Sermon given at Evensong on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity 2022

‘May you live in interesting times’

The Venerable Tricia Hillas Canon in Residence

Sunday, 2nd October 2022 at 3.00 PM

‘May you live in interesting times’ is often claimed to be a translation of a traditional Chinese saying but in truth the saying is apocryphal and no actual Sino-original source has ever been found.

It’s a pleasing phrase none the less, which may have us nodding our heads in recognition that what might at first seem to be a blessing may prove to be the opposite for ‘interesting times’ usually mean troublesome ones. Far better in fact to dwell in ‘uninteresting’ times, characterised by peace and tranquillity.

I think it may be fair to say that we are living in ‘interesting times’. If we might claim this, so too might the people of Nehemiah’s day. The biblical book which bears his name is commonly dated to around 444 BC. If we are to understand what had given rise to such ‘interesting times’ it may help to understand their backstory. I hope that through considering their response to their interesting times, we might address some aspects of our own.

Some while before Nehemiah’s time a superpower of the day, the Babylonians had conquered the kingdom of Judah, destroying its capital city Jerusalem, whose leading citizens were taken off to Babylonia, where they lived in exile for 70 years. Then Babylon was in turn defeated by the combined force of the Medes and Persians. A new Persian king, Cyrus, gave permission for those displaced by the Babylonians to return home – which enabled a group of the exiled Jews to make the 900-mile journey back to Judea and Jerusalem in 583 BC. 

The first thing that the returning group did when arriving home was to visit the site of the house of the Lord. Though the Temple was in ruins. worship restarted there and the foundations for a new temple laid. Despite some ebbs, flows and periods of stagnation, with vision renewed the temple was completed in 515 BC.

Time passes; the story moves on and the focus shifts to Nehemiah, a trusted official in the Persian court. He learns that all is not well in Jerusalem. Those who had returned were struggling to survive. In particular they were without walls or gates to defend their city. Nehemiah is given permission to go to his ancestral home.

Nehemiah was clearly a great motivator and organiser. He surveyed the ruined walls and, defying their enemies who were pouring scorn on the peoples’ effort, under Nehemiah’s leadership the rebuilding of the defensive walls began.

Yet, though the danger from external enemies was being addressed, another equally significant danger becomes apparent. The economic infrastructure was being exposed to severe testing. Cut off from friendly neighbours, with extra demands caused by the need to fund their defence, farming becomes impossible and with the normal flow of commercial activities suspended, famine grew close.

A great outcry arose from the people:

There was an immediate concern: ‘how are we going to eat and stay alive?’

There was considerable anxiety about their property and their future. The people cried out ‘we have no security, we are forced to pledge what we thought we owned, to mortgage our property, our vineyards and houses to pay for everyday things and the King’s tax’.

Even worse, they became the victims of the ruthlessness of the wealthy of their own community, such that their children, their sons and daughters, were sold into slavery.

As remains so often the case, it was the poorest, the most vulnerable who were least shielded from the devastating effects of troubled times. Little wonder that the cry went up:

‘Are we not kindred?

Is our flesh not the same as yours; when we are cut, do we not both bleed?

Are our children’s lives worth less than yours?’

The cry went up all those millennia ago, it went up whilst the slave trade raged across Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas from the 15th to the 19th Centuries; it goes up still whilst the impact of racism remains an intolerable burden for Black, Brown and other people of colour today; it’s a cry which goes up whilst the most vulnerable in world bear the most impact of the effects of climate change; it goes up in our own communities when some profit whilst others shiver.

‘Are we not kindred?

Is our flesh not the same as yours; when we are cut, do we not both bleed?

Are our children’s lives worth less than yours?’

So, what did Nehemiah, the governor-leader do?  And what can we learn?

Nehemiah really listened, he educated himself.

This time last year I visited Chatsworth House. There I was struck by the work done by its owner, the present Duke of Devonshire, in recognising that his ancestors’ – and thereby his own present -situation was and is in part built on aspects of the slave trade. In response to the renewed Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd, the Duke spent a year and more deliberately educating himself.

He chose to read deeply about the historic and contemporary evil of racism and its impact and this led him to commend a range of books with the encouragement for others to join him in listening and educating ourselves further.

Black History month started yesterday in the UK – it could be a month during which we focus and which we might usefully use to deepen our own listening and understanding.

This year I’ve committed to reading one or two books during Black History month, as I might during Lent or Advent. Might you join me? You probably have books in mind but I will gladly provide suggestions within the text of this sermon on the Abbey’s website. Some invite reflection by us as the Church, others address a more generic audience. (See below).

So Nehemiah listened to the experience of the people, he educated himself, as he did so his understanding grew and provoked a personal response. Hearing the people’s outcry made him very angry – which was the seedbed for change.

‘Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.’ This striking assertion is attributed to the fourth century, African theologian, Augustine of Hippo. Hope, Anger and Courage are certainly a formidable triumvirate.

Nehemiah listened, gained understanding, he got angry and having thought it over, he made a decision that would require courage within himself and courage from those he was about to address.

A decision to change, so that everything which had been exacted from the poor would be restored and nothing more demanded from them.

It takes great courage to say I will listen, I will apply myself to learn and having done so, I will change.

The theme for this year’s Black History month here in the UK is ‘Time for Change: Action Not Words’ by which we are called to come together to make a change for the future. If change is to come it will require each of us to put in the hard work of listening, learning, deciding and taking action.

Nehemiah’s warning to his contemporaries was that whatever they did, or didn’t do, would be played out before God; this was core to the vision of God for humanity, for all God’s children.

Amen, said the people, ‘Let it be so’. May it be so in our own interesting times.


Some suggestions for further reading

From a Christian perspective:

Kelly Brown Douglas – Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter’ (2021)

Rennie Chow Choy – Ancestral Feeling: Postcolonial Thoughts on Western Christian Heritage (2021)

A.D.A. France-Williams – Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England (2020)

Willie James Jennings – The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (2010)

Ben Lindsay - We Need to Talk about Race: Understanding the Black Experience in White Majority Churches (2019)

Chine McDonald – God is Not a White Man (2021)

Sharon Prentis (ed) – Every Tribe: Stories of Diverse Saints Serving a Diverse World (2019)

Anthony G Reddie – Is God Colour Blind? (updated 2020)

From a more generic perspective:

Robin DiAngelo – White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (2019)

Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (2018

David Olusoga – Black and British: A Forgotten History (2017)

Ibram X. Kendi - How to be an Antiracist. (2019)

Most of these authors are UK-based, with the exceptions of Kelly Brown Douglas, Wille James Jennings, and Ibram X Kendi, who are based in the US. I was delighted to contribute a chapter to ‘Every Tribe’ which is edited by Dr Sharon Prentis.