Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
August 6, 2000
(Part III of V in the Summer Sermon Series: "The Nehemiah Project: Ten Keys to Rebuilding the Future")
Nehemiah 2: 18-20, 3:28-4:9; John 6:24-35
On July 9, I began a sermon series which will conclude August 20. Using four of the ten principles drawn from the Book of Nehemiah, I proposed that we needed to: 1) Listen to beloved friends who speak the truth about the place we love; 2) Pray continuously for God's Strength and Leadership; 3) Risk Being Honest; and 4) Believe God's plans are simple, specific, and impossible. I am particularly happy to see so many of you back following my July 16th sermon in which I was (uncharacteristically) blunt as I risked being honest and shared my simple, specific and impossible dreams for this congregation. But, as we know, with God's nothing is impossible. With God - All things are Possible - including two weeks of rest for you from my preaching! Those July sermons are already in print and these next three will be printed one by one as well as all together, as a composite, following the August 20th sermon.
Today, with Holy Communion yet to come, I will grant you mercy and be brief. Today's keys are #5) We Trust in the Holy Spirit to lead the visionary leadership of the church (Nehemiah 2:18ff) and #6) We build a broad base upon a solid foundation (Nehemiah 3:28-4:9).
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
With the words, "Let us start building!" in Nehemiah 2:18, the walls of the city began to rise under the leadership of Nehemiah and the labor of the people! And (the passage continues) "they committed themselves to the common good" (2:18). All people of good faith, working together for good began to rebuild the burned out and fallen wall of Jerusalem. Following the leadership of the high priests (3:1), the Sheep Gate went up, meanwhile down the wall the sons of Hassenaah raised the Fish Gate; others joined in from the Old gate to the Valley Gate, from the Valley Gate to the Dung Gate; from Dung Gate to Fountain Gate; from Fountain Gate to the East Water Gate; from East Water Gate to Horse Gate; from Horse Gate to East Gate; from East Gate to Muster Gate; and from Muster Gate back to the Sheep Gate the Great Walls and Gates went up! Many worked on the walls closest to their homes and occupational workplaces - which made sense. Each seeking to protect his or her own place in the city and building where the future was clear - right before their eyes.
Goldsmiths, temple servants, merchants, priests, nobles, widows, orphans, and common men, women, and children throughout the city all put their hands and backs to work as the walls were raised from ashes of destruction to wondrous sights to behold. It was a truly amazing process of construction. Along the walls there were multiple challenges. And - everyone did not get along all the time. Nor did everyone agree on the project's goals. Not everyone got behind the visionary leadership as they garnered resources to rebuild the city. (Next Sunday I will delve into the voices of challenge and dissonance and their role in the project). Nevertheless, working together for the common good, the walls and the gates went up! Trusting in the Holy Spirit to lead the visionary leadership and building a broad base of support on a solid foundation the Nehemiah Project succeeded!
Trust is a precious gift. To trust another in relationship is both daring and necessary for the growth of both parties. But trust denied, trust defied, trust broken or trust availed bring setbacks in relationships that time and immense forgiveness and grace to heal. In essence, to be trusted is a greater compliment and achievement in life than to be loved. In Jesus, Liberation and Love, Father Mark Gibbard writes, "when we trust as far as we can, we often find ourselves able to trust at least a little bit further." I must confess, I often feel as your pastor, that it will take a long time to build our relationship in the ways of trust because of your past hurts. But, I am willing to take time and build trust. Time will be our friend as we walk together and build this trusting and trustworthy relationship. At the same time we are building trust with one another, two things must happen in your dance of faith. First, you must continue to trust God as God heals the broken places within you and between you. Second, you must believe and TRUST that God's Grace - which was present at the creation of the universe and present at the creation of each one of our tiny, little universes - the same God, the same Grace is already at work forgiving, sustaining, and renewing you now and forevermore.
In fact, the truth is, none of us can trust each other without first trusting God, without first trusting Jesus. This is as true as it is simple. In Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Biography, by Edward Lejoy, the author quotes the Mother Teresa. She says, "We are able to go through the most terrible places fearlessly, because Jesus will never deceive us. Jesus in us is our love, our strength, our joy, our compassion." (MTC, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1983, p. 160). Trust God and God only. Trust in God's call, God's inspiration in your life. For God will not let you down.
Here at First Church, God has given us great leadership. We need to trust that the future that God is forming for us and with us is as bright as or brighter than the past. There's a story of a young couple who had been married three years. As they grew further away from their honeymoon, the woman was concerned that her husband was not paying as much attention to her. She wondered if, perhaps his eyes had been wondering. Maybe he had fallen out of love for her. She prayed for an answer, for a sign. One day, a newlywed couple moved in next door. She noticed their frisky and tender affection. Each morning he kissed her before leaving for work. Each night they met in the driveway and kissed as a greeting. So she said to her husband one night at dinner, "Sweetheart, I've noticed the new neighbors next door and their love for one another. Each morning and each evening, he kisses her goodbye and hello. Honey, why can't you do that too?" Her husband blushed and then responded, "I think that's inappropriate, dear. I barely know that woman." Many of us "resemble that comment." Let's get to know the gifts of the our leadership and move into the future, trusting and hoping for the days ahead. The root of the word "trust" in German means "comfort." We will find comfort and the confident expectation of hope as we trust in God and in one another.
The sixth key is: "We Build a Broad Base upon a Solid Foundation" (3:1-4:23). Look at the list of folks who worked on the walls in Nehemiah's time (my translation): The power elite, the holy priests, small business people, goldsmiths (bankers), church staff, those who were widows and orphans, and a cast of thousands of men, women, and children of all backgrounds and socioeconomic standing in the community. From the richest to the poorest, from the youngest to the oldest, from the feeble to the strong, most of the people of Jerusalem went to work on the wall. In fact, the only people who didn't work on the wall and gates were those who held power and gained economically because the walls were crumbling. That's right. Some people prosper in the face of chaos. Such folks do not wish to rebuild because such a project will mean their loss of power and control. But, I'm getting ahead of myself, that's next week's seventh key.
I see four major building blocks built upon a solid foundation for us as we move forward. The solid foundation is: God's Word and Will and Christ's Healing and Grace-filled Love. The four building blocks are: Dynamic Worship, Transformational Mission, Invitational Evangelism; and Serious Stewardship - Worship, Mission, Evangelism and Stewardship. Building on our rock of salvation, Jesus Christ, we must experience and communicate Worship which is alive and Spirit-filled; Mission which transforms people's lives - our lives and the life of persons who are poor and forsaken in our city and in the world; Evangelism which invites family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors to come and experience the "good news" (the Ev-angel) of this faith community. Finally, our Stewardship of Time, Talent, and Treasure must grow out of a deep sense of compassion and gratitude for all God is doing in the midst of us!
With the solid foundation of God in Christ, with the building blocks of Worship, Mission, Evangelism, and Stewardship, and with all hands working together to create our future vision, nothing can stop us! Let me explain "all hands." "All hands" means nothing short of ALL as our goal. The theme of this summer's one-to-one campaign of conversation across the congregation has been "Every Member Matters." This includes all confirmed members. We have held conversations with those confirmed in June all the way to those grew through our Church School program down on Third and Broad. Yes, we have members at First Church who can remember the old church now 70 years removed! Isn't that glorious? We have included in the one-to-one's friends of First Church - folks who are worshiping with us and but have not joined. All hands will work together for God in our rebuilding process!
Children, teens, young adults, and all ages and sages of people, poor and rich (and middle class), very actives, less actives, and in-actives, craftspeople and professional tradespeople, single adults for whom we serve as extended family and extended families with children at home; all races and nationalities, the musical and music appreciators, varying orientations of persons, preachers and preached at - ALL must work together for the common good.
If you come to worship and do nothing else, you must learn to stand on the solid foundation and support the other three building blocks of Mission, Evangelism, and Stewardship. If you consistently miss church because you are so active in Missional groups, you must learn to stand and support the other three building blocks of Worship, Evangelism, and Stewardship. If you are a tither, but don't support the other three building blocks, fill out your vision. And if you are our leading trumpeter of "good news," or greatest evangelist, but don't participate in other ways (which I would find highly unlikely!), then fill out your vision!
You may like the singing, but not the preaching or you like the preaching but can't hold a note of music. You may be one who likes other people your age, but doesn't deal well with others; who haven't had your generational life experiences. You may feel there's not enough people your age. Then invite them to church - form small groups for missing pieces of the ministry here. Fill out your vision! Last week I heard of Christ United Methodist Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where new members must join a small group ministry in order to join the church and if there is not a ministry to meet their needs, they need to form one!
This is our church - so let us dream, reach, build, create, share, invite, invest, inform, and believe! 148 years ago a handful of people had the courage, the vision, the wisdom and the faith to say "no" to a church that supported slavery and say "yes" to a newly forming community of faith which believed in the liberation of slaves and equality of all God's children. We now know this community of faith as The First Congregational United Church of Christ, Columbus. 70 years ago, over a thousand people had the courage, the vision, the wisdom, and the faith to build on this holy ground. Today is our time step forward.
Building our congregation with a broad base upon a solid foundation in Christ and armed with the four building blocks of faithfulness, nothing is impossible! Our only limitations are our own self-imposed limitations. But, I believe, with all our hands working together for the common good, and with the courage, vision, wisdom, and faithfulness already birthed and alive here, nothing will stop us from rebuilding the future. Amen.
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