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Ezra 1.1-5

Nehemiah 7.73-8.3, 9-12

Water Gate:  The Prequel

(Overlooked & Underpreached – IV)

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Let’s begin this morning with a word game.  I’ll say a word, and you tell me what it means:

Oversight:  to watch something closely / to not see or notice something.

Sanction:  to allow something / to forbid something.

Fast:  speedy / immovable

Cleave:  to bind together / to separate.

It’s this last contranym, “cleave,” in both its meanings, that best describes our approach to Ezra and Nehemiah this morning.

In the year 721 BCE, the kingdom of Assyria laid siege to Israel and Samaria and expelled Jews and Samaritans alike from their homes into exile; 130 years later the kingdom of Judah was likewise overtaken by the Babylonians, Jerusalem was destroyed, and what Jews were found in the city were dispersed throughout the Babylonian Empire.  It was the start of what has been called the Babylonian Captivity or the Babylonian exile, when the Jews were forced from their homes and homeland and compelled to live somewhere far from home.  And incidentally, it was the Jews’ longing for home while in exile that prompted the psalm that Diane Adams and Pat Holloway sang last week, “On the Willows” from Psalm 137.  “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  It was not until the late 500s BCE, between 530 and 520, that the Hebrew people were permitted to return home, and the opening verses of Ezra that Peg read for us this morning describe the edict of Cyrus, King of Persia, who conquered the Babylonians and then sanctioned the Jews’ return to their homeland:  “Any of those among you who are God’s people – may your God be with you! – [you] are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel.”

Both Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the Jews’ return to Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the temple, and the restoration of the city of Jerusalem and its walls.  These two books are the final historical books of the Old Testament; they close the chapter of Israel’s history and prepare the way for the books of poetry that follow:  Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.   Generally speaking, the book of Ezra focuses on the restoration of the Jerusalem temple, while Nehemiah focuses on the restoration of the city itself.  But in many ways, Ezra and Nehemiah are forever joined, and not just joined, but conjoined and intertwined, because they relate the same story from different points of view.  But given that the fulcrum of the story, the reading of the law of Moses, or the first five books of the Old Testament, in a part of the city square known as the Water Gate, was read by Ezra deep in the heart of the book of Nehemiah gives us a hint about how difficult it is to unravel the two tales.

Allow me to further complicate things.  If we were able to organize the story told by these two books as it occurs chronologically, we would have to read the books in the following order:  We would begin with Ezra 1 and read to the end of chapter 2, which parallels Nehemiah chapter 7 verses 6 through 73a; we would then pick the story back up at Ezra 3 to chapter 4 verse 6, skip over to Ezra 4.24 and read to 6.22, at which point we would go back to chapter 4.7-23.  Then we would go over to the start of Nehemiah 1 and read to chapter 7 v. 5, and from there read Nehemiah chapters 11 through 13.  Still with me?  Good! Now we go back to Nehemiah chapter 9 v. 38 and read through 10.39; return to Ezra and read straight through chapters 7, 8, 9 and 10, and we would bring it all home by reading the remaining verses of Nehemiah, which, for those of you keeping score at home, are Nehemiah 8.1 through 9.37.

About once a year Debbie will bring me the contents of her jewelry box, specifically all the necklaces that have gotten tangled together for me to untangle.  Don’t ask me how I got to be good at this arcane skill, it’s a short boring story, but I am able to finesse the finest of chains, no matter how many nor how knotted, and eventually disentangle them all.  It is painstaking work, it takes a while to do, but the result is gratifying.  This is the best analogy I can think of for untangling Ezra and Nehemiah as I sorted it all out this week.  In some ways we need to sort out the books, but I think first we want to sort out the people.

Ezra was both a priest and a scribe.  Upon Cyrus’ edict that permitted the Jews to return to their homeland, it was his responsibility to have oversight of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.  So throughout both books, the idea of the centrality of the temple is at the forefront.  Nehemiah, while a faithful Jew, was more like what you and I would call a governor:  he was responsible for the civil restoration of the city, and his primary focus was on rebuilding the wall that once surrounded the city.  (And no, the Bible does not tell us whether Mexico paid for the wall.)  The two of them worked in concert, and the fact that they both figure prominently in each other’s story shows just how interrelated were their twin responsibilities.  To put it another way, their lives and their work were so cloven together that it is difficult to cleave them apart.   And there is good reason for this – in the earliest scriptures, Ezra and Nehemiah were but one book of the Hebrew bible, not two; taken together, the book was simply called “Ezra.”  The division between the two does not appear in the Hebrew Bible until the fifteenth century.  Clearly it was a difficult, and in some ways, awkward separation.

 And yet… and yet, to quote from a familiar litany from another part of the church’s worship, “What God has joined together, let no one bring asunder.”  If the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are so complicatedly connected, if they are bound so fast, perhaps there are reasons for it.  The overlooked and underpreached books we’ve been talking about this summer, specifically the minor prophets and the lesser epistles, have offered some shared themes, among them the importance of the church being the church and not pretending to be like the rest of society, and the dangers of the state trying to pretend to the role of the church.  In other words, variations on the division between church and state.  But here in Ezra and Nehemiah, in some ways the church, or temple theme of Ezra the scribe and priest one the one hand, and the civic and law, or torah-oriented work of Nehemiah the governor on the other, appear to have a symbiotic relationship, each depends on the other, each needs the other to be successful in itself.  Now granted, there is not an apples-to-apples equivalency between ancient Israel and its faith-based foundations and 21st century America and its separation of powers.  But it does suggest that church and state can sometimes work together for good.  Ezra needed Nehemiah to be successful, and Nehemiah needed Ezra to be successful.

I think this is particularly evident at the local level.  In some ways, our church’s observation of the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks last year successfully straddled both worlds.  The solemn observance of September 11 is a civic remembrance, it is not a religious holiday.  But there we were, standing on the church steps that sunny Saturday morning, providing an opportunity for us to come together as a civic community to remember a morning that wounded us all.  Could this observance have been as effectively hosted at Town Hall or at the flag pole?  Absolutely.  But to do this on church grounds made the important statement that in times of particular tenderness, God is there to bind us all together in a divine and dynamic embrace.

Or consider that, at the start of the pandemic, members of our own church partnered with town hall and other members of the community to create the Chester Community Partnership, which has grown from finding shots for our most vulnerable residents to providing food for the hungry, bringing computer skills to our elderly and giving diapers and formula and other necessities to young families.  It is this synthesis, this partnership between church and local government that has helped ease our community through some very difficult days.

So it is both possible, and often beneficial, for the church to stand with elected leadership and effect a public witness of the ways our cooperation can contribute to the good of the community, both the civil community and the faith community.  But I think the example of this morning’s description of Israel’s history indicates that such partnerships are sometimes a ginger and tentative dance.  I relish the Memorial Day parades when Rabbi Marci and I have the opportunity to march down Main Street together in a show of interfaith community, and I also relish the opportunity we have, particularly in the prayers and remarks we are invited to make, to hold the community to a high standard of justice and equity and inclusion.  We are not there to bless the town regardless of whatever direction it chooses to take, but rather to provide both a moral and a faithful compass in the context of creating and maintaining community.

Sometimes we are Ezra, contributing to the work of the church to present a more effective witness to the love and mercy of God; sometimes we are Nehemiah, building up the systems which bring critical knowledge and materials to the benefit of our citizens.  And if, like so many Chesterites, there are times when we aren’t certain which hats we are wearing on which days, that’s OK.  When Nehemiah makes an appearance in the book of Ezra and Ezra shows up in the middle of Nehemiah’s story, at the end of the day both the religious community and the civic community emerge stronger as a result

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