Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
August 13, 2000
(Part IV of V in the Summer Sermon Series: "The Nehemiah Project: Ten Keys for Rebuilding the Future")
Nehemiah 5:1-19; and 7:73b-8:18
Today we look at the Seventh and Eighth Keys of Nehemiah's ten keys for Rebuilding the Future. Remember the first six are: 1) We Listen to beloved friends who speak the truth about the place we love; 2) We Pray continuously for God's strength and leadership; 3) We Risk Being Honest; 4) We Believe God's Plans are Simple, Specific and (seemingly) Impossible; 5) We Trust the Holy Spirit to Guide the visionary leadership of the church; 6) We Build a Broad Base upon a Solid Foundation.
The seventh key is: We prepare in advance for potentially disheartening lags in the building process (5:1-19). The eighth key is: We Celebrate our Victories with Great Joy while living faithfully in God's Word (7:73b-8:18).
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.
The Nehemiah Project of rebuilding the walls, gates, yes the very city of Jerusalem was never easy. From its conception, Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem faced judgment, peril, threats and impending violence. To change structures or the status quo is a direct threat to those who hold power and control of what has been. From the beginning of his project, Nehemiah bears the faithful sophistication of one who is a change agent. He guides the wall workers. He encourages them in their efforts. He prays for them continuously. He faces their opposition and speaks the truth in love to those who would mumble and mutter the walls into ruin. But in the fifth chapter of this chronicle, Nehemiah faces his greatest opposition - his own people!
The fifth chapter of Nehemiah begins with the reports of an acute socioeconomic crisis faced by the farmers during the wall building process (5:1-13). Although it's reported as if this is a single episode, it's believed this was a long term problem that was reported as a single episode. Some members of the Jewish upper class were usurious toward those who took out loans and deprived them of their land and forced their children to work as slave laborers through a ruthless application of the rules of borrowing. The usual marginal financial status of many people in the farming community had deteriorated further because of their work on the wall, because of drought and because the taxes they were forced to pay to Persia out of the surplus they produced from any given field.
Since Nehemiah had required all workers to stay in Jerusalem for all 52 days it took to complete the wall project, the lack of harvesting laborers had caused low production in the fields and thus lost revenues. (Paraphrased and quoted from The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume III, Abington Press, Nashville, TN, 1999, p. 779). In the face of this low production, the Jewish ruling class, brought additional suffering and hardship on the farmers by exacting the price of this loss on their heads. The result was whole families were starving and becoming indentured slaves at the hands of fellow Jews to complete a project which most benefitted the citizens of Jerusalem (where the wealthy lived!) Not the farmers who were suffering from this exploitation.
Nehemiah heard the cry of his people and he was outraged! (5:6). Chiselers, Scroungers, Unjust Profiteers - call them what you will. They exist today. They exist in faith communities. In fact, people like this destroy trust and create justifiable judgment on church, mosque, synagogue, and temple communities throughout the world today. Nehemiah was forthright and direct. He went to these offending brethren in private and in public (5:7). He used appeals not only to their better nature (5:9a) but also to their patriotic pride (5:9b). Since he was unconvinced of their promises to emend their ways, Nehemiah put them on a public oath (5:12). And he even went so far as to invoke an imprecatory prayer which to our modern ears sounds very much like a curse upon those who did not keep their promises (5:13). Apparently the confrontation and the threat of God's own curse worked. Because the crisis was averted and the work continued.
The Seventh Key is: "We prepare in advance for potentially disheartening lags in the building process" (5:1-19). In one sense, nothing can prepare a community of faith for the kind of disheartening lag Nehemiah faced in this story - betrayal and abuse from within a faith community. In a wholly different sense, the politics of faith communities are unfortunately the politics of Our worldly fear-based culture brought to bear on God's faith-based culture. While it is true that betrayal, ruthlessness, and exacting usury have absolutely no place in faith communities, these weed-like values find their way into faith communities because the God-given fruit-filled values of forgiveness, fairness, equality before God, civility and empathy have not taken root deep enough and long enough in people who call themselves chosen of God! Like Nehemiah, I get very angry when I see this at work!
Knives in the back are the stuff of Shakespearean dramas. All verbal and economic knives are to be left outside this theater called Christian. In fact, the values which I have named are among those which form and thus, transform a life.
And perhaps those values are not met in your sphere of influence with much acceptance. If so, I encourage you to live into these values anyway. In a poem given to me over 15 years ago by a Ugandan Christian pastor faced with persecution at the hands of Edi Amin's ruthless regime, we are all empowered to "Do it Anyway." He writes:
"Do It Anyway"
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will wind some false friends and some true enemies.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight.
If you find serenity and joy, some may be jealous.
Be joyful anyway.
The good you do today, people will forget tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
Nehemiah knew what we would be wise to learn. Values that come from the heart of God are stronger than walls. Even when faced with a disheartening lag and unjust actions against his own people, by his own people, Nehemiah never lost heart. He never reacted outside of his relationship with a loving, living, and just God. In the days that followed this incident, Nehemiah also shared his personal fortune (5:14-19) with his people. Daily he brought food and supplies to them giving out of his own pocket. To use a phrase from 12-step materials and Alcoholics Anonymous - "He walked the talk." And he did it in the face of tremendous challenge to give in to the status quo.
If Nehemiah is not enough of a model of faithfulness for you - than better yet - fashion your response to disheartening lags and behaviors within this or any faith community on the model of Jesus Christ, of whom the Apostle Paul writes to the Church at Phillipi as if he was writing to First Church, today:
"If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing of the Spirit, any compassion, any sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not on your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." (Phillipians 2:1-8).
What more can be said?
The eighth key is this: We celebrate our victories with Great Joy while living faithfully in God's word (7:73b-8:18). I don't know about you, but I was raised in such a way to not over-celebrate victories. We needed to show reserve and thus respect for the vanquished whenever victory came our way. However, in this story, the victory which the people of Jerusalem are celebrating is not a victory over and against a foe, so much as a victory of understanding the law of Torah (8:8) and in the joy in the Lord (8:12). The people celebrate the law of Moses which has called them to faithfully re-build the wall and gates of Jerusalem. Moreover, their joy in the Lord reflects dedication to God, commitment to God's Holy way and faith and trust in God.
In Nehemiah 8, the people celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. They erect their booths and hold the festival. Although there are some disagreements about how this should be, the people reconcile differences and celebrate their return to the land - which has resulted in God's kindness!
For two months now, more than 40 people have been commissioned at First Church to go out and listen to the other 450+. Although, all the results of our listening have not yet been turned in (a reminder to complete and turn in your summary reports) many of you have had, for perhaps the first time in your membership experience, someone listening to you about your views and opinions on First Church and our ministries and missions. I have read more than 250 written reports. Although, I am duly challenged by many helpful critiques of our ministry and mission, I am also tremendously thankful for the vision, candor, and hope I feel coming through in these reports. If you have been apart of the Listening Team, I invite you to stand. If you have taken the opportunity to share your visions, thoughts, and insights with one of our Listeners, I'd like you to raise your hand. We celebrate both Listeners and those who have opened their homes and hearts to these folks. Some of you have chosen either not to speak with someone (and that has been recorded), or not answered the calls of invitation, or not received the calls. This week, I am sending out a letter to all folks who have not been approached or scheduled for a one-to-one conversation. I want to know if you would like to make and take the opportunity for such a time as this. We will honor all requests and meet all needs in this regard.
Tomorrow night at 7:00 pm here at church, we will gather to celebrate the work done by this team of volunteers. They have given countless hours this summer to call, go out, listen, converse, and write up their findings. I admire the work of each one of you! Thank you! We will look at preliminary results - concerns raised, issues addressed and finally, we will begin to map out our church's vision as we all step forward in faith.
What we have done this summer is significant. As a community of faith, we have taken to heart the charge of Jesus Christ to "go out" and meet people where they are. This has never been done before in 148 years. In the past, we have gone out on stewardship campaigns or capital campaigns. But, our going out to listen and learn; to build relationships among our sisters and brothers in Christ - that is new and novel. We need to celebrate this bold expression of reaching into the congregation. The fruits we have garnered and will bear from these eight weeks of in-reach, will yield years of harvest in the growth of our community of faith. We will find that growth will come in mission, stewardship, evangelism and worship - the four building blocks of which I spoke last week. The energy and enthusiasm I perceive for our present and future is rich and deep.
The prophet, Habakkuk records such a moment as this in the second chapter of his book: "Write your vision, make it plan on tablets, so that one running past may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks to the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay" (Habakkuk 2:2-3).
In your daily living, as well as in the life of First Church, celebrate your victories. They may be small victories of which only you and God know. But, celebrate them anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. And God calls us to a place of joy and celebration - in God's Word, in Christ's Way, and always in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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