Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
August 20, 2000
(Part V of V in the Summer Sermon Series: "The Nehemiah Project: Ten Keys for Rebuilding the Future")
Nehemiah 6:1-14, 13:5-9 and Ephesians 5:15-20
I invite you to read the ten keys of this five part sermon found on the last page of today's bulletin as I now turn my thoughts 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.
Again I encourage you to pick up and read the other four parts of this series in our information rack outside the office, off our web site, or by request through our mail service. The series will be printed in its entirety this week and made available for distribution.
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."
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.
"So the wall was finished. . ." begins Nehemiah 6:15. They said it could not be done! The job was too big and the problems were too great. But God's men and women, joined together for special tasks, can accomplish great goals. No leader but Daniel, who as he was being led into captivity 150 years before Nehemiah prophesied the rebuilding of Jerusalem (9:25), believed this could be accomplished. No leader except Nehemiah. What had been called impossible was completed in 52 days. Undaunted by the size of the task or the length of time needed to complete "the impossible," Nehemiah believed. He believed that with God, nothing is impossible. He believed that wrapped in the power of prayer and by keeping the goal simple and specific, the impossible can be achieved with God on our side. Nehemiah's faith was such that he could move mortar and ended up transforming the poor into powerful multitudes. He believed!
Nevertheless, before the goal was complete, the belief of Nehemiah was severely tested by the unbelief of the nobles of Tekoa and most significantly Tobiah and Sanballat. In the 6th and 13th chapters, Nehemiah meets direct opposition from these sources. Thus we have the 9th key: We move forward in faith -- always aware of the potentially destructive opposition which arises during the rebuilding process.
Nehemiah faced significant external dangers during the rebuilding process. His opposition invited him to remote sites where they sought to bring harm to him. They invited him into the holiest place within the temple (where he was forbidden to go by Hebraic law) in an attempt to discredit his name. They publicly sang his praises while privately sending him hate mail. The truth is -- if enough lies are told about a person, some people will conclude that they are true merely because they have been stated so often. This was the approach of Sanballat and Tobia.
Others in the opposition included the nobles of Tekoa. They stood off to the side of the project jeering and criticizing the work of the people. They wouldn't get their hands soiled because they were nobles and were "above" such work. But passive aggression wasn't their only approach. They regularly joined the others by openly challenging Nehemiah's leadership. They lied about Nehemiah to draw people off the project. They organized to cause confusion and in the end, it was the oppositional forces who had to leave (13:4-9).
This key is very important in the church today. As I pointed out last week, we now live in a society where the rules and the rolls are changing. In past generations there were in our culture ethics of integral civility and a belief that hard-work brought results. The natural outgrowth of these living these ethics of civility and hard work were a compassionate caring for others and an upholding of personal responsibility in workplace, home, and society.
In our times there has been a serious deterioration of integrity, civility, and hard work. The new ethics embrace pervasive incivility with no roots of integrity -- coupled with entitlement thinking in which an ever growing number of children and adults constantly feel someone owes them something. A culture in which the means justify the ends has too often given way to the ends justifying the means.
This has had a huge impact on the church. The church has succumbed to litigious models for problem solving over and against models which incorporate discernment and prayer. If Nehemiah had been living in today's environment, his opponents would have brought countless lawsuits against his rebuilding project. Instead of 52 days to complete the project, it would have been hung up in the courts for a decade or more. Instead of timbers from the king's forests, there would have trees taken for the volumes of paper needed to respond to his opponents.
Nehemiah tried to respond to his opponents by refusing to leave the wall. In his words, "I am doing a great work and cannot come down!" (Nehemiah 6:3). He also said a flat "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). They sent two "false" prophets to him to "prophesy" to his ending. He responded that he was under no obligation to listen to prophets that God did not send (6:12). Each challenge he rebuffed! In the end, he prevailed.
In our own rebuilding project at First Church, I implore you to support the work we are about. You have all been invited to share your thoughts, your dreams, your visions, your goals, your hopes, your insights for the future. We know that close to 400 of you have been contacted. We also know that not everyone contacted has chosen to engage a one-on-one, for whatever reason. But, as I have read the ideas streaming forth from you, I am aware of several things. First, there is a tremendous and impassioned love of First Church embodied in this congregation. Second, many of you have invested in your love for generations through countless gifts, amazing sharing of leadership, and dedicated attendance. Third, the strong opinions you have held about many topics of personal and congregational concern have led to points of great unity and great division. The points of unity have brought you joy. The points of division have caused deep pain in this body of Christ.
One of my colleagues and I have a theory about so many congregations into today's United Church of Christ. We believe that many of our congregations 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. In other words, we 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, our Nehemiah, yes even our Christ figure!
Now some of you may wonder why this is ninth key even exists for our rebuilding process. It exists to remind 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 of this congregation. I am aware that 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, what is it that God is calling us to do as a community of faith? In Nehemiah's time it was to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem. In our time, on 9th and Broad in Columbus, Ohio -- what is it that God is calling us to do and to be? I believe in the coming 52 days (how do you like that?!?), God will grant us a simple, specific, and visionary plan which will lead us well into the 21st Century. I trust that like Nehemiah before me, my seven last words, at the end of my pastorate will be, "Remember me, O my God, for good." 13:31b).
We have come to this summertime series. Some have told me that they wish I'd return to addressing personal, spiritual concerns, not merely the church issues. But, I believe that the health of persons and the health of the church are interwoven. One does not exist without the other. If we have health as an congregation, we will tender the health of persons within our care. Similarly, if we are healthy persons, the church will become healthier still. With years to go before I end, the care of souls I will commend!
For now, the tenth and final key is this: We continue to risk for health and growth. I have added "health" to the growth. Having partly addressed the warning signals of sickness in a congregation in the ninth key, let me begin the tenth key by compiling a list of characteristics of health in congregation. Consider these signs of health:
The market is flooded today with books about how to make congregations grow. Many of the books are useful. But, I believe growth takes care of itself when a congregation is healthy spiritually, mentally, and physically. So we will grow as we are healthy people and a healthy community. People will come to us seeing and seeking such health and wholeness for their lives.
Perhaps our health is best summarized by a three letter acronym. Now, I am not a big fan of acronyms, but this one does express positive enthusiasm and I believe we always need that! The three letter word is "WOW!" I told you it was exciting!
The first word of health for growth is WORSHIP. We need to daily worship God. We need to allow the mystery and awesome power of God work in our lives -- not simply for one hour (and a couple of minutes! :) on Sunday mornings, but every day. Through prayer, through silence, through humble adoration, we need to find ways to worship God and praise God each day.
The second word is OPENNESS. Openness is the second dynamic notable in a healthy congregation. 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 worthwhile missions and ministries. Openness is a sign of Love the community outside our walls can't help but be captivated by! As I shared in our First Church News cover story this week, Love will be the greatest gift we engender for growth in the years to come!
Finally, the third congregational health dynamic is WITNESS. Witness for me means sharing what great things God is doing in our individual lives, what thanksgivings we are able to lift, what heartfelt gratitude we possess and share. But, witness also embodies a living out of Jesus's example of good works which he would likely do if he were physically present here and now. With witness, I am not advocating the judgmental triumphalism of arrogant faith. Rather witnessing includes the creative search for what we could be as well as affirming what already is true in our experience. It includes becoming spiritually healthy to the point we are able to stand righteously against what threaten to undo God's good works.
W.O.W. -- Worship, Openness, Witness. Signs of health that will bring growth in the days to come. We are moving forward in faith, today. We will become a more worship full, open and witnessing congregation because we will continue to grow in health. And although I am a (somewhat) patient leader, I will remind you today of the Trapeze Artist.
The Trapeze Artist makes three important discoveries as she flies through the air. First, you cannot hold on to one bar while grasping for the other. You must let go to leap. Second, it's frightening and threatening to let go of your security. And third, you don't have forever to make up your mind. I feel like we are at that point as community of faith. We have to let go and leap in faith at some point. And although it's frightening and somewhat threatening to let go and leap, we don't have forever to make up our minds and engage the steps ahead of us.
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 prearing 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. And at the end of our days, each one of us will be able to claim the seven last words of Nehemiah, "Remember me, O my God, for good!" Amen.
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