A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Sunday, January 23, 2022

By: David H. May, Rector


The Jesse Tree program we presented before Christmas told the story of God’s great saving deeds from the first Creation, to the Fall where the first man and the first woman decided to do things their own way and mostly lost their way and themselves, to the Great Flood that somehow a remnant of creation – both man and beast – survived, to the call of Abraham and his wife Sarah where under a starlit night Abraham believed that God would bring new life from his and Sarah’s ancient bodies, to Moses who would rather have been anything other that the one to lead the children of Israel out of captivity in Egypt, to King David who was too good-looking and too much the apple of God’s eye for his own good, but from whom God promised to raise up a Messiah anyway. These are the great stories where God tells us who God is and who we are too.

But there is another great chapter to the story we didn’t tell in the Jesse Tree program. It’s a story about the days after David, where, as the years went by, politics and power and the veneer of religion cooked into a deadly brew. The prophets did their best to confront what was happening: to call the people to come home to God but they would not. What followed is the story we call the Exile: Israel’s time of captivity in Babylon. It’s the story of how the Assyrian empire overran Israel and Judah and destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple. And then, bit by bit, how they lost their home, actually eventually forgot about home, forgot about the life they used to have. They forgot who they were.

We have a specific date – 597 BCE when it began. But it was more a story of losing home little by little; of seeing it all just slip away. First the king and his court and military leaders and skilled craftsmen, the best and the brightest, were carted away to Babylon. Second tier leaders followed them or were sent to other nearby countries. Whoever survived the earlier deportations were eventually carted off themselves and were replaced by other conquered people from other parts of the Empire.

So, within a generation, what had been home was gone. And not just as a place, but even as a memory. If you were in Babylon, your children grew up speaking the Babylonian tongue and eating Babylonian food and following the customs of that world. They became something else. They became someone else. As far as anyone knew, what had been home was gone and gone for good.

But then four generations later, another nearby superpower, Persia led by Cyrus, over ran Babylon and the Assyrian Empire as far as Egypt. And in 539 BCE, Cyrus told the Exiles that they could go home. But after that long, wasn’t Babylon home? Sure, your great-great grandmother and great-great grandfather had been born near Jerusalem, but after so long what does that mean? Finding their way home again took a long time. Finding out who they really were took even longer.

I moved from home when I was 22 to New York City to seek my fame and fortune. For a long time I loved that place and what I was doing there. I love the people from all over the world. I loved the sheer strangeness of it all – the food, the different languages and cultures, the pace of life, the energy, the creativity. After a year living there when someone heard my accent and asked me where I was from I said, ‘Virginia. But I’m a New Yorker now.’

Of course, after a while, it wasn’t all great and exciting. It was also hard and disorienting and sometimes pretty dispiriting. I saw great things, wondrous things. But I also saw things I wished I could unsee. I got harder, tougher, different, because you have to. It’s a glittering city, yes. But it’s a dark and unforgiving place too that chews people up.

One day, I got a call from home. I hadn’t talked with my family in months probably. They called pretty regularly, but I hadn’t picked up. But that day I did. It was my mother. She said she just wanted to check in and see how I was doing, that we hadn’t talked in a long time. I remember being sort of evasive like I was in a hurry. I really was wishing I hadn’t answered the phone and was trying to come up with some reason to ring off. As my mother talked, I heard a sound in the background and asked her what it was. She said, ‘oh I’m frying a chicken. I just put it in the skillet. That’s the hot oil spitting’. I asked her what else she was making and she told me. I said it sure sounded good. There was a pause and then she said, ‘you can come home if you want to’. I said, ‘it’s not that easy’. She said, ‘I know. Home’s here’.

Something like that happened to Nehemiah. He was one the children of the exile, serving in the court of the Persian king. He was one of the great-great-great grandchildren of those who’d been deported from Jerusalem ages ago. Nehemiah got a call from home, or what used to be home. He heard from friends that it was all in ruins. It was all gone. If there ever was a home to go home to someday, well, that place was good and truly gone. The news broke Nehemiah’s heart and while he was serving the king wine that night the king saw it on Nehemiah’s face and asked, ‘why is your face sad?’ Nehemiah told him and one thing led to another and before long Nehemiah was heading back to what used to be home with royal letters giving him freedom to pass safely to Jerusalem.

After Nehemiah arrived back in Jerusalem, he got out of bed in the middle of the night. He made his way to where his horse was stabled and began to ride around the walls of Jerusalem or what was left of them. It was all in ruins. He rode past what had been sacred sites – the Valley Gate and the Jackal’s Well, the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool; every place a reminder of an old sacred story, but now all fouled and ruined. Finally, he came to a place in the wall so obliterated that he had to get off his horse and pick his way the rest of the way around the city on foot.

Nehemiah’s journey around the ruined city, what used to be home, was like hearing the spitting oil of chicken being fried. And God placed within him a holy vision and way for the Exiles to come home. Nehemiah with the patronage of the king in Persian rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Everything that had been thrown down he gathered the survivors of Jerusalem and the countryside to rebuild. And when it was all done, it was time to rebuild the people as God’s people.

The people called on Ezra the scribe to assemble the people for a special day. They built him a pulpit to stand at to read from the Law of God that the rabbis had written down in Babylon because someday, they might make it home. And from early morning til the midafternoon, Ezra stood at the pulpit and read the Law of God, the Torah. He read it out in the Hebrew of their ancestors which no one there would have understood. So Levites walked among the people, translating what Ezra spoke into the Aramaic they could understand.

And what did they hear. Listen:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and the darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature….

And the Lord God took Abraham outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars if your are able to number them. So shall your descendants be.

And God said to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” and Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

We read that when the Levites translated the mysterious Hebrew of their ancestors into their own tongue that they wept. But maybe that’s the only thing there is to do when you finally find your way home. A breaking heart at the sound of chicken frying hundreds of miles away, or Nehemiah’s nighttime walk around the ruined city of his ancestors lead to a day that is holy to the Lord and his joy, because that’s what it’s like when you get a call from home and remember who you are and whose you are. Amen.