This sermon was given by Reverend Jason Carle, Pastor of Overland Park Presbyterian Church in Overland Park, Kansas on October 28, 2018. The following is a transcript of the scripture lessons and sermon.
Old Testament Lesson
In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served him, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before. 2 So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.” The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date. Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah; and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, directing him to give me timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.
Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River, and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent officers of the army and cavalry with me. When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.
So I came to Jerusalem and was there for three days. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.” 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. 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?” 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.”
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
This past week has been gut wrenching. I have to admit it’s been hard for me to process through a lot of this, in part because I kind of checked out for part of the week. On Tuesday, I went to a continuing education conference in Wichita. It was wonderful. I wasn’t listening to the news or watching TV. I was just really focused on where I was. I have to admit, I got into the car on Thursday afternoon, turned the engine on, clicked onto one of my news podcasts and suddenly pipe bombs were everywhere. By that point, I had heard that nobody had been hurt and I had been relieved by all of it. I said to myself, man, I can’t be gone for more than two days and everything starts falling apart.
And then yesterday happened.
This morning, as I was coming to church I had the radio on. They listed the 11 victims who had been killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue. There were grandparents, a married couple in their 80s. There were two brothers. As I heard the list of names who had been shot in their house of worship I was reminded of the thing that threw me for a loop when we took our youth down to Beth Torah for an evening service that they invited us to on a Friday night. We came in and as we walked in there were these doors and a little entryway. I turned to John, who spoke to us a few weeks ago about hospice services, and I asked him, “What’s that?” And he said, “Oh, we’re on lockdown during our high holy days. We have a guard here.”
And today, we read the story of Nehemiah who has to go and build a wall around Jerusalem. And we see why that is still needed today. And my heart breaks because this is not the creation that God intends for us to be a part of. This is not what God calls us to live into. The reality is we live in a world in which we are so easily able to hate. We are so easily able to inflict our hate on others. As I was reflecting on these events, I was reminded that it was not more than two, maybe three years ago that something almost exactly like this happened in Overland Park. We cannot continue to delude ourselves that this is just an isolated event.
In Nehemiah, in the story we read today Nehemiah has to do something courageous. It’s hard to see this because he’s the cupbearer. The cupbearer is an important role in the court because he is to be a shield for the king. They taste the wine before it is given to the wine. You might think that’s an awesome job–but the cupbearer is the one who drinks from the cup so that if anyone is trying to poison the king, they know, because the cupbearer dies. It is a position of trust, and of privilege. Often times, cup bearers were advisors to kings.
The reason why this was courageous was that his king, Artaxerxes, was also the one who gave permission to the enemies of Ezra to initially burn down the gates. So Nehemiah was going to the king who previously had been ok with the destruction of Jerusalem’s wall, to prevent the temple from being built. If this seems confusing to you, that’s not actually surprising because the kings of Persia were notorious of being capricious in nature, changing their mind from one day to the next. If you think of the story of Esther, that was the one of the kings of Persia who changed his mind after learning that his wife was Jewish. Nehemiah steps in and asks to be sent back to his home so he could rebuild the gates, to put me in authority over the people of Judah so we can do this great thing.
In this time and in this place, I must admit I feel this deep need for prayer for our hearts and for our world. Prayer is not enough, but prayer can help us be centered in who we are being called to be.
The gospel lesson that we read from this morning talks about Jesus and the disciples. Jesus said to repent, for the Kingdom of God is near. We must be a people who are called to repent. I don’t say this because there are hidden motives within our congregation, but the reality is we live in a time where violence seems to be more and more accepted within our political reality. We as Christians have a different way of being called. Jesus calls to the disciples to go out and cast out demons. Go out and raise the dead. And who do you think the disciples are today?
There are powerful, demonic forces at work in our world. The demonic forces that demonize the other and say it is ok if I scare people or try to hurt people. It is ok to talk about people like they are trash. I see this on both sides, and we do this to ourselves because we forget the thing that Nehemiah was able to bring the people together to do. For the common good.
When we begin to see things like pipe bombs sent through the mail, when we see guns being brought into places of worship we know how far we have strayed. And we all have to take a good look at ourselves. We are called just as Jesus called the disciples to confront and name evil when we see it. And we have seen it too much.
Jesus looked at the people who were around them and he saw them and had compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Friends, Jesus is our shepherd. Jesus calls us to go out into the world because those walls weren’t going to get built by God. How many of us would love it if God would snap his fingers and everything would be ok? That is not God. That is a fairy tale. We do not live in a fairy tale. We are called to work against evil in all its forms.
Here is the good news: we can overcome that evil. Not by our own power but by the grace of God. We are called to stand up and proclaim loudly that these words, these actions have no home in the Christian heart and in a nation that tries to claim that it is Christian when these kinds of things happen. We are called to denounce evil and bigotry when we encounter it. Not to push it underground, but to expose it for what it is.
Nehemiah pressed on. The wall was built. We have to claim for ourselves in this context of what we are called to do. In getting started, what has a home within our church and in our community is important. When we are confronted with the kind of evil we were this past week, there is something that needs to be outside of where the church is. Hate has no home here.
Love is our calling. It is what transforms the world. There are times when love means, “no, that cannot stand. No, we will not accept the kind of language that demonizes the other, that looks at the other and says ‘you are no longer human.’ That cannot live in our hearts. We have to guard our hearts for God’s love. And when we do it, we become the shepherds of the world, which is our true calling.
So let us take this time in which we ask ourselves how our hearts will be filled with love and what we need to remove from our hearts. Amen.