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A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens September 2, 2007 at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio,

Dedicated to the new members who joined today, to the workers of the world who need justice in their workplaces and always to the Glory of God!
Beware and Risk

(Part V of V in the Summer Sermon Series: "The Nehemiah Project: Ten Keys for Rebuilding the Future")

Nehemiah 6:1-16, 13:5-9

Today, we come to the final two keys: 9) We move forward in faith -- always aware of the potentially destructive opposition which arises in the rebuilding process; and finally; 10) We continue to risk for health and growth.

I read to you from Nehemiah 6:15-16:

"So the wall was finished on the 25th day of the month of Elul, in 52 days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly on their esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of God."

"So the wall was finished . . . " begins Nehemiah 6:15. They said it could not be done! They said the job was too big and the problems too great. But God's men and women, joined together for special tasks, can accomplish great goals. No leader except Daniel - as he was being dragged into captivity 150 years before Nehemiah - believed in the rebuilding of Jerusalem ( 9:25). No leader except Nehemiah. What was called impossible was completed in 52 days.

Undaunted by the job size or the claims of impossibility, Nehemiah believed. He believed with God nothing is impossible. He believed when you are wrapped in the power of prayer and keep your goals simple and specific, nothing is impossible. He believed in his people and utilized all of them and their range of skills and abilities to finish the job. With faith and courage, Nehemiah transformed the poor crowds into powerful multitudes.

Nevertheless, before the goals were completed, Nehemiah was severely tested by the unbelief of the Tekoan nobles - most significantly Tobiah and Sanballat. In chapters 6 and 13, Nehemiah meets his opposition head on.

Thus, we have the 9th key: As we move forward in faith, we must always beware of the potentially destructive opposition which arises in the rebuilding process.

When the Nobles of Tekoa showed up, Nehemiah responded by staying up on the walls. They called him out. They called him down. And he said, "I am doing a great work and cannot come down!" (Nehemiah 6:3). When they challenged him, he said "NO!" to their entreaties to come and talk (6:8,11). He also prayed that God would both bring judgment upon their heads and defend him in the battle ( 6:14). When they couldn’t convince Nehemiah to listen to them, Tobiah and Sanballat, sent two "false" prophets to him to "prophesy" his ending. Nehemiah said, “I am under no obligation to listen to prophets that God did not send” ( 6:12). He rebuffed each challenge and in the end, he prevailed.

Like Nehemiah, I believe the church today is being severely tested by those who question our motivations, our goals, our purposes, our beliefs and so much more. Our credibility has hit an all time low - especially trust in clergy. Across the Church Universal, the ripple effect of the credibility crunch has rocked our ministry together.

In a recent Gallop poll, only 41% of people trusted pastors and priests. While is it true that trust in most every long standing profession has taken a hit, the credibility, integrity, and trust in pastors has fallen almost in half over the last 30 years - from 75-80%+ in generations past. Clearly, clergy abuse in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches and the shenanigans of televangelist have caused most of this decline.

But, as with Nehemiah, I am speaking of opposition coming within the church. It is opposition to new ideas and new ministry to a changing culture in changing times. I find myself frustrated with the church’s internal opposition and what we end up doing to ourselves. While I believe, God has given us the power to heal the world, we choose instead to get caught up in arguments about paint colors and carpet textures.

Meanwhile, like Nehemiah, our society faces a growing gap between rich and poor. This week’s Columbus Dispatch headlines read that Cleveland is now the 3rd and Cincinnati the 4th poorest cities in the nation. And Columbus has 20.7% of our citizens living below the federal poverty level! Like contemporaries to the nobles of Tekoa, there are those who practice usury and take advantage of the poor. And when they do it with veiled religious language, the problems multiply immensely!

With God’s help, our task is to bring healing and justice to this world! Like Nehemiah, we need to stand on the wall of justice and righteousness and say - “Here we stand we can do no other!”

In many of our mainline churches, our congregations are particularly vulnerable to those who have lost track of prayer, discernment, justice, and righteousness. Like lambs without a shepherd, many of our little churches are preyed upon by those who would use them and abuse them.

I have a theory that a growing number of our congregations in the United Church of Christ are one (or maybe two) divisive pastorates away from closing their doors. With such fragility and as those who love the Lord, we must work together for good! On the other side of failing to do this is nothing short of congregational demise. Our churches no longer have a margin of error to end pastorates in failure and begin again in hopes that the next person will be our Moses or our Nehemiah! Our once resilient congregations have become fragile beyond belief.

This ninth key exists in our rebuilding process because it reminds us that none of us is God. None of us should be given the power to undo the vision of God's people for the future our congregations. I am aware that many of you hold strong opinions about many things. But, you need to be aware that none of our opinions, in and of themselves, should singularly guide the vision for the future. Not mine, nor yours. Rather, it is this - that God is calling us as faithful Christians and congregants to act together in our context of faith.

In Nehemiah's time God was calling the people to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem. In our time, I believe we need a movement for change in this society which combines jobs training and morality training. God is calling us to fix our bridges, make our infrastructure in this country sound again, and end imperial warfare abroad. In the future, when America goes abroad, we need to take our best qualities, our best values, our best tools and people not our machinery of war and violence.

Let us use the gifts and graces which God has given us to serve in our context, acknowledging God will lead us through the challenges which beset us.

Now we come to the tenth and final key: We continue to risk for health and growth. I have added "health" to the growth. Having partly named some warning signals of sickness in a congregation in the ninth key, let’s begin the tenth key by compiling a list of characteristics of health in a congregation. Consider these 13 signs of health:

1. Infectious smiles, laughter, and celebrations.

2. A pandemic sense of reverence and respect.

3. A spreading witness to God's Saving Grace.

4. Fitness in the organization and management.

5. High levels of affirmation and recognition.

6. Exploratory learning and programming.

7. Allergic reactions to injustice.

8. Quick recuperation from setbacks.

9. Passionate stewardship.

10. Chronic interest in negotiating differences.

11. Persistent Positive expectations.

12. Sensitivity to each other's needs.

13. Efficacious Care for Pastors and their families.

(This list is found in Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack, G. Lloyd Rediger, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1997, p. 184).

Perhaps our quest for health and growth is best summarized by a three-letter acronym: "WOW!" First, for health and growth, we need to WORSHIP God each day. We need to allow the mystery and awesome power of God work in our lives every day -- not simply for one hour (and a couple of minutes!) on Sunday. Through prayer, through silence, through humble adoration, we need to find ways to worship God and praise God each day.

Second, we need OPENNESS. Openness is the natural readiness to listen to other people and perspectives, to seek out information and creative options from others inside and outside the community of faith. Openness speaks to hospitality, acceptance of diversity, an active dialogue on issues important in the world and in the community of faith. Openness engages more energy for action and less energy on defense responses to forward movement in the congregation. Open communication and care for others typically generates more financial, volunteer, and prayer resources for missions and ministries. Openness is a sign of Love the community outside our walls can't help but be captivated by! And in the end, Love will be the greatest gift we engender for growth in the years to come!

Third, we need WITNESS. Witness means sharing the great things God is doing in our individual lives, our thanksgivings and our heartfelt gratitude. Witness embodies living out Jesus's example of good works which he would do if he were physically present here and now. Witnessing is creative search for what we could be as well as affirming what already is true in our experience. Witness includes becoming spiritually healthy so that we are able to stand righteously against what threatens to undo God's good works.

W.O.W. -- Worship, Openness, Witness. These are signs and measures of health which will bring growth. As we become more worshipful, open and witnessing as individuals and as a congregation, we will grow.

Now, as we move to Christ’s table of grace and love let us remember the Trapeze Artist. As she flies through the air, the Trapeze Artist makes three important discoveries. First, she cannot hold on to one bar while grasping for the other. Second, it's frightening and threatening to let go of her security. Third, she doesn’t have forever to make up her mind. So, let go and leap in faith. Although it's frightening and somewhat threatening to let go and leap, you don't have forever to make up your mind and engage the steps ahead of you.

The Nehemiah Project is now complete. By listening, through the power of prayer, by risking honesty, by believing God's plans are simple, specific, and impossible, by trusting God's Holy Spirit to guide our leaders, by building a broad base on a solid foundation, by preparing in advance for potentially disheartening lags, by celebrating victories, and by moving forward in faith even in the face of potentially destructive forces, we will grow -- in spirit, in health, and in numbers.

At the end of our days, I pray each one of us will be able to claim the seven last words of Nehemiah as our own: "Remember me, O my God, for good!" Amen.


Copyright 2007, The First Congregational Church