Risking Honesty in Simple, Specific and Impossible Ways

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

July 16, 2000

Part II of V in Summer Sermon Series

"The Nehemiah Project: Ten Keys for Rebuilding the Future"

Nehemiah 2:1-17

Last Sunday, I preached on the first two keys: #1 - We listen to beloved friends who speak the truth about the place we love and #2 - We pray continuously for God's strength and leadership. Today, we examine the third and fourth keys:

#3: We Risk Being Honest and live with the consequences (Nehemiah 2:1-10).

#4: We Believe God's Plans are simple, specific, and impossible (Nehemiah 2:17).

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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Last week we learned that in the year 445 B.C., a group of exiles escaped captivity in Jerusalem and came to Persia seeking the leadership of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was the Cupbearer for King Artaxerxes, the man who tasted all the foods and drinks for the king to see if they were either poisoned or poorly prepared. The exiles came pleaded with Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem for the purpose of rebuilding the city gates and walls. After four months of continuous prayer, Nehemiah approached King Artaxerxes and requested release from his position as Cupbearer so that he might return to lead the project of rebuilding. Before Nehemiah had spoken the King asked him what was wrong, why he looked so sad. In a careful and prayerful response, Nehemiah risked being honest with the King and told him about the destruction of Jerusalem. The King then asked Nehemiah what he could do. The answer - provide a letter of release for safe passage and timber needed for rebuilding the walls. The king provides not only the best timber, and a letter of release but also an escort for safe passage.

Thus we have the third key, Risk Being Honest and live with the results (Nehemiah 2:1-10). Nehemiah possessed Holy Boldness. When he spoke to the King, he did so with honesty, forthrightness, and the spirit of the Living God! By the time went before the King, Nehemiah was prepared to live (or die) with the results of their conversation.

How many of you have risked honesty in your life? How many times have you seen a situation with family or friends in which you have spoken the truth honestly and with love? How many of you at work or in church have felt the need to be honest about the feelings you were having, but did not speak in fear of repercussions if you spoke the truth with love? I know I have found myself in such situations many times. And many times, I have found speaking the truth with love is a compelling way to live - yes, a Christ like way to live.

Many years ago, I found myself face-to-face with a family member who was struggling with an addiction to alcohol and drugs. I felt that if I spoke out and spoke up, I may risk losing our relationship. But I also felt, if I remained silent, I may risk losing my beloved family member through death to the drugs and alcohol. After much thought and prayer, I finally spoke up. I did so when we were alone and I did so with the heart full of love. Within a year, the person was clean and sober and preparing for marriage. I am not saying that our conversation saved a life, but change came out of what had been the despairing depths of self-destruction.

In the past month, we have had close to 200 one-to-one conversations with members of this congregation and some considering membership. Honesty has been a constant theme. Many people have spoken honestly about this church and community which they love. I have also seen notes where in response, our team members have been honest in responding as well. As First Church moves into the future, we must risk being honest and live with the results. If we fail to be honest, we may not only endanger relationships, but see to the death of the whole church. I have heard one person refer to our church as having become a small church. Now, I have never thought of First Church as a small church. So those words caught me off guard. But, we certainly are much smaller than in the past.

As we grow into a congregation of more than 1,000 members once again, I believe we must be holy and bold in these two ways. First, we must multiply leaders, not add them. Second, we must become generous stewards.

In his book 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell speaks of the Law of Explosive Growth. He says to add growth, you must lead followers. But, to multiply growth you must lead leaders. We have an organization of leaders at First Church. In your workplaces and in this community many of you are leaders. However, we have yet to tap this gold mine of leadership for this church. As the pastoral leader of this congregation, there are times that I see my job as one of adding new members. Numerically we are growing in membership. I believe we will continue to grow. But, if I merely add one member at a time, we will not really grow. Through deaths and natural attrition of membership, we will hold even. However, if you take on leadership to grow the congregation and bring new people and lead within the mission and ministries of this church, we will multiply leaders.

An excellent example of this is the Stephen Ministry. In June, Kasey Wasson, went to leadership training school in Orlando, Florida on behalf of our congregation (which she had joined three weeks earlier). As you may know, this excellent lay ministry of compassion and caring has been mostly on sabbatical these last few years. Kasey is preparing to gather a train a new class of Stephen Ministers and she will work with the leaders of the program to get the ongoing Stephen Ministers out of dry dock and back into the sea of meeting people in their needs. This new leader will train others and out of this training, new leaders (and new members) will emerge. In the past, the fortunes of this ministry have risen (and fallen) on the shoulders of Associate Pastors. In the present and future, we will train leaders who will lead this lay program along with the pastor. These leaders will bring forth other leaders. We must multiply leaders!

This same principle of multiplying growth must apply to every mission and ministry of First Church. For us to have a vibrant future, I must become a leader of leaders. You must take on leadership and all the joys and challenges of stepping forward to lead (and not simply implement what I say) and move us forward into a bright future. What visions do you have for First Church? How can you lead your part of the ministry and mission of that vision? That is the question!

Second, we must become generous stewards. I am going to risk honesty at this point. I find myself frustrated after seven months with the stewardship of First Church. I am very concerned that there are only 169 giving units toward our annual pledge from a base of more than 650 listed members - a number which includes new members. I guess that we have about 350 potential giving units to the pledge base in this church. So, less than 50% of the people on the rolls of this church support the ongoing ministries of First Church. Of those that are giving, our average pledge is $1,860. Now that is not a terrible number - if the average household income of the members of the congregation is less than $30,000. But, because the average income is two times and more this number, our giving is very weak. But, I didn't even want to focus on dollars alone in speaking of generous stewards. Instead I want to talk about Stage Coach riders.

James Moore in his book Yes, Lord, I Have Sinned, But, I Have Several Excellent Excuses, tells the story of the stagecoach riders of the old west. Did you know there were three classes of stage coach tickets? There were first-class, second-class, and third-class tickets. When the stage coach broke down (which happened often enough), the first class riders could stay aboard while the others got off. No matter if the coach had to be pushed or repaired, they could remain seated. The second-class ticket holders had to get out of the coach, but didn't have to do any work. The third-class riders had to get off and push when the coach broke down.

Rev. Moore says that these three stagecoach classifications fit the ways various people relate to their church as well. Some believe they have a first-class ticket and they sit there thinking they are to be catered to, pampered and waited on. Some believe they are second-class ticket holders. They ride along until there is a problem and then they get off and become detached spectators. They watch while someone else fixes the problem then they get back on and go along for the ride. There are others who live with their third-class tickets. They ride along until there is a problem and then they get off and push, pull, or do what's needed to get the stagecoach moving again. They work creatively and productively to fix the problem. They devote needed energies to the tasks of solving problems. They roll up their sleeves and get the job done. This metaphor begs the defining moment - which one are you? (It does not beg the self-righteous moment! Which one am I not?) So, which one are you?

To be generous stewards in First Church we must pick-up our third class tickets! All of us must ride third-class to the Kingdom of God! Give generously of your time, talents, and treasures. Perhaps, at your age and stage of life, the only gift you can give is money - or time or talents. Only you know that. No matter if you roll up your sleeves for Faith Mission or the Interfaith Hospitality Network or through your pledging the Arts and Music Ministries - if we are to thrive for today and for tomorrow, everyone of us in this church needs to find ways to become the generous stewards and the fully actualized leaders Christ is calling us to be! In saying this, I am risking honesty and I am hopeful to live with the results!

The fourth key is: We believe God's plans are simple, specific and impossible (Nehemiah 2:17). In Nehemiah 2, Nehemiah makes a secret nocturnal inspection of the walls. Taking only those people needed on the mission and keeping his plan secret, Nehemiah views all nine gates and all the city walls. Some places along the wall are impassable (sort of like the highways around Columbus!). Finally, he returns as dawn is breaking and shares his vision with the priests, the nobles, and city officials. These simple and specific and (seemingly) impossible words guide the vision in the 17th verse, "Come let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and we will no longer be in disgrace." With that the project begins. Needless to say (and I will say more in August), not everyone is in favor of this rebuilding project. As with every project, someone has something to gain by things staying just the way they are. And others, simply don't like change. (This reminds me of the church in which one leader stood and declared when the building was to be expanded, "I'll die and be buried here before I change!" When the project was finished, a plague was placed on that spot which read, "He died and was buried here before he changed.")

As we formulate our long range vision, we must keep it simple, specific and (seemingly) impossible, remembering that with God all things are possible. (Now there's a great motto!). I believe First Church will be the leader of all the downtown churches by the year 2005. I believe we will have more than 1,000 active members in less than ten years. I believe our doors will be open to businesspeople, artists, families, students, children and adults in ways we are only beginning to realize. This is true because we stand on the firm belief that "all members have the right of individual interpretation of the principles of the Christian faith" and we "respect them in their honest convictions" as stated in our faith and covenant found on page five of your bulletin. In our diversity, we will find unity. That's simple and specific. We need to be known as the church which stands on the Principle of Protestantism that the convictions and beliefs of Christian faith as interpreted by individuals must be held sacred. We live in a time when people in too many churches are compelled to believe one way or they are shown the highway. We need to be known as the church that welcomes all through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ!

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we become the Cathedral of Grace for Columbus and as we become the church with a heart for this city at the heart of this city, we will grow. Through holy boldness we will grow. Through risking honesty we will grow. Through our becoming the leaders in this place we have the full potential to become, we will grow. Through taking the third class tickets on God's stagecoach and thus becoming generous stewards of our time, talents, and treasures, we will grow. Through laying out in simple, specific, and impossible ways our mission vision and trusting God to give us courage to live that vision, we will grow. Amen.

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