One of my memories as a teenager in church was what might be described as recruitment events. From time to time, we were encouraged to consider if God had placed a calling on our lives. Like many others, I felt excited about following God, sharing my faith, and being obedient to God’s call. I ended up enrolling in Barclay College, and have tried to be obedient to a sense of calling.
Unfortunately, when I started I had no sense of how difficult vocation can be. Obeying God’s calling is taking a rather serious risk. As much as I would daydream of what a successful ministry might look like, looking at the examples of people who did great things, I did not give much thought to how frustrating obedience can be.
One of the passages that we read when looking at what it meant to be called is the first part of Isaiah’s calling in Isaiah 6, where an angel appears to Isaiah and purified his lips with a live coal from the holy of holies. The message we were given is that God gives the people God calls what they need. We need to put aside the reasons we can’t and trust God to qualify us.
At that time, however, I missed what Isaiah was told in verses 11-13. He was called to preach God’s message to a people who would not listen. The angel let Isaiah know that there would be no result at all to his hard work. Isaiah preached, but no one would hear while the cities of Judah stood. Isaiah preached, but nobody would hear until an enemy came, and depopulated the land. Isaiah preached, but nobody would hear while he still lived.
Isaiah enjoyed no success, and the reward for his obedience was imprisonment. Tradition suggests that he was killed for delivering God’s message. His ministry was, by any of our measures a complete failure. He went into it not only risking failure, but with full knowledge that failure was the only possibility.
Answering God’s call is a huge risk. Those who choose to go to Seminary or seek a life of professional ministry take the risk that church attendance and giving are down in the United States. Those who seek to plant churches pour their lives into the church plant, and risk the fact that it might never be financially self sustaining. Church planters also risk having their support cut if the plant does not look like the vision of the supervising board. Those who would speak prophetically risk speaking without being heard.
Those who answer a call to preach the gospel risk having the message of the gospel rejected. Too many people want to use God and scripture to support their political agenda – but, have little care of allowing Christ to change their lives and communities. It is a risk to prefer the gospel to an agenda, and some who have taken this risk have faced conflict from those heavily invested in these agendas.
Perhaps the biggest risk is that in order to be honest, we have to change our narrative. For the majority, God’s call is not glamorous or exciting. Most of us are not called to do great things, nor are we offered great rewards. The earliest rewards for obedience included persecution and death. Current rewards are often difficult financial choices. Sometimes we risk a situation where it seems that God does not provide what we need.
What would it look like if we risked being more honest about God’s calling? What if we pointed out that Isaiah was called to fail, and eventually to die? What if we pointed out that God values obedience, wherever it takes us even to prison, to poverty or to death.
The new narrative would not ask what we accomplish for God’s kingdom, but how we are obedient. It would no longer promise that if we are faithful, God will bless us and our ministries – but would confess that even when people are completely faithful, churches close.
The new narrative would confess that for many who are obedient to God’s calling failure, poverty, prison and death are what are visible from the outside. Yet in all of this, the writer of Hebrews offers us this one promise: “I will never leave you, I will never abandon you, so we can say with confidence ‘the Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid.’” (Hebrews 13:5-6 NET)
This week, Friends at Western Yearly Meeting spoke much about Stewardship. Eden Grace was a guest speaker, and she shared some thoughts — mostly, that Stewards were people who cared for assets that they did not own, according to the instructions of the owner: Stewards are trustees.
Eden’s lectures made way for some more casual conversation. Within these conversations, I heard that many of us experience “stewardship” as a negative word, largely because when people talk about stewardship they mean fund raising. Those of us attached to the non-profit sector (i.e. everybody in the room), often needs to raise funds in order to maintain the properties and operations of the non-profit. Fund raising is, for almost all of us, challenging.
One of the members of this conversation was recently part of a capital campaign for a school. She spoke with potential donors about a project that the school was planing, and asked them for money, and she spoke of how joyful it can be to offer the opportunity to share in a project through donations.
This made caused me to remember something I saw on TV once. “I Dream of Genie” is an old episode of the Twilight Zone where George Hanley finds a magic lamp, is offered one wish, and considers wishing for love, money, or power — when he considers how he would live with that wish, he rejects all three.
When he imagines getting money, the college president of his alma mater is asked for a donation from his school to start a capital campaign. Instead of giving starting money, he writes a check for the entire amount. Surprisingly, the president refuses saying:
Thousands of alumni, not as successful, not as fortunate. But every bit as generous. Giving, sharing the burden and the satisfaction is the cement which binds their minds and hearts to our beloved alma mater. I can’t let you deprive them of the great privilege of giving.
This made me think about the privileged of giving. Through giving and sharing, we do start to feel a sense of ownership in the work of the non-profits that we support. In a way, we start to own the work — we feel connected and interested.
This week, nobody asked for money, we just talked about how to take care of the resources that are available, and how to best use them for their intended purpose. In the end, however, perhaps the most important resource that we share is the resource of those who are eager to be part of the work that we do. Our biggest resource is the ability to care for the mission of the group well enough that giving is a privilege.
Sermon preached at Paoli Friends Meeting
I have always liked to hear the stories of Peter and Paul. They are the most prominent leaders in the New Testament church, and throughout Acts they are consistently bold and faithful. When I read Acts, it seems impossible to live up to the example of the early church. If Peter is the model for Christian leaders — I fear I fall short. I have never preached Christ’s resurrection to those who declared themselves enemies of Christ. While I might be able to say: “I have neither silver nor gold”, if I say “Rise up and walk”, I am sure to find myself deeply embarrassed.
Reading Acts, it seems that after Pentecost, Peter is always on message. According to Acts, it was Peter who first told the Christians that Christ’s message was for everybody and not only for the Jews. Peter was there when there when the Holy Spirit came upon Gentiles in the same way as the Spirit came upon Christ’s disciples. Peter’s response was: “I see that God does not distinguish between persons.”
The Christian community that still exists in Antioch claims that Peter was their first bishop. Acts records that Peter defended the gentiles. In my youth, people showed me the sharp contrast between Peter before, and Peter after Pentecost. Before Pentecost, Peter was frightened of a servant girl — after Pentecost, Peter stood boldly before those who killed Christ and might kill him too. Peter stood boldly until tradition tells us that he died by crucifixion.
Many of my early examples in life were of the holiness school of thought. I’ve listened to revivalist preaching, and I am sure that somewhere, I am numbered as one of the people who were ‘sanctified’ at such a meeting by a holiness preacher. You see there was an idea that you were saved, then sanctified — and sanctification was something that came at a moment — as opposed to something we slowly grow into. I even took a holiness theology class when I was a student at Barclay college, taught by a man who claims to have lived without the influence of sin in his life for over 40 years.
One thing I must say about this view of self is that many people who claim that they are above sin are deeply convicted of sin. Because they do not accept that it is their own, they call out the sins of others. Now, I can think of few things less useful than being convicted of another’s sin — it does neither person any good.
Now, I rather like many aspects of this holiness teaching. First, I like that it offers a doctrine of salvation *from* sin, just as scripture teaches. Too often people speak of salvation from hell, or the final consequences of sin, but offer nothing for this life. Holiness offers salvation that includes our life on earth. Another thing I like about holiness preachers is that they embrace miracles. God does work miraculously in our lives — God changes our heart and transforms our mind. Whether this happens slowly, or immediately, I think we should embrace it as God’s work — and to be fair, I have known people who have changed quickly.
I am deeply thankful that we have Paul’s epistles and not Acts alone. Acts really does focus on the positive. In Acts, the apostles are always full of courage. Whatever they attempt achieves miraculous success. The only hint of problems in the church are found in a few words about the Jerusalem council showing that there was “great debate” about what the requirements would be for gentile Christians.
Paul’s writings however go deep into the controversies that plagued the early church. While Acts memorializes, Paul deals with the difficulties that are present. The difference between these two stories is the difference between stories that we might hear at a funeral, and the stories we have while people are fighting. Paul’s story tells much about what was going on — and if I may, I would like to try and harmonize the story of the early church between the accounts of Paul’s epistles and Acts.
After the resurrection, Jesus appeared and gathered his disciples together again. At the time of Pentecost, about 120 remained out of all those thousands who listened to Jesus teach. At Pentecost, the disciples, especially Peter, discovered a new found courage and the ability work the same kinds of miracles that their master Jesus worked before. They spoke boldly before those who could kill them — and they continued to do so even as those like Stephen were put to death.
One thing that all the disciples had in common for the first few months is that they were all Jews. As Jews, they grew up with stories about how they were God’s special people. Not only that, but their recent history had been one of occupation by foreign empires. Luke tells us that right before Christ went up into heaven, the disciples asked if “now was the time” to attack Rome and re-establish Israel. The new Church had a lot to learn.
It took several miracles for the followers of Christ to accept that Jesus really did mean the whole world: First, Peter had to have a vision commanding him to eat what was unclean — this vision was further explained that he was to visit with, and eat with someone who was unclean. Short of this miracle, Peter was not ready to accept that Jesus came to make clean those who were unacceptable.
When Peter went, he saw that not only was he called to do this — but that the Holy Spirit came upon these unclean gentiles in exactly the same way that the Holy Spirit came on those who lived and learned directly under Jesus. Peter saw first hand, through God’s miraculous intervention that: “God is not a respecter of persons.” After this, Peter started to change. Tradition holds that he founded the Christian community at Antioch — which was the first largely gentile Christian community.
The news of Gentile Christians, strong in the Holy Spirit challenged some deeply held beliefs of many of the Jewish Christians. Those who thought that our diet makes us unacceptable to God, or that a man must alter the body he was born with in order to become acceptable to God found that something happened that did not fit their understanding of how God related to people. They lost their special position of divine favor. Jerusalem sent a delegation to investigate what happened in Antioch — and, not surprisingly, some of the delegation felt it was most important to convert the Antioch community to Judaism.
When this delegation came, Peter apparently stopped eating with the gentile Christians. Even though he was convicted that the attitudes that he grew up with were wrong, he was afraid of his fellow Christians, and what they might think. Peter fell into his old sinful behavior of moral cowardice — and remained there until Paul gave him a bit of a tongue lashing. Remember, Paul opposed Peter in front of everybody because he snubbed the gentile Christians in the presence of the people from Jerusalem. Peter knew better, and Paul corrected him.
Peter and Paul went to a council called at Jerusalem, where the monumental decision was made that Christianity was something for all people, and not only those who accepted Jewish laws and customs. Both Peter and Paul are remembered as supporting the Gentile Christians at this council. Then, almost all of Paul’s books tell us that those who felt Christianity should only be for Jews ignored the decisions of the council. Paul spent his ministry fighting to create an understanding of Christ which did not include making Gentiles into Jews, while his opponents told the Gentile churches that there was no salvation without circumcision. After both served God faithfully, both, by tradition, died in Rome. Paul was beheaded, and Peter was crucified upside down.
For me, there are three points of good news in this story, The first point of good news is that God does not distinguish between classes the way people do. I was born in a working class home, in a working class town. For those who judge by what people do for money, I am ‘inferior’ to the middle (or professional) class. When I took classes on “church growth”, my demographic was largely ignored as the middle class people (and pockets) are more desirable. For me it is good news that God does not discriminate due to ancestry, wealth or poverty, nor any other reason. By the grace of Jesus Christ, we all stand equally before God.
Second, this is good news for me because people I deeply respected have failed, sometimes in spectacular ways. If Peter did not fail in a spectacularly hurtful way, I might think that these people were merely fakes and hypocrites. I might have a polarized view that caused me to idolize them one moment, and demonize them the next. This is good news, because I am allowed to recognize that these people are human — and, to remember that Christ is merciful, and will work with them and though them just as Christ worked with and through Peter.
Third this is good news for me, because I am not always perfectly loving, nor full of courage, nor am I always merciful. When I examine myself, I see many moments where I fell short of the example that Christ set for us. I am able to see that a few words spoken in anger do not separate me from God’s love — but God continues to walk with me and work with me. I cannot claim to have achieved perfection, and no matter what a former teacher said, this neither disqualified Peter, nor does it disqualify me.
Paul got it right when he scolded Peter saying: “we know nobody is justified by works of the law… because by the works of the law, nobody is justified.” Where the law measures, it measures failures. The gospel is based in the rather simple fact that Jesus Christ is merciful and chooses to walk with us. We do not need to become good enough to approach God, but instead God came to us. The good news is not that God promises us the power to succeed — it is that God remains faithful, loves us, and remains with us even when we fail.
Reading: Acts 1:1-14
Usually on Pentecost Sunday, which is coming up, I am told that the coming of the Holy Spirit is the birthday of the Church. I have never questioned this until I was reading the three accounts of Jesus going up into heaven this week, and asked: “What is the significance of this story, and where it is located?
In the gospels, the story of Jesus going up into heaven is short, if it is mentioned at all. This offers a logical ending of the incarnational ministry of Jesus (though, I rather like how Matthew and John do not even find it necessary to mention Jesus leaving — as, God’s continued presence is part of the gospel story.)
Acts is not the story of Jesus, but the story of the primitive church and how Christianity started to become a small worldwide community. I notice that the story of the church begins with Jesus leaving the disciples — this choice make the ascension, not Pentecost the birthday of the Church, at least in Luke’s mind. My mind asks: why?
Reading Acts, I realize that Christ’s physical presence was in a real way a block to the followers of Christ. As long as there was a physical Lord who could be a physical King of the Jews, and physically raise up an army to remove the Romans from Judea, they were not going to understand anything about the kingdom that was not of this world.
I get this from verse 6, where the disciples get together and ask Jesus whether he would now restore the kingdom of Israel. Coming back from the dead and regathering the followers is a huge deal. The story of the king that Rome could not kill could be a rallying point for revolution. Clearly disciples such as Simon (the Zealot) were ready for Jesus to take his place as a great terrorist leader. While there was a physical king, the disciples were ready for a physical kingdom.
When Jesus was brought up into heaven, he told the disciples to wait and pray together in Jerusalem. Jesus commanded them to form a community that was based on God’s continued presence in this world.
When the disciples formed this community, and waited for God’s real presence in a new way, the church was born. This was the second time that Jesus’ followers got together like this, due to Jesus’ absence. The first time was a time of mourning — this time was marked by joy. The first time marked an end — this time, they knew it was a beginning. For the first time, the kingdom of heaven was in the disciples.
The labor appears endless
The idea of finishing impossible
The mind fills with what must be done
The first reaction is to run away
Yet the hands start to labor
Hours pass, and task after task falls away
Blisters form, and muscles ache
But the end begins to be in sight
Labor is good for the soul
Beauty is discovered, buried under rubble
Labor exposes that beauty
If love does anything, love works
The day ends, labor is finished
Clothing peeling off for the shower
White under socks, showing the thick layer of dirt
Showing, it feels good to be clean again
Sleep is sweet
Tomorrow, back to work
Praise God for a history of blessings
We have such a long history
God has blessed us time and again
Let us remember:
Sometimes even survival seems impossible
Tomorrow’s breath seems like it will be a miracle
Yet somehow there is enough
I still breathe
It seems that there is no justice in the world
The good work so that the evil may prosper
Yet somehow there is still Good in the world
And there is hope for both justice and redemption
There are great stories from generations past
Whole societies being turned on their heads
There are stories of slavery being ended
God’s justice poured out upon the oppressors
The stories seem so far removed
It feels like there are so few left
The prophets say it was because we forgot
Are there blessings in Babylon?
Yet even here there is survival
Though we are under foreign rule, we hold on
Our history tells us that God saves God’s people
And we sing: “Even though, it is well with my soul.”
Hope is a strange thing
The heart seeks it out
How unlikely does not matter
One in a million is enough
Fear and hope exist together
In the end, the fears win
Death and suffering are all life promises
To be buried with just the clothes on the back
Yet we still hope
Even when counting days to the grave
Perhaps God will grant another year
Perhaps this month, the bills will be paid
We hope until we die
Hoping to meet a loving God
Knowing that life did not judge us well
Yet hoping that God is more merciful than this world
Hope is a strange thing
But it is a very human thing