Preached at Cannon Chapel during the 2015 Course of Study at the Candler School of Theology.

Nehemiah 1:5b-11a

I don’t know about you, fellow preachers, but there are many times when I’m doing the work of ministry and I have to stop and pinch myself that I get to do what we all have to privilege of doing. We get to journey with people in the must precious moments of life. We get to point people to the light! We offer pastoral accompaniment in times of crisis. We are entrusted with the high privilege of articulating the Word of God as we stand in the midst of the assembly, giving voice to our common journey in and through Scripture as it intersections with our common life.

In the midst of that, are…. other days.

Maybe we sit in front of a monitor, a blank screen. The words just don’t want to flow. Every time we pick up the smartphone…. to look at our email, that is,…. its something. else. And then there are those times when we simple get way-layed. Its the proverbial run over by a dump truck…. and we’re not really sure why or how.

The first time it happened to me, it went like this. A parishioner invited me to lunch. The meal was fine. The conversation was like someone was holding a hair dryer right in front of my face. On high. I was chewed out for being irresponsible, in attentive, unpastoral… and several phrases I had never heard before.

For what?

I’ll never know.

But I’ll never forget that experience. I sat there, dumbfounded. Stammering. Not knowing what to say. Only one thought was going through my mind, “I’ve lost my job.”

And you know what? Sometimes that happens. Sometimes, someone else’s anger, frustration, guilt… or whatever simply comes our way with no heads up. Sometimes we’re just a bystander who happened to be in the way of someone else’s temper tantrum.

And sometimes… sometimes… its something else, altogether.

Either there simply isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done that needs to get done. That, or we take out our frustration on someone who doesn’t deserve it. Or we simply have all to human of a moment. Our short-sightedness gets to us. Our enthusiasm and eagerness takes us more than one step beyond caution (to reference Bishop Bevel Jones’ advice on leadership). And we make a mistake… we sin… either willingly or (as most of the time) unwillingly… or maybe better put unknowingly.

But, thankfully, we are not left there. Even us preachers, Amen?

We share in the promise that if we really and truly follow the covenants that God sets out for us… for all of us… there’s the promise of return, of restoration.

Friends, I think this is a word that serves us well and will serve us well. Faithfulness to God and God’s Word is the path to restoration. Hope never fades. Home is always a possibility.

But let’s be honest with each other. Yes, there is the promise of return, lets be really honest here, as we are among friends. Looking at Nehemiah, Israel did not return to a the restored kingdom that they had longed for, hoped for. There was return, yes. They went home, yes. And when they returned home, things were different.

For us, friends, the same applies. In the midst of return and restoration is the reality that, sometimes, restoration and return doesn’t mean things aren’t different, changed. I remember walking into this very building one morning. That spiritual giant, Desmond Tutu, was walking out. And… as you do you… I held the door open for him as he was puling behind him one of those big rolling briefcases. The guy as was with said, “what you got there?” He replied, “oh, I’ve got this little report I’m flying home to present on.” That little report was South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation report. With the return that was the end to the sin of apartheid, things changes.

I can’t help but think about our sisters and brothers at Mother Emmanuel in South Carolina. I was not at my church the weekend after those horrible shootings. Like many of you, the words of forgiveness offered time after time still sit with me. I still live with how that gracious gesture towards one who did so much harm was a statement of not only faith in God but also a powerful statement of not letting a horrendous act irretrievably send those down a path of anger and hatred.

The path of return, the path of hope, the path of restoration set forth in the words, “I forgive you” are everything. It will forever change the timbre of what else is said in the forthcoming proceedings. And yet… the return in this case does not bring loved ones back to us. But neither is the path to return blocked, forever.

May we all live such grace-full lives that our very beings show forth this promise and illuminates the path, the path of return, the path home.