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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.

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