is in a ruin around us, when we struggle as though through an exile, surrounded by hostility, plagued by self-doubt, a spring of water miraculously pours forth, from the side of Christ, from the Scriptures, from the simple comfort that God has lovingly created you and your life is in his hands. We are thirsty, but thirst is exactly what we need when all the world is a Water Gate because Jesus is the wellspring of creation.
Nehemiah is a story about building – building Jerusalem, building their community and their relationship with God. What practical steps do they take, and how do we follow their example to do some building of our own?
First is prayer. Nehemiah spent four months in prayerful preparation before taking on his assignment. He was placed in charge and could have relied on his own authority and decision making ability, but he chose instead to humble himself and seek God’s advice.
Second, the community sought understanding. St. Luke writes his Gospel, he says, so that Theophilus will know the events surrounding the life of Christ, so that he won’t be ignorant of the Gospel. We’ve already mentioned how, “Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read.” It is so important that we know our faith and understand the teachings of the Church. There are many people out there who reject the Catholic Church, and when you ask them what the Church teaches, they have a bunch of inaccurate, prejudiced ideas. They’ve rejected a Church that is entirely imaginary. At the time of Ezra, the Jews were breaking God’s law every day because they had no clue. They had lost their heritage. The Catholic Church has so many spiritual treasures and so many beautiful, profound teachings that we desperately need to stay informed about. It would be a shame if we argued with the Church or questioned our faith simply because we didn’t take the time to understand.
Nehemiah, before he decided how to rebuild, made a plan. He walked the perimeter of the city, looked at the damage, saw what resources he had. As a pastor, I want to be adaptable and sensitive to the strengths of this parish, not dictate to you a plan that might work in some other parish but for Epiphany is totally unsuitable. We also shouldn’t set unrealistic expectations on ourselves as individuals. We get jealous and want to be like other people and think we’re falling short because they seem to have something we don’t, but what those people having going on isn’t what God has planned for us, and the funny thing is they’re probably jealous of us. We cannot dictate a plan that doesn’t fit us. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge ourselves, but it does mean that we look to develop in ways that are healthy and fitting.
When they were building the wall, they took ownership of the project and committed to it. Each family was responsible for their own section, basically worked in their own backyard. Take ownership of what direction you’re heading in. Many people believe in fate, or are so cynical that they give up and allow circumstances to dictate their choices, or that life is just atoms and molecules randomly interacting and we have no free will. Always remember that Jesus, by entering history, has bent it to his purposes. He’s like a meteor strike, and after he shows up there is no returning to normal. He shakes us loose from the whims of fate. He direct the stars. He alters the river of time. He gives you perfect freedom and choice. Use that freedom to build something you’re proud of.
Finally, it is important to understand that when we are in the will of God and building his kingdom, it isn’t a boring, long-faced, and somber existence. It is the very definition of joy. The saints are happier than anyone. Their innocence is wisdom, their humility freeing, their obedience the foundation from which they ascend an angelic ladder. Our Lord re-connects us with the ground of our being, of redeeming the entirety of our lives. In Luke’s Gospel, the connection is made between that day of rejoicing in Nehemiah’s day with the day of ultimate that begins with the ministry of Christ. Jesus basically says that he is the fulfillment of history.
To summarize: Prayer, Understanding, Plan, Ownership, and Joy. St. Vincent de Paul says that God’s love is endlessly inventive, so no matter where he has placed you it is for the building up of the Church and your own spiritual health. He is our strength and our source of life.