Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity – evening
Sunday 6th October 2019
Trininty 16 – Proper 22 – evening
Nehemiah 5. 1-13
Revd Preb Maureen Hobbs
We are in the midst of Creation Season for the church. These latter weeks of Trinity when the autumn is upon us; harvest is just past and we are surrounded by signs of the hard days of winter to come – just ahead.
But for now, all is relatively comfortable. Most of the crops are in, there is plenty of fruit to be picked. No-one need go hungry. And yet we know that – not far from here, there are those who will be hungry this night. Families who are not sure where the next meal is coming from; mothers who are grateful that tomorrow is a school day and the children can look forward to a hot meal there if not at home. God has created a bountiful world for us to share, and yet we are, it seems, incapable of sharing it fairly.
Ah, you may ask, but what about the undeserving poor? The feckless who refuse to work; the addicts who waste their resources on drink or drugs: the alcoholics who cannot hold down a steady job and get evicted from their accommodation as a result? They should not receive our hard-earned and generous charity should they?
Shouldn’t they? Who are we to judge between the deserving and the undeserving? Wherever there is need, that is where we are asked to be generous. It is poverty itself that we should battle – and the institutional causes of poverty if not the individual ones. As others have said – “you can keep rescuing drowning people from the river – but perhaps it is better to go upstream and see who is throwing them in!”
Nehemiah in our first reading tonight was in a difficult situation. He was one of a group of high-status and wealthy Jews, newly returned from exile in Babylon. Although taken there in captivity following the defeat of the nation of Israel, they had prospered among the Persians and were now come back to rebuild the broken walls and palaces and the Temple of Jerusalem. But all that took money and manpower.
The poor peasants who had been left behind in Judah eked out a subsistence economy on land that was not the best. Wars and heavy taxes took their toll and there was famine in the land – leading to the threat of civil unrest. As the newly appointed and not overly popular governor, Nehemiah had to take action. And he did – shaming his fellow nobility for their action in exploiting the poverty of their poorer kinsmen and women. So lands were to be restored, debts cancelled and children sold into slavery – bonded labour – were to be redeemed. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of God’s faith in them to rebuild their homeland and give him worship worthy of the name.
A couple of days ago it was the commemoration of the Festival of St Francis of Assissi – one of the most famous of the medieval saints who founded monastic orders that have survived and thrived to the present day. Franciscans have always embraced the concept of living simply that others might simply live. But Francis was not always such a good example of godly living. As a young man he had enjoyed a very privileged upbringing and spent a small fortune of his father’s money enjoying the finer things of life. His father was a successful merchant of fine cloth – not perhaps of the top nobility, but with aspirations that his son would rise in the social scale and bring honour to his family.
Instead Francis “Got God” in a big way. He began by taking some bolts of cloth from his father’s stores to sell in order to rebuild the ruined church of St Damiano. In his dreams he received a vision from God in which he was to be instrumental in re-building God’s church. Waking and seeing the ruins around him. Francis assumed it was this building, but in fact God had a much bigger project in mind. Francis would go on to found monastic orders for both men and women that would have a profound effect on the popular imagination and on the governance of the church. But it all began by Francis renouncing his former way of life – making himself homeless and even throwing away his fine clothing when his family – especially his father – remonstrated with him.
Today we hail Francis as a great figure in church history who had the courage to live out the gospel imperative “Go, sell all that you have, and follow me!” . At the time he was seen more as a dangerous lunatic suffering from religious mania. But without him and his vision for a more equal world, we would all be the poorer.
Nehemiah’s attack on abusers of the poor succeeded. Those in the wrong agreed to compensate all who had been exploited. Nehemiah, while not a priest or a prophet had found the voice of prophecy. He exposed injustice and called for reparation to be made.
Francis devoted his life to serving the poor and the sick – he was renowned for his work amongst the lepers of his day – who were the ultimate outcasts of society. And of course he also became famous for seeing humanity as fellow creatures of a loving God – along with the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and the beasts of the field and forest.
You cannot care for and love the beauty of the earth that God has given us, without also caring for and loving those who are struggling to survive. As Jesus told the Pharisees and now tells us, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see, “ your sin remains.” Lord, save us from our blindness to the beauty of your creation and our blindness to the need of all your children. Amen.