June 4, 2017 Pastor: Matt Wilcox
Topic: Evangelism & Community Scripture: Nehemiah 1:1–1:6
Unless you’re new to our church, you know I’ve got a special appreciation for the city of Philadelphia. But like many folks with a strong affinity for a particular city, I didn’t grow up in the city of Philadelphia. I grew up in its shadow in a suburban town called Harleysville. Despite its name, there is no connection to motorcycles. Maybe you’re interested in knowing what little Matt looked like at that time.
I told Anne Lunt on Thursday that probably 80% of the reason for showing that picture is to prove I did have hair once. But that was the Matt that got to know Harleysville.
Harleysville was kind of a sleepy town with some wide open spaces and little to no big news. You’d think the world stopped the day we got a Wal-Mart in town. But it was my home, my stomping grounds.
Stomping grounds is a term I picked up as a kid and used well through my high school and college years and through my time in Lancaster. You’ve probably heard it before. It generally refers to a place that you’re very familiar with and where you’re most likely to be. It’s even used in the animal kingdom with species like elephants and deer to describe an area where those animals frequently gather in large numbers. Because the animals are all gathered together they tend to stomp out vegetation and the ground, thus creating a stomping ground. Whether it’s in regards to people or animals, stomping grounds are a place where gatherings happen, and everyone and everything else knows it because of how those spaces are marked and impacted by those who have gathered there.
I believe the same should be true of this world, and more specifically, our neighborhoods and communities, regarding our presence as followers of Christ. The people of God should know the places where we live. We should leave a mark and an influence, and just like with herds of animals, our presence and activity in our town should be known and regarded by the rest of the community. And that brings us to our text for this morning.
Nehemiah is a widely-neglected book of Scripture. Even within the lectionary, which is a comprised list and order of Scripture texts, laid out as a resource for preaching; it gets only a brief appearance. In fact, of the 405 verses that make up the book of Nehemiah, only eight appear in the lectionary at all. In short, Nehemiah is rarely the go-to book for preachers. And even to press it further, our text this morning is, on the surface, a fairly unremarkable portion of an already neglected book. But it holds for us an important, albeit, obvious truth, that we tend to forget. We’re in Nehemiah 1:1-6.
* Read Nehemiah 1:1-6 *
Ok, so a little background for Nehemiah. The scene surrounding our text is bleak, very bleak. This is after God’s people had been conquered and sent into exile. Nehemiah himself is an exiled Jew but has risen through the Persian ranks and became the cupbearer to the king. He was a trusted person who was regularly side-by-side with the king, very likely serving in the role of an advisor. While he is in the service of the king of Persia, he hears word of just how terrible things are in Jerusalem, and what state the people are in. The great walls of Jerusalem are in rubble and the people’s hearts and lives are broken. This sparks Nehemiah into a deeply heartfelt prayer and a time of reflection. Chapter two actually tells us that he was just downright sad. The king notices this and it leads to the king sending Nehemiah as his representative to the nation of God’s people, where Nehemiah can begin the work of restoring the walls and hearts of the people. All because Nehemiah knows about his community – its broken walls and the state of its people.
Our text is such a short and seemingly unremarkable passage that it’s easy to miss the important truth it offers. That truth is – we, as God’s people, should be aware and informed of our neighborhoods and communities. We should have a better than passing knowledge of what is happening in our town. We should be aware of the broken walls and the broken hearts. If these are our stomping grounds, then we have a God-given call to make sure our presence leaves an impact.
And I’m talking about more than just the usual stuff we know about where we live. It’s about more than knowing where the best Mexican restaurant is or what intersections to avoid between 4 and 6pm. We all come to learn those things. In my original stomping grounds of Harleysville, I came to learn and know that 113 was a street you didn’t want to be on during rush hour. I learned that the best chocolate milk came from the little farmer family dairy next to the Mennonite church. That the best community pool was in Towmencin and that the only real reason anyone went to the King of Prussia mall was to buy over-priced prom dresses.
I had to learn all those same tips and ins and outs when I moved to Lancaster. And now my family is still learning them here in Normal. Caitlin and I have had many of you share with us your favorite parks where Isaac can play, which vet we should use, and – of course – the best restaurants in town. The one of those I’m most thankful for is David and Julie Koh telling me about the sushi at La Bomba. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving.
But all of that – markets, doctors, restaurants, intersections – those are all things anyone can learn about over time, even without help or guidance. It isn’t those types of things our text in Nehemiah is talking about. Our passage in Nehemiah gives us a mandate to care about our community and be informed about the state of the people and the neighborhood. And then, like Nehemiah, we’re called to pray fervently and do something about it. I want to share with you an example of this.
Many of you know that a couple of weeks ago I had the chance to go out to the Seattle area and see the beautiful Pacific Northwest for the first time. I went out there to reconnect with these awesome people.
In this picture are dear friends of mine: Cori, Rod, Nic, and Beau. We went through seminary together and formed strong friendships during that experience. We commit to gathering together once a year to reconnect, pray for one another, discuss ministry, do a study together, and check out what some other churches are doing.
One of the churches was Trinity Presbyterian Church right in the heart of downtown Tacoma. This is actually where my buddy, Rod, serves as the Director of Outreach and will likely be ordained as a pastor this fall. Trinity is a remarkable church in everything but appearance. When you drive through the Bryant neighborhood of Tacoma you will drive past plenty of well-worn homes and churches. Trinity would look no different than many of those churches. In that way and that way alone, it is unremarkable. But when you catch a glimpse of the heart and vision and ministry of Trinity Pres, you bear witness to something truly holy and moving.
Being in the heart of Tacoma and a vastly diverse community of stories, incomes, and backgrounds, Trinity has committed itself to an outward focus of compassion and transformational presence. Their logo alone reveals their heart for their community. It is a stained-glass representation of the street layout of their neighborhood. Trinity runs and operates two educational programs. They serve around 60 middle school students after school each day in a partnership-oriented learning center, as well as facilitating an after school program that offers one-on-one literacy assistance for first and second graders from the Bryant Montessori school. Their clothing bank serves an average of 100 people every week. Their Front Door program helps around 30 of their neighbors with basic needs like bus fare and utility assistance. Their soup kitchen is open every Friday afternoon and they have a health care clinic open every Tuesday evening to anyone needing medical services. Trinity estimates that 3,500 people benefit annually from one or more of their outreach programs, and that includes over 300 children who receive enrichment and tutoring. All of this is summed up in one of the most remarkable statements I’ve ever heard a church declare: Trinity’s building is currently used for neighborhood-based programming at more than four times the amount of time that it is utilized for church-related functions.
That, my friends, is a transformational and intentional presence within the community. Now Trinity is a unique church in a unique neighborhood with a unique call from God. Not every church can or should do everything they do. But every church should have the heart and conviction for their neighborhood. Trinity knows where the broken walls are and it has a profound sense of the state of the hearts of its neighbors. And out of that knowledge, they pray and become a presence. First Pres, I have a question I want us to consider. I’ve heard it asked before. Hear me here. This is not a question I am asking simply to Larry and myself. This isn’t a question I’m asking only to our elders on session. I’m asking this to each and every one of you. To the life-long member and to the one who has only been here a few times. To those of you who are retired and to our middle schoolers. I ask this question to all of us as a church: If First Pres closed its doors tomorrow, who besides our members would care?
The answer to that question compels us to ask others. What presence do we have in this community of Bloomington-Normal? How far and wide is our reach? Who do we serve outside these walls? How is God using us?
This should be a deeply convicting question. It should make us uncomfortable. Maybe it even makes us feel guilty. But it’d be better if this question filled us with desire, if this question put a fire inside and under us to go and do and be. We are part of this church, members of First Pres, but we are also – collectively as a body – neighbors within this community. Nehemiah knew that. He knew that despite his role serving and advising the king, that the community and people were in danger and needed God’s presence. He saw the broken walls but he also heard the stories of heartbreak and pain. And he went into that city with broken walls and downcast people to become a voice and physical presence for the Lord.
In the account of Pentecost, the Spirit of God came and fell on folks of all languages and stories. The Spirit’s presence and inspiration had no limits or boundaries. And I believe that neither should our presence in Bloomington-Normal. We are neighbors. That is a part of our identity. We are members of this community and we represent the presence and power of God. That must mean something. But even that is not enough. It is not enough for us to participate within the work of our church.
I’ll ask the same question but with a twist: If you were to pack up and move tomorrow, who on your street or in your neighborhood would care? When I lived in Lancaster I was satisfied with my contribution as a neighbor culminating to making sure that I didn’t have the longest grass on the block. I’m trying here in Normal, on Basswood Lane, to maybe make a bigger impact. It’s hard. It’s an uphill venture. And it’s awkward sometimes. But I feel called to that. What about you? It’s funny because I think our kids struggle with this far less than we do. When a neighborhood friend moves away it can be soul-crushing. But something happens when we grow up. But I’m not convinced it has to.
You know your street. You see the houses with the siding that’s dirtier than the others. Maybe you know the stories like the one of the family with parents struggling to find work. You probably know about the family down the street that just had a baby and you’ve likely thought to yourself about that family that never seems to come out of their house. Well, here’s the truth. These are your stomping grounds. And just like with Nehemiah, those walls are your walls. And those neighbors are your people. As a church and as individual families, let’s make a commitment to do and be more in this village that is Bloomington-Normal. To truly be a light and a voice and a presence of God in a world with broken walls and hurting hearts.