Sermon based on Nehemiah 8.13-17
*For those non-church members out there, ‘Dennis Perry’ is the Sr Pastor of Aldersgate. Senior = Old
A few weeks ago Dennis threw a lot of numbers at you, data, from the recent Pew Trust Survey on Religion, the one that found that 20% of Americans now identify themselves as ‘unaffiliated’ with any religion.
But for me it’s a different Pew Trust Survey that’s gotten stuck in my craw: The Pew Trust Survey of Religious Knowledge. It’s from 2010 and contains 16 multiple choice questions.
You can still take the survey online. For the record, I got a perfect score.
Here’s what the survey found:
40% of Americans can correctly identify Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as books called Gospels. Not too bad, right?
Even better, 72% correctly answered that someone named Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea.
However, 55% of Americans- presumably not in Alabama- think the Golden Rule (Do unto others…) is one of the 10 Commandments.
But here’s the better-pay-attention-now number:
16%, only 16% of Americans know that Christians believe ‘salvation comes to us by faith alone’ not by anything we have to do or prove or be.
I scored higher than that in People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive Survey.
More people follow Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher on Twitter than know the basic claim of the Gospel:
that a gracious God died in your place and the only way you participate in that salvation is through faith that changes you from the inside out.
It’s a scary number.
And so this week I decided to test out how accurate that number really is; I decided to conduct my own little ‘experiment.’
Like previous ‘experiments,’ my wife call it a bad, jerky idea.
You might call it shamelessly trolling for sermon material.
I just like to call it ministry.
Friday afternoon I decided to take a guided tour of the National Cathedral, posing as one of the 84% who apparently don’t know our Story.
After paying my ‘suggested donation’ of $10, I walked into the sanctuary to the Docent’s desk where I waited for the next tour to begin.
Waiting with me was a slim couple in their 40‘s, speaking what sounded like Swedish to each other, along with 4 other couples, with sullen preteens in tow. They were all wearing sweatshirts and t-shirts and hats that said ‘DC’ or ‘FBI’ on them. So obviously they were from somewhere else.
A man in a crewcut and an Ohio State Buckeyes sweater looked at me and said: ‘My name’s Gary.’
Then he just stared at me, waiting for me to introduce myself.
So I said: ‘Dennis. My name’s Dennis Perry.’
‘You from around here?’ Gary asked.
‘No’ I said, ‘I’m from Harrisonburg, Va.’
At the top of the hour, the docent arrived and using her ‘inside voice’ gathered us together. She had silver rimmed glasses and long, silver hair.
She was wearing a purple choir robe, for some reason, and a floppy satin hat she’d apparently stolen from Henry the 8th.
Maybe it was the silliness of her outfit or the stone confines of the church but it felt like we were all at Hogwarts and she was Professor Maganachacallit, showing us to our respective houses.
She began by telling us how much the largest stone weighed: 55 tons. She told us the original cost of all that brick and mortar: 65 million. She told us the number of stained glass windows: 231.
What she didn’t tell us, I noticed, was anything about why the church was there in the first place.
As the walking tour began so did my “experiment” in which I, Dennis Wayne Perry, pretended to be a complete ignoramus.
Fortunately, it’s a character I know well and can pull off convincingly.
For example, at the famous Space Window, the stained glass window containing a piece of lunar rock, I said loudly: ‘I didn’t know the moon landing was in the bible.’
Gary from Ohio squinted and said with authority: ‘I think it’s predicted in the bible, you know, like a prophecy.’
And when we were standing near a window showing Moses holding the 10 Commandments, I pointed at the window and said: ‘Wait, who’s that guy holding those tablet thingeys?
Sure enough the Pew Survey must be accurate because about 3/4 of our group all mumbled: ‘Moses.’
But Gary from Ohio whispered to me: ‘It’s Jesus. Gotta be Jesus.’
The tour continued and all along the way Dennis Perry, ignoramus extraordinaire, kept asking questions.
And while it’s true no one in the group necessarily thought that, say, Abraham’s sacrificial son was named Steve, as I speculated aloud, it’s also true no one in the group had enough confidence in their own answers to argue with me.
In the Bethlehem Chapel, I asked why Jesus is born in Bethlehem, to which the only response I got was from one of the sullen seventh graders: ‘Because otherwise we’d have to celebrate Hanukkah and Hannakah means less presents.’
Fair enough, I thought.
But standing in front of a gold crucifix, I pointed and asked innocently: ‘Who’s that?’
Several murmured ‘Jesus.’
But it wasn’t clear whether by ‘Jesus’ they were identifying the carpenter on the cross or the idiot named Dennis.
‘I don’t get it,’ I said, ‘why’s he on that cross?’
A middle-aged woman clicked a picture and said ‘He got crucified because he wanted us to love one another.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone kill someone for that?’ I said.
She just shrugged her shoulders and said ‘Dunno, that’s what I’d always heard.’
Gary from Ohio said: ‘He died so we can go to heaven, Dennis.’
‘Really? How’s that supposed to work?’ I asked.
And while the docent pointed upwards at the scaffolding and construction, Gary from Ohio blushed: ‘I’m not sure.’
After 50 years of God’s People suffering captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah returns to the Promised Land armed with a vision to rebuild the city walls which Babylon had laid to waste.
The work took several months.
But it wasn’t until the wall was complete that it sunk in:
God had delivered them from captivity.
Even though they hadn’t deserved it.
God had redeemed them.
And they’d taken him for granted.
That’s why, not long after the last bit of mortar is spread and the trowels are put away, the people- all the people- with no goading or prompting from Nehemiah or Ezra or any of the priests, the people flash mob Jerusalem.
They realized what they needed more than anything else- more even than the bricks and mortar they’d just finished- was God.
So the people gather at the Water Gate and the prophet Ezra reads the Word of God to them.
While listening at the Water Gate they hear Ezra read about a festival, a holy day, that God had commanded them to keep: Booths.
The Festival of Booths was meant to remind Israel of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and how God had provided for them every step of the way.
God commanded them to construct Booths once a year to remind them of the tents they lived in as they were making their journey from slavery to freedom.
The booths were meant to be a visible, tangible reminder of a salvation they did nothing to earn or deserve. That (the booth) was meant to function just like that (the cross).
Did you catch the end of our passage?
Nehemiah says Israel had not celebrated Booths since the days of Joshua.
In case you don’t know your bible, Joshua’s the one who picked up where Moses left off and led the people into the Promised Land.
Hundreds of years before Nehemiah.
This good news of salvation. Their core story of redemption.
They’d forgotten it. What’s more, they didn’t realize they’d forgotten it.
And you know what’s scary for us?
What’s scary for us is that that means, for generations, God’s People had said their prayers, and done their rituals, and built their sanctuaries, and they’d even worked against injustice and poverty.
For generations they’d done religion
Without celebrating their core story, their Gospel.
“Not since the days of Joshua” means that for a long time they’d just been going through the motions without having their hearts changed by this story of a gracious God who had saved them and asked only for faith in return.
This is from Jamie, a colleague, who’s recently returned from serving as a missionary:
“I always think it’s interesting when people pat us on the back for being missionaries to Latin America. Perhaps they think we were doing something difficult because they don’t know that in Latin America there’s a bleeding-Jesus-in-a-crown-of-thorns bumper sticker on every bus, taxi, and pizza delivery scooter.
You can easily engage nearly every person you cross paths with in a conversation about God or Jesus or Faith or whatever. It’s really not hard.
In Latin America, “Jesus” is generally a familiar and comfortable word – not an instant conversation killer.
I’ve been back in the NorCal suburbs for a whole three months now, and all I can say is that ministry is way harder here than it ever was in Latin America.
Being an agent for Love and Grace in a place where people truly don’t recognize their own need is really tough.
I believe Jesus has competition in the American suburbs like no place else on Earth. Everyone here is surrounded by so much shiny new stuff, it’s hard to see the Light.
Here, depravity is hidden behind tall double doors, and the things that separate us from God often come gleaming, right out of the box. The contrast between Dark and Light has been cleverly obscured by the polish of materialism and vanity.
This place is overflowing with people who have full closets, full bank accounts, full bellies… and empty hearts. Here, poverty is internal, hunger is spiritual, and need feels non-existent.
But it’s there.
Behind the facade of perfection in suburban America, past the fake boobs and fancy cars and fat paychecks, and at the bottom of aaalll thoooose wine glasses, there’s a need so desperate, a loneliness so great, and a brokenness so crushing that you can practically hear the collective cry for Redemption.
I’ve only just returned from Latin America, and now for the first time in my life, I feel like maybe I’m supposed to be a missionary…”
As our Cathedral tour ended, the docent encouraged us to sign the guest book. I couldn’t resist so I did.
Under ‘name,’ I signed Dennis W Perry.
Under ‘from,’ I put Harrisonburg, Va.
And under ‘comments,’ I wrote:
“You treat this place like a museum when you’re surrounded by a mission field”
The thing is- that’s a comment I could leave in any church in the country.
This week I sent you all a mass email, saying our theme this weekend would highlight our mission and service ministries.
And probably many of you came here this morning expecting me to tell you about what we’re doing in Guatemala and the difference we’re making in hundreds of lives there and how we can do more.
Or maybe you expected me to tell you about how our church serves the poor along Route One and how we can do more.
And we can
But if the term ‘mission field’ only refers to places like Guatemala or homeless shelters, we’re not really clear about what our mission is as Church.
The fact is- the poverty that can be fought with food drives is NOT the only poverty Jesus cares about.
As Mike Crane told me this week: “Aldersgate’s doing a great job serving the poor here and around the world but there are thousands who are spiritually poor, who don’t even realize what they’re lacking. And, just like the song says, Mike said, they’re not too far from here.
Some are as close as these pews. Some have been doing religion for years but haven’t yet let the Gospel into their hearts and let it change them from the inside out.
And that’s a kind of poverty.
These last few weeks we’ve been throwing a lot of numbers at you.
Here’s another number I want to grab you: 63%
That’s the percentage of people in a 10-mile radius of Fort Belvoir who currently are not a part of any church.
63%- I want that to change.
So listen up.
Here’s the God-Sized-Ante-Up-Let’s-Stop-Playing-Church-And-Find-Out-If-We-Really-Believe-in-the-Holy-Spirit-Vision:
Our bishop has asked us, as in, us, to consider planting a second congregation- a satellite congregation- in the Ft Belvoir region in the next 18 months.
Because every study shows- and the Book of Acts shows- the best way to make new Christians is to start new churches.
But I’m not talking about bricks and mortar; I’m talking about extending the ministry of this church, south.
I’m talking about people from here willing to imagine new ways to reach people there with the Gospel.
I’m not talking about starting yet another church for church people.
I’m talking about creating a worshipping community to reach the kinds of people who might need a different kind of church in order to meet Jesus.
Nehemiah says, when the people make booths and rediscover this God who saves us sinners, Nehemiah says they rejoice.
They’re changed. That’s what we’re about. That’s what I want.
For you. For my kids.
For the 84% who don’t know the Story behind that (the cross).
And for the 63% not too far from here.
If we do this, if we discern that this is where God is calling us, then it can’t just be owned me or Dennis.
It’s going to take all of us.
And specifically, we’re going to need a team of 40-50 of you to commit yourselves to it.
The how/when/where/what/who questions are still down the road.
And you’ll be hearing more about.
But the first step?
The first step is probably for us to build ourselves some booths and rediscover the Gospel for ourselves.