Bartlet for President

1 Timothy 6:6-19New International Version (NIV)

6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

I need some help form the congregation this morning. I am making a list of opposites, so when I say a word, I want you to reply with the opposite. So if I say black, you would say white. If I say hot, you would say cold. If I say light, you would say dark. If I say pro, you would say con (or amateur).

If pro is the opposite of con, does that mean that the opposite of progress is…congress?

That’s right, folks, we are starting off today’s sermon is a joke about politics. Every Christmas we sing songs about Jesus being the King of kings, Lord of lords. And sometimes I fear that when we hear those words year after year, associating them with the birth of a baby and stopping there, that we forget how important this phrase is. We forget how subversive it is. To say that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords says that ultimate power, authority, and allegiance belongs to him. This isn’t some far-off confession of faith meant for when we die and go to heaven. This means Jesus is King of kings, Lord of lords, here today.

But we also know that we are in an election year. If you didn’t know that, well, I’m a little jealous! In less than two months our country will pick the next leader of the United States. As our nation continues to divide and become more polarized, we must remember that we cannot simply follow the culture around us. We are called to be the church of Jesus Christ, a city on a hill, standing out from the rest of the world as an alternative. Even an alternative to the divisive politics of our day.

Our text for this morning comes from the last chapter of the first epistle written to Timothy. What a great way to end a book of the Bible, am I right? Money and power are the main emphases of this passage, so if we could just make a reference to sex yet we would hit the trifecta: sex, money, power.

Most scholars agree that the Pastoral Epistles, which includes the books of 1 and 2 Timothy, were not written by the Apostle Paul, but likely by someone else named Paul, which would have been a common name in the 1st century, or by one of Paul’s disciples. The authorship of this letter really doesn’t matter to me; what matters to me is that we as the church have canonized this letter as a part of our divinely-inspired Bible. So if I say Paul wrote this letter, please know that I do so out of convenience.

Paul is writing this letter to his young companion Timothy, and as is common in these letters, he tries to fit in a lot of information in his closing paragraphs. You get the feeling that he is running out of papyrus and is turning it sideways, writing in the margins, trying to squeeze in every last bit of wisdom that he has been given. And evidently the issue of money is very important because our text opens with a comment on money, moves to a comment on power, and then comes right back to money again. Money, power, money; I simply can’t imagine how I’m going to connect this passage with politicsJ.

Our text starts with the phrase “godliness with contentment is great gain.” The word translated as contentment simply means that you need nothing outside what you already have. He goes on, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” You’ve heard the saying, “I’ve never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch,” before, right? Yeah, they often do have trailer hitches. But the purpose of the saying is still valid. You come into this world with nothing, and anything you do accumulate will be left here. But this isn’t just a teaching on the temporary nature of money, there is something quite important to be taught here. Verse 10a, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Money itself is not evil. In fact, it is quite essential in our society, just as it would have been in Timothy’s day. The problem is when we love money. Or, as the old saying goes, far too often we love money and use people when in fact we are to love people and use money. Paul then says that some have wandered away from the faith on account of money.

Paul takes a short break to talk about power. He names Jesus as Lord, which is a ranking of Jesus as the highest leader. Jesus is the boss! He says that God is the only ruler, the King of kings, Lord of lords. I’m not sure that Paul had his doctrine of the Trinity completely finalized at this point but he is connecting the Father and Son as Lord over all. Lord over the church, Lord over nations, Lord over Caesar, Lord over money.

Jesus has a lot to say about money and power in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. For instance, he says in 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Our English translations lose something here because we translate the word mammon into money. According to a number of scholars, mammon was not a neutral term used to describe money, but actually a name for a deity, a god of money. Mammon was perhaps a Canaanite counterpart to the Greek god Plutus, the god of wealth. You may hear of a system of governance called a “plutocracy,” which means it is ruled by the rich.

What Paul and Jesus are saying is that we cannot make money a god, we cannot treat it as an idol.

I don’t think it is by accident, then, that after this brief section about the Lordship of the Trinity that he comes back to money again in verse 17. The brief section on power is bookended by a warning against power. Money and power are interwoven with each other.

Speaking of money and power, we are coming right up on Election Day here in the United States, and I think this is a good time to really think about money and power here in the United States. Who is Lord over our church, Lord over our nation, Lord over our leaders, and Lord over our money?

There is a story where Jesus is questioned about paying the imperial tax, which would have been money collected by the Roman Empire from the Jewish people. They are trying to trap Jesus, because if he says that they should pay the tax, he sounds like a Roman sympathizer. If he says not to pay the tax, he could be arrested for sedition. As always, Jesus is wise in his response, and he asks one of his questioners if he has a coin. When the man produces a coin from his purse, Jesus asks him to look at the coin and tell him whose image was on it.

It was Caesar. Money and power intertwined.

But the convicting aspect of that story is that the man who was carrying the coin was breaking an important Jewish law. Let’s look at it in the King James, Exodus 20:4, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” That’s one of the ten big ones.

To participate in the Roman economy required the Jews to use Roman coins, which bore the image of Caesar. To carry Roman currency, to use it in the market place, to have it in your home meant breaking one of the Ten Commandments. But as a minority group in an occupied territory, what other option did they have?

I am absolutely struggling this elections season, because like the Israelites of Jesus’ day, I don’t feel like I have a good option. And I don’t think that I am alone. Sonya and I recently had a conversation about how few signs we see for the presidential candidates in our neighborhood, where four years ago there were a dozen signs for Barrack Obama or Mitt Romney on every block. We interpreted this as other people not being overly excited about the options, as well. Our friend, Tate, who has always aligned himself with one party, even being a part of a partisan organization through his college years, has said that he can’t support his party this year. He posted a picture of himself wearing a “Bartlet for President” shirt on Facebook recently. If you don’t know the reference, Jed Bartlet is not real. He was the President of the United States on the television show, The West Wing. The joke behind the shirt is that many would rather have a fictional character as their president than one of the options that we are faced with. I even heard a Christian say on the radio this week that he wasn’t voting for anybody this election. He was voting against someone.

Here is my struggle. I feel like a vote for any presidential candidate requires me to bend, if not outright break, some of my religious convictions. Like a Jewish man living in the 1st century, carrying an image-bearing coin, what other options are there? Or as New Testament scholar Daniel Kirk has said, “There is no vote cast that doesn’t require some measure of forgiveness.”

Think about it like this. Recently I was encouraged to listen to a podcast that tends to be on the more conservative side. This podcast discusses religious issues, politics, and how the two interact. On the particular podcast that I was listening to they were discussing which of the two major political parties in our country a Christian should vote for. They did not endorse one candidate over another, and I don’t think either were even named. But knowing the nature of the podcast and the hosts, I kind of knew which way they were going to encourage people to vote. And that’s okay.

To make a case for Christians to vote for Republican candidates, they addressed three topics and looked at the official platform for each party. Those topics were: life, family, and liberty. At this point, I think everyone is on board! Who isn’t for life, family, and liberty? But it comes down to how you define these things.

The hosts spoke about three agenda items that have been central to the Republican Party for as long as I can remember: abortion, LGBTQ rights, and religious freedom. And because the Republican Platform aligns with these two Christian hosts views on these three issues, they said that Christians should vote Republican.

That’s fine, but who decided that those were the only three topics that matter to Christians? When I think about life, I don’t just care about life before a baby comes into the world. Life after birth matters, too. So a party’s views on humanitarian aid and refugees matters to me. Families are about more than LGBTQ rights and laws. So I’m concerned about programs for underprivileged families, public education, and housing.

When Jesus comes on the scene and begins his life as a ministering person, he gives his stump speech in Luke 4:18-19, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What was Jesus’s platform? Good news to the poor, prison reform, healthcare, social equality, and debt reduction.

My point is that you can make Jesus sound like a Republican or a Democrat by picking and choosing which aspects of his ministry you want to emphasize. If abortion and gay marriage are among the most important things to you right now, vote for the party that most closely aligns with your viewpoints. And if healthcare and immigration are the most important issues to you right now, vote for the other side. But know that neither side is perfectly in line with my understanding of who Jesus was and is calling us to be today. That’s why I strongly believe that every vote cast requires that we humbly admit that we need to repent as well.

This is my real challenge to everyone today. If you feel called to vote for Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton, feel free to do so. If you want to vote for a third-party candidate as a protest, I understand that as well. And if you choose to not vote because you cannot in good conscious be a part of this system, I get that. But please never, ever say, “If you are a Christian, you will vote this way.” I’ve read the words of Jesus written in red in my Bible, and they do not align perfectly with either platform.

Let’s just look really quickly at what the Bible does not say.

The Bible does not say, “They will know we are Christians by our voting record.” No, they will know we are Christians by our love (Jn 13:35). Far too often I hear followers of the Prince of Peace pointing fingers and calling names. We fall into the practices that we see among the candidates, slinging mud and spinning lies. I think that one of the most counter-cultural things that we can do as the church is to opt out of all of that.

The Bible does not say, “Thou shalt not engage the other political party in a loving conversation.” Jesus was always sitting down to a meal, eating and drinking with people who had vastly different view than he did. He dined with Pharisees and tax collectors, religious leaders and prostitutes. And if Jesus can break bread with a prostitute, you can probably buy lunch for a Democrat or a Republican.

The Bible does not say, “Blessed are you who will vote, because you have fulfilled your Christian duty.” No, one of my biggest fears is that over the last few decades Christians have fallen into the thought trap that says if we vote on an issue, that is all we need to do. Jesus never spoke about voting at all. It is fine to vote, but it takes a back seat to actually doing something. And make no mistake, both sides of the political divide are guilty of this. If you feel strongly about reducing abortions, don’t vote for a law and call that your duty. Befriend an unmarried, pregnant woman who is struggling to make ends meet who might be considering ending her pregnancy and walk with her through the process. Help her with medical bills, go with her to birthing classes, hold her hand while she pushes 8 pounds, 9 ounces of humanity out and into the world.

If fighting poverty is your goal, sure, vote for your preferred candidate. But don’t stop there. Tutor a child who is struggling to make good grades. Mentor a young adult who can’t seem to budget their income. Volunteer at the Valley Mission and clean some bathrooms. Yes, these things are costly, but Jesus compared following him to carrying your own cross. It will hurt; following Jesus always does.

My friends, Jed Bartlet is not running for president this year. So if you choose to vote, vote for the person that most closely aligns with your beliefs. But know that we are called to do much more than vote. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus here on earth. We are called to continue the ministry Jesus began 2,000 years ago when he gave his stump speech. Money and power are formidable foes! But we have a greater ally. Jesus is our Lord, no matter who is president.

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The Power to Change

Exodus 32:7-14New International Version (NIV)

7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

Do you know who, out of the people in the Bible, was the greatest sinner of all? It was Moses. He broke all 10 of the Commandments at once.

About 400 years before the birth of Jesus, the Greek world experienced a period of enlightenment that still affects much of the world today. Euclid was working out what we today would call geometry, Pericles was refining democracy, and a trio of men were developing the practice of philosophy, which simply means the love of wisdom. The three men that I am referring to are of course Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. And as I like to say, my favorite is Plato, because his name alone brings back fond memories of my childhood, making snakes and spaghetti with my Plato fun factory. Or was that Playdough fun factory?

Plato offered a theory that everything that we see is simply an image of that which is real. Off is some distant location, there are true “forms,” which is the thing that we see, but in its purest and unadulterated state. So we may see a tree, but that is really not a tree. It is simply an image of a tree, which in reality exists as a form somewhere else. The forms do not change and cannot be altered, where things can be changed and altered here on earth. (I’m grossly oversimplifying. Bear with me!)

Plato’s student, Aristotle further developed some of Plato’s thoughts and developed the concept of God as the “unmoved mover.” God is the one that set the world in motion, but God himself is not affected by creation. God moves us, we don’t move God.

Plato had a major influence on a number of early Christians, as many came out of Greek backgrounds. One of them is a man known St. Augustine. If you read Augustine’s work, you will see some of the influence that Plato played in the development of Augustine’s thought. The same is true of later theologians like Thomas Aquinas. Even if you never read anything written by Augustine or Aquinas, but you are likely influenced by their work, even if you don’t know it!

Over the years, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas’s works have been both praised and condemned, copied and amended. I think some of this work is good, and some is better left in the Dark Ages! We find ideas about the immutability and impassability of God coming out of these men. Immutability does not mean that you cannot silence God, it means that God does not mutate, God does not change. God is the unmoved mover and the “form” of anything that we might imagine. Impassibility is a reference to God suffering, remember that the French/Latin word “passion” means to suffer, like in the movie title, “The Passion of the Christ.” God cannot suffer because that would affect God and change God.

These historical teachings align well with verses like Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change,” and James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” We even sing a song, “God always faithful, you do not change.”

We can always count on God to be God. God’s attributes do not change. God is always faithful; God is always just; God is always righteous; God is always holy; God is always love.

How many of you have ever run into someone that you haven’t seen for years and you think to yourself, “Wow, you’ve changed!” Maybe that person looks older or perhaps their interests are now different. You might run into your best friend from high school with whom you played video games all night long when you were a kid and now they are a mature parent, spouse, and employee. They’ve changed; that’s a part of growing up and maturing.

I am not immune from this change, and I bet that you are not, either. One hot summer day I toasted some homemade, whole wheat and flax bread and made myself a cucumber hummus sandwich. It was so good! But I remember thinking that if 18-year-old Kevin could see me now, he would totally kick my butt for being such a hippie.

But it’s not just our interests and our tastes that change, our actions sometimes change, too. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. There is a heroin epidemic in my home state and even in my little, rural home town. Maybe you saw the picture of the father and mother who overdosed on heroin this week and the police found them in their car with a child in the back seat. That happened in my state. When I was growing up the rowdy kids would get some tobacco and smoke or chew it, or maybe sneak a few Bud Lights from their dad’s fridge. The people in a place dear to me have changed, and not for the better.

Sometimes you hear about couples who have been married for 10, 15, 20 years who are getting a divorce. And almost always you will hear one of the individuals say to the other, “You’ve changed. You aren’t the man or woman that I married.”

People change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

I find it comforting to know that God does not change. Some have said that the one thing that God can’t do is to stop acting like God. God can’t be unjust, unrighteous, unloving.

But what I think is very important about our text for this morning is that it differentiates between two different kinds of change. God does not change his attributes, but God does change his mind. And what is the powerful and mighty force that can cause our great and wonderful God to change his mind? Oh, it’s people. People like you and me. People who pray.

Our text tells us that Moses was on Mt. Sinai where he was receiving the Torah from God. During this time the Israelites, just pretty fresh out of slavery in Egypt, asked Moses’s brother Aaron to make them a god. So Aaron gather’s all of their gold, melts it down, and makes a golden calf for them to worship. Because, you know, if you are going to worship something, it might as well be a bovine.

God was angry, and I think that is the right response. God just protected them through the plagues, led them out of slavery, even separated the waters so that they could go through on dry land, and how do they thank him? By worshipping another god. Then we read God saying this in verse 10, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”

Moses could have responded by saying, Do it, God! Get those idolaters! But instead, we find Moses saying in verse 12, “Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.”

Let’s jump ahead to verse 14, where we find God’s response: “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”

I don’t know what is more amazing, the fact that Moses asked God to change his mind or the fact that God actually did.

If you read this in the King James Version, it is even more amazing, because rather than saying that “the Lord relented,” the KJV actually says that the Lord “repented.”

We need to remember that to repent does not mean that God is apologizing for sin, and the NIV translates this as saying that God relented because we have the mistaken understanding of repentance as admitting guilt. To repent means to turn. God was going to do one thing, and God instead turned and did something else.

This is not a one-time event. There are 39 unique passages in the Bible that tell us that God changed his mind. Additionally, there are a total of 200 places where it does not say that God changed his mind, but that tell a story of how God did something different from what he had originally said he would do. Here’s a quick look at some of the “mind changing” verses:

Chron 21:15—God said that he would destroy Jerusalem, but then he relented.

2 Kings 10:1-6—King Hezekiah was told through an inspired prophet that he would not recover from sickness. But after Hezekiah pleaded with God, the Lord told him “I will add fifteen years to your life.”

Ex 33:1-3, 14—In the light of Moses’ pleading, the Lord reversed his plan not to go with the Israelites into the promised land.

Deut 9:13-29—The Lord “intended to destroy” the Israelites, and was even ready to destroy Aaron. Moses’ 40-day intercession altered God’s intention.

1 Kings 21:21-29—The Lord says that he will bring disaster because of Ahab’s sins. But when Ahab repents, he says that he will not bring disaster.

2 Chron 12:5-8—The Lord was going to allow the Israelites to be conquered because of King Reheboam’s rebellion. The king and his officers repent, so the Lord changes his plan.

Jer 26:2-3—The Lord tells Jeremiah to prophesy to Israel that they should repent, saying, “I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on [Israel] because of their evil doings.”

Ez 4:9-15—God tells Ezekiel to act out a prophesy with human dung, but Ezekiel objects. God then allows Ezekiel to act it out with cow dung.

Amos 7:1-6—The Lord revealed two judgments and two times Amos intercedes. Twice the Scriptures say, “The Lord relented concerning this …”

Jonah 3:10—God “changed his mind” about the destruction he planned to carry out on Nineveh.

 

Notice what these verses have in common, aside from God changing his mind. When God changes his mind, it is often at the request of human beings.

But God doesn’t change. He is the unmoved mover, the immutable, impassible one. Yet there are at least 200 verses that speak otherwise.

What I want to warn us all of today is to have our understanding of God formed by what we actually read in the Bible, not what some Greek philosophers said thousands of years ago. It is true that God does not change, but that is a reference to God’s attributes, his holiness, his love, his character. God does not change in the way the people of Ohio have moved to hard narcotics, or the way a spouse changes from the person you married. God has shown that he will change his plans, change his mind, when his people humble themselves and pray. As long as what you are praying for is not asking God to act contrary to who God is, I believe God will entertain your prayer. There is a difference between God changing his mind and changing his attributes.

We have the power to influence God’s actions. Do not take that lightly!

Let’s go beyond what is in our text for today. After Moses appeases God and gets him to calm down, Moses descends from the mountain and sees the people worshipping the golden calf. Moses becomes infuriated! He is carrying the tablets upon which God carved the Ten Commandments, and Moses throws them down, breaking them into pieces. He takes the gold calf, burned it, and ground it up into little pieces of gold dust. And what is probably my favorite move in the Bible, Moses mixes the gold dust with the people’s water supply and makes them drink it. This has kind of a Titus Andronicus feel to it, doesn’t it?

There is something here that I think we need to make note of. God was angry because the people had sinned against him. But Moses was essentially able to talk God down and away from his anger. But immediately following this episode, we find Moses getting extremely angry and taking it out on the stone tables from God and on the people.

It seems as if Moses is powerful enough to change God’s actions, but not his own. Moses convinces God not to allow his anger get the best of him, but fails to keep his own anger in check.

If we have the power to change God’s actions, surely we have the power to change our own. Indeed, there are times when we cannot do this alone. But together, with friends, family, the church, and the Holy Spirit of God, we can change.

People change, that is undeniable. I mentioned some ways that change can be bad, but it can just as well be good.

We all struggle with something, addictions, attitudes, finances, relationships. One of the things that I have historically struggled with is watching too much television. When Sonya and I first moved to Virginia in 2005, the local cable company was offering a great deal on basic cable. I’d never had ESPN, TBS, TNT, or the History Channel before! And let’s be honest, I didn’t spend hour after hour watching the History Channel. I found it amazing that I could watch water polo at 2:00 am. I could watch reruns of Friends and Seinfeld while I ate my meals and even into my study time. 24-hours sports and round-the-clock comedies! Who could ask for anything else?

Sonya and I soon decided to “disable the cable,” receiving only the broadcast stations on our home television. I had to make the decision to put down the remote.

I realize that I can easily relapse into those old ways to this day. Now, rather than watching water polo late into the night, I can easily binge-watch a television series on Netflix. And there are times when that is okay. The middle of the winter when you can’t get out because of the snow it is fine to do some binge watching. The point that I am making is that if we have the power to change God’s actions, we surely have the power to change our actions. And sometimes it takes something bigger than our selves. We need to pray for the strength to come from God.

Twelve-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, all begin by saying, “I am powerless against my addiction.” That statement is not true. Maybe on your own, you are powerless over your addictions, but that is why people come together for AA. I may be powerless, but together, we are not. With help from one another, and help from God, we can change our actions and behaviors. We can turn, which is the true meaning of repentance, turn toward something better.

Throughout our scripture for today, God calls the Israelites a “stiff-necked people.” Stiff-necked people do not look side to side, but only straight forward. They do not turn, the do not repent, they do not change their minds or their actions.

God was mad at the Israelites because they worshipped an idol, like was their custom in Egypt. God is calling us all to turn, to repent, to change our minds and our actions. God is calling us to turn to something more beautiful, more life-giving, and more Christ-like.

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The Spilts

Acts 15:36-41

36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

We had an unwanted visitor at our home over the last few weeks. He tore things up, knocked over the garbage, and sometimes he just stunk. Our visitor was a skunk. We smelled him before we actually saw him, and if you have ever smelled a skunk, you know that the odor is unmistakable. Sonya later saw it scurrying down our driveway one night when she returned from work, and we also met it face-to-face one evening just outside our back door.

It was time for us to say goodbye.

So we borrowed a live trap and set it along a wall in our backyard. Then, early Monday morning, Sonya looks out the window and says to me, “We caught the skunk… Now what do we do?”

And by “we” she meant me.

You see, the problem with a live trap is that the captured creature is still, well, alive. Some suggested that I shoot the skunk from a safe distance. But I live in the city where it is illegal to discharge a gun, and I don’t own a gun. Someone else suggested that a trashcan full of water could quickly do away with the skunk. Sure, I’ll just tell the skunk to keep calm as I baptize him. I am, after all, a member of the clergy.

Each of these options defeat the purpose of a live trap. I was okay with the skunk living, I just didn’t want him to live in my backyard. So I spoke with my friend Dwight, who lent me the traps. And we discussed how to cover the trap with a blanket or tarp and that a skunk won’t spray you if he can’t see you…or so they say. And Dwight has a truck, which is great, because I wasn’t putting a live skunk in my car. Let’s just say that I am thankful that I have a friend like Dwight. Some friends say that they would take a bullet for you. But how many say that they will take a skunk for you?

We are in our fourth and final installment of our sermon series on Barnabas, the son of encouragement. We have reflected on those who have encouraged us along the way. We have looked at our call to minister in some capacity in our community, and we have considered the role of the Holy Spirit as we work together as a church.

Our esteemed worship leader asked me earlier this week how I was going to tie my experience with the skunk to our series on Barnabas. I didn’t need to think long before I came up with the answer: just as Paul and Barnabas did, the skunk and I have now gone our separate ways.

Our text for today comes from the same chapter as last week’s lesson. We really don’t know how much time has passed, other than what the author of Acts, Luke, tells us in verse 36, “Some time later.” Let’s look at the entire verse as it sets up our text for today, “Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’”

Paul is often said to have gone on three (some say four) separate missionary journeys in the 1st century. As he went from city to city, he preached the gospel and helped start churches. Paul was accompanied during his first trip by our friend Barnabas, and Paul is inviting Barnabas to go on a trip again. This time, they will visit some of the places that they had previously visited to see how the church and the new believers were growing and developing. So far, so good.

Verses 37-38 set up our conflict: “Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.”

At this point I’m wondering if anyone goes by their real name. Joseph, also called Barnabas, wanted to take John, also called Mark. But Paul, also called Saul, did not. Kevin, also called confused, needs a little more information.

Let’s start with Acts 12:25: “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.” Paul often travels on his missionary trips with another experienced Christian, like Barnabas or Silas, and also with a less-experienced Christian. Later, he will have Timothy with him as a bit of a disciple or mentee. We are told in Colossians 4:10 that Mark and Barnabas are cousins, so they have that extra connection there.

So Paul and Barnabas are taking off on their first missionary journey, taking Barnabas’s cousin Mark along with them. They make a few stops in cities whose name I won’t try to pronounce. They are doing good things, but there are also some scary things going on. Then in Acts 13:13, we find this brief comment that we could easily overlook: “From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem.” That’s John, also called Mark.

He just left them to go back home.

Now I want to be very careful not to read my own emotions into this one verse. I am tempted to say things like “Mark deserted them, left them to go home. When the going got tough, Mark got going.” I’m tempted to say that, but I won’t (or did I?). The reason I want to refrain from using that kind of language is because the author of Acts, Luke, does not offer any kind of judgment on Mark’s decision to go back to Jerusalem.

We don’t know why Mark went back; he may have had a really good reason. What we do know is how Paul and Barnabas reacted to Mark’s decision. Barnabas wants to bring Mark along on their second missionary journey, Paul does not. Continuing in verse 39, “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.”

Like me and the skunk, Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways. And like me and the skunk, they did it because at least one of them thought the other “stunk,” at least when it came to issues of discipleship.

This is where I really want to weigh in on the issue. I’m impressed with Barnabas, the son of encouragement. Here he is, doing what Barnabas does. He is giving Mark a second chance. Perhaps Mark made a bad decision, and maybe he left them hanging in Pamphylia, but Barnabas is willing to invite Mark along again. This seems very consistent with how Barnabas encouraged the other disciples to welcome a man named Saul among them just a few short years earlier. It also seems consistent with the teaching of Jesus to forgive others, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. I really like Barnabas’s willingness to be patient and offer forgiveness to Mark. To offer him as second chance, even after Mark has failed them.

But then again, I can see Paul’s point of view. It isn’t like they are trying to pick a place for lunch and they are trying to decide if they should go to that one pizza place again after they received bad service last time. We are talking about Paul’s safety and the safety of the other missionaries. We are talking about the potential for success or failure of their missionary journey.

So who was right, Paul or Barnabas? Should they have taken Mark with them or not? And was it a good thing that they went their own way after this sharp disagreement? Again, when you read Acts, Luke presents this split without judgement. He is neutral.

I find that it is always easier to look back on issues and pronounce judgement. These things always look clearer 10, 50, or 2,000 years later. But at the time, both Paul and Barnabas felt strongly about whether or not they should take Mark with them.

Splits happen. Marriages end in divorce. Families divide over inheritance, over politics, and over favoritism. And we know that churches split, too. Now I realize that the split between Paul and Barnabas is not 100% analogous with these splits, but I am pretty sure that a split is a split.

As members of the Protestant faith, we are children of divorce. Our denomination exists because Martin Luther posted 95 grievances against the Catholic Church on the front door of his church for all to see. And when a group of believers thought that the Reformation wasn’t going far enough, we started another reformation, out of which the Mennonites were born.

Here’s the thing, I’m glad that the Reformation took place. I also think that there is a place today for denominations, which allow us to disagree on some really big things. I won’t say that the Reformation or modern denominations are a bad thing. What is bad is when a split leads to hatred, anger, name calling, and finger pointing.

I like to joke with my Presbyterian friends about the governing documents found in the Book of Confessions. This confession, was written about 500 years ago, says this: “Anabaptists: We condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that new-born infants of the faithful are to be baptized…we condemn also the Anabaptists in the rest of the peculiar doctrines which they hold contrary to the Word of God. We therefore are not Anabaptists and have nothing in common with them.”

I kind of thought that whole idea about following Jesus might be something we had in common.

I laugh about this today with my Presbyterian friends, but guess what. This passage is still in the Book of Confessions to this day. When they amend this book they only add to it and never subtract. So the “official word” today from the Presbyterians on the Anabaptists is condemnation, they call our doctrine “peculiar,” and they say that we have nothing in common. But then again, they probably believe that God predestined it to be that way, so their off the hookJ.

That’s kind of funny, but things quickly get less so. There is a story that is well-known in our area about a church split that happened in a Mennonite church just a little more than 60 years ago. There was a pastoral transition in the church and the leadership was divided over who should be the next pastor. The winners of the argument got their pastor and the losers went and started their own church just 5.9 miles down the road. Like most church splits, this one divided friends, classmates, coworkers, and yes, even families. The story isn’t that troubling to me until you hear the ripple effects of the split. This family feud, which again split families, was so intense that the family on what I have called the losing side of the divide decided to change the spelling of their last name. They did not want to be confused or associated with the other.

I can’t speak for God, but I would guess that the split itself isn’t always the worse thing in the world. Sometimes it can even be good. Many churches have been planted because of church splits. I think that the biggest disappointment to God is when we allow the things that cause us to split from one another to keep us from loving one another, working together for a common good, or even just being able to be in the same room together.

Maybe Luke doesn’t offer much as far a judgement on the split between Paul and Barnabas, but Jesus does say in Matthew 5:23-24, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

First, go and be reconciled to them. Jesus says, “Even before you worship me, go and make it right with your brother or sister.”

Just look at what Paul wrote later in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

So did Paul change his mind or did he simply fail to practice what he preached? In the same book, chapter 9, Paul refers to Barnabas as a fellow Apostle. And toward the end of “Paul’s” life, we find him writing this in 2 Timothy 4:11, “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”

Paul sounds a little bit selfish there, asking for Mark because Mark would be helpful to him. But Paul trusts Mark again and is willing to give him a significant amount of responsibility. Reconciliation has taken place.

I think that this is where my opening story about being separated from the skunk breaks down a bit. While I hope that he can happily live out the remainder of his days where Dwight left him (in a neighbor’s backyard?), I’ll be okay if I never meet that skunk again.

Splits are inevitable, in our families, in our communities, and in our churches. And sometimes, I am sure that these splits are for the best. But can we continue to work together for the greater good of God’s kingdom, even after a split?

A little over a year ago, Mennonite counselor Harvey Yoder wrote an article about church splits. He said that in his 50 years as a part of Virginia Mennonite Conference, he has seen Rockingham/Augusta County go from three distinct Mennonite groups—which included two plain-clothes Mennonite groups—to at least a dozen.

I bet that if we went through some of these groups and looked at their beliefs and practices, we would probably be okay with the fact that some of these splits occurred. There are, after all, still Mennonites to our north that drive horse and buggies. Good for them, but I think I’ll keep my internal combustion engines, thank you very much. But the thing that always impresses me is that come the first weekend of October, people across the theological spectrum will come together for a greater cause.

If you go to the Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale you will find plain-clothed Mennonites with head coverings and beards. You will also find women with short hair wearing pants. We work together, in spite of our differences, because we believe that Jesus called us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and offer help to those in need.

Splits are perhaps inevitable, full reconciliation may never be possible. But rather than changing our names so we aren’t associated with one another, let’s remember that there are things that God calls us to do together that are bigger than our differences.

One last word on John Mark. Does anyone know what happened to that young man, the cousin of Barnabas? He went on to write one of the first books about the life of Jesus, and we still have copies of that book today. In fact, we’ve canonized it, and you can find it right between the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most scholars even believe that Matthew and Luke gathered some of their information from Mark’s book. That’s right, the Gospel of Mark was written by none other than Mark, the one who deserted Paul and Barnabas, the one who led to these two leaders of the early church parting ways.

Splits will happen, but really good things occur when reconciliation takes place. Our Bible is proof of that.

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Decisions and the Mission of the Church

Acts 15:22-35

22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Farewell.

30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. [34] 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.

My wife grew up in rural Nebraska. It isn’t often that I meet someone that grew up in a smaller community than I did. So when I met my wife I knew I needed to marry her, because that was one of my criteria for the perfect spouse. Okay, there may be a few other reasons I like her as well.

Virginia seems like a foreign land to a person born in Nebraska. Here we have not only mountains, but hills. She grew up with wide-open prairie land. We have buildings in our cities, and trees in our wilderness areas. She grew up where a 640-acre section (a one mile wide by one mile long continuous piece of property) of land was the norm. Roads in her home community are laid out on one-mile grids, labeled by letters going one way and numbers going the other.

One thing that I really don’t think about is just how little wind we have here in the Shenandoah Valley. The mountains, trees, and buildings break up the wind and we don’t feel the full force of the wind. But if you go to Nebraska, you notice the wind. Wind is one of those things that you don’t always notice when it is absent, but if you aren’t used to it, you will surely notice it when you experience it.

As you drive along the straight roads of Nebraska, you will often see large turbines out in the middle of nowhere. There are entire fields filled with the gigantic windmills. Their purpose is to simply try to make use of the wind to generate electricity. They maybe don’t look the nicest, but entire cities in Nebraska are powered by these wind turbines. Granted, those cities are really small, but they operate on the power of the wind.

In John’s gospel we find a strange story about the resurrected Jesus. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that a man who was killed three days earlier and has risen from the dead is doing something we might consider weird. But still, this is unique.

John 20:21-22 says this: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

He’s been in the grave for three days, you have to think he had some objectionable breath.

In the biblical languages, both Greek and Hebrew, the same word is translated as breath, wind, and spirit. In Hebrew that word is ruach; in Greek it is pneuma. This is where we get the words “pneumatic” and “pneumonia.” So when John says that Jesus breathed on the disciples and said “receive the Holy Spirit,” it says that Jesus pnuema-ed on them and said for them to receive the Holy pnuema.

In Acts 2 we find the story of the Holy Spirit descending upon the church. We are told that the believers were all gathered together in one place. Then in verse 2 we read, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

Wind, breath, and spirit. Obviously, not all wind is the Holy Spirit, but the Bible uses the wind as a metaphor to describe the Holy Spirit. You can’t see the wind, but you can see the effects of the wind. The wind is powerful, powerful enough to knock you down, powerful enough to provide energy for an entire city. But you can’t catch the wind. All you can do is learn to work with it.

In Acts 15 we find our friend Barnabas again, and as we often find him in the first 15 chapters of Acts, he is with Paul. This time they are trying to figure out what to do with Gentiles who are coming into the church. Ultimately, the question comes down to, Do they have to become Jews first? Specifically, do they need to be circumcised? Paul and Barnabas say no, others say yes. It may seem rather unimportant to us today, but remember that circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites in the Old Testament.

At this point in their careers, Paul and Barnabas are working as missionaries, going from city to city, preaching and teaching. They know that this is not a decision that they can or should make on their own. So a group of leaders gathers in Jerusalem for what we often call the “Jerusalem Council.” Paul and Barnabas bring their case for the full inclusion of Gentiles to other leaders of the church. Among these leaders we are told are some of the original apostles; James and Peter are named. There are also some who are simply called “the elders.” Still others are called “prophets.”

The Greek word translated as elders here is presbuteros, which is also often translated as bishop or presbyter. This is simply a reference to a more experienced person in the faith.

When there was a difficult decision to be made, Paul and Barnabas didn’t simply make that decision on their own. They asked other leaders for their input. They included the elders, the disciples, the prophets, and other representatives from the church. You might call this the leadership team for the early church.

There has been much made lately about the five-fold ministry of the church. This ministry is often based on Paul’s teachings in Ephesians 4:11 that “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers [to the church].” These are all important roles in the church, and I wouldn’t want to lead a church without these people present.

I would also say that this is not a complete list of church leaders. The elder/presbyter from Acts 15 isn’t listed, and neither is the deacon, that we find in Acts 11 and other places as well.

However, I have a concern about those churches that say that they follow the five, six, or seven-fold model of ministry. My concern is that we really don’t know what these people did. We don’t have a job description for most of these roles, and who really knows what an elder or deacon is supposed to do, anyway?

The word “deacon” literally means a servant. Aren’t we all supposed to be servants? When I think of the ministries of the church, I like to think of a Venn Diagram. Venn Diagrams show how multiple things are both unique and yet also overlap with one another. So there is a role in the New Testament Church called deacon, but all other leaders are also called to serve one another.

There is a really good example of this in Acts 6. We find a story here about a certain group of widows who are not being cared for properly. So the 12 disciples decide to name a group of seven men to look after the widows. The text doesn’t call them deacons, but it would be appropriate to call them servants. The first of these servants is a man named Stephen.

The very next story in Acts 6 also includes Stephen, and this is the story that many of us probably know Stephen from. At the end of this chapter and into chapter 7 we find the story of Stephen being stoned, making him the first Christian martyr.

Why was Stephen killed? Was he killed for helping widows? How dare he?! He was killed for preaching, not for serving. But Stephen wasn’t a preacher teacher, or evangelist. He was a deacon! It is clear that these roles in the church overlap. Those who are deacons still preach and those who are elders still help the widows and the poor. These positions aren’t always locked in and separate from one another. The position is about a person’s primary role or calling, not their exclusive responsibility.

I’ll admit that I think that the five-fold ministry is a little too rigid for my taste. Maybe it is because I push back a little against the established way of doing things. Yes, a way of doing ministry may have been successful in one setting, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to do ministry in exactly the same way.

What I think we can learn from the passages like the five-fold ministry from Ephesians 4 is exactly what we learned last session. When Barnabas was called to be the pastor at First Church of Antioch, he invited Paul to join him because Barnabas knew that they each brought different gifts in their leadership roles.

So while I don’t think that we need to have written job descriptions for every leader in the congregation, I do think that it is important to have a good understanding of one’s role. And rather than saying that every church needs to have a pastor, an elder, a deacon, and a prophet, I think it is better for a church to start by asking, “What is our mission?” and “What needs to be done to achieve that mission?”

If you are ministering to people dealing with poverty, one of the leadership roles in your church might be to work with people on budgeting and purchasing groceries on a limited income. If you minister to a lot with single mothers, perhaps parenting classes would be the best way to fulfill your mission. You may not need an official deacon on your leadership team. Maybe what you need is a “nanny in residence.”

The division of the work in the church is important for maintaining our sanity, especially for those who are bi-vocational or volunteers in the church. But this doesn’t always mean that sharing the leadership roles is easier.

It would have been easier for Paul and Barnabas to just make the decision on their own to include Gentiles in the church without requiring circumcision. I’m sure that they made many decisions without consulting the other leaders first. But this one required the input of the entire church leadership.

It isn’t efficient to bring every question to the leadership group, so every leader needs to have the authority to make some decisions. But when a decision affects the entire congregation, it needs to be a group decision.

I like to use the metaphor of the church as an old ship, driven by oars. In my mind it is a Viking ship, but weird things happen in my mind. On a ship, everyone wants to steer. Everyone wants to be the captain. Everyone wants to stand behind the big, wooden wheel and give it a spin. That sounds like fun.

Not everyone wants to row. Rowing is work. Rowing is boring. All you see when you are rowing is the back of the person in front of you. Nobody wants to row, but someone has to do it.

When I apply this to decision making in the church, I like to say that if you want to steer the boat, you have to also row. If you want to make the decisions that will effect where the church is going, you need to invest some physical labor, some sweat equity, in the church.

But we would be making a mistake if we thought of a big Viking ship being driven by nothing but those who are rowing. Remember, these ships have sails as well. And the sails make sure to utilize the power of the wind.

So Paul and Barnabas gather together with the elders, the deacons, the apostles, the pastors, the teachers, and with other leaders from the church. These are the people that have been working for and with the church since its very beginning. They talk about the issue at hand, and they come to an agreement. I cannot emphasize this process enough. Look at verse 28, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

When major decisions are made, we cannot make them as individuals. We consult the group. And most importantly, we put up our sails and consult the Holy Spirit.

It all comes back to the Holy Spirit. Remember that the words we translate as spirit can also be translated as wind and breath. When God formed the first human being out of dirt, God breathed his holy breath, his Holy Spirit into that lifeless lump of clay. When the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, he breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” When the disciples were gathered on the day of Pentecost, they heard a sound like the wind coming through the city, and that holy wind, the Holy Spirit, descended upon them, equipping them to be leaders, to be ministers, deacons, and elders, to be financial advisors and nannies-in-residence, to lead the church that was in its infancy.

I believe that it is our job to join the Holy Spirit of God to lead the people of this world into a relationship with God and to make this world more like what God intended for it to be.

So what is our “mission” here at Staunton Mennonite Church? We actually have a mission statement, but those are generally so broad that they aren’t of much use (IMHO). A number of years we invested some time, energy, and money into the Valley Mission. I think that was an excellent endeavor on our part. And maybe we want to keep investing in the Mission.

But we also have opportunities before us to minister to our own children. I hope to meet with the families of the church in the near future to hear what you would like to see the church do as far as youth ministry. We have opportunities ahead of us, and I’m not going to make those decisions on my own!

When Paul and Barnabas were faced with a major decision, they gathered a number of leaders together to discern the future of the church. They gathered all those who were willing to row and asked where they would like to steer. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can steer this church, guiding the congregation into the future God would like us to have.

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In This Together

Acts 11:19-26 New International Version (NIV)

19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Our text for this morning begins with persecution. Stephen was martyred for being a follower of Jesus, and if you recall, a man named Saul helped orchestrate Stephen’s killing. So for their own safety, these followers of Jesus spread throughout the land, traveling as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.

I’ll be straight forward with you here because you may not know where I stand on the subject: I’m against persecution. I’m against killing people because they follow Jesus. But some good comes out of this. As I often say, God doesn’t cause bad things to happen, but that doesn’t mean that God can’t work through a bad situation. Like Joseph says in Genesis 50 after his brothers sold him into slavery, what was intended for evil God has used for good.

The good thing that God did as a result of the persecution of the followers of Jesus was to spread the gospel and plant churches. One place that was receptive to the news of Jesus as the messiah was Antioch. So the church in Jerusalem commissioned a friend of ours to offer leadership in Antioch. The first pastor of the church in Antioch was Barnabas. In verse 23 we read: “When [Barnabas] arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.”

Barnabas picks right up where he left off in chapter 9, encouraging people! In chapter 9 he was encouraging the disciples to allow a former enemy of the faith to become a part of their fellowship. Now he is encouraging the church to continue to follow Jesus.

Luke then continues to give some commentary on Barnabas in verse 27: “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” Barnabas is a good guy, a good Christian, and his ministry was highly effective because more people were coming to their church every week.

But notice what Barnabas wasn’t. He wasn’t the full package. He didn’t have all of the skills needed to make the church in Antioch work. Yes, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t mean that he had every gift that he might need for the ministry that he had been called to. So what does Barnabas do? He goes and recruits an old friend to help in the ministry at Antioch. And that old friend is Saul.

Barnabas and Saul lead the church in Antioch for a year as co-leaders, as co-pastors. I’m sure that their jobs overlapped quite a bit, but based on what we read about these two, I’m going to guess that Barnabas was the one who offered the pastoral care and Saul did a lot of the preaching and teaching. Barnabas is the gentle, caring, encouraging one. Saul is the public speaker with the sharp wit and quick tongue.

What I find amazing about this story is how obvious it should be to us all that we can’t do everything. I don’t think that Barnabas invites Saul to help him with the ministry at Antioch because the church is too big for Barnabas to do everything. We are probably looking at a house church of 20-30 people. Barnabas recognizes that he has some gifts, but lacks others. Barnabas knows that he is really good at caring for the people; his ministry of encouragement is firmly established. But he needs someone else to bring balance to the ministry at Antioch. Saul happens to be gifted in the areas that Barnabas is lacking, so they work together, and they work together well. It says in verse 26 that they taught a “great number of people.” And we shouldn’t overlook that little line at the end where it says that it was in Antioch that followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.”

Up until this point, the followers of Jesus were called disciples, the church, or even the way. Christian was a title given to them by people outside of the church; a title which means “little Christ.” The church in Antioch was following the way of Jesus so well that those outside the church called them a bunch of little Christs.

I’ve been called a lot worse.

So we have Paul and Barnabas running this church in Antioch. They are a ministerial team. Now here is a tough question. How many people on the staff at First Church of Antioch were full-time, paid, professional ministers? Zero.

How many people here today are full-time, paid, professional ministers? The same number of people here are full-time, paid, professional ministers as there were at First Church of Antioch. And I think that has its advantages.

I’m not full-time, and I’m not even sure that I want to be. You know, because I’m lazy and don’t want to do that much. My other occupation is that of a father. It pays well in hugs and kisses! Yes, it would be nice to have more money coming in. But being bi-vocational allows a number of ministry opportunities that full-time ministry wouldn’t.

Here is a fun experiment to try sometime. If you go to the park and just walk around by yourself, you may make eye contact with one or two people. Someone may even say hello…if they already know you. We tent to keep to ourselves, and that is just a part of the culture in which we live. But if you were walking a dog or pushing a stroller, people who would never have made eye contact with you when you were walking by yourself will now come and start talking to you (or your pet/kid).

Being the primary care giver for our children has allowed me to have conversations with people at the library, in stores, and on the playground, especially with other parents. There is a natural connection, perhaps a shared understanding of each other’s problems. Oh, I only got four hours of sleep last night./Oh yeah?/Yeah, Ephraim was up all night with a cough./I’ve been there. I feel ya, man!

There is a ministry of caring that happens naturally and organically.

I met a woman at the YMCA a few years ago because her son had a “crush” on my daughter. She just came up to me and told me that our kids are so cute together and how Hadley had done the sweetest thing for her son. And I said, “That’s super. Who is your son? Who are you?”

We would casually talk over the next few months and I found out that she was going through a divorce and she was worried about her two-year-old son. She was worried that her ex-husband was moving back to Atlanta.

I eventually realized that I was counseling her through life as a divorced mom. Between sets right next to the dumbbell rack I was ministering to her, every Tuesday and Thursday. And it happened naturally, organically. I didn’t even realize it until one day she said that she was glad that I was her pastor.

I was her pastor? She had never set foot inside my church. She had never heard me preach or even pray. And she never put a dime in the offering plate. But yes, I was her pastor. And the reason she felt comfortable enough to let me walk with her through the most difficult time of her life was because we were both caring for our small children. We had that connection outside of the church.

I know that nobody in our congregation is a professional pastor, but I do believe that we are all called to care for one another and to pastor one another in some sense of the word. And you surely interact with people at work, in the market, or just on the street every day. Contractors are interacting with the flooring and electrical workers. Teachers are interacting with other teachers and students. I believe that as followers of Jesus we actually need to care for these people, to love them. Listen to their stories. And like my friend from the Y, you don’t just listen to them because you are trying to get them to come to church. You listen to them because you are being the church. You are bringing church and you are bringing Jesus to them. You are loving them just because they are beautiful people, created in God’s own image.

We don’t know what Barnabas did for money, but Saul/Paul made his living as a leather worker, or as we often assume, as a tentmaker. He worked with his hands and provided something for the broader community. Paul was probably a little more intentional in engaging people about their religious beliefs than I am, but I bet there were times when the conversation just happened naturally. He developed relationships with the leather tanner and the iron smith that made his leather-working tools. And through those relationships, I’m sure Paul made an impact in his community.

Being bi-vocational means that I’m not spending my entire day sitting in the office, typing on the keyboard of a laptop or reading another theology book. It means, like Paul and Barnabas, we are out in the community, working a real job like regular people. Sure, being bi-vocational has its problems, but it has its advantages as well.

I feel more and more like we as a church need to be ministering to the community. I sure hope that you don’t see ministry simply as something that I do as your pastor, but as something that we do as the church. And as churches across the country continue to decrease in size and power, it is going to become necessary for lay people to take care of certain ministry roles.

Let’s keep working with this idea of helping people outside of our church. Imagine you have some kind of skill, hopefully this isn’t too hard to imagine! Maybe you have some plumbing skills or a green thumb. What does it look like to use those skills to help a neighbor when their pipes are leaking or their flowers are dying? Even more so, what does it look like when you help your neighbor with their leaking pipes or their wilting flowers and don’t ask anything in return? It looks countercultural!

We live in a time when modern technology has made our lives more convenient than ever before. We can microwave a turkey while searching on our phones to find out Zachary Tyler’s wife’s name. But even though we have convenience available to us that our parents couldn’t have conceived of a generation or two ago, we are also much more busy. Isn’t that strange? The more conveniences we have the busier we become.

So when you use your gifts and skills, your helping hands or your listening ears, to help a neighbor in need, you are standing out from the rest of the world that doesn’t have time for anyone else.

Barnabas asked Saul to join him in ministry as bi-vocational pastors because Barnabas knew his weaknesses, and because Barnabas knew that they could do more together than they could alone.

You have probably heard the phrase “United we stand, divided we fall.” This phrase is often credited as one of Aesop’s fables. Aesop tells the story of a hungry lion in the savannah. This lion would like nothing more than to kill and eat one of the four oxen that he sees ever day down by the watering hole. But these oxen are smart. While one ox drinks from the water, the other three stand, rump to rump, watching for the lion, and butting him away with their horns if he gets too close.

These oxen have a falling out one day. Probably over a lady oxen, I can’t say for sure. So they decide to go their own way and go to the watering hole by their selves. One by one, the lion is able to sneak up and take down the mighty oxen. United they stand, but divided they fall.

This week we were left a nice gift at the front door of our church. Sometime between 3:30 pm Thursday and 7:30 am Friday, someone put a door hanger on the front door of the church. The hanger said, “Searching for a Dynamic Church for You and Your Family?” It then gave the contact information for a local church, some core values of the church, and the meeting times for the church. On the ground below the flyer were two religious tracts explaining how to get to heaven.

Explaining to me how to get to heaven?

Explaining to Mennonites how to get to heaven?

Inviting our church families to a dynamic church?

I didn’t know any other way to take this than to be offended. I called the pastor of this church and asked him about this practice, and he apologized over and over again. He assured me that he did not intend for anyone from their church to post those items at our church and that we were not singled out. They were trying to canvass the area and he offered a few suggestions for how these tracts and the door hanger ended up on our front door.

I don’t know why or how or by whom these were placed on our front door. But I ended my phone conversation with the pastor by saying, “I’m pretty sure that we are in this together.” In saying that, I was saying that even though we may disagree on a number of things, I don’t see our ministries as competing. We are working for the same larger goal, even if our steps along the way are different.

Saul and Barnabas were very different people, yet Barnabas knew that he could count on Saul to do the good things he had been called to do and use the gifts that he had been given. And in a few weeks we will see that they even went their own separate ways on different mission journeys. But even in their differences, they always knew that they were working together, as a part of the global church, to do the good things that God had called them to do.

As Saul will later say, after he changes his name to Paul, we are all a part of one body. Some of us are hands. Others are feet. And the body works best when all parts function together, no matter how different we may look.

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Remember Where You Came From

Acts 4:36-37

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Acts 9:26-31

26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

Every year I make a valiant effort, at least in the spring, to grow some vegetables. We have several raised bed gardens in our back yard, because as anyone from Staunton can tell you, the soil here isn’t really that great for growing vegetables. Our soil is made of a lot of clay and rocks. If you can get your spade into the dirt, there is no guarantee that you will be able to grow anything in it.

So we have 4×20, 4×12, and 32”x64” raised bed gardens in our yard. Every spring I turn that soil over with my shovel, break up the clods of dirt, rake out the old debris, and make sure the soil is nice and smooth. One of the steps in the process is to amend the soil. By amending the soil I mean that I add nutrients to the dirt. I often put compost from our bin on top of the raised beds and work it into the soil. Last year’s food scraps actually become the nutrients that help to grow this year’s vegetables.

One of the words that we use to describe this rich, black, compost is “humus.” This should not be confused with “hummus,” which is a vegetable dip made from blended chickpeas. We use the word humus today to describe the final stages of compost, but interestingly, humus is an old Latin word that just means dirt.

Have you ever noticed that the word for humus and human are very similar? I’ve known some dirty people in my days; I grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio, and if you weren’t dirty, you weren’t working. But the connection between human beings and dirt is much deeper than the fact that we can get pretty dirty sometimes. If you performed a chemical analysis of the human body, you would find that our 99% bodies are made up of just six elements: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium, hydrogen, and phosphorus. It probably won’t surprise you to find out that those same elements can be found in the soil.

In the book of Genesis, we are given the story of how God created everything that exists. The stars, the waters, and the earth upon which we live. And in Genesis 2:7, we read this: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

According to this passage, human beings originated in the soil, in the dirt. God made Adam out of the dust of the ground. Or, if you read this in the Latin, God formed “hominis” from the “humus.”

If someone ever tells you that you aren’t anything but dirt, you can say, “Yep, that’s how God made me.”

Of course, what separates us from the common dirt of the ground is that God breathed his very breath into the nostrils of humanity, but we will come back to that. For now, remember that from dust you were made and to dust you will return.

How many of you have ever heard the phrase, “Remember where you came from.”? Often it is parents who say this to their children as the children are heading off to start a new career or something of that nature. “Remember where you came from” is a way to remind a person of a number of things. First, it is a way to keep a person from getting a big head. I am reminded every time I go home that I am a farm boy from Ohio. I grew up baling hay in the summers, feeding the cows year round, and—please forgive my vulgarity—shoveling manure on a regular basis.

The second thing that a person means when they tell someone to “remember where you came from” is to help that person recall that they didn’t get where they are all on their own. I didn’t go to some fancy private college when I finished high school. I worked on the farm while I attended community college and then transferred to a large, state university. And when I decided to go to seminary, I didn’t get scholarship money. But I did receive support from my church and other churches in my community.

I don’t have a lofty title, a big paycheck, a fast car, or a mansion on the hill, but I’m doing well. And I know that I didn’t get here on my own.

When someone says, “Remember where you came from,” they are trying to instill another “h” word in your life. They are trying to keep you humble. Humus, human, and humble all have the same root in Latin. To be humble is to remember that you are human. To be human is to remember that you came from dirt. And you came from dirt because God breathed his holy breath into you and me. Remember where you came from.

In the book of Joshua we find the story of the Israelites entering the Promised Land. If you recall, the Israelites had been freed from Egypt, but were forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years because of their idolatry. In the 4th chapter of Joshua we learn that the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, but one thing stands in their way: a river. To get to the Promised Land, they would have to cross the Jordan. No problem, God likes to dry up large bodies of water to allow these chosen people to cross. And God does just that.

But as they are crossing, Joshua, who has taken over as the leader of the Israelites after Moses died, receives instructions from God to do something strange. God tells Joshua to have one member of each of the 12 tribes of Israel collect a stone from the middle of the now-dried-up river and carry it with them to the other side. When they arrive on the other side, they are to take these stones and stack them on top of one another.

I’ve tried to stack 12 stones on one another before, and it didn’t work too well for me. I can usually get two or three stacked, and then they fall over. The stones from the middle of the river were probably large, flat stones, made smooth after years of gushing water helped to erode them. So these weren’t your average stones, they were pretty unique.

Imagine you are walking along the side of the river, and you see twelve stones stacked upon one another. You will probably take notice of this. And if they are smooth, flat stones, you would be able to assume that they came from the river. So how did twelve stones from the middle of the river get to dry land and stacked upon one another? You know it didn’t happen by accident. You know that these stones didn’t get there on their own.

When Joshua is given the instructions from God to stack these stones on one another, God knows that the next generation is going to see these stones, displaced from the river and assembled in a strange way. And these children will ask questions. I have young children, and when they see something that is strange to them, they ask questions. Sometimes it is pretty embarrassing to me because they ask these questions loud enough for others to hear! God tells Joshua that when the next generation asks “What do these stones mean?”, the adults are supposed to tell them what God has done. Tell them that God dried up the river so that we could cross, just like God dried up the Red Sea so we could escape Pharaoh. Tell them that God called their ancestor, Abraham, and promised that he would be the father of a great nation. Tell them that God made the entire world, the heavens and the earth, every plant and animal, and formed human beings out of humus.

In other words, these stones are there to help the next generation to “Remember where you came from.”

I’ve been speaking a lot so far this morning about humility, because humility is so important for a leader. But I also think that sometimes humility can keep us from doing the things that God has called us to do. See, when we learn at a young age that humility is important, we also learn, perhaps inadvertently, that this means that we can’t stand out from the group. Even worse would be to say out loud that you thought you were better than someone else at something!

When I think of the leadership roles in a church, one of the responsibilities that comes to mind is the song leader. In our hearing congregations a song leader needs to be able to, well, sing. If you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, you probably shouldn’t be the one to stand up on a Sunday morning and lead others in song.

The church that I am a part of struggled for a number of years to find song leaders. What we ended up with was one person who led singing every week because nobody would stand up and say, “I will help.” Why wouldn’t others help? Because to volunteer to lead music doesn’t seem very humble. It is saying “I’m pretty good, at least as good as this guy!”

But if you have been given a gift, if you are musically talented, God didn’t give you that gift to keep to yourself. That gift was meant to be shared.

Jesus tells a story about three men who were given a certain amount of money to keep an eye on as their master was out of town. All three men received different amounts of money. When the master returns, he checks with these men to see what they have done with what the master has entrusted them. Two of the servants are able to double the master’s money, while the third one simply buries the money to keep it safe. The master praises the first two men, putting them in charge of even more. But the one who simply buries his money is called “evil” and “wicked.”

If you know the story that I am describing, can you tell me the unit of money that is used to describe the amount that the master puts each servant in charge of? The word is “τάλαντον” or “talenton” in the Greek, which is often translated as “talent” in English. And guess what English word we get from the word talent.

This is the tension in which we find ourselves as leaders. On one hand we are called to be humble, to remember where we came from and how we got where we are today. But on the other hand, we have been given gifts by God. And I’m going to use strong language here and say that it is a sin not to use the gifts that we have been given in the church.

This, then, is my struggle. How do we in the church use our gifts yet stay humble? I think that one of the most important lessons that we can find comes from a man named Joseph.

We first learn about Joseph in Acts 4, where we read: “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”

Joseph is better known by the name Barnabas, son of encouragement.

We don’t hear anything else about Barnabas for a few chapters. If we jump ahead to chapter nine in the book of Acts, we find the story of a man named Saul. The first sentence of Acts 9 is, “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.”

Saul is trying to round up and arrest people who are claiming that Jesus is the messiah. Saul is gaining a reputation for persecuting the early church, and the church is afraid of this man because he is not only overseeing the arrest of the members of the church, he is overseeing some of their executions.

Saul has his conversion experience in this same chapter after meeting the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. He is taken in by those in the church, but they are still a little scared of him. Let’s look at verses 26-27: “When [Saul] came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.”

We start chapter nine with Saul threatening the church. By verse 27 we find Barnabas trying to convince the other disciples that the man who had breathed murderous threats against them was now on their side.

We know Saul because he would later change his name to Paul and become one of the greatest church planters, evangelists, and writers of our New Testament. Yet I wonder if we would even know who Paul was if it wasn’t for Barnabas.

Where would any of us be without our Barnabases, without our sons and daughters of encouragement?

We find ourselves within this tension. We are humble humans beings, made from the dirt of the earth. But we are gifted by God to do good things for the kingdom. We need Barnabas-like people to help point out our gifts to us, and we need to be Barnabas-like people to help others see their gifts.

I never planned to be a pastor. I went to college to study biology and move toward a career in animal health. But one Sunday as I was helping a woman named Melanie wipe down tables after a fundraiser for our church softball team, Melanie told me, “Kevin, I know that you are planning to be a veterinarian, or something like that. But when you spoke at church a few months ago, I thought that you would make a good pastor.”

That was 15 years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Melanie was one of my Barnabases.

I bet that many of you have stories like mine. Someone else saw that you had some kind of gift, and they encouraged you to use it. They encouraged you to pursue a job, an educational track, or a volunteer role because they saw in you a gift, a talent, from God. You may have known already that you had this gift, and humbly chosen not to pursue it. Or maybe you didn’t even know you were good at something. But when others pointed out your particular gift, it gave you the encouragement to move in that direction.

I come back to that imagery of the twelves flat stones, stacked alongside the banks of the Jordan River. Those flat stones, worn smooth by the flowing water look strange to most passers-by. Stones don’t naturally stack up like that on their own. And large, flat stones from inside the river don’t find their way to the bank of the river without assistance. No, those stones needed help. They didn’t get there on their own.

And neither did we.

Remember where you came from. Stay humble, and recall those Barnabas-like people who have helped to get you where you are today.

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For what do you pray?

Luke 11:1-13

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: “‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”

5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel, went back to school one August, and of course they came home complaining about the work load. Adam, being the sensible father that he was, reminded his sons that he had survived school when he was a boy and surely they would, too.

“But Dad,” said one of the boys. “School was so much easier when you were growing up. You didn’t even have all of the subjects we are studying today.”

“Really?” replied Adam. “What subject could you possibly be studying that we didn’t?”

The boy replied, “History.”

It’s that time of year again, my friends. Back to school means a lot of things to a lot of people. It means shopping for backpacks, sneakers, school supplies, and that one box of Kleenex every student is required to bring in. It means you need to watch out on the roads for those school buses that seem to stop at every other corner. It means that children are grumpy, and parents are elated.

Most importantly, back to school means a changing of the seasons. Oh, sure, I enjoy the change from summer to fall. But that’s not what I’m speaking of. I’m talking about the change from baseball to football season. Back to school means back to football.

Based entirely on my own personal observations—which I admit may be wrong—football players seem to be the most religious athletes. It isn’t unusual to see a player take a knee in the end zone or point up to the sky when they score a touchdown. One player did this so frequently that we soon called offering a solitary prayer on the field after athletic success “Tebow-ing.” Even more so, before every game, it is common to see the entire team stop, take off their helmets, and pray together. It seems like every team, form high school through the professionals, take a moment before the game to pray to God for victory.

Seems just a little silly to me.

I’m not saying that football players should not pray. But if both teams are praying for a victory, which one is going to win? Is it the team with the most Christians on it? The team with the most pious coach? It is okay to pray for a victory, but remember that someone has to lose. I think it would be better to pray for safety for both teams, for good sportsmanship, and that the players could grow together as a team.

We have been working for three weeks on Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, looking at “To Whom Do We Pray,” “How Do We Pray,” leaving us today to ask the question, “For What Do We Pray?” You can pray for whatever you want. You are absolutely welcome to pray for a victory in a football game, or if you want to pull a Janice Joplin and pray for a Mercedes Benz, that’s fine. There’s a good chance you won’t get it, but you are hurting anyone in asking.

Let’s start today by looking at the first line of this prayer. Jesus starts off by telling his disciples that when they pray, they are to say, “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread.”

If you are familiar with Matthew’s version, you know that it flows a little more smoothly. But in Luke’s choppy version I notice something that I hadn’t notice before. Look at how quickly Jesus goes from “your kingdom come” to “give us each day our daily bread.” Jesus teaches them to pray for something really big, God’s kingdom to come to earth as it is in heaven! This is a prayer for God to set this world right. This is a prayer for an end to poverty, hatred, sickness, and destruction. This is a prayer for the end of terrorism, mass shootings, and war.

I’m just going to come right out and say it, that’s no small task! God, make this fallen world right again.

The very next thing that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for is bread. This contrasts all the more with the previous request in our world because most of us aren’t worried about where our next meal will be coming from. Either Wendy’s, Burger King, Food Lion, or Martins for us, I’m sure. So for those of us who really don’t need to worry about where our food comes from, this seems really insignificant. Especially when compared to ending world poverty, violence, and sickness!

I think that is the point. God cares about the really big things. But God also cares about the little things.

I had a friend, whom I loved and appreciated dearly, that used to pray for something that I thought was absolutely silly. When we would be going somewhere, he would somewhat jokingly talk about his “parking angel.” God would give him a good parking spot, amen, hallelujah!

But here is where it started getting weird. He would pray for a good parking spot when we would go to the hospital to visit a sick member of the church. This didn’t sit right with me. Shouldn’t he save his prayers for the big stuff? We are going to see someone that just had an emergency appendectomy, and you are wasting God’s time with a prayer for a good parking spot? I’ll walk the extra 100 steps on my own if God will heal the person in the hospital!

Is it wrong to pray for a good parking spot? I don’t think so. God cares about the big things and the small things. I just hope that if you are the kind of person who prays for parking spots that you also pray for the big things! Don’t allow a prayer for a parking spot to take the place of a prayer for someone who is sick or starving. Jesus prayed first for the kingdom, and then for his daily bread.

But all of that is pretty basic, and I promised you that we were going to get a little nerdy today. So without further ado, let’s get down and nerdy.

How one understands prayer often depends on their view of God’s sovereignty or providence. Providence isn’t just the capital of Rhode Island. Sovereignty and providence are fancy words that we often use interchangeably to describe how much control God has over all of creation. As if sovereignty and providence are enough, we often add a few more big words to the equation as well by talking about the omnipotence and omniscience of God. Omni is simply a prefix that means “all.” So to say that God is omnipotent is to say that God is all potent, or all powerful. To say that God is omniscience is to say that God is all knowing. So when we talk about God’s sovereignty or providence, we are discussing how God’s all-powerful and all-knowing attributes are employed in the world.

Some Christians have a view of God’s sovereignty that says that nothing happens unless God wills it to happen. You live in Staunton, Virginia because God willed you to live here. You got a good grade on your report because God willed you to get a good grade on that report. There are surprisingly a lot of people who believe this in one way or another, often at different levels or to different degrees.

We especially see this in times of trauma. When someone passes away, well-meaning people will often say things like, “I guess God needed another angel,” or “I guess it was just his/her time.” Some will even go all out and say, “God’s ways are not like our ways; His thoughts are not like our thoughts.”

So you can see how at various levels people believe that God causes all things to happen. I don’t. The low hanging fruit in this argument is to talk about slavery, the murder of a child, or the Holocaust. If God causes all things to happen then God caused the Holocaust.

I know that you can make an argument from the Bible for God causing all things that happen to happen, but this is not the only way to understand those passages of scripture. Praise God! Because I don’t know how to worship a God that causes the death of innocent men, women, and children.

That’s the easy argument to make, but I promised you nerdy, and we are just getting started. And we are talking about prayer this morning, so let’s try to get a better understanding of God’s sovereignty based on prayer.

My question is if God has already figured everything out and nothing happens unless God causes it to happen, why even pray? Yes, you could pray to thank God, but what about intercessory prayer? Why would you pray that God heal someone or that God give us this day our daily bread if God had already decided what to do and things only happen when God wills them to happen? And think about the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Matthew’s Gospel when he said to pray, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

If nothing happened without God first willing it to happen, isn’t praying for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven an unnecessary prayer?

This is why those who have a hyper-sovereignty view of God will say that they pray so that God will change them. There are aspects of this approach to prayer that I like, but there are aspects that I don’t like. We will come back to that in a minute.

Let me first return to those big “omni” words that I gave to you a few minutes, especially the word “omnipotent.” Is God omnipotent; is God all-powerful? I want to say both yes and no. Yes, God who created the heavens and the earth is all powerful. God can move mountains; he put them there to start with! But we also say things like God is love.

And therein lies a problem that should bother every Christian: if God is loving and God is all powerful, why do bad things happen? And if God wants us to pray for things and people, why do these prayers often not get answered in the ways that we want them to be answered?

This is where my “no” comes into play in the question of God’s omnipotence. I believe that God is not all powerful because God has given some of his power away in the gift of freewill. It isn’t as if God can’t take that power back, but because of God’s commitment to allow us to choose to follow him or not, God does not use the power that he has to force us to do anything.

Much of my understanding about prayer, and theology in general, is based upon my understanding of free will. In the very beginning God created us as human beings with the ability to choose one way or the other. Eat the fruit or don’t. We often have made the wrong decision, that is true. But for a loving God to be loved in return God had to create us with free will. Because we have been given free will God will not force us to acting one way or another. I for one am thankful for that. But the problem I see is that God also created others with free will. Life would be so much easier for me if everyone else didn’t have free will.

So what does this have to do with prayer? One of the challenges that we run into then is that our prayers may actually be asking God to inhibit the free will of others. Take for instance a teenage boy praying that a girl falls in love with him. That girl may have no interest in the boy whatsoever. For God to answer the prayer of the boy by making the girl like him would be a violation of her free will.

Let’s take it to another level. What if you have a family member that is participating in a destructive activity. Let’s say for the sake of argument that they are abusing prescription drugs. You can pray for that family member to stop abusing drugs, and I think that it is absolutely fine to pray for them to stop using drugs. You should pray that they stop using drugs. But they still have the free will to continue their abuse. Your prayers do not override the gift of free will that God has given to every person to ever live.

It is my observation that most of the time, God moves in small increments. Steps that are often smaller than we would like them to be. I believe that God does answer our prayers, but often that answer comes a lot slower than we would like, in part because God has decided that He will not violate our fee will.

So how do we pray? The first thing that I would suggest is that we invite God into our lives. It isn’t a violation of free will if you ask God to do something. Again, in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is inviting God to change you and your world to make it more like God had envisioned it to be. This is about aligning your will to God’s will. This is about prayer changing you and the world around you through your partnership with God.

Because God has given us free will, we are now giving some of that power back to God through our prayers and through an invitation to God to lead our lives.

And we pray for others by asking God to influence their decisions so that their lives are more in line with God’s will. Not that God will force them, but we pray that God will draw them to himself, so that they can use their gift of free will to follow Jesus.

In 1980, the rock band Rush released the song “Freewill.” This song was a critique of those who understood the world as a system of predetermined occurrences. There is also a line that critiques anyone that doesn’t have an opinion of free will or determinism: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

Life is a series of choices that we have to make. It is my prayer that God will help me make the right choices in my life. May that be your prayer as well.

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