“So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Nehemiah 8:8
It was as though the words were written just for us: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” It was the exhortation that was offered to a community who had recently come home; who had only just found their place in the sun after having become accustomed to being a people without place – in diaspora. These words of comfort and assurance come from the book of Nehemiah. These words were read aloud in the hearing of the Jeremiah Community and Parkdale Neighbourhood Church as we gathered in the shelter of a secure and sacred space on Sunday. The centuries between the return of the Jews to the restored temple in Jerusalem and the arrival of the Jeremiah Community in its new sanctuary seemed to evaporate and the history of God’s saving work on behalf of God’s chosen people was rehearsed in this pregnant historical moment. Or so it would seem…
Fortunately for us, our preacher, Maggie Helwig, was more attentive to Nehemiah’s hermeneutical commentary (i.e. to the necessity that scripture is heard “with interpretation”) than she was to cheap historical comparisons. That is, instead of comforting us with the easy assurance of blessing, she warned us of “the dark side of homecoming.” She put before us a challenge very much in line with Duke Vipperman’s challenge from a previous Sunday: that despite our “landedness,” that we remain a “wandering people.” Maggie offered a particularly incisive textual insight. This insight came with the warning that the Jeremiah Community remain aware of the temptation to the exclusion of the other; a temptation that comes, almost inevitably, with the privilege of place and the desire for identity. Indeed, as Maggie pointed out, the Ezra-Nehemiah tradition is itself witness to this temptation. In Ezra 10, in an effort to purify the identity of the newly landed people of Israel, “foreign wives and their children” were sent away. The health of the community was seen to be contingent upon the exclusion of the other.
This is a difficult text at many levels, but it places before the Jeremiah Community a particularly striking tension. Indeed, our calling as a community – “to seek the peace of the city” – comes from Jeremiah 29:7. In this section of text we learn that what is at stake here is not just the need to be “good citizens,” but the need to find a home in diaspora. Exile, according to Jeremiah, is not an unfortunate detour, but the very context of faithful existence. For God is not only the God of the landed, purified people, but the God of the whole universe – including foreign women and children!
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
I don’t know precisely how to make the leap to application here. What is clear, however, is that the welfare – indeed the shalom – of the people of God is not to be found not in the exclusion of the other, but precisely in a deliberate solidarity with the other.