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"Life Under Construction - Trust"

This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on September 19th, 2021 ,the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost , by Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

Life Under Construction - Trust

Nehemiah 2:11-20

11 So I came to Jerusalem and was there for three days. 12 Then I got up during the night, I and a few men with me; I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. The only animal I took was the animal I rode. 13 I went out by night by the Valley Gate past the Dragon’s Spring and to the Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that had been broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire. 14 Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool; but there was no place for the animal I was riding to continue. 15 So I went up by way of the valley by night and inspected the wall. Then I turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned. 16 The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work.

17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.18 I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good. 19 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, “What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” 20 Then I replied to them, “The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.”

Alright, so this September we’re doing a little sermon series called “Life Under Construction” and we’re diving into a tiny little memoir-ish book in the Bible by a guy named Nehemiah. And this is his story. It’s not his whole life but it’s the part that he felt needed to be shared.

Nehemiah along with many of his family and friends had been living for 150 years in captivity as slaves in Babylon. Word got back to Nehemiah about the state of his home city, Jerusalem. It was basically destroyed with its walls in pieces. Nehemiah wept for days at this news and he prayed. Last week we read this opening passage. We talked about how taking a breath in the midst of chaos and tragedy and uncertainty is a really healthy thing to do, Biblical even. Nehemiah didn’t rush into anything. He spent time mourning what was lost and catching his breath.

The entire first chapter of Nehemiah is about him doing this. The second chapter is about what comes next. He goes to the king who is keeping him captive and he plays every card he has--and he did have a few (he had been a very loyal slave)-- to get the King’s blessing to go back and rebuild the city of his ancestors.

And so our reading this morning picked up with him arriving in the city of his ancestors, Jerusalem, where he inspects what is left and sizes up the work that needs to be done. And then he gets everyone who’s still there and he gathers them all together and he says, “look, we’re in bad shape. But we can do this. We can rebuild this place!” Nehemiah tells them that the hand of God was at work here. They all get filled with inspiration and jump up ready to start building. I imagine this as one of those moments from a sports movie where the underdog team is behind and the coach makes them all huddle up and then gives this speech from the bottom of his heart and they all cheer and run back to the field. This is that kind of moment.

And the thing is, Nehemiah and this “team” of builders really are the underdogs. They have pretty much no building experience and there are bullies all around them undermining what they’re doing. No sooner had they started when the naysayers come up and start ridiculing and mocking them. There’s a part a little later in the fourth chapter where Nehemiah and his people have more of the wall built and these same bullies come up to them and literally say:

“What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore things? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish it in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish—and burned ones at that?” 3 Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “That stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!” (Nehemiah 4:2-3)

Nehemiah clearly did not come back out of exile to impress the neighbors with his building skills. But did that stop Nehemiah? He was building a wall that a wild animal could have knocked over, but did that stop Nehemiah? No! Nehemiah says to these people who doubt: “The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.” In other words, he trusted in God and anyone who didn’t share that trust had no claim or right to undermine it.

You see, this book of the Bible is not actually about a wall being built or any actual physical construction at all. It’s about the process of returning to the debris of life’s tragedy and trusting that God’s version of success does not depend on how well your architectural plans match the final product, but only on the fact that you start the project in the first place. That you keep going when people tell you it can’t be done. God’s “success” in the construction project that is our life is not when we’ve come out perfect at the end of the day, but when we didn’t stop trying to build something out of the pieces that were handed to us.

The point is, exile is not only a physical reality, it’s a state of mind. And to return from an exilic period will take a change in that state of mind. You have to decide to return. You have to decide to pick up the pieces of rubble that tragedy and isolation and broken connections have left and you have to decide to start putting the pieces back together again. You have to make up your mind where your heart belongs and make an investment in the values you hold dear.

The pandemic has put us into a physical exile and unlike the Israelites in Babylon, our exile and isolation has been largely self-imposed and needed and important for the health and wellbeing of our neighbors. By masking and keeping our distance we’ve helped to save lives. But the pandemic has had another effect that is much less physical. It’s caused significant loss of emotional and social connection; when you spend enough time apart, not being able to hug or to see smiles or have potlucks or live life in connection with others without fear, it leaves an imprint that is hard to forget.

Scholars say that the Babylonian exile began a huge diaspora of Jews across Europe. Meaning, once exiled, they never returned. When the dust finally settles after this pandemic is behind us, we, too will be given a choice of whether we choose to return to the emotional, spiritual and social connections we had before, or not. Returning is not easy, as Nehemiah found. It means looking straight into the face of the broken pieces of what used to be and daring to cobble them back together again into something new.

Trust yourself to return. Trust God to work through the rebuilding process. Trust that what you are piecing back together again is more than the sum of its parts. Trust that we will be made whole again and cared for by a God who takes care of us in every season of our lives.

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