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.

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