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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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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