Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sermon, "Strengthen Your Core: Prayers," Nehemiah 1


Sermon 4/15/18
Nehemiah 1

Strengthen Your Core: Prayers


           Some of you know that our RipIt folks in our exercise ministry have been participating in a challenge since January, a challenge that draws to a close in the next few weeks. Folks have been trying to eat in healthy, wholesome ways, and been pushing themselves to be more physically fit, all the while trying to build each other up in teams, encouraging each other, challenging each other. Amber, our fearless leader, and some of our other fitness buffs will tell you that one of the areas of focus in physical fitness is having a strong core. There are lots of exercises that emphasize strengthening your core muscles, because with a strong core, so many other areas of fitness are enhanced, and, reciprocally, you’ll have a harder time having strong arms and legs if you don’t have a strong core of your body to support them. And so Amber is constantly reminding us to focus on our core muscles when we exercise. It’s not easy, of course. But it’s important.  
            When my nephew Sam was a baby, he was a bit late in learning how to walk. There was nothing physically wrong with him. He just was, well, a bit floppy. You would sit him down and he’d just slump right over. He had no muscles to hold himself up. When my brother and sister-in-law took him to the doctor, they figured out that this was probably simply because Sam had never been set down on the ground in his life. Ok, that’s maybe an exaggeration. But Sam, the first child, the first grandchild, the first nephew – we all held him a lot. So baby Sam had to have some physical therapy sessions that focused on strengthening his core. He’d have to sit on a big yoga ball, and my brother would roll him around from side to side, holding him in place on the ball, so that Sam would have to engage all his core muscles to stay on the ball. With that and some other similar exercises, Sam was walking in no time. He needed those core muscles to get himself moving.
            In the same way that we need to develop a strong physical core, we also need a strong spiritual core. We need our souls strong, ready to hold us up through the challenges of life, a core that reminds us who we are and who we are following when we are bombarded with constant “opportunities” to go in different directions than God. And I think that to focus on our spiritual core, to find practices that strengthen our core, we have to turn no farther than the words we say again and again: when we become members of the church, when we celebrate baptisms, and when we renew our own baptismal vows each year. Next month, after spending most of this school year working hard to learn, and explore their faith and the teachings of Jesus, and understand what it means to be United Methodists, our confirmands Ayse and Peyton and Shea and Taylor will become adult members of the congregation. And when they do that, they will, as we all have many times, pledge that they will support the ministries of the church through their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness. Prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. And so for the next five weeks, as we lead up to Confirmation Sunday, we’re going to be exploring these themes, these practices together. Because as they are confirmed, again, we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves too, affirming one more time that we will commit to these practices, these core-strengthening spiritual disciplines in order to strengthen our faith and the faith of our congregation as disciples of Jesus.
            Today, our focus in on prayer. We say in our membership covenant, “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers.” So, how exactly do we do that? How are we doing that? How could we be doing that? Are you strengthening the church and your own faith life through prayer? If you’re not, can you take steps to start? What would that look like? I think about the opportunities we have to support each other, the whole congregation, and our personal spiritual growth through prayer. Each week, there is a place on your bulletin worksheet to write down prayer requests that emerge during worship. I hope you not only write things down here, or make a note on your phone, or whatever works for you, but that you also then actually return to these names, these requests in your prayers throughout the week. We have a fellowship group on facebook, aside from our regular facebook page, that is a place folks share prayer concerns. We have a monthly prayer ministry, on Thursday afternoons. We’ll meet this coming Thursday at 2pm in fact. In that group, we’ve been praying through our church mailing address, inviting folks to share with us what is on their hearts for themselves and their families. I’d love for you to join us in that prayer time if you’re free in the daytime. And of course we have other opportunities – prayer during worship, prayer at meetings and events, prayer in our own devotional life.
            There’s been a lot of push back lately against the phrase “thoughts and prayers,” and I understand why. Sometimes, in the face of tragedy, leaders offer up their “thoughts and prayers” but fail to act, fail to work for changes that could prevent future tragedies, or minimize them. And so I’ve heard people saying, ““We need more. We need more than thoughts and prayers. We need action. We need people working for change. We need strategies and solutions.” As people of faith, I think we need to be attentive to those voices, those calls to action. And I think: Yes, this is just what is in line with the message of the scriptures: prayer paired with action. We pray for God’s guidance, God’s direction, God’s presence, and then, confident that God hears our prayers and equips us as we need to be equipped, we act as God’s agents of change, of compassion, of grace in the world. Pray and act. I think of baby Nolan, Natalie Towne’s grandson for whom we’ve been praying since he was diagnosed at birth with leukemia. We pray – we pray a lot. But we also hold some benefit fundraisers, because we know that God has called us to be a part of the very answer to prayer that we are seeking.
            As we turn to our scripture for today, we see prayer and action together in our reading from Nehemiah. Nehemiah is a book of the Bible you might not be very familiar with. Nehemiah was written in the late 5th century BC, and is a unique book among books of the Hebrew Bible because it is primarily told in the first person point of view. We hear directly from Nehemiah. The events he describes take place after the Israelites had been exiled to Babylon, conquered by the Babylonians, and after the Israelites had finally been allowed to return to Jerusalem. But all is not well, “back to normal,” and Nehemiah returns to oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah is the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes in Susa, the capitol of Persia. Cup-bearers were positions of high status. Because of the constant fear of plots to harm the ruling king, a person had to be considered highly trustworthy to hold the position of cup-bearer. The cup-bearer had to guard against poison or tampering with the drinks served to the king, sometimes even required to taste-test for the king. But this role also brought the cup-bearer a degree of closeness and confidence with the king. Cup-bearers had influence with the king.
Nehemiah, cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, learns that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As our text opens, we find him praying to God after receiving the news. He prays that God will give him strength and success as he asks Artaxerxes to let him return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of the walls. After our text for today, the king agrees, and Nehemiah is appointed governor of Judah. He rebuilds the walls, he wards off enemies, and he rebuilds the community to conform again with the law of Moses, making many reforms, including reforms to combat oppression of the poor, like cancelling past debts and mortgages. He meets with a lot of opposition, especially from the Jewish nobles, but he eventually prevails.
But our focus today is specifically on Nehemiah’s prayer. Before any of the events unfold, right in the first chapter of Nehemiah, we read his prayer, his starting point, before he begins to carry out what he believes is God’s purpose for him. Nehemiah’s prayer is beautiful and flowing, but we shouldn’t be put off by the beauty of his words. The heart of the prayer is always what matters to God, just as a child’s “I’m sorry” or “I love you” is as powerful to a parent as an adult child’s more eloquent communication. Essentially, what Nehemiah says is this: “God, you are always faithful. I’ve screwed up, my family and my people have screwed up, and we see the consequences, the separation we’ve experienced from you because we’ve failed to follow you. But we’re going to try again.  You’re always faithful. So please be with us and help me communicate my plan to my king.” Nehemiah has a sense of what he thinks God is asking him to do. He asks God for strength to get it done, for God to help him convince the king who will have to allow Nehemiah’s journey. He admits that without God, he screws up. And he remembers God’s faithfulness, God’s promises, and places his trust in that faithfulness, those promises. And then, confident because of his relationship with God, Nehemiah gets to work on just what he has offered to God in prayer.
            If you read the newsletter this month, you’ll know that our Council of Stewards and Council on Ministries are reading a book together right now called Simple Church, a book that talks about how important it is for congregations to have simple, clear paths for discipleship. In other words, a congregation should have a way that everyone knows and can share and participate in that makes it clear how you would come to know Jesus and be a disciple of Jesus. Often, authors Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger say, churches don’t send any clear message about how people should go about being disciples. We might talk about being disciples a lot, but we don’t make it clear to people that are trying to be disciples of Jesus just how they might go about doing that. I think we’ve got a lot to learn from this book, and we’re trying to think together deeply about how we are doing, and how we could be doing at helping folks come into a relationship, new or deeper, with Jesus.  As we work through this together, creating an intentional discipleship system in our congregation, we’re going to face challenges and changes, undoubtedly. And so I know that prayer – our constant conversation, our constant communication with God – is going to be an essential part of our journey. I hope that you will pray for our congregation, and be ready to act, so that we can connect more people to a life-changing path as followers of Jesus.
            When we talk about prayer as part of our commitment in this family of faith, we’re committing to praying with a purpose: to strengthen the core of our own personal faith, and to strengthen the core of our congregation. We pray to say: God, help us do your will here, in our own lives, in the life of the church. God, be our strength here. We pray to ask God for help in keeping the core of who we are and what we’re about as a congregation and as disciples of Jesus at the center of everything we do. We pray for courage to follow wherever Jesus leads, and wisdom to help others follow with us.
            Each week, as we consider these core acts of discipleship, these core faith practices, I want you to think about how you will make this vow your own. When you say that you will commit to supporting the ministries of this church with your prayers, what do you mean specifically? “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers.” Let’s do just that. Amen.


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