Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sermon for July 20, 2008

Rebuilding the Walls: The Opposition
Nehemiah 4:1-4:23

Do you remember what you were doing on December 22, 1984? In New York City it was a cold evening, a mere three days before Christmas. A man entered a subway car. He was 37 years old. Thin, almost frail. Balding and bespectacled. An electronics buff. Law abiding and timid. Certainly not the description you would give a vigilante. Certainly not the swashbuckler you would cast to play Robin Hood or the hero that you would hire to portray the Lone Ranger. But that didn’t bother the American public when this timid man’s story came out.

The unassertive passenger sat down next to four youths. They were a somewhat boisterous group, and the 15 or 20 other passengers moved to the other end of the subway car. One of the four, Troy Canty, asked Bernhard Goetz how he was doing. Then, brandishing sharpened screwdrivers, the teens threateningly encircled Goetz and ‘asked’ him for five dollars. Goetz took out a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver and fired four shots at each of the four youths. He walked over to one of the youths who was seated next to the conductors cab and said “You seem to be all right; here’s another” and fired a fifth shot into his body. The youth, Darrel Cabey was turned away from Goetz and the bullet entered his left backside, severing his spinal cord. A passenger pulled the emergency cord. The train screeched to a halt and many of the passengers fled onto the tracks. A conductor approached Goetz and asked if he was a cop. When it became apparent that he was not, the conductor asked him for his gun. Goetz refused to hand it over, walked quietly to the front of the car and out the door. He jumped to the tracks below and disappeared into the dark of the subway tunnel. Three of the young kids lay bleeding on the floor of the train and Darrel Cabey sat wounded and paralyzed in the end seat.

Ray Kerrison, of the New York Post, wrote, “By their own admission [the teens] singled him out because he looked like the weakest target on the car. The total thug mentality -- hit the most helpless . . . So the play was four brutes against one sap -- or so they thought -- and if anyone doubts the potential violence these robbers could have inflicted on Goetz, they have only to study their subsequent criminal careers.”

About a week later Goetz walked into a police station in Concord, New Hampshire and gave himself up. He was turned over to New York authorities on January 3, 1985. Goetz instantly became a hero. A popular actress sent him a “love and kisses” telegram. “Thug-buster” T-shirts began to appear on the streets of New York City. A rock group wrote a song in his honor. People gave money to go toward his defense. Goetz was acquitted by a jury of all counts of murder, and was only found guilty of endangerment. Radio talk shows were deluged with callers. One radio host said, “They won’t let it go.” It’s not hard to see why.

Bernhard Goetz was an American fantasy come true. He did what every citizen wants to do. He fought back. He kicked the bully in the shins. He punched the villain in the nose. He clobbered the evil one over the head. This unassuming hero embodied nationwide anger, a passion for revenge. The outpouring of support gives clear evidence. Not much has changed. People are mad. People are angry. There is a growing, pent-up boiling rage that causes us to fondly remember the man who says, “I ain’t takin’ it no more!” and then comes out with a smoking pistol in each hand.

We’re tired of being bullied. We are sick of being intimidated by others. We’re angry at someone, but we don’t know who. We’re scared of something but we don’t know what. We want to fight back, but we don’t know how. So, when a modern day Wyatt Earp walks on the scene, we applaud him. He is speaking for us. “Way to go, Thug-buster. That’s the way to do it!”
Or is it? Is that really the way to do it?

An interesting side note to the story. In 1996, 12 years after the shootings, while OJ was filling the airwaves with the trial of the century, Goetz was sued by the paralyzed Darell Cabey in a civil suit. Goetz was found liable and ordered by the court to pay $4.3 million.

Let’s think about anger for a moment. Anger is a peculiar and predictable emotion. It begins as a drop of water–an irritant. A frustration. Nothing big, just an aggravation. Someone gets your parking space. Someone cuts you off. A waitress is slow when you are in a hurry. The toast burns. Yet, get enough of these innocent drops of anger and before long you’ve got a bucket full of rage. Walking revenge. Blind bitterness. We trust no one, and bare our teeth at anyone who gets near. Many become walking time bombs, ready to explode.

Now, is that any way to live? What good has hatred ever brought? What hope has anger ever created? What problems have ever been solved by revenge?

I would like to ask that to the enemies of Nehemiah in chapter 4.When Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem in chapter 2, a man named Sanballat isn’t very happy. Initially Sanballat’s emotional discomfort with Nehemiah seems to be a minor irritation. He doesn’t really take Nehemiah’s presence very seriously. After all, what could one man do, even with the king’s approval? But once Nehemiah begins to rally the Jews, and pick up and rebuild the broken walls of Jerusalem, Sanballat’s displeasure intensifies. What was once a drop of minor irritation becomes a bucket full of hatred against this perceived threat to the security of the region. Sanballat, a leader in neighboring Samaria, feels like his power is slipping away from him. His reaction is a blend of fear and anger, with a tinge of insecurity. His report to his associates may have sounded something like this:
Nehemiah is a man to be reckoned with. He’s no fool. Under his leadership, these Jews are really serious about rebuilding the walls. They’re not as feeble as we think. They’re actually planning to restore Jerusalem and live in it, and they’re not wasting any time. They plan to complete the task as soon as possible, actually rebuilding it from dusty rubble. If they succeed, they will threaten our whole economy.
Sanballat’s angry opposition is popular with his friends. They get ready to attack and eliminate the threat. By the way, take note, this is neither the first nor the last time a group will try to eliminate the Jews from the Promised Land..

Nehemiah’s response to opposition is unexpected. Before anything else, Nehemiah goes to God. He prays. He aligns himself with the will of God. He refuses to drink from the cup of revenge. He will not be filled with bitterness and malice. No, Nehemiah prays. Then he rallies the people to continue with the hard work and protect the city.

How do people handle opposition? Today’s Scripture gives to views. Two methods. Nehemiah faced opposition, and he ardently sought after God’s will. Sanballat also felt that he faced opposition from Nehemiah and the Jews. Sanballat faced his opposition with vengeful rhetoric and violent conspiracies.

How do you face opposition? How do you handle it when you know, without a doubt, that you have a God-sized task to accomplish and someone or something is standing in your way? I don’t know about you, but I tend to give a knee-jerk, reactive response. To my disgust, I can be a Sanballat.

So, what do we do? We can’t deny our anger exists. Neither can we deny that there are those out there who will, at all costs, resist our efforts to redeem our culture for Christ. If we are called to be the wall builders of a new generation, we go into knowing that there are those out there who will try to destroy our work. So, what do we do? How do we harness anger? Perhaps a good option is found in Luke 23:34. Here, Jesus speaks about the mob that killed him. “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Have you ever wondered how Jesus kept from retaliating? How did he keep his control? The answer lies in the second part of his statement: “for they do not know what they are doing.” Listen carefully. It’s as if Jesus saw in their faces not hatred but confusion. It’s as if he regarded them not as a militant mob of opposition, but, as he put it, “sheep without a shepherd.” And when you think about it, they were shepherdless. They didn’t have the faintest idea what they were doing. Neither did Sanballat. They were all mad at something they couldn’t see, so they took it on, of all people, God. But they didn’t know what they were doing.

And for the most part, neither do we. As much as we hate to admit it, we are still shepherdless sheep. We can’t answer our own questions about love and hurt. We can’t solve the riddle of aging. We don’t know how to heal our own bodies or how to get along without own mates. We can’t keep ourselves out of war. We can’t even keep each other fed. The point is this: uncontrolled anger, even if it seems like it’s in the public interest, won’t better our world. But, sympathetic understanding will. Once we see the world for what we are, we can help. Once we understand ourselves, we can begin to operate not from a posture of anger, but from compassion and concern. We look at the world not with bitter frowns but with extended hands. They are extended in prayer. They are extended in invitation. They are extended in peace. We realize that the lights of this world are out and a lot of people are stumbling in the darkness. So we light candles. We realize that the walls of society have collapsed and people are roaming around without boundaries. So we build walls. Instead of fighting back, we help out. We go where we are needed the most. We care for the poor. We love the less privileged, and we put away our guns.

One more story:
I remember a sunny December in Western New York. I took some members of our youth group to a place called Hope House in Buffalo. Men who have just got out of prison live at Hope house as they transition back into society. It hasn’t always been a halfway house, though. Hope House used to be a rectory where a priest lived. About 10 years ago, a priest lived in the rectory. He was known for his compassionate and loving outreach to the poor and needy of Buffalo. One night Father Bissonet heard a knock on the rectory door. He opened the door and saw two teens that he knew from the neighborhood. They were looking for food, so Father Joe Bissonet let them in. He could smell the alcohol that had saturated their systems. Before he knew it, the young men tied Father Joe up. Apparently, they didn’t intend to hurt him. They just wanted food and some money for drugs. Father Joe never resisted.

It must have happened quickly. By the end of the evening, two drunk and drugged up young men had stabbed Father Joe to death.

Today the rectory is called Hope House. It is a transitional home for men coming out of prison who are trying to pick up the fractured pieces of their lives. The room off the kitchen where Father Joe was murdered is now a chapel.

When I went there, the house was run by Sister Karen. Her hands were extended in welcome and grace. Lives were being transformed by the power of love. As she told the story of Hope House, you could sense her commitment. You could feel the love of Christ. Sister Karen was on the forefront of the non-violence movement in Buffalo. She led prayer vigils at murder scenes. She conducted anti-violence programs at schools The very room where Father Joe died is the place where nine ex-offenders joined hands with Sister Karen in prayer -- and in the midst of the prayer, lives were changed. Men were reborn and given a new chance in life.

In 2006, Sister Karen interrupted a burglary. A parolee, one of the hundreds of ex-convicts who lived at Hope House, was stealing her cell phone. The criminal heard sister Karen coming. He hid behind the door. As she entered the room, he grabbed her from behind and murdered her. The killer later confessed he put her body in the bed so it looked like she was sleeping. He then drove to a drug spot and traded the phone for a rock of crack cocaine.

Hundreds showed up to Sister Karen’s funeral. It is believed to be the biggest in Buffalo history. At the base of the altar was a dove-shaped sign. On it was a slogan Sister Karen came up with, part of a non-violence campaign she planned to launch. The sign read: "I Leave Peaceprints." She hoped it would inspire people to leave peace behind them wherever they go. Since the funeral, more than 4,000 of these signs have gone out, with more being made each day, and they've sprung like flowers on lawns across Buffalo. Rather than turn people against ex-offenders, Sister Karen's death has brought greater commitment to the work she did. Anonymous checks have come in to Bissonette House to ensure it keeps running. Volunteers have come forward and they have renewed resolve and focus, determination and forgiveness. And Sister Karen still leaves her peace prints.

Was Father Joe dumb to let those men in? I don’t know. Was Sister Karen being naive to live as the only women in a house of former inmates? I don’t want to make that judgment on your behalf. All I know is this: They looked their enemies in the face, and they said, “I love you.” They were wall builders kept on praying and working as the world worked against them. We can be, too. The choice is always before us.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sermon for July 13, 2008

Rebuilding the Walls: The Work
Nehemiah 3:1-32
July 20, 2008

Everyone at the State University knew that Donner Hall had the best parties. All night dancing and beer guzzling attracted the largest weekend crowds by far–especially on the notorious second floor. By midnight every Friday and Saturday, the entire second floor was three inches deep in smashed beer cans and stale potato chips. And every weekend, by around 7:00 AM the next morning, all of the garbage was removed. The second floor residents assumed that the diligent and committed custodial staff came bright and early, before anyone woke up, to sweep up the mess. Early one Saturday morning, Chris, still hung over from Friday night’s party, stumbled out of his bed to head for the bathroom. Noticing a freshly vacuumed second floor, he mumbled to himself, “I guess the janitors came early again to get rid of the mess.” On reaching the bathroom, however, his nose warned him the mess was not completely eliminated. A partygoer had gotten sick on the bathroom floor, and someone was mopping it up. Chris thought, “I’m glad this janitor is doing the dirty work so we don’t have to.” At the sound of Chris’ shuffling, the supposed janitor looked up. Shocked, Chris realized that the person on the end of the mop was Marco, his next-door neighbor. “Marco, man, what are you doing?” Chris asked. Marco answered simply, “I’m cleaning up.” “Why? You weren’t even at the party last night.” Marco replied, “Because I’m a Christian.” No janitor had ever cared enough to clean up all those mornings. It had been Marco the whole time. Think about it--What kind of person scrubs another person‘s filth up off the floors? What kind of person would do that kind of secret, demeaning work? People who care deeply about others – people like parents. People like nurses. People like Christians. Here’s what I want us to consider today. Is it really the calling of the Christian to get sweaty and dirty as we work in the muck and waste of the world?

Last week I tried to make a case that we live in a regressive society. In times like ours’, there’s more anxiety in all people. Heightened anxiety stirs up chaos and irresponsibility in society. We look for the quick fix that will bring some temporary relief to the stressors of life. We become focused on taking care of ourselves more than the common good. For many, life has become a matter of survival. Because of that, I think the walls of society are caving in around us. Institutions that were once the foundation of our society, like family and church, are no longer functioning in ways that protects us. Some of our boundaries are crumbling down, leaving us wide open to danger.

A society without boundaries needs wall builders: called people who will stand up on principle and say, “We have had enough! The walls are crumbling around us, and we believe that God wants something else from us and for us”? The world needs people who will work for peace, and reconciliation, and love. Upholding these ideals has always been the church’s calling., and we have fulfilled them with varying degrees of success and failure in our history.

Today we are going to explore the work of wall building. The work of serving. How do we work in love? How can we move from mediocrity to greatness? Once we identify our core principles, how can we use them to make a difference? Let’s see what Nehemiah has to say. We were introduced to Nehemiah last week. He serves in the Persian court as the cupbearer to the King. He and his people are Jews who have been living in exile. After hearing reports on the condition of Jerusalem, Nehemiah asks the King for permission to return home. Around the year 450 BC, Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem and begins the work of restoring Jerusalem’s walls.

It would be easy to pass over chapter 3 in Nehemiah’s wall-building journal. As a matter of fact, the chapter is boring. I can’t even read it without the fear of putting you to sleep because it’s so mundane. I printed it out in today’s bulletin. Just look at that list. It’s filled with names that are difficult to pronounce, information that seems to repeat itself, and chronology that seems meaningless. This may be the only sermon you ever hear on one the Bible’s many lists. Let’s not be too quick to disregard it, though. I think we can hear God’s voice in the Bible, even in those lists!

Nehemiah’s mission is all about doing work, and work can be mundane sometimes. Rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem was an enormous task, especially with the hostile conditions they worked under. Nehemiah rose to the occasion. He and his small band of workers must have labored night and day to put the plan into place. Hidden in this chapter are some great principles that apply to working as Christian wall builders.

PRINCIPLE #1: Get everyone in place.
Sometime today, take this passage home and make a mark every time you see the following phrases: “next to him” “next to them” “after him” or “after them”. My version records these phrases 28 times in 32 verses. Rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem didn’t just happen by a miracle from God. Everyone was strategically placed for the work ahead. Lots of careful, behind the scenes planning happened to ensure that every area of the wall had someone working there.

What a vital lesson when it comes to our own mission and ministry. If we want to be a church that is serious about loving God and loving one another, we can’t do it in a sloppy haphazard way. Outreach doesn’t just happen. It’s usually not a spontaneous effort. It means coordination and organization. Christian Education doesn’t just happen. It takes many people to carefully and prayerfully plan the next steps. If we wait for something to “just happen”, then it will never happen. When we see God at work–when we hear our calling to be the new wall builders in a crumbling society--then that’s our cue to organize for some hard work.

Thomas Berry is a professor who wrote a book called The Great Work. Berry states that our time and our generation have great work to do. He describes this work as carrying out the transformation of a civilization, overseeing “the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.” He calls this our “privileged moment.” To participate in it, is our moment of grace. He goes on to say that this is not a role we have chosen but rather one given to us by the “power beyond ourselves.” If we accept this great work and make fundamental changes in our lifestyles, our economic system and our political priorities, then the planet survives and flourishes. If we do not accept this great work, we risk at best an uncertain future for us, our children, our grandchildren, not to mention all the millions of God’s other beloved creatures.

I believe that the church is called to this great work. This is the church’s moment of grace. This is our privileged moment. In the face of widespread economic injustice, horrific poverty, the spread of virulent disease, serious human rights issues, our job is let rulers, and authorities, and society at large know that this great earth, this holy creation, has some problems. Thomas Berry puts it this way in his poem entitled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,”
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection
The first job of wall building is to get everyone in place to take hold of our privileged moment. That’s what Nehemiah did. His first act of restoration was not to go out and collect stones. The very first thing he did was to get the community together to do its great work. We see their names here in this list. The wall builders for our age will need to start the same way.

PRINCIPLE #2: Everyone is invited to be a wall builder.
Here’s another interesting fact in this list: Nehemiah was successful in getting men and women of all ages from all walks of life to participate in rebuilding the wall. There were priests, goldsmiths, perfumers, temple servants, and merchants. It was a cooperative effort. One of the verses says that Shallum, an official of Jerusalem, worked side by side with his daughters. It would be easy to miss that bit of information, but it’s significant. Whole families worked together to rebuild certain sections of the wall. Everyone was involved in its success.

Which raises the question: can one person build a wall? Can one person alone do all the work? Some try. I don’t think it’s a smart strategy. God-sized tasks take more than one person. The pastor can’t do it alone. The officers or deacons can’t do it alone. Sunday school teachers can’t do it alone. We can’t depend on the Trustees or Youth Group to do it all. Wall-building is a community effort. It takes focused, diligent labor from people of all ages, from all walks of life, with different talents and abilities, all for the common purpose of inviting others into the secure walls of community.

Charles Osgood tells the story of two ladies who lived in a convalescent center. Each had suffered an incapacitating stroke. Margaret’s stroke left her left side restricted, while Edna’s stroke damaged her right side. Both of these ladies were accomplished pianists but had given up hope of ever playing again. The director of the center sat them down at a piano and encouraged them to play solo pieces together. They did, and a beautiful friendship developed.
We need to work together! What one member cannot do alone, perhaps two or more could do together—in harmony.

PRINCIPLE #3:There are many ways to get people to work, but mutual encouragement is the best motivation

A ten-year-old boy was failing math. His parents tried everything, but to no avail. Finally, at the insistence of a family friend, they decided to enroll their son in a private Catholic school. After the first day, the boy’s parents were surprised when he walked in after school with a stern, focused and very determined expression on his face, and went right past them straight to his room, where he quietly closed the door. For nearly two hours he toiled away in his room - with math books strewn about his desk and the surrounding floor. He emerged long enough to eat, and after quickly cleaning his plate, went straight back to his room, closed the door, and worked feverishly at his studies until bedtime. This pattern continued ceaselessly until it was time for the first quarter report card. The boy walked in with his report card—unopened—laid it on the dinner table and went straight to his room. cautiously, his mother opened it, and to her amazement, she saw a bright red “A” under the subject of MATH. Overjoyed, she and her husband rushed into their son’s room, thrilled at his remarkable progress. “Was it the nuns that did it?”, the father asked. The boy only shook his head and said, “No.” “Was it the one-on-one tutoring? The peer-mentoring?” “No.” “The textbooks? The teachers? The curriculum?” “Nope,” said the son. “On that first day, when I walked in the front door and saw that guy they nailed to the ‘plus sign,’ I just knew they meant business!”

People will always work out of fear or guilt, but it’s not a good motivator. The best motivation is when we can truly encourage one another in love. It’s interesting that Nehemiah mentions 75 people by name and, in many instances, recognizes their accomplishments. He also mentions at least fifteen groups of people. Nehemiah was a hero-maker. He knew who worked, and what they accomplished. He praised others as a way to motivate them to do their best. Wouldn’t it be great if we all could put an end to guilt trips and manipulation, and instead we all encouraged each other to be Christ’s servants?

Lee Iacocca once asked legendary football coach Vince Lombardi what it took to make a winning team. The book Iacocca records Lombardi’s answer: There are a lot of coaches with good ball clubs who know the fundamentals and have plenty of discipline but still don’t win the game. Then you come to the third ingredient: if your going to play together as a team, you’ve got to care for one another. You’ve got to love each other. Each player has to be thinking about the next guy and saying to himself: If I don’t block that man, Paul is going to get his legs broken. I have to do my job well in order that he can do his. The difference between mediocrity and greatness is the feeling these guys have for each other.”

In other words, love, support, and mutual encouragement are the best motivation to get hard work done.

Wall building is hard work. It takes vision and patience. It requires sweat and frustration. But here’s one more principle. Nobody else is going to do the churches job. Nobody else is going to start picking up the pieces of society and building walls that invite people into the secure and safe arms of Christ. It’s the church’s job. May we cast aside our anxiety and insecurity, our fears and even our apathy, and start building the doing the work to which God calls us.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sermon for July 6, 2008

Rebuilding the Walls: Our Calling
Nehemiah 1:1-11; 2:1-10

It is an understatement to say that we live in troubled times. It’s not like “the good old days,” anymore, is it? We hear people say this a lot, but is it true? In 1940 the teachers in California were polled to find out what they considered to be the most troublesome problems they faced. The results were: Talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of line, wearing improper clothing, and not putting paper in the wastebasket. In 1990, fifty years alter, the teachers were polled again. This time their answers were quite different: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, and assault. Our society has changed as great deal of our schools are any indication.

Within two generations, it has become dangerous for anyone to be on many of our city streets alone. Young children must always be supervised. Security measures are commonplace in schools. Children are in contact with illegal drugs at younger and younger ages. Sexual impulses are indulged rather than respected. Recent studies only verify our fears. Consider that between 1963 and 1993 the crime rate went up 360%, youth crime is up 200%, teen pregnancy is up 600% and teen suicide is up 300% -- it is now the second leading cause of death in teens after accidents. SAT scores are down 7% and drug use is up over 1000%.

What is going on here?

Some people have termed what’s going on as “societal regression.” It means that society is more or less anxious, and orderly at different times in history. At certain times, there’s more anxiety in all people, which in turn raises chaos and irresponsibility in society. It even happens in non-human societies. John Calhoun studied rats at the National Institutes of Health. He noticed that when the population grew beyond a certain point and became overcrowded, there were instances of abnormal behavior. Mothers forgot how to make nests. Males gave up their nest guarding behavior and sat on the sidelines staring. Calhoun named them the barflies. The same forces affect human institutions. For instance, institutions like churches or families become less stable. They are more subject to breakdowns and reorganizations, which contributes to more problems in society. And they more troubled society and it’s institutions become, the more anxiety it’s members respond to. It is a brutal cycle. When we are under stress, it is hard to think clearly and to live according to principle-centered decisions that guide our behavior. We have become a reactive society. We look for the quick fix that will bring some temporary relief to the stressors of life. We become focused on taking care of ourselves. For many, life has become a matter of survival.

I think the walls of society are caving in around us. Think about walls. They define our space. They give us security. In the Bible, strong, fortified walls are a visible sign of God’s blessing. On the other hand, lack of self-control, like what we see in our own times, is like a broken wall. Proverbs 25:28 says, “A person without self- control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” The person, or the society, without boundaries is left wide open to danger. And while walls can be used to keep others away from us, walls are also a symbol of salvation. Just as a wall could provide literal salvation for the people living inside of them, so also the Lord’s salvation protects his people.

What would it take to be a church of people who rebuilds the walls around us? Who is God calling us to be? What would we have to do to make this a place where people can find security, and refreshment, and salvation? Think about that as I tell you about Billy and his parents.

When Billy was about 6, he drew his first picture on the bedroom wall. The mother, torn between wanting her child to express himself and wanting her wall to be clean, decided to let him be. As his hand grew steadier, however, Billy’s mother noticed that most of his drawings had something in common–all his figures were lying down. What could it mean? Should she ask him? She thought it best to wait, but she couldn’t resist. “Billy, I noticed that in all your pictures you always draw everyone lying down.”

“Yes mother,” said Billy, and he went on drawing. The mother was so upset by the sureness of the answer, as well as his indifference, that she just dropped the subject and left the room.

After a month or so, Billy’s artistry improved, and the mother noticed something else in her son’s drawings. Not only were the people lying down, but they also appeared to be hurt. They eyes were always closed, and their positions seemed to indicate they were dead. Her husband agreed. Each figure the son drew showed little life, with ribbons of red color suggesting gushing blood. Was the son depressed? Perhaps he was angry. Were they not good to him? Had they unknowingly favored his sister? Had they failed to give him the chance to express his feelings? Should they consult a professional? All of the sudden it felt as if their family was beginning to fall apart. The parent’s decided not to ask Billy, and spent a sleepless night in bed.

The next morning, father walked into Billy’s room with all the naturalness he could muster. “Billy, it seems to me that in each of your drawings, people are not only lying down, but they also seem to be in pain. Is this how you mean it?”

“Yes father,” said Billy, and he said no more.

“Well,” said father, trying hard to be relaxed, “what’s the reason for that?”

“That’s just the way I think them up,” said Billy, who continued to play with his toys.

For the next year, Billy’s artwork became more sophisticated. He drew figures run over by cars, hit in the head by rocks, stabbed, and even shot. His parents held their breath. However, just around when Billy turned 7, mother noticed that the people in Billy’s drawings were no longer whole. Limbs were missing. The pictures were disturbingly gory. This was too much. Something sinister was clearly at work in her son’s head. They also discovered that Billy had torn his toys to pieces. Soldiers were missing arms and legs, a doll had its eyes ripped out. That did it. Billy’s parent’s stumbled over one another to reach the phone. They found a specialist in children’s problems and made the earliest possible appointment. At the appointment Billy was brought into a separate room and asked, “Do you like to draw?”

“Oh yes,” said Billy. He was given paper and crayons, and told to draw to his hearts content. The specialist said he would be back in a moment. The specialist then left and joined the parents in an adjoining room equipped with a one-way mirror. Immediately Billy set about drawing his people–lying down, scenes of violence, severed bodies.

“See,” said his frightened parents, “It’s just what we told you. Most alarming was the matter-of-factness about the boy, the total absence of feeling . The specialist re-entered the room where Billy was drawing and skillfully engaged him in harmless talk about his drawing. But he couldn’t get below the surface. He took a new tack.

“Billy, do you know what you want to be when you grown up.”

‘For the first time, Billy showed some glee. “Oh yes,” he said.

Sensing success, the specialist pursued the questioning. “I’m glad to see you get excited. You know, your parents are afraid that you are a very angry child.”

“Angry,” said Billy, “why should I be angry? They are so nice to me. The only thing that would make me angry, is if they would not let me be what I want to be when I grow up.”

“And what is that?” the man asked, anxiously.

“A doctor!” shouted Billy, as he examined his picture.

In when our anxiety is the highest, when the walls seem to be caving in around us, God always has wall-builders. They are people of vision. They are people who can connect with their calling in the midst of troubled times. They are people who are misunderstood. They expose our insecurities as they invite us to live within the walls of salvation. Billy is one of those people. Nehemiah is another.

During the Jewish exile in Babylon, Nehemiah is a Jew who holds a position of honor in the Babylonian king’s court. He serves as the king’s personal cup bearer–the man who tasted the king’s wine and guarded his sleeping quarters. Nehemiah hears news about the dilapidated walls and gates that encircle Jerusalem. The sign of the city’s strength lay in shambles. Nehemiah enters a deep depression. He performs his usual duties for the king, but there’s something different about his face. The king senses something wrong and asks, “Why are you so sad?” Now you have to understand, it was against the law for a servant to show sadness in the king’s presence. Nehemiah could have been severely punished for demonstrating anything but joy while on duty. Nehemiah knows the risk, but he has no choice. He knows God’s call. With all the trust and bravery he can muster, he asks to be sent back to his people to rebuild the walls of the city. Nehemiah risks everything to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem for his people. Nehemiah has a purpose, a strong identity with his people, and the ability to stay strong in the face of opposition. But look at how Nehemiah moved from anxiety to security.

1. Prayer. Nehemiah demonstrates that in moments of pain and helplessness, there is access to the power of God through prayer. In fact, Nehemiah prayed for four months before approaching the king.

2. Preparing for the task. Nehemiah not only prayed, but he used all of the human resources that were available. Intellectual skill. Human experiences. Accumulated wisdom. His position of power with the king. He blended both divine and human resources to accomplish his goal.

3. Principle-centered leadership. No matter what was happening around him, no matter how stressful, Nehemiah made rational decisions, steeped in prayer and based on his own inner guidance system. He’s not willing to ignore or sugar-coat the problems. He wouldn’t go for the quick fix or cave into the thinking of others around him. His work was guided by his principles.

Who are the wall builders today? In a regressive society, who is going to stand up and prayerfully say, “It is time to shore up the walls again” ? Who will find ways to non-anxiously supply the bricks and mortar we need to rebuild safe places for our people? Who will stand up on principle and say, “We have had enough! The walls are crumbling around us, and we believe that God wants something else from us and for us”? Could it be that God is calling us, the Trumbull Congregational Church to be part of his wall-building?

We don’t have to look far to see it Crumbling walls exist. Better ones need to be built. With God’s help, we can turn barriers of hostility into walls of peace. We can tear down fences of fear into surround ourselves with walls of salvation. We can level walls of promiscuity into build walls that protect and connect us to one another within the safe confines of love. Walls of separation become walls of community. Who are those wall builders? I think we are.

In the weeks ahead, we are going to follow Nehemiah as he guides us through the process of wall-building. I think God is doing great things among us. I sense God inviting us to join in doing something awesome. It is our God sized task. It is our mission. It is our call.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...