Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
Click here for directions
A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Sometimes We Get It Wrong
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Ezra 9:1-4, 10:1-5; Galatians 3:26-28
You have undoubtedly seen what Iím about to describe. It happens when an infant is old enough to hold her own silverware. Strapped into a high chair, she drops a fork. An adult or an older child, picks it up and gives it back to her. And then, she drops it again and again, for the sheer pleasure of having it returned to her. She can do this all day. It seems like play, and it is. But she is learning something crucial to human existence. She is learning the rules of cause and effect, of action and consequences. She will continue to explore these rules over the next several years. What happens when I drop food over the side of my high chair? What happens when I put this little thing into those holes in the wall? What happens when I pull the catís tail?
We want her to learn those things, but not necessarily from direct experience. The rules of cause and effect are one of the ways we become functioning people. They teach us how to take responsibility for our own actions and hopefully how not to do things that are hurtful to ourselves or others.
The downside of this learning can be that we expect it to explain everything, but it doesnít. Not every event has a cause that we can understand. Many times the question ďWhy did this happen?Ē is unanswerable. If we donít realize that, if we rely on that early learning about cause and effect, we can arrive at some very bad answers.
A very long time ago, I was a graduate student in psychology. My child development professor told me about a major power outage in the Southeastern United States. It wiped out power for thousands of people across several states. Now it happened that just before the lights went out, a second-grade boy swung a baseball bat and hit a utility pole. Because he was 7 years old and because he didnít tell anyone what he had done for a long time, he believed that he was responsible for the power outage. There was no electricity at his house, no electricity at his neighbors, no electricity anywhere in his city, or in nearby cities, although he probably did not know that. And the power did not come back on in an hour or two. It stayed off for days. Can you imagine how guilty he felt? He broke electricity for everyone. What a burden for a 7-year-old. Imagine his relief when the power was restored. Imagine his resolve never ever to go near utility poles again.
Keep that little boy in the back of your mind as we think about Ezra. Ezra was a priest who was born in captivity in Babylon. If you were here last Sunday, you remember that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were among those taken captive by the King of Babylon who had maintained their Jewish identity. Those stories come from near the beginning of their exile. The Hebrew people had been living in Babylon for about 60 years when Babylon itself was taken over by Persia. The new ruler, Cyrus the Great, gave permission to all Jewish people who wanted to, to return home.
Not everyone wants to leave. They have been here for a couple of generations. Probably almost everyone now living was born in Babylon. Going home means going to a place theyíve never been before. So not everyone goes. But many people do.
They go back, but they go in waves. Ezra is not in the first wave. By the time Ezra goes, it has been 80 years since the first and largest group of returnees. In that time, the temple has been rebuilt, but not without controversy and political maneuvering.
Almost as soon as Ezra arrives, he learns of the problem. The problem is that the men who returned from Babylon in the first groups married women who were already in the land. One of the difficulties in rebuilding the temple was conflict between the people already in the land and the returning captives. This is just the latest episode in the attempt to define the true Israel. Well, thatís how I see it.
That is not at all how Ezra sees it. For Ezra it is a betrayal of Israelís identity as Godís covenant people, that identity that some of them have maintained at great cost for more than an hundred years in a foreign land. They all know that they went into exile because they broke the covenant. This is what the prophets have told them. God allowed Babylon to prevail against them because of their sinfulness. Their sinful actions led to the consequence of generations of captivity. But the penalty has been paid and God has forgiven them and they have been allowed to return, to start over. Ezra is now the priest in charge and there is no way he is going to allow them to mess this up. He is like that second grader, determined to apply his learning from the past. They are not going to exile again on his watch.
The people who report the problem frame it in a specific way. They say, ďThe people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.Ē
Notice the wrong-doing has been done by the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites. In this book, the people of Israel only means the people who returned from exile and here it includes the priests and the Levites who returned from exile. Their offense is marrying women from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Moabites and so on. That was expressly forbidden when the people of Israel first entered the land of promise, maybe a thousand years earlier. So technically, they have broken the rules. However, those groups of people do not exist any more.
Imagine if you went to Ireland or England today and chastised people for marrying Vikings. Or if you went to Massachusetts and warned about the dangers of hanging out with the Redcoats. It would not make much sense. But Ezra is serious about making Israel great again. He earnestly wants to be right with God.
So if these women are not actually Cannanites, who are they? They are probably descendants of the Israelites who were left behind when others were carried off to Babylon. The king took people with skills and education, musicians, artists, people who would be an asset to his empire. But he did not take everyone. For Ezra the descendants of those left behind do not count as being part of the true Israel. And so they are considered foreigners, outsiders, not to be included in rebuilding the Temple or in worship.
In fact, Ezra goes even further. Someone proposes that they will divorce all the foreign wives and their children, and Ezra accepts that proposal. The rest of chapter 10 records in great detail the names of all the men who divorced and sent away their wives and children. That is how the book of Ezra ends. Most scholars believe that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book. Nehemiah continues the story of the resettling of Judah and the ongoing conflict between those who return from captivity and those who never left the land. But never in either book, does it say that they were wrong to banish those women and children. Because the action was taken under the leadership of a faithful priest, by people who believed that they were following Godís will, and because the Bible, we might be left to believe that they did the right thing.
However, I am pretty sure they did not do the right thing. It feels arrogant to say that. It feels wrong to try to put myself in Ezraís shoes and judge his actions. I can do this only because the weight of Scripture is against him. The law, on which he claimed to be basing this moral decision, is full of instructions about how to care for foreigners. The law is full of reminders to provide for widows and orphans. Ezraís actions against people he believes are foreign makes them into widows and orphans, highly vulnerable outcasts. That cannot be right. During the time in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah had told them to marry Babylonian women, and a number of faithful men in Israelís history were known to have had foreign wives, including Joseph and Moses and Boaz. Remember Boaz? He married Ruth, the Moabitess, and together they became the great grandparents of the great King David. Many scholars believe that the story of Ruth and Boaz was written down during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, as an argument against them.
For the last several Sundays, we have heard the stories of resistance, the stories of Godís people holding on to Godís ways in difficult times when it would have been easier to just go with the flow. We could read this story that way, as another one of those times when an unpopular, difficult course of action was taken, but Iíve just said that I donít read it that way. So what do we do with this story?
Well, we can simply admit that sometimes the faith community gets it wrong. Just because religious folks think and say that they are doing the will of God is no guarantee that we are. Stories like this one remind us to stay humble.
We can also try to learn from Ezraís mistakes. With the benefit of a few thousand years of hindsight, his errors stand out. First, he relies too much on his own point of view. His point of view is shaped by his experience as an Israelite living in exile. That is valid. His mistake is that he never seeks the opinion or experiences of those on the other side of the conflict. He assumes that only people who share his background are the true Israel. In fact, in all of Scripture, we never hear the story of what it was like to remain in the land after all the others had left. He seems to assume that they have nothing of value to offer. This makes me think about the ways that Christians have cut ourselves off from other Christians. What understandings and experiences of God and ourselves are we also eliminating when we do that?
Secondly, Ezra picks out one specific rule and applies it to the situation, while ignoring much of the rest of Scripture. Again, a lesson in what not to do. When we already perceive others as our enemies, almost anything, including Scripture, will work as an excuse to justify our animosity against them.
Friends, this sermon is not done, but the end of the week came before it was finished and our time together with it is almost up. I feel that there must be something more positive to glean from this text, but I have not yet found it. Maybe it is appropriate that this sermon is open-ended, because the task before us is equally open Ė how do we maintain a clear identity as Godís people, how do we define ourselves as distinct from the culture around us without drawing rigid boundaries about who is with us and who is not? How do we remain open to the transformation that God intends?
Yes, those are very important questions with which we wrestle. Hannah read for us good words from the letter to the Galatians, words about the divisions of class and race and status which no longer separate us in the body of Christ.
Let us allow the final words for today to come from the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Isaiah, writing much closer to Ezraís time than ours, said this
ďAnd the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenantó these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.Ē (Isaiah 56:6-8)
Thanks be to God. Amen.