Second in the “As the Wall Turns” series,
Delivered February 10, 2002 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Theme: Forgetting we are on the same team; staying focused on the common mission.

In the series, “As the Wall Turns” we look at the obstacles Nehemiah faced as he sought to carry out his mission.

Sermon Text:
Nehemiah 5:1-13
and John 17:1-6

Last week I began a five-week series on Nehemiah. I did so because Central Presbyterian Church is seeking to build a new ministry paradigm. Like Nehemiah trying to build the Walls of Jerusalem, whenever we seek forward progress in anything spiritual we can expect opposition. Furthermore, this Wednesday coming up marks the beginning of Lent. It’s a time for all Christians to examine the broken spaces of their own lives and rebuild for God within. So each Sunday in this five-week series we’re looking at a different type of opposition that can seek to block any kind of spiritual construction or renewal effort. Last week we looked at the obstacle of discouragement and we heard Nehemiah cry, “Don’t be afraid or discouraged because of your enemies. Remember the Lord and fight, because God is fighting for you.”

But this week a second pitfall or obstacle comes not from outside the ranks of the community, but from within. There is a different structure that’s being threatened, not just the wall, the living stones; the people of God were falling apart at the seams. The structure of community was being threatened by the pitfall of dissension. So let’s look at Nehemiah, Chapter 5, Verses 1-13. I will read the whole text for you today and then we’ll talk about it.

“Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers. Some were saying we and our sons and daughters are numerous in order for us to eat and stay alive we must get grain. Others were saying, we’re mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine. Still others were saying, we have had to borrow money to pay the kings tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood of our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless because our fields and our vineyards belong to others. When I heard their outcry and the charges I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and the officials. I told them you are exacting usury from your own countrymen. So I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said, as far as possible we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers only for them to be sold back to us. They kept quiet because they could find nothing to say. So I continued what your doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain, but let the exacting of usury or interest stop. Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses and also the usury that you are charging them, the hundredth part of the money, grain, wine and oil. We will give it back they said and we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say. Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and the officials take an oath to do what they had promised. I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, in this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied. At this the whole assembly said, Amen and Praise the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.”

Now I know this might come as a surprise to some of you, but sometimes people in the church don’t get along. I remember a hospital administrator who came to me one day. He was in the church I served before and he had taken a position on a Board of Trustees. And after a couple of meetings he was truly dismayed. He said the meetings here feel a lot like the meetings at my hospital. People disagree. They sometimes don’t think kindly of one another. Now I don’t know what he thought when he came to take that position in the church or when he became a member. I don’t know if he thought that when you walk in the church some kind of angel dust just comes down from the doorways and gets sprinkled on you and you become something different than you are everywhere else, somehow supra human, somehow above human. And so one of the things that we need to always remember is that when we become Christians, our human nature isn’t abolished. Thomas Aquinas said that, grace does not abolish human nature, but grace redirects our human nature. And Scripture, as far as I know, gives no real examples of denying our humanity. In fact, scripture gives tons of examples of struggling human people who are anxious and fearful and sometimes angry, who take great steps of faith and work for God. So faith and anxiety and anger in the right doses can all coexist. The key question is this; does anxiety or anger or fear infect our relationships, which in turn brings discord, dissension and destruction? You know the Bible calls the people of God sheep. That metaphor isn’t because we are just all cuddly and warm and fuzzy. That metaphor is because you can’t find an animal that is more anxious. Sheep apart from the shepherd have a butting order. Now we are called sheep too because the great shepherd takes care of us and without him in our midst we will just butt each other. But when he is in our midst, things are different. So this text from Nehemiah teaches us about that which threatens unity, among churches and among families. And it also provides some solutions to the conflicts that keep us from being unified and thus reaching our goals. So as we look at Nehemiah we shouldn’t be surprised that there was a problem. We just need to learn how to keep problems from infecting our community.

Principle #1 is found in the first part of three verses. It says that “now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers”. Verse 2, “some were saying and they went on to give the problem”. Verse 3, “others were saying we are mortgaging our fields”. Verse 4, “still others were saying…”. And what I get from this, reflected in these verses, they were saying, there’s a problem. Principle #1 of healthy congregations and families is this; dissent is welcome. Dissent is expected. We are human, remember. Therefore, we expect problems and conflicts. What threatens a community is when dissent is made to look like a lack of spirituality. How dare you question the pastor? You know that’s the stuff of cults. Or, pastor how dare you question us with your sermon. You see we expect there to be differences. The hidden strains of any community have to be surfaced in a healthy way. Do you know the nations that are the most cruel in all of history, even today? The cruelest of nations are those that squelch and crush all dissent. I don’t want to keep picking on Enron, but you know for a while there they were just saying, “There’s no problem here.” “Everything is fine.” Some of the people who tried to point out the problems got sat on or fired. One sign of dysfunction in a business, a family, or a church is an attitude; “Well there’s no problem.” Even though people keep trying to point out the problem, “there’s no problem.” You all know the motto of the dysfunctional family. You have heard it before. Don’t talk, don’t feel, and don’t trust. You know in marriages one of the obstacles to growth and relationships is a lack of agreement that there is a problem. And so if one person is trying to solve a problem and two people haven’t even agreed on whether there is a problem or what it is, no wonder we can’t get anywhere. You see problems aren’t the problem. It’s the ignoring, and the squelching and minimizing of real issues that is the real problem. And this is one reason why I think Central Church is so healthy, because in the effort of leadership to say, “lets solve the problems of how to continue to knock down the obstacles that are against the church, that give the ministry to the people, that help us to become deeper servants of Christ, let’s think of a better way”. Let’s think and so we streamline our administration and we will emphasize this philosophy and in doing that we know it affects change, which in turn creates problems, causes problems. One of the things that I appreciate about Central is that as we move forward there is an opportunity for listening groups for people to hear what’s going on, to respond back and to say, “have you thought of this, have you thought of that”. That must happen, that must happen if things are going to change effectively in the future.

Nehemiah didn’t get angry because of dissent; he got angry because of the dissension. Because people were against one another. They were hurting each other. And that brings us to principle #2. That people are more important than projects. People are the project. This is a tricky one, because Nehemiah’s whole effort to build the wall was for the greater good of all the people. And yet the very project that they were working on was somehow compromising the people as they went along. You know in a way I agree with my hospital administrator friend. I think he saw that in an effort to get certain things accomplished, people were not being sensitive to one another.

You have heard of the term egocentrism. We all know what that means. When one thinks that they are the center of things. Well in the church we can have a pitfall of ergacentrism. Erga is the Greek word for work. And we can have a work centrism, that my work is more important than your work. That what I am doing here in the church is central (pardon the pun) to everything that’s going on. And so we think just like when we get in trouble with egocentrism, that other work isn’t as important. Now efficiency is admirable, but love for people must come first and so as we move people toward Christ in our mission, we must remember that Christ who’s in our midst, who said, “love one another”, “be kind to one another” and prayed “Father make them one”. You see if our means are of a different spirit than our ends, then we are not making sense. I have said it before and I will say it again. How we are with one another is always our first form of witness. And so the surface problems in Nehemiah were very bad. Some were selling and mortgaging their homes just to eat. They were a step away from being homeless. In Verse 5, some were selling their children as slave laborers and they said, “We are powerless.” That’s the stuff of disunity and dissension. A feeling of powerlessness. A pioneer in family therapy gave a great definition of healthy community, healthy family and healthy church. And here it is: “Where everyone benefits and no one is burdened”. And that takes work to keep the ledgers balanced. In this case, the poor were being burdened. The real problem was that the self-concern of the elite was greater than the concern for the whole family. And they were all in the same families, brothers hurting brothers. And what was the problem? They were, for the lack of a better term, acting like pawnbrokers. It wasn’t that they just charged interest on money, they were excessively charging. They were like somebody who comes to a pawnbroker in a tough time and has a $500 watch and the guy says, “well that’s worth $50, here.” So they were under valuing one another. If people are paramount more than projects, if people are the project, then what Nehemiah is saying is that it’s got to always be, “we”, and never me. This is what Paul said to a divided church in Philippi, you remember. You know when we usually think of the church in Philippi we always think of, rejoice in the Lord; they were a divided church. Listen to what he said.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others.”, like our Lord Jesus who humbled himself and gave up all of his rights for our interest. The root word for exacting interest means to bite. And in Galatians 5:13 listen again to Paul.

“If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by one another.”

Displayed in an old monastery near Babenhausen, Germany are two pair of deer antlers, permanently interlocked. They were found in that position many years ago. Apparently the animals had been fighting fiercely and their horns became so entangled that they couldn’t disengage. And as a result, they both perished from hunger. Someone commented when they saw the antlers interlocked — “I would like to carry those horns in to every home and school as a warning against fighting to the last ditch effort, to have your own way. I would also like to bring them in to every church so that their silent message might sink deep in to the hearts of those who seem to delight in locking horns.” Well Nehemiah saw that that’s what was happening here and in Verse 6 he said “I was very angry when I heard these problems.” Now notice what he says after that. “I pondered them in my mind.” I appreciate that so much. Nehemiah, instead of just exploding with anger, pondered the problem in his mind. He took council literally. He took council with himself. And he said to the people after he controlled his anger, “We’re killing each other here, basically and we’re thinking loans when we should be thinking gifts. Times are hard; we have to support each other. We’re selling each other out.” And they were deeply convicted when he was accusing them of these things. And he goes on to say in Verse 9, “What you’re doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of Gentile enemies?” And this brings us to the third principle.

Out of reverence toward God we must repent, turn back, give back, forgive, and forbear when unity is threatened or ruptured. Notice what they said in Verse 12, “We will give it back. We will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.” Now notice Nehemiah knew human nature and so he brings in all the priests and he says, “Okay you guys are going to take an oath to what you just said.” And he makes them take an oath. And then he does something very important and symbolic. He makes a prophetic gesture like the prophets of old and he starts to shake out his robes and he says, “If anybody doesn’t keep their promise, may God do this to them.” Paul did the same thing in Acts, Chapter 18. It’s a call to repentance. Jesus said, “If you go and preach and they don’t repent, shake the dust off your feet as a sign to them.” You see the principle is, we are human, we are going to blow it, and we are going to screw up. When we do, we need to repent and let go, and forgive, and that’s what Nehemiah was telling them. He was prophetically calling them to repentance for the harm that they had caused each other. And in Verse 13 the whole assembly said, “Amen.” Everybody, the offended and the offenders came together and said, “Amen.” And they praised the Lord. Because in every heart, even people who may not have been that big of an offender, but in every heart that’s honest, if we search our hearts hard enough, we can discover negative thoughts that are in a germ state, that are ready to infect the body if we are not careful, that are ready to wound perhaps a brother or sister. And so the call today is to confess anything in your breast that might nourish bitterness. It’s like Ash Wednesday, three days early. Examine yourselves and see and turn because we can not build well with any form of disunity.

I quoted Paul a couple of times and I will quote him one more as we close out. This is from Ephesians, Chapter 4, Verses 31 and 32.

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ, God forgave you.”

Let us pray. Gracious Lord, help us to stick together. In our unity we shall conquer and in disunity we shall be shamed, but I thank you for this church that is a beacon of harmony and unity to many around. Help us Lord to be wary, to watch out and to continue on that path of Christ prayer that we might be one, even as the Father and the Son are one. For we pray it in Jesus’ name. Amen.