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.

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