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Recalling Who We Are – Br. David Vryhof

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Br. David Vryhof

Nehemiah 8:1-12

Given that Br. Luke (our acolyte today) went to a lot of trouble learning how to pronounce all those difficult names, I feel it’s only right that we should reflect on the lesson from Nehemiah this morning.

It might help to first establish a context for these words.  You may remember that early in the 6th century B.C.E., the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians.  It was a devastating defeat.  The temple at Jerusalem was completely destroyed, as was the city itself, and the majority of the people were carried off into captivity.  Only a small remnant remained.  The period of exile lasted 70 years, and gave rise to the book of Lamentations and to several psalms of lament – Psalm 137, for example: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion” (Psalm 137:1).  In the year 538 B.C.E., Babylon was conquered by the Medes and Persians.  The Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, was a wise and compassionate man who not only gave the Israelites permission to begin returning home, but also provided the resources they needed to rebuild the temple.  A first wave of exiles left Babylon to return to Judah.

It took over eighty years before a second group of exiles returned to Jerusalem, led by the prophet Ezra, in 455 B.C.E.  Ten years after this second group departs, we find Nehemiah, a Jew still living in Persia, serving as cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes.  Nehemiah hears a report that deeply troubles him: the Israelites are still struggling to establish themselves in their home country.  They have managed to rebuild the temple, but the walls around Jerusalem are still in ruins.  After four months of prayer, Nehemiah decides to risk approaching the king.  He asks for permission to return to Jerusalem with a third group of exiles, with the expressed purpose of rebuilding the city’s walls.

Once there, he works diligently to solve the problems that had prevented the reconstruction of the wall and completes the task in just 52 days.  He then gathers the people, as we heard in our lesson today, and asks the priest Ezra to read to them the Law of Moses.  Having returned to their homeland, they need to be reminded of who they are: a people living in covenant with God.  Nehemiah reaffirms them in their identity and purpose, by recalling the promises God had made to them and by reminding them of their responsibilities to God and to one another.

I think it is not unlike what we do here at the monastery in our Chapter Office.  Each morning, the brothers gather in the Holy Spirit Chapel to hear a chapter of our Rule of Life being read, and to offer prayers.  The daily reminder that the Rule provides recalls for us our identity as SSJE brothers, and allows us to re-focus and renew our intentions.  It reminds us not only of who we are, but of how we have chosen to live together.  Like the Law of Moses, the Rule is a covenant that sets out the particular way of living to which we believe we have been called and to which we have pledged ourselves by vows.

So, here are some questions for you to ponder today:  What would it mean for you today to “return home” and to re-establish your identity, your purpose and your direction?  Is it possible that you have strayed from the path to which you have committed yourself, and that you need to be called back?  What would it look like for you to renew your purpose and to reclaim your vocation?  The example of Nehemiah, the governor, and Ezra, the priest and scribe, calling the people of Israel back to their core identity and purpose, can inspire us to do the same.  

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