Summary: For Lent and for Black History Month: Those who are threatened by progress will always ask us not to go too far. But this church must not stop reaching all people, serving all needs, touching all children and youth.
In the fall of 1955 I sat in the auditorium of the Speed Scientific School at the University of Louisville, one of about 300 newly admitted engineering students. The dean welcomed us, and yet also warned us. He instructed us, “Look at the person on your right. Now look at the person on your left. Only one of the three of you will graduate from this school.” He did not mean that literally, of course; he meant it to be a statistical probability. But as I looked at the person on my right, I was pretty sure I knew to whom the statistic would apply quite literally. I was seated next to the only person in the room who was both black and female. Given the culture of 1955 in Kentucky, I wondered how she ever even got to engineering school. I knew there would be no support for her in a place where good old white boys and a few middle class nerds were the norm. I was right. She lasted less than two quarters.
Of course honesty requires that I tell you I lasted only about six quarters. I guess it was the guy on my left that made it through, because I heard a different calling. I hope the young lady on my right heard one as well.
A half-century ago we did not expect much from African-Americans, nor did we expect much from women, at least in certain fields. And African-American women? The culture I grew up in expected them to be mothers and domestics, maybe teachers, certainly church ladies, but not much more. We would have to agree today that people with these descriptors have come a long way. We might even pat ourselves on our collective backs and announce that we have come a long way as a society. We might figure that it is no longer necessary to mess with affirmative action, no longer crucial to observe Black History Month, no longer advisable to play old tapes to talk about racism and prejudice. We might think all of those things, but we would be wrong.
Today the issue raised by the Old Testament leader Nehemiah still rings true, “Why should the work stop?” Why, indeed, should the work stop? What work? Kingdom work. Reconciling work. Breaking the chains of racism work. Why should this work stop? It should not. It must not. This is spiritual work, and it must not stop.
Let me review briefly the setting of the story from Nehemiah. After the nation of Judah had been sent into exile and its cities and its Temple destroyed by the Babylonians, along came the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great. The Persians defeated the Babylonians and adopted a new policy toward the subject peoples. Cyrus agreed to let the exiles of Judah return and rebuild Jerusalem. Nehemiah was the leader who felt the call to undertake that task. Two men, Nehemiah and Ezra, would lead a nation to put itself back together, physically and spiritually. A people once enslaved and downtrodden would now be permitted to retrieve their identity and to take their place in the family of nations, breaking their chains.
But at every point Nehemiah’s work of rebuilding met opposition. Those who had filled the power vacuum during Judah’s years of exile felt threatened by the return of God’s people. If you read the earlier chapters of Nehemiah, you find that the voices of those mentioned in today’s text were often raised in opposition to Nehemiah’s work. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. Who were they?
Sanballat was governor of Samaria; the Samaritans were those remnants of the old northern kingdom of Israel, long since destroyed by the Assyrians. They were those who had made their peace with enslavement; they got by with compromise. Sanballat represented those who stand for nothing and therefore fall for anything.
Tobiah, whose name means, “God is good” in Hebrew, was a collaborator. He found it to his best interests to work with the enemies of his own people. Like the Norwegian Quisling in World War II or like the occasional American who joins Al Qaeda, Tobiah was a collaborator who went wherever his pockets could be lined.
And then Geshem. Geshem was the governor of a North African province populated by the Arab people. His influence extended from the Transjordan all the way down into Egypt and westward. He had a great deal of power at stake and wanted no interference from these upstart Jews.
Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem – all these voices are heard throughout the book of Nehemiah, clamoring and scheming to stop the work on the city. And so now, in a last-ditch effort to protect themselves, this unholy trinity approach Nehemiah and make him an offer they think he cannot refuse. Seeing that the work is almost done, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem ask Nehemiah to come down, let’s go over to the village of Ono, and let’s talk. Maybe we can work something out. Come on, Nehemiah, nothing wrong with a little parley, is there?