While I was attending The Wild Goose Festival, Brian McLaren asked a simple question during our opening worship: “So, how are you?” The audience giggled a bit. But it was a nervous giggle that spoke volumes about how we were all feeling as we gathered for the festival.

     His answer to the question was “It feels like an existential crises these days.” Then he made the observation that the typical answer we give to this question is “I’m fine” in spite of what’s going on in our lives and in our nation.

     It’s what everyone expects us to say. And if we dare to say anything else, they start getting nervous, and look for the first opportunity to end the conversation. People really don’t want honest answers to the question “How are you?” It’s just something we’re been conditioned to say in polite company.

     But I’ve not seen a lot of polite company these days. People dread spending time with their extended families, because we all have at least one relative who loves to stir the pot, if you know what I mean. And so, when we attend family get-togethers, such as reunions and weddings, we avoid talking about religion, politics, the environment, and just about every other topic except for the weather.

     We also have at least one friend on Facebook who floods our feed with a constant stream of vitriol against whoever it is they disagree with. Heaven help us, if we try to gently challenge what they’ve posted. Suddenly, we’re on the receiving end of a verbal flame thrower set on high. It’s not a pretty picture. So, when people ask us “How are you?,” We answer “I’m fine” because it’s the only safe answer, even though it’s far from the truth.

     But we’re in church today. THIS, this is the place where we can be honest with each another. This is the place where we can share what’s REALLY going on in our lives. This is the place where we can bare just a little bit of our wounded souls, and ask others to pray for whatever is making us feel “not so fine.” Amen?

     So feel free to answer the question “How are you?” as openly and honestly as you can this morning. Name your fears and worries in this sacred space. Don’t be afraid to shed a few tears, if a hymn or scripture passage shines light on your deepest hurts.  

    This is what the church is for! This is the place we come to be reminded that when things are “not fine” we still have hope because Jesus is with us. Whether we are able to see him or not, Christ is walking with us. He is moving among us, mending that which is broken, and breathing new life into the dead spaces of our lives.

     So, if you’re feeling “not so fine” today, that’s perfectly okay. This sermon is for you. The life preserver I want to throw to you comes from the most unlikely of places, the prophet Nehemiah. Who is Nehemiah, you might ask? He’s one of those prophets whose book we may have never read, and we have absolutely no clue where to find him in our Bibles.

     The Revised Common Lectionary is no help either. We hear only one reading from Nehemiah over three year period. It happens on the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, Year C. And that’s it!

     Thankfully, Brian McLaren shed some light on this particular passage which I chose for our First and Second Lessons. This particular chapter in Nehemiah gives us some tools for how to cope when it feels like life is an avalanche of “not so fine” days.

     First, let me give you a little background on this relatively unknown prophet. The book of Nehemiah takes place after the Babylonian exile. This is a people who had experienced so many “not so fine” days in a row that they had lost count. They were people of despair. They were people who had abandoned all hope that things would get better.

     Then, miraculously, King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonian army. He allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland, and even gave them some of the resources they needed to rebuild their lives. Nehemiah is all about the rebuilding. Chapter 8, in particular, gives us a lot of wisdom regarding how we can rebuild our lives when we feel like we are a people without hope.

     As chapter 8 begins all the people in Jerusalem were asked to gather in the public square in front of the Water Gate. The Water Gate was located near the Southwest corner of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, near the Gihon Spring. It was a place that was open and accessible to everyone.

     In this very public space Ezra began reading the Torah, the “law of Moses” to everyone who would listen. For those unfamiliar with the term, the Torah is the first five books we have in our Bibles. It was revised and edited by Ezra and other priests while they were in exile.

     And so this brand-spanking-new version of the Torah was read to the people. When Ezra opened the scroll for the first time, the people shouted “Amen, amen!” and they began to worship together. While Ezra was reading the Torah, the Levites, who were the traditional teachers of the Law, moved among the people and helped them to understand how it applied to their lives.

     This is something that lasted an entire day. During this gathering the leaders reminded the people “This day is holy to the LORD your God; so not mourn or weep.”

     When the day came to an end they told the people, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” 

     What I see going on in this passage is a blueprint for how we successfully navigate the “not-so-fine” times our our lives; times when we have lost hope and despair is our constant companion.

     First of all, we need to immerse ourselves in the Word and in worship. The “law of Moses” that Ezra read was defined by Brian McLaren as “the standards of basic human decency.” They contained the Ten Commandments and reminded the people how they were supposed to live in covenant with God and with each other. 

     In times of despair, it’s important that we immerse ourselves in scripture. This is something we do not do alone. We interpret it together. This circle of interpretation involves the whole family of God: pastors, lay people, poets, musicians and scholars.

     It’s important that we have this holy conversation because in 2018 it’s vital that we understand clearly who Jesus is and what he stands for. There are many counterfeit Jesuses out there. If we are students of the Word, we are less likely to fall for them.

     My challenge to you this morning is that if you haven’t read the gospel lately, it’s time to do so. We all need to be able to defend the Jesus we know and love in a world that often makes him into their image instead of the other way around.

     Worship is also important during the “not so fine” times of our lives. When we are despairing, when we have lost hope, we need to surround ourselves with those who will remind us of God’s promises to us. They are there to sing the hymns of faith we cannot bring ourselves to sing. They are there to love us and care for us when we cannot love and care for ourselves. We see this happening in Nehemiah 8. It was Ezra’s way of helping God’s people to heal and have their hope restored.

     The second thing that emerges in Nehemiah, is that during the “not so fine” times of our lives, we need to practice gratitude, celebration, and service to the needy. Ezra tells the people “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine, and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

     When things are going wrong, we need to focus on what’s going right. When things get us all hot and bothered, we need a cool oasis where we can refresh our weary souls.

     This is exactly what the people did. They set aside their troubles for at least one day. They feasted with one another. and shared a portion of what they had with those who could not afford to feast.

     Then they were reminded by Ezra that “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” This is not some rose-colored glasses kind of joy. It’s not even the-glass-is-half-full kind of joy. It’s the kind of joy that believes “If God is for us, who can be against us?” It’s the kind of joy that lives deep inside our souls. It cannot be taken away from us no matter what is happening in our lives and in our world.

     We may not think we do not have this kind of joy within us. But, trust me, its there. Our job is to awaken that kind of joy in those around us when they cannot awaken it themselves.

     Thankfully, many of my siblings in Christ did this for me at The Wild Goose Festival. through worship, lectures, music and art. I hope I can help to awaken that kind of joy in all of you when you’re having one of those “not so fine” day, or weeks, or months! Amen? I am counting on you to awaken that kind of joy in me. Your encouragement and prayers are invaluable to me, as we navigate these crazy times together.

     But there’s one more piece of the blueprint we need to examine for how to navigate the “not-so-fine” times our our lives. This occurs in our second lesson which contains a ritual celebration known as the Festival of Booths. It is a festival that Jews celebrate to this very day. Some of you may remember the Jewish Secular Society of Asheville, who does their monthly Shabbat here, set up a booth or tent in our yard this past fall.

     The reason why it’s important in Nehemiah, is that the Israelites had not celebrated this festival since the time before the exile in Babylon. Now that they were rebuilding their community, this particular festival was important. They feasted under these booths to remember how their ancestors wandered in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt, as well as how God led them to the promised land.

     The important lesson we learn from this festival is that during the “not so fine” times of our lives, it’s important that we remember how God delivered us from difficult times in the past. When we do this, it gives us hope for the future. It helps to replenish the deep well of joy that is our strength.

     And so, as we make our way, through these unstable and unpredictable times we are experiencing as a nation, it’s absolutely vital that we remember God’s faithfulness to us in the past. This gives us the strength we need to trust that God will help us to navigate the “not so fine” days were are experiencing currently.

     Friends in Christ, there is a lot of wisdom we can gain from Nehemiah. I encourage you to read this chapter during the week, and see what else you can learn from it. Make no mistake about it, God is with us in these “not so fine” times. The joy of the Lord WILL be our strength. If we immerse ourselves in the Word and in worship; if we practice gratitude, celebration, and service to the needy; if we remember the times in our lives when God was faithful to us; we will get though this! Our hope will be renewed as we place our trust in the One, who helped Israel persevere during both an exodus and an exile. Amen!

Copyright ©2018 by David Eck

Special Thanks to Brian McLaren for opening my eyes to the holy wisdom found in Nehemiah.