"Life Under Construction - Breathe"
This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on September 12th, 2021 ,the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost , by Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Life Under Construction - Breathe
Life Under Construction Series
September 12, 2021
Sixteenth Sunday after the Pentecost
A word of introduction for Nehemiah.
The book of Nehemiah is not a book that we read from in the Bible very often. It’s
relatively short at only 13 chapters and primarily deals with one topic. Construction.
After 150 years being exiled in an enemy land, the Israelites longed to return to their
home, but it sat in ruins. Nehemiah was one of those whose ancestors had been
exiled and he was now a servant for the king of Persia, the enemy that kept his people in captivity. This book is the story of how Nehemiah picked up the pieces of his broken life and the life of his people and allowed God to lead him toward a reconstruction. We begin today with the day when the seed for this was all planted.
The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, ‘The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.’
When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and
praying before the God of heaven. I said, ‘O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring
them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.”
I have to admit, I was a little skeptical when I looked at the stacks of cardboard, the
rolls of duct tape and the pile of zip ties that was laid out for the VBS kids this August. I couldn’t imagine how these supplies could be made into much of anything in the short little window of time we had allotted. Actually, I’m pretty sure I thought it would be mostly chaos. And there was definitely chaos. But we had amazing teachers who inspired the kids to have a vision and after they had a vision, one cardboard tube at a time, castles started to emerge from the pile. Walking around the church lawn with cardboard and creativity flying every which way, was one of the best parts of VBS this year for me. I know it was just cardboard and just duct tape, but it truly felt like these kids were making something so much more than a sum of those parts.
Those kids and their cardboard inspired me to think about 2 things.
#1 how totally chaotic and completely unpredictable our lives feel right now
#2 how stopping before they began to take a breath and do some creative envisioning made a big difference.
We’re starting a little mini-series today called “life under construction” because here we are in September of 2021, in a pandemic that seems to never end, at the end of a war that seemed to never resolve, celebrating the anniversary of a heartbreaking deconstruction whose pieces have lingered in our memory, and in the midst of tragedy and sickness and war and school restarting, there is our life still trying desperately to go on. In the midst of chaos in the world here is our church and our community still trying desperately to go on. We keep thinking there must be a way to push through this. If we squint hard enough, the finish line to all this chaos should just be barely visible. But we stumble in that direction only to run into another road block or detour.
Ever walked into a business where there was a renovation happening and there was a sign up that said “pardon our dust: we’re remodeling” or “pardon our dust: we’re expanding!” The implication is that dust and mess and chaos are really only
acceptable if they lead to something better. I saw a funny riff on this in someone’s
house once. It was a sign that said: “pardon the mess; our standards have lowered
with each child.” The truth is, the dust and mess from the chaos that is our life right now, is a reality that we have to accept. And “pardoning it” seems a bit optimistic at this point. What we really need to do is figure out how to name it for what it is and let God work through it. We’re going to be reading bits and pieces of Nehemiah’s story over the next few weeks. As I mentioned before the reading today, this is one of those stories we don’t hear very often, but has a lot of relevance for the moment we find ourselves in right now because it’s about exile and the process of returning to pick up the pieces.
Sometime about 600 years before the birth of Christ, Jerusalem was conquered during war and most of its people were taken as prisoners. For 150 years generations of Israelites lived as captives away from their homeland. This is where we find Nehemiah. His story begins when he asks his brother, who has had the opportunity to travel back to Jerusalem…. What was it like? And the news is not good. The city is ruin. The walls are crumbling, the gates have been broken down and any people still there are in a lot of trouble. As if exile weren’t enough, any thought of returning “home” would mean returning to bits and pieces of the life they once knew. Nehemiah heard this report and he sat down and he wept. If you’re looking for Biblical advice in times of chaos, let it be known that sitting down and weeping is an acceptable thing to do. And not just a little cry, for days Nehemiah wept and mourned.
This is not where Nehemiah’s story ends, but it is in fact an essential part of the
beginning. I saw an incredibly moving photo this week in the coverage of the 20 th anniversary of 9/11. It was a photo from that day 20 years ago and it was a police officer covered, head to toe in dust inside a deli, leaning against the deli case catching his breath. Life as we know it has been deconstructed, and not just in the literal and horrific terrorism of 9/11, but also in the ensuing decades of war, also by the months of endless disease and strategies for safety that have divided the nation; we’ve been deconstructed by partisan politics, by racism, by natural disasters, and then onto that you add even a minor amount of additional personal stress and it feels like too much. The most important thing we can in moments, like these is to find the space we need to take a deep breath. We have no hope of surviving the dust, let alone the reconstruction, unless we clear the space to mourn what will never be the same, and most importantly to invite God to give us some perspective.
After he had wept for days, Nehemiah prayed, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night…”
I feel like Nehemiah gets it. That there’s no going forward into the chaos without
acknowledging that God is still there and that even in the darkest clouds of dust that God’s love is steadfast. He knew he didn’t need to remind God to be attentive and to open his ears. But he said it to remind himself (and us) that it is God’s nature to have open ears and to be attentive. God will always be attentive, but will we stop in the midst of chaos to breathe and to listen for our next steps? Before we begin to pick up the pieces of our life and start duct taping them back together, let’s not pretend like we don’t need to breathe.