Saturday, September 29, 2012

Reporting From the Young Preachers Festival

Yesterday and today I attended the Texas Regional Young Preachers Festival in Austin, TX hosted by Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  It was fun to hear different voices from different traditions all speaking around the same theme of "The Gospel and the City." I wanted to share a smattering of the notes that I took over the last 36 hours or so:

  • God is with us in the broken places
  • We must be servants of God where we are, even if we are in painful places - the vow of stability (st benedict) says we will stay where we are instead of looking for "better places" to serve
  • Basil in a pot will die bc it must be permanently planted - it cannot remain in temporary state (we die when we refuse to root in the places God has us
  • The Lord of the harvest calls into the harvest even though the harvest is messy and broken
  • We sing hallelujah to God when we are whole and when we are broken - our ability to sing broken hallelujahs in broken places is a testament to the God who stays with us in the brokenness
  • The resurrected Christ gives peace in the city even though we are in the tension of a kingdom not yet come
  • Revelation 18: are we complicit in the subjugation of others in or cities/nation, running from the judgment that we see handed out? What is the cost of our complicit-ness?
  • Zaccheus discarded dignity to enter into the presence of the Holy
  • Jeremiah 29:1-9 and Babylonian exiles - Lemony Snicket illustration (kids who have lost everything and have to live in exile)
  • Life goes on in exile: fruitfulness in exile is a Yes to God and a No to despair
  • God gives peace no matter the situation (shalom)
  • Jeremiah is the prophet in the borderlands, he yells into the temple at the people while he stands with the people he is yelling for (are we in the borderlands or are we being yelled at?)
  • The Berlin Wall as a controlling image in discussion of the "walls" we place between ourselves and others
  • Jesus is the common denominator - he transforms us so that we may have unity with one another
  • Ephesians 2:13 - But Now (change is coming...); ignorance is not an excuse because the gospel has been preached to us - we obey God by change or we defy God by stagnation; we are changed so that God may change the city/world through us
  • The beggar of acts 2: he expected to receive the expected but instead received the healing of God's Presence; what if we took the unexpected presence of God out into the city/world
  • God does not give us "Tempurpedic" peace - it is uncomfortable but whole
During one of the preaching sessions, we were invited to say a word of affirmation to the preachers who had just shared, and I said "thanks for all of the illustrations that I'm going to steal!" That may have been a little glib, but I wasn't kidding.  One of the great benefits of conferences/festivals like this is the chance to hear a text from 10 different vantage points - illustrations and insights I would have never gotten on my own were thrown in my lap this weekend!

A joy to share as well (per my therapist's instructions to have blogposts that highlight the GOOD things in life): Courtesy of a random drawing, I was one of two of the festival preachers who won a scholarship to attend the National Young Preachers Festival in Atlanta, January 2-5, 2013.  WOOP.  If you want to see more about this event, go here:

Unfortunately, none of the participants (including myself) were able to have their semons video taped as had been planned.  I've decided to include my full sermon text below.  A word about style: My usual sermon style is very propositional.  All that means is that I have a very structured format of Thesis, 3 Movements which include topical sentences, applications, explanations and illustrations, and conclusion.  I totally broke from my style for this sermon.  I've been feeling a need to explore different sermon styles and I've been especially drawn to the narrative/story-telling sermon style.  I've done it once before centered around Matthew's recounting of the baptism of Jesus (, and I found it very fulfilling and exciting.  I decided to do a narrative again, this time focusing on the story of Nehemiah's midnight ride around the crumbling walls of Jerusalem.  The text is Nehemiah 2:1-20, and I suggest you go read it before you read the sermon text.

Let me know what you think!

 He dismounted from his donkey and rubbed her ears as he gazed at the wall.  The bright stars threw shadows over the faces of his companions and they silently looked at each other and back to him, waiting for an order. The quiet here was deep, the wind a whispering haunt that spun through their clothes and hair and then rushed past them to unknown valleys and high mountains.  Even the wind didn’t linger here in this broken place.  He patted the side of his mount and stepped away from her, from the men, motioning for them to stay put, to wait on him.  His companions moved in their saddles, quietly disapproving but unwilling to voice their complaint.  What could it really hurt, him going on ahead alone?  There wasn’t danger here in this tomb, this broken place that served only as a painful reminder of what had been and what had been lost.

He cracked his knuckles, slowly, methodically, as he surveyed the wall.  His eyes stared straight ahead but he was really lost deep in his memories, seeing the walls of Susa layered over these shattered remains.  It was hard not to glimpse flashes of gold and marble, to imagine the specters of sentries on their long circuits along the high precipices of the walls, and the throngs of people who entered and exited every day – selling their wares, their bodies, their information.  Then he blinked and the ghosts of the city faded from view and instead he heard only the quiet moaning of the wind and the faint clacking of rocks as they fell from the crumbling monument in front of him.  It was late and they had already ridden a long stretch of the wall.  But he would have to walk this last part, a grim pilgrimage best taken alone. 

The ground crunched beneath his boots as he began to walk slowly towards the wall.  He remembered the journey to Jerusalem – the heat, the dust, the smell of horses and men and food, and the anticipation of what he would find.  Hanani’s words those many months ago had been dire – warnings of desolation, of great trouble and shame, of once strong gates destroyed by fire – but it was one thing to hear and another altogether to see.  His eyes welled again and he dashed those burgeoning tears from his face; the time for tears had passed.  There had been only tears for so long, tears of anger and loss, of disbelief, of betrayal and of fear.  The only tears that mattered to these walls were the rains that had washed blood and mortar and even hope from the crumbling stones.

He felt the rough edges, the hewn corners and the crumbling mortar as he ran his hands along the remnants of the wall.  Small stones broke away into his right hand and he chuckled softly to himself.  These stones were so different from the wine that usually stained his palm as he tested Artaxerxes’ cup for poison.  He was so far away from the life that he’d known; everything here seemed to have a hard edge, a rough quality, and even the eyes of the few who lived in this broken down city were haunted by bleakness and memories that cut deeply.  He let the stones drop from his palm and they rested invisibly in the rubble already at the base of the wall.  For a moment he thought that if he pushed hard enough that more than just small stones would break away from this wall; then he thought better of it.
He began a slow walk forward, making his way through steep piles and tricky footings, his left hand skimming the surface of the wall.  He heard the faint murmur of a voice and turned his head sharply to the right to see what his men were trying to say to him and then realized that the voice was his own and he had begun to whisper over and over that first prayer that had guided him to this moment: “but if you return to me, though you are outcasts, I will gather you.” “I will gather you, I will gather you, I will gather you…” His prayers had become living things, slipping out of him without thought, possessing his spirit and his tongue, an invisible passenger that consumed him and set the Persians that traveled with him ill at ease.  It was no small burden to have the will of the Most High God piercing his very soul.

He made his way in silence along the perimeter of the remains of the wall.  He desperately hoped that the provided lumber would truly be enough to resurrect this crumbling edifice.  He made frantic calculations, worrying that he would not return in the time he head assured the King and Queen.  And he considered the obstacles – not just the physical ones of broken foundations and crumbling edges, but the obstacles of flesh and breath and deep seated hatred.  His difficulties here would be many, multiplying like locust, another series of plagues to hamper the lives and safety of the people of Israel.  Surely YHWH wouldn’t send him here to fail…surely not.

He stopped out of sight of his companions and dropped heavily to his knees, his forehand and palms pressed tightly to the wall.  He had spent his whole life in Persia but his soul still knew this place.  He remembered his childhood and the stories of Israel’s victory and also of her of unutterable loss.  He had heard the wails of mourning, the angry arguments over whether God had truly abandoned them.  He had seen the fear in the eyes of the priest as fewer and fewer could even recount the stories of their beginnings, of the beginnings of all things.  And he recalled the discussions about whether or not there was really anything to go back to.  But he couldn’t have stayed away, no, not with the weight of God’s Hand pressing on him till it seemed he could not breathe.

Breathe, breathe, breathe, he breathed deeply and lifted his head away from the wall.  He watched the stars and the moon in her lazy path across the sky.  It was all so…broken.  In the shadows he could unsee the wide swath of destruction; in the dark he could turn his eyes from the gaps, the ragged edges.  He closed his eyes to escape, just for a moment, the stinging reality of Jerusalem’s wall.  It was broken and they had broken it.  For hundreds of years they had defied their God and his commandments; they had mistreated the poor and enslaved their brothers and made deals with devils.  They had worshipped in name only and ignored the prophets desperate to save them.  They had traded obedience for opulence and this wall was the last testament to their wickedness.  It was the silent observer who watched their idolatry and fell to the strength of their foes and had soaked up the despairing cries of those who died and lost and walked into their captivity. 

He braced himself and stood, pushing away the despair as he continued his survey of the wall.  He knew too many who stayed locked in regret, their only words cries of horror and shame.  They had becomes specters and shades and that way was one of ashes and death.    He forcefully brought to mind the joy of the King’s assent, the unexpected blessing of resources and of manpower.  He repeated the promises that YHWH had given them, that one day they would return, that one day he would forgive, that one day he would relent.  He caught the smell of timbre on the wind, of campfires of Israel returned home, of food cooked by men who would rise tomorrow to rebuild, to retake, to clean out.  He was here, was he not? He, when so many others had lived and died before the return could begin.  He was here.  And he had to believe that YHWH was here too.  That God was once again in the city of David.

His feet slowly stilled as he came to the end of the wall.  He turned and looked back along the expanse that he had just journeyed along, noting gaps and weak spots, observing strong foundations and stones still standing.  This was not Jericho: a city known only because it had fallen.  This was not one of the Egyptian monoliths slowly being drowned by sand.  This was Jerusalem.   And yes, there was desolation and destruction and in some ways, this wall would be the only gravestone that many of his people would ever have.  But He remembered the stories, of a flood and of life after it; of barren women and surprise births; of second sons who became leaders of nations; of slaves who saved kingdoms; of shepherds who slew giants; of a God who punished but always loved, who promised forgiveness, who gave life again; who rebuilt the fallen.

He began the long walk back to his men and before he knew it, he found himself running along the wall.  He ran from the past, from the brokenness, from the failures, from the death, from the fear and despair, from the dark nights when shadows obscured everything, from the God who had punished and hidden Himself.  He ran towards the future, towards all the possibilities of joy and success and new life, towards safety and confidence, toward hope and strength and trust and toward a God who seemed to have finally relented in his anger.  He ran and it seemed that a great host ran with him: the people of Israel ran with Him, the dead and the living, those gone and those to come and they ran together towards the possibility of something more than exile, they ran towards a home they thought had been lost.  He ran and he felt as if he flew and he could almost believe that the rocks rolled themselves out of his path, urging him in his flight.  

His companions had been waiting long, the night growing colder and their confidence in his safety growing less and less sure.  The conversation had grown heated about whether or not they should send someone after him when suddenly they spotted him: he burst out from around a corner of the wall and ran full speed towards them.  They drew their weapons, sure he was being pursued when he held up his hands for them to wait.  He stopped and dropped his hands to his knees, his head hanging down as he breathed heavily.  He turned his head up and oddly enough, he was smiling.  It was a big, broad smile, a toothy grin and suddenly he began to laugh deeply, a chuckle that seemed to burble up from the tips of his toes.  They silently watched him, wondering if this whole nocturnal ride was an excuse for him to drink in secret, when he stood up straight and looked at them with eyes that pierced them to their marrows.

Nehemiah looked at these men, looked at the wall and the sky and this land and before he spoke he thought he felt the whole earth take a breath in anticipation.  “It is time,” he said.  “It is time to rebuild the wall.”

1 comment:

Kyndall Renfro said...

Wow. This is beauty, genius, SOUL. You've found your voice, that much is obvious. You intertwined such passion and creativity with biblical themes, truths, and history.

It's no wonder you won.

I hope you find your way to many more sermons like this one. Incredible stuff. Moving. Engaging. True. Fully alive (to both pain and hope).