Choose for Yourself

Ephesians 1:3-14 New International Version (NIV)

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

I recall preaching on this very text twelve years ago when I was just beginning at Staunton Mennonite Church. It was my second week on the job. I remember it so vividly because someone said to me, “Really, you’re going to try to tackle predestination in your second sermon at this church?”

I said, “Yes, I am.” I then proceeded to give what I assume was a really bad argument for the concept of freewill.

My conclusion has not changed over the years, but I hope that my argument has improved.

Allow me to share with you something that I have found helpful as I have struggled through this and other challenging teachings in the church. It is really easy to tear down someone else’s perspective when you misrepresent it. But when you actually have a discussion with someone who holds a perspective, it becomes a lot more difficult to dismiss their point of view.

One of the biggest eye-opening experiences of my life was studying at a Presbyterian seminary. There is so much that we Mennonites have in common with the Presbyterians that I had no problem talking about social and political issues. But Presbyterians are Calvinists, so we disagree on the freewill vs. predestination debate. However, in my discussions with my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, I found that there are many ways to approach the debate that didn’t fit into my simple categories.

I say all of that to recognize that when we compare theological beliefs and traditions, we often put our best expressions of faith up against another group’s worst. So I want to give this idea of predestination, or divine election, as it is often called, a fair consideration. And I will try to note throughout my message when I am deviating from a critique of mainstream thought on predestination and considering an extreme version.

The first thing I want to do is to define the term that we are using. Predestination is defined by as: “the divine foreordaining of all that will happen, especially with regard to the salvation of some and not others. It has been particularly associated with the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo and of Calvin.”

In that definition I find two different concepts. The first is what I often think about when I hear the word “predestination.” That has to do with salvation. God has decided, perhaps even before the beginning of time, who will be saved from their sins and spend eternity with him, and who will not. This sometimes called “monergism,” from mono, which means one, and erg, which means work. It is God alone who is involved in selecting who is and is not saved. Contrast this to synergism, which means to work together. Synergism requires something from the person.

So predestination can refer to God’s predetermining who is and is not saved. The other aspect of predestination that is present in that definition is that God foreordains all that has happened, is happening, and will happening. God has predestined the unfolding of history in a specific way, like an author who writes a book.

Like most controversial topics, there are multiple understandings of how God relates to historical and future events. Most Christians would say something along the lines of God created the world, God regularly intervenes, and that God has an end plan. But God doesn’t micromanage every detail. I like to think that God has a big plan that we can choose to participate in, but I don’t think God cares one bit if I choose to eat eggs instead of cereal for breakfast. I think God allows us to make decisions on our own, including whether or not we will serve him.

Yet there are those who believe that nothing happens without God actively willing it to happen. They argue this from a point of sovereignty. Sovereignty is a reference to a person or being’s amount of power. In an absolute monarchy, a king is sovereign. I think most Christians would agree that God has absolute sovereignty, he is the highest power. But just how that works itself out, that’s another question.

One megachurch and its popular founding pastor adhere to the concept that sovereignty means that nothing happens without God willing it to happen. (I don’t name names when critiquing.) Writing on Isaiah 46, he says, “Therefore, what God means in Isaiah 46:10 is that nothing has ever happened, or will ever happen, that God did not purpose to happen. Or to put it positively: Everything that happened or will happen is purposed by God to happen.”

What does Isaiah 46 say? “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’”

Yeah, I believe that God knows the end and has since the beginning. I believe that God has a purpose, which will one day be fully realized, but does that mean that everything that has or will happened was God’s purpose? So God caused Adam and Eve to break the one commandment that they were given and be expelled from the Garden? God caused Israel to turn their backs on him and enter into exile? God caused humans to sin, then entered our world as Jesus, and suffered and died…for the sins that God caused? I honestly don’t know how anyone can believe that God causes all things that happen to happen. And haven’t even mentioned things like the Holocaust, famine, or war.

Some people argue for this understanding of sovereignty because it makes God seem even more powerful to think of him as controlling everything. But that’s not true. It makes God out to be petty, violent, and disgraceful. I have no interest in worshipping that God.

I took a class in Seminary, a book study on Isaiah, led by my advisor, Jim Engle. Jim is a great guy, smart, compassionate, and kind of erratic. I remember sitting in this class over a decade ago, and Jim saying, “The problem with predestination is that it is biblical.”

In our study of Isaiah, what Jim was referring to was God choosing Israel. God had chosen a certain group, predetermined, that he would work through this group for the good of the rest of the world. And this isn’t the only time we find God choosing one person or group over another. God chose Saul to be the first king of Israel, while rejecting his brothers. God then chose David, passing on his brothers. And in our scripture for today, God seems to choose some, while rejecting others.

In Ephesians 1:4-5, “Paul” writes, “For [God] chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”

It isn’t difficult to see how John Calvin arrived at his understanding of predestination. Since before creation God predestined some for sonship and daughtership. And if you predestine some, you necessarily exclude the others. This is sometimes called “double predestination,” or “double election.” If God predestines some for heaven, he necessarily predestines some for hell. This isn’t foreknowledge of who will and will not accept the gift of grace in Jesus Christ. Calvin believed that God chose before we were even born just where we would be spending eternity.

So God created some just to condemn them forever?

I know a couple who after having their first child decided that they would stop there. It wasn’t because they didn’t like being parents or didn’t enjoy their daughter. They decided that they shouldn’t have more children because their daughter was born with cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is a disease that causes a thick mucus to develop in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Those affected require frequent treatment, including some painful attempts to help the person clear their lungs well enough to breathe. With advancements in treatment, the average life span of a person with cystic fibrosis is just over 37 years.

Cystic fibrosis in an inherited disease, and it is a recessive gene. This means that in order for a person to have cystic fibrosis, both parents must carry the gene and pass that gene on. So the odds that their offspring would have cystic fibrosis is 1 in 4.

My friends who have the daughter with cystic fibrosis said that was too much of a risk for them. They had seen their daughter suffer, and they weren’t going to risk any more children having the same struggles.

So if my friends would choose not to have additional children because there would be a ¼ chance that they might have cystic fibrosis, does it really make sense that God would create people knowing that they were destined for eternal damnation? My friends are not more ethical or righteous than God!

Additionally, when I hear people talking about nothing happening unless God causes it to happen, I wonder how that will affect their daily actions and how they view others. At its worst, our history books reveal that slave owners have used this argument to justify slavery. They would claim that God created people with black skin to be slaves. God predestined some to be rulers and some to be servants, and if this is how God ordered the world, who are we to question God?

That is why I reject predestination. I use reason and logic.

So what do we do with all of these references to God choosing or even predestining some events? My first response is to say that even though the scriptures say that God chose someone to do something, it doesn’t say that God forced them. I think we frequently choose not to follow God’s calling. And there are plenty of times when someone starts off well, only to choose another path along the way.

Consider again the case of King Saul. God chose Saul as the first king of Israel, and Saul accepted that calling. But then Saul turned his back on God and disobeyed God. That was a choice. The passage that Sonya and I chose to include on our wedding bulletin (15 years ago this Thursday!) was from Joshua 24:15, “…then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve… But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

For every time you find a passage about God choosing someone, you can find another passage where the person is faced with a choice as well.

And passages like our text for this morning from Ephesians can be cleared up by simply asking, “Who is ‘the we’ Paul is referring to?”

In verses 3-12, Paul consistently talks about we. We were chosen, we were redeemed, we were predestined. Then in verses 13-14, he switches to the plural version of “you,” or “you all.” Verse 13: “And you [all] also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of you [all’s] salvation. When you [all] believed, you [all] were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”

The “we” is the church. God predestined the church for salvation. God chose before the beginning of time to work through the church, the gathered believers, the community of the faithful. Now “you all,” the Gentiles, have believed and have been added.

My favorite metaphor for predestination is that of a train. A train has a destination, and that destination is predetermined. You don’t just jump on a train and decide where you are going after 30 minutes of chugging along. No, the train is going to Charlottesville. That has already been determined.

But you have the choice. Will you get on or not?

Let me conclude with one more story from the Bible, and I’ll share with you why it is significant. In the book of Genesis, Abraham is visited by three travelers. We are told that these men represent the Lord and in the Christian tradition we often think of them as the members of the Trinity. God reveals to Abraham that he is going to destroy the city of Sodom, and Abraham begins to bargain with him. Abraham asks, “What if 50 righteous people are found in Sodom? Will you destroy the city if there are 50 righteous in that place?”

God says okay. For 50, I’ll not destroy the city.

Abraham responds, “What about 45?” Then, “What about 40? 30?” They go back and forth until Abraham gets God down to 10 righteous people. If there are 10 righteous people living in Sodom, God promises not to destroy the city.

Some have said that God already knew that there weren’t 10 righteous people in the city, so this was really not an example of God changing his mind. But I don’t think God would be so misleading; it doesn’t seem within his character. Instead, it seems as if Abraham was truly able to affect God’s plan.

There are all sorts of weird things going on here, but I want to emphasize the point that in talking with God, we can change things. Otherwise, why would we pray? It would be a total waste of time to ask for healing, ask for guidance, or ask help if everything was predetermined by God and nothing could change it.

If everything was predetermined, there would be no reason to evangelize. Your eternal destiny is already decided. If everything was predetermined by God, there would be no reason to work for justice. If a group is being abused, it is God’s will for them to be abused. If everything was predetermined by God, there would be no reason to feed the poor, clothed the naked, or care for the sick. That’s just their god-determined lot in life. If everything was predetermined by God, there would be no need to pray. Prayer would change nothing. I’ll go so far as to say that if everything was predetermined by God, then the teachings of Jesus would be worthless.

But I believe we have a choice. And I believe that much of what we see in this world that isn’t as we think it should be is the result of our choices and the choices of others. And that is good news! Because if God had preordained all the crap in the world, there would be nothing that we could do about it. But because the crap of this world is a result of our choices, we can also choose to make it better, to make it right. We can choose, in the words of Jesus, for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done, one earth as it is in heaven.

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Every Rose Has Its Thorn

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

1 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Let’s just name it before we move forward: this is a tough passage. There are a number of confusing things going on, it isn’t clear who Paul is talking about, and what is this thorn that he speaks of? What I hope to do this morning is to cover three aspects of this text: 1. It’s not about you, 2. God’s not to blame, 3. Our weaknesses highlight God’s power.

Let’s start with “It’s not about you.” This is a bit of a counter-cultural statement in our society today. In a world of YouTube celebrities and people who are famous for being famous (I’m looking at you, Kardashians.), it’s good to remind ourselves that it isn’t all about you, nor is it all about me. We like to brag about our accomplishments and size ourselves up against other people. But our text reminds us that at least one thing isn’t about you. Verse 2 says, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.”

Paul talks writes about “a man” who had some kind of an experience with God. This person was taken into the third heaven. I’ve heard of 7th Heaven, the popular, feel-good television show from the late 90’s depicting the life of a pastor and his family. But third heaven, what’s that?

Some scholars claim that Paul is using the vernacular of a common 1st century cosmology, one which predates our scientific understanding. The Greek word for “heaven” is ouranos, which is just the word for sky. It was believed that God was out there in the sky, just past our view. So there were three levels of the ouranos: the air right around us; the celestial bodies that were observable–like the sun, moon, and stars; and the third ouranos, the dwelling place of God. Paul is literally saying that this “friend” of his was taken to the sky beyond the sky. This person had a personal encounter with God on God’s turf.

Just how that happened, he can’t say. It may have been that his body was taken up, it may have been some sort of out-of-body experience. Paul doesn’t really know, and Paul doesn’t really care how it happened. God knows, and that’s good enough for him.

Who was this friend? Paul says, I know a guy… It is kind of like asking for medical advice like, “How would you get a marble out of your nose if you stuck it too far up there? I’m asking for a friend.” As you have probably guessed, this friend was Paul himself! He kind of gives it away in verse 7 when he switches from the third person “he” to the first person “me.”

What Paul is describing is his interaction with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. And his resistance to naming himself as the actor in this story is an example of his point: it isn’t about me.

The point of the story is that the story isn’t about me.

Without a doubt, we are all characters in the story. But who is the lead character? The triune God, who exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are Robin to his Batman, Jan to his Marsha, Scottie Pippen to his Michael Jordan (notice how I avoided a LeBron reference there).

Indeed, we can benefit greatly from our relationship with God. God can make us better. But this will always be God’s team, God’s story.

About a decade ago, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer. It wasn’t an overly aggressive form of cancer, but any time someone uses the “c” word, you take notice. You worry. You pray.

At this time, my father-in-law was serving as pastor of a church in Ohio. He did what you would expect any person of faith to do, asking the people of his congregation to pray. He started the prayer chain, a series of telephone calls to the people of the church, asking them to pray for his wife.

Later that evening, the doorbell rang, and an elderly gentleman from the congregation stood at the front door. This man was a health-conscious individual, and he received a number of catalogues and informative brochures in the mail. Everything from vitamins to miracle supplements. You know the kind, they can heal everything from diabetes to the gout. This man was well respected by the congregation, and was a retired pastor himself. A very spiritual man, he always had a prayer to offer during the sharing time in church, and often received a word from the lord.

Now don’t get me wrong. I do believe that there are people who receive messages from God. And I believe that there are supplements that can help the healing process. But the night my mother-in-law received the diagnosis that nobody wants to hear, this former pastor stood on their doorstep with a supplement catalogue in his hand. When my father-in-law opened the door, the man said, “Now I’m not saying that this is the hand of God, but it seems too perfect to not be from God. I just got this in the mail today, just moments before the prayer chain call came through.”

He then thrust a catalogue into my father-in-law’s hands with a supplement that claimed to heal cancer.

The catalogue was postmarked several weeks earlier.

I was confused when my father-in-law told me this story, so I asked, “Why would he lie about when the catalogue arrived in the mail?”

He responded, “Because he wanted to appear spiritually superior.”

Jesus critiqued the Pharisees for their long prayers, fancy robes, and desire to eat from the seat of honor during a party. Paul, by telling his own story anonymously, is seeking to place the emphasis on God, not on himself.

The guy from my story could have just said that he would be praying for my mother-in-law. He could have said that he received the catalogue earlier and thought it would be helpful. But no, he lied to my father-in-law’s face to seem like he was spiritually superior.

It isn’t about you.

Point number 2: Don’t blame God.

Paul had this extreme conversion experience, and in a relatively short period of time he becomes one of the greatest champions of Christianity. He is planting churches, making missionary journeys, and seeing people convert to Christianity all over the known world. He even writes what will become a large portion of our New Testament. You would think that all of this success might go to a person’s head. And if we are being honest, there are times when Paul can come off a bit conceited. But look at what Paul writes in verse 7, “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”

The thorn in the flesh. We cannot say exactly what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, but that hasn’t kept people from speculating. In the context of this passage, we need to understand it as something that keeps Paul from being too conceited, perhaps from excelling too much. It could be a physical issue, like an abnormally big nose. More likely, it was something that made him uncomfortable, a persistent issue, but was not life threatening.

Some have suggested that Paul had an illness that prevented him from doing everything he hoped to do. Maybe epilepsy or a digestive issue that at times sidelined him for a bit. I think there are two other possibilities that make good sense.

Many people believe that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was poor eyesight. This may not sound like much to us today. Hey, I’ve got really bad eyesight myself. But this was before glasses, contacts, and laser eye surgery. And for a person like Paul who read and wrote a lot, poor eyesight made his ministry a whole lot more difficult. Poor eyesight may also explain why Paul would have someone write his letters as he dictated them. And if you read Galatians 6:11, we find this strange line from Paul: “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!”

If Paul had poor eyesight, it would make sense that he would write with large letters so he could read what he was writing. So in my mind, this is a plausible option for Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

What I think is more likely is that Paul had a speech impediment, perhaps a stutter. If we look at today’s text in context, we see that Paul is trying to solidify his standing as an apostle. He often seems to feel a bit inferior because he wasn’t one of the original 12. And today he tells the story of his interaction with the risen Lord…without bragging about himself. In the previous chapter, we read this in verses 5-6a, “I do not think I am in the least inferior to those ‘super-apostles.’ I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge.”

Even though we cannot nail down just what Paul’s issue was, there are some things that are clear, and we can learn from them. The first is that it was not pleasant. It was some sort of issue or disorder that Paul suffered from. We can all connect with this on some level. I have back issues, others have persistent pain elsewhere in their bodies. We have all dealt with sickness, and many are dealing with something that just won’t go away.

Now there are those who would say that nothing happens without God willing it to happen. If you get a promotion at work, praise God! It was his gift to you. But if something bad happens, that too is God’s will. Some might even claim that it is God punishing you. You have a bad back? Well maybe God is trying to teach you something. If you have cancer, it must be God’s will. Hey, God’s ways are not our way. We even hear it at funerals when people die too soon and well-meaning people say things like, “God had other plans.”

There are times when I get physically sick at funerals because of the way people depict God and place the blame for cancer, Parkinson’s, and car accidents on God. I know these people mean well, but God did not cause that to happen. Yes, James 1:17 teaches that every good and perfect gift comes from above. That does not mean that every bad thing comes from God.

What does Paul say about his thorn? In the NIV he calls it a “messenger of Satan.” The Greek is angelos santana, which literally means “angel of the adversary.”

So when you get sick, hurt, bad things happen to you or anyone else, when someone is taken from us too soon, please don’t claim that it was God’s will. Paul says that his thorn is from Satan.

Second thing that we can learn from Paul’s thorn is that a non-answered prayer is not a sign of lack of faith. I know, God always answers prayers, sometimes with a yes, sometimes with a no, and sometimes with a not yet. What I’m responding to here is those who would say that if you are sick or dealing with an issue that prayer will always work as long as you have faith. When things don’t work out, it is because of a lack of faith. And I know the Bible verses just as well as anyone else. If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains. Ask, seek, knock.

But ask yourself this: Did Paul have faith? I think Paul was as faithful as they come. This man gave up a powerful and probably lucrative career and traded it in to be a persecuted missionary who occasionally had to make a tent or two to make ends meet. This man lived his life by faith. But when he prayed that God would remove his thorn, God said no. So Paul prayed again, and God said no. Paul prayed a third time, and God said…no.

Paul didn’t lack faith. There was something else going on, perhaps something behind the scenes. We can hypothesize all night and day about why God heals some and not others, and I do believe God does heal! But at the end of the day, we are left guessing.

My mother-in-law was healed of her cancer, my grandmother was not. Both were women of faith. Paul doesn’t give us any reason as to why he wasn’t healed, even though he himself was able to heal people in much worse condition. Which brings me to my final point for this morning. Even in our weakness, God’s power can be highlighted.

I want to close with this last thought from Paul, where he says that in weakness, he is strong, and that God’s power is perfect in our weakness.

Put it all together, and Paul is arguing for his role as an apostle, but not trying to make it all about him. It’s about God. Paul has some sort of thorn, or weakness. This keeps him from operating at 100%, and being the best missionary he can be. But yet God is doing wonderful things through him. Paul might be a near-sighted, stuttering, dyspeptic apostle who gets migraines, but God is still using him. This isn’t a testimony to Paul’s creative genius, but to the power of God working through him.

We’ve all heard the stories of the shy person who stands up and gives a testimony, surprising everyone because no one has ever heard him say more than a word or two aloud. Maybe you know someone who doesn’t have two pennies to rub together but they help to alleviate poverty by building houses with Habitat for Humanity. What about the blind woodworker who would create the most intricate marble tracks and sell them for hundreds, thousands of dollars, donating it all to charity. My wife has a former client who is confined to a wheelchair and has limited use of his hands. Every Monday, this man posts inspirational videos of his thoughts and meditations of life and spirituality on Facebook Live.

We all have weaknesses, thorns in the flesh that we would like to see removed. By all means, pray that God will heal you, but don’t blame God for your ailments. Instead, allow God to use you in spite of what you consider to be a thorn in your flesh. We’ve all been called to something, and God can work through us.

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Crossing Barriers

Mark 5:21-43 New International Version (NIV)

21 When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. 22 Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. 23 He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. 25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”

32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

35 While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”

36 Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”

37 He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” 40 But they laughed at him.

After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. 43 He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Let’s just say it. I’m going to use two words today that may make at least half of our congregation squirm a bit. I’ll say those words now so that they won’t catch you off guard and distract you later. Those words are menstruation and period. I’ve studied reproductive physiology and I’ve been responsible for the breeding program on my family’s dairy farm (I do happen to have the longest arms in the family, which is a true asset). So these words do not phase me, though I know that historically they make many men feel uncomfortable. And because these words make men uncomfortable, they often make women feel uncomfortable.

Yet the Bible talks about menstruation a lot; perhaps more than many of us were aware of. So we need to be able to talk about this, even in front of our children. Though, I’m going to guess that Leviticus 15 won’t be a part of our Bible Quizzing curriculum any time soon. All of that is to say that today’s sermon may lead to some interesting lunch conversations because I won’t be holding back.

But menstruation is not the focus of this passage, so it will not be the focus of my sermon. I would go further and say that healing is not the focus of this passage. Oh, indeed today’s scripture does tell two different stories of Jesus miraculously healing two people, even bringing one back from the dead. But I would say that this passage is about vulnerability. I would say that this passage is about people along the socio-economic spectrum revealing just how much they need Jesus. And I would say that this passage is a reminder to us all today, no matter what your lot in life, no matter how well you seem to have it together, that we all need Jesus. And the good news is that Jesus is willing to cross some barriers to get to us. Today’s is a sermon for those who don’t have it all together, which is to say that it is a sermon for everybody.

Our scripture for this morning is really the telling of a story inside another story. But notice that before we even get to the story, we find Jesus crossing over his first barrier. Verse 21 says, “When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake…”

This lake was a boundary between the Jews and the Gentiles. It is what we call the Sea of Galilee, and in the scripture just before our passage for today, Jesus crossed over to the east side. This is where he healed a demon-possessed man and sent the demons into a herd of pigs. Jews didn’t keep pigs. Jesus was in the land of the Gentiles, and he had just made a formerly demon-possessed man into one of his first missionaries to the Gentiles.

Our passage for this morning begins with Jesus crossing back into Jewish territory. The first story begins with a man named Jairus approaching Jesus and asking Jesus for a favor. Like many of Jesus’s first followers, including his disciples, Jairus was a Jew. We often focus on Jesus ministering to the poor, the outcasts, and the rejects of society. But Jesus also spent a lot of time with powerful people, eating with Pharisees. Jairus would have fit into the latter category. Mark tells us that he was a leader in the local synagogue, though his official title is never given.

By all measures, it would appear that Jairus has it all together. The people held him in esteem, he was probably comfortable financially. But this guy who appeared to have it all together needed something.

When Jairus saw Jesus, he threw himself at his feet and the NIV says that he “pleaded earnestly” for Jesus to come with him. Evidently, there are some things even beyond the power of this leader. His daughter is sick, and she will die without some kind of miraculous intervention. So Jairus begs Jesus to come to his home, lay hands on his daughter, and heal her. Jesus agrees, and begins walking to Jairus’s home.

I’m going to guess that there are a lot of people here who can connect with Jairus. On the outside, you seem to have it all together. Successful in your work, perfect family, perfect house. But some things are outside your reach or your ability. And by virtue of my position as your pastor, some of you have shared these things with me. No, maybe it isn’t as serious as a 12-year-old daughter on death’s doorstep, but there is real brokenness in your life. I know it, because I’ve lived it.

It is my firm belief that we are all broken, hurting, and in need of healing. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others.

So Jesus starts walking with Jairus to the place where his daughter lies sick and near death. The crowds are pushing all around him because by this time in his ministry, Jesus had achieved rockstar status. In the crowd that day was an unnamed woman. Like Jairus, she too recognized that she needed something from Jesus. Verses 25-26 tell us this about her: “And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.”

We are never given the exact details of her disorder, but it is assumed by most scholars that she had some kind of uterine hemorrhage resulting in a state of perpetual menstruation. For twelve years she had been bleeding, which is an interesting amount of time because it is exactly how old Jairus’s daughter was at the time. For twelve years she has suffered. For twelve years she has gone to doctors. She has spent all she had, and what did she have to show for it? She has gotten worse.

But this bleeding disorder is more than just an inconvenience. Think about this, Jairus came to Jesus to help his daughter. In other stories we find people pleading on behalf of others for Jesus to heal their friends or family members. There is even one story where a man’s friends tear a hole in the roof of a house and lower their friend down in front of Jesus so that he will heal the man. But this woman seems to have no network of friends, and no advocate for her healing. This is why many assume her bleeding was a form of menstruation. She secretly touches Jesus’s garment because she would have been considered “unclean” by Jewish standards, and she had nobody to help her.

It was not a sin to be ceremonially unclean by Jewish standards. But it did prevent you from coming in contact with others. If you were unclean and touched someone, they became unclean. An unclean person cannot sit where others sit. They cannot enter the synagogue or temple. Until their time of uncleanliness was complete and they had gone through the ritual washing, they were an outsider.

A few years back, Christian author Rachel Held Evans wrote a book called A Year of Biblical Womanhood. In this book, Evans retells her experiences of trying to live out teachings directed toward women in the Bible. She often took on a practice for one month, recording her feelings and her spiritual response. This project was not meant to be critical of Christianity, but to explore portions of the faith that many don’t take seriously. She also consulted with people of faith who are known to emphasize those teachings. For instance, one month Evans focused on modesty. She set out with the following goals: Dress modestly (1 Timothy 2:9), Wear a head covering (1 Corinthians 11:6), Wear only dresses and skirts; no slacks or jeans (Deuteronomy 22:5), Abstain from wearing jewelry (1 Timothy 2:9), Hang out with the Amish.

I stress again that it was not Rachel Held Evans’s intention to make fun of anyone. But that doesn’t mean that she didn’t have fun with this project.

One of the funniest, and perhaps most awkward, chapters involves a focus on purity. This month she tried to practice a number of Old Testament purity laws, including eating kosher and eliminating all traces of yeast in their home during Passover. That doesn’t sound awkward. The awkward part includes these goals: Obverse the Levitical Purity Laws by undergoing twelve days of ritual impurity during menstruation (Leviticus 15:19-31), Camp out in the front yard for first three days of impurity (Leviticus 15:19).

Feel free to read through Leviticus 15 for the details, but to summarize, a woman is unclean as long as she has her period, and for seven days following the end of her menstruation. Anyone who touches the woman becomes unclean. Anyone who sits where the woman sat becomes unclean. And anyone who sleeps where the woman slept becomes unclean.

Orthodox Jews still practice this period of uncleanliness; it is called the niddah, which literally means “separate.” Evans writes, “When a woman is niddah, she is prohibited from having any physical contact whatsoever with men, including her husband. The time of separation varies from tradition to tradition, but most Orthodox Jews…observe it for a total of twelve days” (151).

I’ll say it one more time: Evans wasn’t making fun of the practices, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have fun with it. Following the story found in Anita Diamant’s book The Red Tent¸ Evans set up a tent, separate from her husband, and spent the first three nights of her period outside so as to not contaminate their bed and home. She figured three days would be enough to get a sense of it and she could sleep the remaining 9 days in the guest room.

This experiment felt extremely awkward to Evans because everyone in her small town knew about her project, so when the tent went up, they knew what was going down. And to make things even more obvious, she carried a stadium cushion with her everywhere she went so as to not make others ceremonially unclean by sitting where she had sat.

Evans describes going to a wedding during her 12-day period of uncleanliness, where she dodged handshakes and ducked hugs. She writes, “The upside was, Dan and I had an excuse not to dance. No one harassed us about seeing our (truly horrid) dance moves once we informed them that we couldn’t touch because ‘the way of women’ was upon me. In fact, no one really talked to us at all after that” (169).

All of that is funny and awkward, but my entire reason for bringing up this book lies in one paragraph. Reflecting on her experience, Evans writes: “It was weird not touching my own husband. I never realized, or appreciated, how often we communicated through the silent but assuring gestures of a squeeze of the hand, a head on a shoulder, a back-scratch, a high-five. The human touch is a powerful connective bond, and going without it can be strangely isolating. We kept forgetting about the rule, accidentally resting our arms on one another before one of us would suddenly shout, ‘No touching!’ and we’d jerk our hands away like we were in a prison scene in Arrested Development” (166).

Now let’s consider the unnamed woman from our text for this morning. Where Rachel Held Evans experienced uncleanliness and became “untouchable” for 12 days, this woman had been untouchable for 12 years. Let’s look at the entirety of Leviticus 15:25-27 for emphasis:

“When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. Anyone who touches them will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.”

We don’t know what her family situation was, but she couldn’t touch the hand of a loved one. She couldn’t sit in their home, sleep in the same bed as her husband. Not for 12 days, but for 12 years.

This woman takes a bit of a risk. She knows that Jesus can’t touch her and she can’t touch him. But if you read the law carefully, there is nothing that says she can’t touch his clothes. A loophole! So she does this, and indeed, she is healed. But this act does not go unnoticed. Jesus feels the healing power flow from his body. The Greek can even be translated as Jesus feeling the power being stolen from him. He didn’t offer it, but she did take the healing.

And this ticks Jesus off. He yells at the woman, reprimanding her. Nope, he says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

I have no idea how long this encounter lasted, but can you imagine Jairus through this event? He must be anxious, jumping around a bit, trying to hurry Jesus along. And while Jesus stops to help this woman, they receive word that Jairus’s daughter has passed on.

But Jesus encourages Jairus to press on, to have faith. They enter Jairus’s home and Jesus touches another unclean person, this time, a dead girl. He tells her, “Little girl, get up!”

These are two amazing stories, but they are not a promise of healing for all who have faith. Instead, these are stories of vulnerability and crossing barriers. Jesus crossed a barrier by ministering to Gentiles, and he crossed a barrier by touching the unclean woman and dead girl.

For sure, some barriers are there for our own safety. My family and I visited Niagara Falls last weekend, and when you get to the edge of the falls, they have a pretty substantial handrail there to keep you from falling over the edge. That’s a good barrier!

But how many barriers do we have in place that keep us from expressing the love of God? Self-imposed or man-made barriers do abound. We separate by the color of skin, the thickness of wallet. Perhaps we cannot heal people like Jesus did, but we can offer a hand to those we are supposed to not touch.

Jesus reached out and took the girl by the hand and said, “Little girl, get up!” We all need people who encourage us to rise up from whatever we are struggling with. The things seen and unseen. My challenge for you today is to be like Jesus, cross barriers, and offer people a helping hand. Offer them the love of Christ.

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The View from Here

2 Corinthians 5:11-21 New International Version (NIV)

11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

For several weeks our son has been asking for something. All parents understand how this goes: he saw an ad and the next words out of his mouth are, “I want one.”

Paxton likes to do his research online, checking out prices and ratings. And after a little exploration and a lot of begging, we came to an agreement. He wanted a pair of 90 degree glasses, which run just over $5.00. Paxton does a lot of reading in his bed, and 90 degree glasses allow you to read while lying down without neck strain or arm fatigue. We figured if he read more it was worth the $5.00.

The glasses arrived this week, and they work really well for reading or watching television while in bed. But they really mess with you if you wear them while trying to walk around the house. So that’s exactly what we did for most of the week.

Oh, the possibilities are endless. I could wear these glasses while preaching and never have to worry about falling off the steps. I could keep my head up and “look at you,” while reading my entire sermon.

All kidding aside, these things really do change the way you see things. They turn your line of sight 90 degrees, and everything is seen from a different angle, a different perspective. I’ve seen the world through 90 degree glasses; I’ve seen the world from the top of a mountain. I’ve seen the world from a position of power; I’ve seen the world as a minority in another country. I’ve seen the world with a five-piece band, looking at the bad side of me. Wait, that last one was Waylon Jennings.

Of all the ways I’ve seen the world, I believe nothing has the ability to change the way we see things more than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we follow Jesus and experience his love and grace, we cannot help but see the world differently. We see the world and all the people in it from a different angle, as if for the first time. Jesus calls it being “born again.” In today’s text, Paul calls it “new creation,” and no longer regarding others from a “worldly perspective.”

Today I want to consider why this matters. Why does it matter that we see people differently from the way much of the rest of the world sees them.

I’m going to break this week from our normal format and try something a little different. I want to tell you two stories from my life, each of which occurred over the last eight days. These stories are 100% true, and I don’t always come out looking too good. I want to be honest about how I struggle with this and how I am trying to do better.

Story one. I’ve been doing a number of races in the last few years, and Paxton is starting to take an interest in what I’m doing. He is eight-years-old, full of energy, and we would like to burn some of that energy up. So when we saw that Waynesboro Parks and Rec was hosting a 1.5 mile kids “Mud Run,” we thought that sounded appropriate.

Paxton completed his run, received a medal, and I quickly posted his pictures on Facebook. It was a proud father kind of moment.

After the race there were a number of food trucks, bouncy houses, and other carnival-type attractions at the park, as the Parks and Rec crew wanted to make the entire day a family event. All the attractions were free, though you did have to pay for the food. As I’m waiting in line to get an overpriced snow cone, a father starts yelling at his daughter. She had run ahead of the rest of the family a bit, and when they caught back up to her, the father just started laying into her. “Get your butt back here. Do you want to make your mother cry? I outta tan your hide for that!”

I’m not sure if he had military experience or not, but it reminded me of how Sergeant Carter used to yell at Gomer Pyle. Let’s just say that he and I have vastly different approaches to parenting.

Story two occurred on Tuesday. The kids and I are in a pretty good routine now that we are about one month into summer break. I’ve come to realize that having two elementary-aged children at home really cuts into my productivity. But each Tuesday and Thursday we make it a priority to go to the Staunton/Augusta YMCA. I get the chance to do some running, shoot some hoops, lift some weights, and do a little socializing all while the children…who knows what they are doing? I’m just glad someone else is watching them for an hour twice each week!

I drop the children off at the playroom and walk over to the gym. Those of you familiar with the Y know that there is a walking track around the perimeter of the basketball courts. As soon as I walk through the doors, I see a very large woman walking laps, wearing nothing but a bathing suit and tennis shoes.

I’m really not sure what the dress code is for the Y, but I assume she had been swimming and then decided to walk a few laps. Her attire seemed appropriate for one location, but not the other. I wonder if she wore the shoes while she was swimming, too? I felt a little uncomfortable seeing her out there walking like that.

Keep these stories in your mind and we will come back to them shortly. Questionable parenting and questionable attire.

Our passage from 2 Corinthians this morning is one of my personal favorites in large part because of the language that Paul uses. Paul speaks of the ministry of reconciliation. Look how he begins verse 13, “If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God.”

Obviously, people were noticing that these early Christians were not like everyone else. They were seen as a little crazy, a little over the top, a little out of their minds. This isn’t because they are going around dressing in rainbow wigs and holding up signs at football games. They are considered out of their minds because they are doing something nobody else is doing and talking about something nobody else is talking about. In one word, they are seeking reconciliation.

Reconciliation is a strange word, and it is even stranger in the Greek: καταλλαγή. The Greek word comes from the world of finance and banking. It has a similar origin to our word “catalog.” It literally means to settle an account. If you owe someone some money, you would καταλλαγή with them, to settle the books so that things were right.

We still use this idea today when we speak of reconciliation. Back when we used to get paper bank statements, there would often be a discrepancy between what my checkbook said I had in the bank and what the bank statement said I had. I learned in High School accounting class how to do a “Reconciliation of Bank Statement.” You need to account for checks and charges that are not shown on all documents, like outstanding checks that you wrote but haven’t been cashed yet.

To be reconciled essentially means to make everything right again, to balance the ledger.

To be reconciled is just one of many metaphors that the Bible uses to describe what takes place through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. One of the reasons that I like this word is that it lends itself to a broader understanding, because reconciliation isn’t just something that takes place between me and God, but also between us and other human beings. Perhaps even between us and all of creation.

Now with this broader understanding of reconciliation as making things right and balancing the ledgers, read verses 18-20 again. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

With Jesus as our example, we are called to a ministry of reconciliation, ambassadors for Christ. Verses 14-15, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

Something about us died with Christ, and something new has been raised in its place. And this is why Paul can go on to say that if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. Something died, and now something new has taken its place. This is why Paul writes in verse 16, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.”

Let’s put that all together. Something about us has died, and that something has been replaced. This new us does not view others from a worldly point of view, but instead we see people with the eyes of Jesus Christ. And Jesus loved humanity so much that he was willing to lay down his life for us, so we are to be willing to lay our lives down for one another. Perhaps metaphorically, perhaps literally. This is the ministry of reconciliation, the ministry of setting things right.

This is why I say that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus causes us to see the world differently. We no longer see people and judge them, who is worthy and who is not. When Jesus died for them, he said, “You are worthy of me laying down my life for.” Who are we to argue with Jesus?

Within Christian theology there is a strange teaching that only makes sense if you hold to another teaching. The strange teaching is sometimes called “Limited Atonement,” and the other teaching is often called “Predestination.” I’ve given my opinion on predestination enough that I won’t repeat myself now. Limited Atonement is the belief that Jesus’s atoning death was only for those who would one day be saved, his death was limited in the scope to those are the elect. The idea is that since Jesus foreknew who would be saved, his death was only for those who were predestined for heaven.

This idea comes from passages like John 10:14-15, where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” It seems as if Jesus already knows his sheep and the text specifically says that he lays down his life for the sheep, not for everyone.

There is a really good chance that most people here have never read that text as a limit to Jesus’s atonement, and that is probably because Mennonites emphasize free will, and limited atonement makes no sense within our concept of salvation and reconciliation. And I’ll be honest, it can make some people who hold to this teaching pretty arrogant. But what I really want to show you from this passage is a teaching that seems a lot clearer to me than the one we just read from John 10. Again from verse 14, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all…” And 15, “And he died for all…” And 19, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ…”

All, all, the world. A few weeks ago I gave you some tools for interpreting scripture and I said that if one passage is clear, use it to interpret the unclear part. I don’t know how it could get more clear than “all,” and “the world.”

Yes, I believe we can reject this gift. That goes hand-in-hand with free will. But that does not mean that God doesn’t offer reconciliation to the entire world.

Here is why this is important: We don’t get to pick and choose who we love when we are followers of Jesus Christ because he didn’t pick and choose who he loved.

The late Billy Graham once said, “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict. God’s job to judge, and my job to love.” I would add that it is Jesus’s job to save. Or as a fellow Ohio-born Mennonite pastor has said, “It is our job to love others without first stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy” (Marty Troyer).

So I come back to the two stories with which I began this morning. When I was in the park, posting pictures of my son as he finished the race, I was trying to put out an image of myself that I hope to be true. I want people to see me as a good parent, one who encourages my child to try new things and celebrate his accomplishments. When I saw the father chewing out his daughter for running too far ahead of the rest of the family, I judged him. I said in my head, “You are not the father that I am. I am better than you.”

Maybe that’s true. Or maybe I just caught him at a bad time. But what I realized later on was that it was my own insecurity as a parent that caused me to judge another father. Being a dad is hard enough, and surely there are better ways to do it. It might be a good idea to sit down and talk with this dad about best practices. But I didn’t offer advice; I don’t even know that man. I just needed to feel good about myself in that moment, so I judged him to make myself feel better.

The woman walking around the track in her bathing suit may have been violating a dress code; she was surely making me feel uncomfortable. And I judged her for it. But again, how much of that is a reflection of my own insecurities? I struggle with issues of body image and health. I try not to take off my shirt in public for your own sake. But here was this overweight woman, exercising, walking, swimming, trying to be a better version of herself, and all I could do was judge her. I bet it is pretty hard for her to be there with all of the fit, young, beautiful people. But there she was, putting in the effort. I need to do better than judge her. I need to support her.

And in weeks where celebrity suicides have dominated the news cycle, I feel more strongly now than ever that we need to show the love of Christ to people.

Paul tells us two important things in this passage. One, the old way of life is dead. When you are in Christ, the new creation is here. My own insecurities over parenting or body image needs to die. Yes, I can do better, but I can’t allow those things to keep me from living the life that God intended for me to live. Jesus died for me, and I need to love myself. Warts and all! Likewise, Jesus died for the guy yelling at his daughter and the woman walking the track in her bathing suit. It is not my job to judge, but to love. It is my job to recognize that Jesus died for them, too, and in doing so said that their life has value and worth.

The way of judgment has died, the new creation of grace has taken its place. That is the ministry of reconciliation. It is time we see the world differently.

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Excel in Generosity

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

1 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. 6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

10 And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”

I always have a difficult time speaking about generosity. It is hard for me to talk about generosity because so many leaders in the church abuse their power and the trust of their congregations for personal gain. Just last month, another public Christian figure (I don’t like to use names when I criticize in public) was in the news for encouraging his followers to contribute toward the purchase of his new, private, luxury jet. This would be the fourth jet that he owned over his career, and I guess that the last one is due to be replaced. It was, after all, 12 years old. The new jet can fly around the globe without stopping for fuel, saving time, I’m sure. Oh, and the new jet comes with a price tag of 54 million dollars.

But let’s be clear, $54 million is a lot better than what another prominent Christian leader asked for just three years ago when he began raising funds for his own private jet. His cost $65 million. So this cheaper jet frees up $11 million dollars for the Lord. What an amazing sacrifice!

I say all that as a way of recognizing, and repenting, for the abuse of power that sometimes takes place in the church around the issue of money. But…I also don’t want to go so far as to avoid the topic all together just because some have abused their power. And please know that yes, my salary does come out of our offering, but if you put more in the offering, that does not mean I put more in my pocket. My salary is determined by our church council each year, so the more you give to the church, the more we can help individuals and organizations.

To offset any fear that you might have of us abusing funds, I will even go so far as to say that I am not asking you to give us more money. But I am encouraging all of us to be more generous. There are many nonprofit organizations, especially faith-based organizations that need our support. If you find one whose mission you support, please give to them. If you support the ministry of our church, please give here as well. The point that I am trying to make is that it is important that you give something somewhere.

And it doesn’t have to be money. If you are on a fixed income, you may not be able to give much money, but you can give in other ways. I know that the Valley Mission can always use volunteers. If your garden is producing more than you can use, share that with others. Be generous in your prayers, be generous in your support.

I don’t have numbers to back it up, but I read this week that the richer we become, the more we tend to keep to ourselves. And a sad statistic is that Americans spend enough on entertainment each year to feed all the hungry people on the face of the earth. As Gandhi once said, “The world has enough for our needs, but not enough for our greed.” Or, as a mantra of many Mennonites reminds us, we must live simply so that others may simply live.

Let’s look quickly at our scripture this morning from 2 Corinthians 8, which is part of a larger section in chapters 8-9 on generosity.

Paul begins this passage by praising the Macedonian churches. We don’t know exactly which churches Paul is referring to, but he is speaking in general of some churches in an area. This is the equivalent of giving praises to the churches in Augusta County for their generosity. I’ve read through this passage a few times, and I’ll admit that it isn’t entirely clear what is going on, who gave and who received, who was poor, who had an abundance. As is often the case, Paul uses a lot of pronouns that aren’t clearly defined. Who does that “we” refer to?

One commentary that I read suggested that Paul is thanking the Macedonian churches for giving to the church in Jerusalem. The scholar gave a number of suggestions for why they might have needed help, and one that I found interesting was that the church in Jerusalem was running out of funds, in part because of the zealous nature of the church in the days immediately following Jesus’s death and resurrection. Remember that Acts 2 tells us that the early disciples sold all of their property and possessions to better serve those in need.

What an absolutely lovely and gracious thing to do! But as many have said, these disciples likely believed that Jesus was coming back soon, at least in their lifetime. Now, a generation later, the church in Jerusalem found themselves without resources to continue their ministry. Perhaps not even enough to provide for their own families.

Now look at what Paul writes in verse 4, “[The Macedonian churches] pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.”

The Macedonian churches, which would have been made up of Gentiles, pleaded for the privilege of being able to help support the church in Jerusalem, which would have been made up of Jews.

I want us to notice a few things here: Jesus doesn’t require everyone sell all of their possessions and give to the poor. The Bible clearly commands us to help the poor, such as in 1 John 3:17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” And Jesus does demand a complete sell-off for certain people. But nowhere does Jesus require all people to sell all things. But that’s what the early church did, and if the scholar that I quote above is correct, now the church in Jerusalem was hurting because of this decision.

Often this is the case with poverty. A few bad choices can affect a family for generations. A business deal goes the wrong way, and a debt is passed on to surviving family members. Those who are poor aren’t just lazy and afraid to work, though I’m sure we all know plenty who fit that category. One of the greatest causes of poverty today is medical bills, where people, at no fault of their own, get sick, find themselves underinsured, and spend the rest of their years ducking phone calls from bill collectors. Mental health is another huge contributor to poverty.

I’m old school, and I believe that if people can work, they should. But I am also convinced that we are called to help one another. The phrase, “God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible. But the idea that we are called to help those who can’t help their selves sure is.

What I want to see in the church, not just our church, but in all Christians, is a culture of generosity.

I’ve been the recipient of generosity. One of my first experiences with receiving generosity came when I was just a college kid in my early twenties. I was involved in a Christian ministry on campus and felt a call to go on a short-term, overseas mission trip to the Middle East. All things considered, this was a relatively inexpensive trip, in part because we really didn’t live like kings. We lived like we were used to, like college students! We were packed in a tiny apartment, we ate junk food, and we loved it! Of course, the largest expense involved in a trip like this is the plane ticket.

I wrote letters to my more mature friends in the church, asking if they would consider sponsoring my trip. And they did. Many people gave about $50 each. But one person approached Sonya, who was my girlfriend at the time, and asked how much more I needed. She just happen to know that I needed about $400. This person ended up writing me a check for the exact amount that I needed.

I’ve been the recipient of your generosity as well. From checks picked up at restaurants to money to start college funds, to a weekly stipend while I was on sabbatical a few years ago. And it isn’t always in the form of money. I’ve borrowed cars and tools, made use of babysitting, and gleaned from your gardens.

Perhaps the best form of generosity has come in small packages. As many of you know, I do love my Cadbury Crème Eggs, which are only available at Easter time. Several of you have been so kind as to bring me Cadbury Eggs, and some have even purchased the “multipacks” with up to five eggs in one box. This both shows how well and how little some of you know me, as some have said, “Here’s enough Cadbury Eggs to get you through the week.”

I generally think to myself, “Dear friend, I’ll be doing well if I don’t eat them all before I get home.”

So like Paul commends the churches in Macedonia, I commend you, Staunton Mennonite Church, for your generosity. And if you have not been the recipient of generosity from this church, I encourage you to stick around a bit and you will.

Generosity doesn’t just exist at the congregational level, but also at the national level. Some of you may be aware of the health insurance policy that Mennonite Church USA maintains, which is called “The Corinthian Plan.” The Corinthian Plan allows smaller churches to be able to offer health insurance benefits to their pastors at an affordable rate. We don’t use this service at Staunton Mennonite because my wife is a state employee, but it is good to know that the option is there.

The name comes from 2 Corinthians 8-9 and this idea of churches helping churches, and people helping people. In the Corinthian Plan, larger churches pay more for insurance benefits and smaller churches pay less. So a 300 person congregation will pay a noticeably-higher insurance premium than a 30 person congregation. On the surface, it may sound like the larger churches are being penalized for being larger churches, but this isn’t the case. The Corinthian Plan is completely optional and both large and small churches are welcome to opt out and find other insurance providers. This is why I respect those large churches that do participate in the Corinthian Plan. They are essentially saying, like the churches in Macedonia, that they want to help their brothers and sisters in need.

Look what Paul says in verse 8, which starts out, “I am not commanding you…” I hear arguments both ways about the tithe, which is a teaching we find in the Old Testament about giving 10% of your income to the church. I see good arguments on both side, but I lean toward those that say that the tithe is not a teaching that Christians need to keep. It is a part of the Law, the Torah, and we are no longer under the Law, but under grace.

I also think that 10% is a good goal, but the New Testament doesn’t speak of 10% or the tithe. It speaks of radical generosity. And for some, that may mean selling all that you have and giving the money to the poor. For others, 10% might be right. But I encourage us all to remember the words of Jesus that Paul quotes in a speech in Acts 20:35, “It is better to give than to receive.”

We don’t give to receive, as if sending a check will guarantee a blessing from God. The giving is the blessing. We don’t give because it is commanded of us, we give because it is the right thing to do.

I’m not looking for more of you money. I’m not trying to buy a private jet or a larger house. But I encourage you, like Paul encouraged the Corinthians, to excel in generosity, because it is a privilege.

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Following the Rules

Mark 2:23-3:6 New International Version (NIV)

23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

3:1 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

Our scripture for this morning tells two different, but very related stories. The first one seems more offensive to me than the second, so we will spend most of our time on that one. But I am quick to note that I’m reading it from a different perspective than the disciples would have lived this one out. So let’s take some time to understand what’s going on here.

The first story tells us that on one Sabbath, Jesus and his disciples were walking along a field of grain, and they did the unthinkable: they plucked some of the heads of wheat. My modern-day objection to this act is that these men are taking something that isn’t theirs! How would you like it if I just came into your backyard and started pulling tomatoes off the vine and eating them?

To me, it sounds like the disciples are stealing. But they are completely within their rights to do this. Deuteronomy 23:24-25 says, “If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain.”

I’m not sure of the reason for this teaching. It may go along with the law that states you should leave some grain in the fields for the poor who live among you. Or maybe it is just a convenience thing. Either way, I no longer feel guilty for eating a few strawberries whenever we go pick at the local strawberry patch. As long as I don’t try to swipe a quart or two without paying, it seems consistent with this text that I would be able to eat a few along the way.

But then again, we have all seen those kids who eat so many strawberries that it would probably be profitable for the owners to weigh the kids when they come in and again when they leave.

The text never tells us that the disciples were starving or that they hadn’t eaten for days. They were just grabbing a snack, and that was totally legal.

Six days a week, that was legal, anyway.

This act was an issue because of the first two words of this passage: “One Sabbath.” Plucking the heads of grain violated the law to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy because this was seen as harvesting. And Exodus 34:21 says, “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.”

Some people are rule followers and some people are rule breakers. Okay, maybe there are some in between, but for this story, it makes it easier to divide the groups into two. I’m a rule follower, and I think that is one reason why I’m drawn to studying ethics and preach more on topics of how we should live. But there are some who are rule breakers. I’m not talking about people who just go around ignoring the law. I’m not speaking of thieves or murderers, but people who walk on the grass when the sign clearly says not to, people who park in the no-parking section, and people who climb walls, ignoring prohibitions against such activities. These are the people who color outside of the lines.

But let’s not be too quick to judge either group of people. Those who like to break the rules, written or otherwise, often don’t just break the rules for fun or because they get a bit of a rush out of it. Maybe that is the case some of the time, but not always. Often is it because they don’t understand the reason behind a rule or disagree with the reason behind the rule. The sign instructing people to stay off the wall (I’ll show a picture for my sermon) is intended to keep people from falling off the edge of a cliff. Rule breakers in such a situation do so because they feel as if they are not really in danger. Rule followers often either agree with the reasons for a rule, or they trust that those who made the rule put enough thought into it for them. Maybe the rule makers have some sort of insight that the rest of us don’t. The “Stay off wall” people may know that the wall gets slippery; they may know that they will get sued if someone falls.

We can be pretty tough on the Pharisees in the Bible, and at times they earn their bad reputation. But what they do in this situation is probably what I would do. They follow the rules. Yes, most days you can pluck wheat and eat it, but not today. Today is the Sabbath. And the Pharisees are relying on the wisdom of their elders and their forefathers who have come before them in saying that plucking a head of wheat on the Sabbath is considered harvesting, and therefore breaking Torah.

So if the Pharisees are rule keepers, what does that make Jesus? Oh, yes. He is a rule breaker. But in this story, as in so many others, Jesus isn’t breaking the rules because he is a rebel who gets a rush out of it. And he isn’t breaking the rules because he doesn’t understand. He breaks the rules because he disagrees with the reason behind it.

To illustrate the reason for the rule, Jesus tells another story. He draws the attention of his listeners back to the man who would one day be known as “King David.” This story took place when David was fleeing from the then king, Saul; fleeing for his life. David and his men are hungry, so they go to the local synagogue to see if they can get any assistance. But the high priest informed them that there was nothing to eat in the synagogue but the bread of consecration, or the shew bread, as the King James Version translates it.

Leviticus 24 gives us the instructions for the consecrated bread; we will focus on verses 8-9: “This bread is to be set out before the Lord regularly, Sabbath after Sabbath, on behalf of the Israelites, as a lasting covenant. It belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is a most holy part of their perpetual share of the food offerings presented to the Lord.”

Twelve loaves were set on the table each Sabbath, and when the new loaves were brought out, the descendants of Aaron were to eat the older bread, and eat it in the sanctuary.

So David goes to the synagogue, asks for bread, and we find the priest’s response in 1 Samuel 21:4, “But the priest answered David, ‘I don’t have any ordinary bread on hand; however, there is some consecrated bread here—provided the men have kept themselves from women.’”

I made sure to include that last part, mostly because it is just weird. They can have the bread, as long as they haven’t been with any women.

Here’s the things that I really like about Jesus’s answer. 1. He uses scripture to interpret scripture. 2. His example points out how traditions can affect how rules are lived out. 3. Sabbath is a form of mercy and grace.

1, Using scripture to interpret scripture. This is an excellent way to approach a challenging passage, especially when we don’t know what the point of a passage may be. If an obscure passage seems to differ from a clear passage, go with the clearer.

Now you will also hear people say that you can make scripture say whatever you want it to by taking it out of context. There is some truth to that, and people can get into arguments back and forth, quoting a few verses here and there. But while you can make about any argument you want and find a passage to back it up, that doesn’t mean you can make a good argument for about anything.

What I encourage people to do is to read challenging passages in context, specifically in the context of the overall arch of the Bible. We ask, “How does this fit into the biblical story?” “How does this fit into the Heilsgeschichte?”

You can make an argument for polygamy based on the Bible, but the New Testament is moving toward monogamy, including a passage which clearly states a church leader should only have one spouse. You can make an argument for warfare and violence in the Bible, but the teachings of Jesus move us toward nonviolent enemy love. You can make an argument for male domination of their female spouses based on Genesis 3:16b, which says, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

Rule over you. That’s strong language!

But read that in context and you find that the ruling or domination of one person over another is a result of the fall, not God’s divine plan! And looking again at the narrative arc of scripture, we find Paul saying that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. And how did Christ love the church? He emptied himself, lowered himself, became a servant, washed feet, and died for the church.

So when Jesus is confronted by a bunch of law-abiding Pharisees about the common interpretation of a law, Jesus used another passage where a hero of the faith, David, was clearly breaking the rules. So if it was okay in David’s case to break the rules, maybe it would be okay to bend the rules a bit in this case. Especially when we consider that the arc of the biblical narrative bends toward love.

  1. Jesus’s example points out how tradition can affect how we interpret the rules. Yes, the Torah is clear that harvesting is forbidden on the Sabbath. But who gets to define what is considered harvesting? Obviously, if I fire up my combine and hit the corn field, that is harvesting. (And as a side note, my family hasn’t allowed me to drive the combine since the last time when I misjudged how close the unloading auger was to the tree line.) But what if I pull an ear of corn off the stalk just to see if it is mature? Is that harvesting? Does it have to be a crop to be consumed? What if I’m walking along a mountain path and I see some beautiful wild flowers and I decide to pick one for a special person? Is that harvest?

I say that Jesus’s example points out how much our rules can be based on tradition because of the stipulation that the priest put upon David and his men before they could eat the showbread. They had to have kept themselves from women. And yes, that means what you think it means.

I don’t even know where that comes from, but it isn’t in the passage from Leviticus or the parallel verses in Exodus 25. Evidently, it was from an accepted teaching that had become a rule. The priests were probably to keep themselves away from their wives for a period of time before eating the consecrated bread, which wasn’t an abnormal practice before engaging in religious practices.

In stating that David and his men could eat the consecrated bread if they had kept themselves from women, the priest was most likely drawing from the tradition of the priests abstaining from sex before eating the bread and not from some God-given rule.

Did Jesus intend to make this connection when he referenced this story that the Pharisees and all of his 1st century listeners would have known forward and back? I can’t say for sure, and it is surely not Jesus’s central point. But I do find it interesting that the question of what counts as harvesting and the requirement to abstain from sex before eating the consecrated bread both find their origins in tradition, not clear biblical teachings.

I simply want to invite us all to be careful. Many of the things we think we know are based on tradition and not clear biblical teaching. We Mennonites are very guilty of this. Romans 12:2a teaches, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” I could throw out some ideas as to what this means, as many have before me. But it is much easier to critique our past than our currently reality.

Our Anabaptist ancestors understood Romans 12:2 to be a call to simplicity. This was lived out in many different ways. Some refused to have radios, televisions, or even electricity in their homes. But perhaps most obvious was the way Mennonites dressed. Mennonites, especially 50+ years ago, were commonly seen wearing mustache-less beards and plain coats, without lapels and sometimes without buttons. Mustaches and fancy coats were seen as worldly and an ostentation. You all know how worldly those buttons can get!

This style was the norm for several generations, and the rule was simply accepted. I remember a story I heard from a friend, who is now in his mid-sixties. He said he knew that there was an issue when his father, in the name of simplicity, was purchasing a new plain coat. But rather than getting the coat made locally, he had his wife take all his measurements and he sent them away to Europe, where a tailor could make his jacket at a lower cost. All in the name of simplicity!

Jesus’s reference to the story about the showbread points out how tradition affects how we interpret a rule. And sometimes what the rule breakers are rejecting really isn’t the rule at all, but the tradition behind and interpretation of the rule.

  1. The Sabbath is a form of mercy and grace. As soon as Jesus is done telling the story of David and his men, he says in verse 26, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

We can ask the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, all day long, and still not have an answer. But this is clear: God created human beings and then rested. And it wasn’t until much later that we were commanded to rest, too.

There are multiple dimensions of Sabbath, including worship and rest. But let’s just focus on the human part of this. God commands us to rest. And surely we know why God commands us to rest, right? Because God rested.

Indeed, when we find the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, the reason for Sabbath rest is to mimic God’s cycle of rest and work. But in Deuteronomy 5, which is also a giving of the Ten Commandments, after God says that a person shall not work, nor their servants, or that animals, we find this: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”

Remember, you were slaves. Remember that you worked seven days a week, making bricks, building pyramids for people who did not respect you. Sabbath is a form of mercy and grace, because you no longer need to work 24/7 to meet your quota of bricks. And likewise, your servants get this time off, too.

When we talk about rest, Sabbath, or even vacation today, we often think of it from the point of productivity. We talk about workers getting a chance to “recharge” so that they might be more productive the next day.

That is a very employer-driven model of rest. I’ll give you two weeks off so that you can do more for me. But Sabbath isn’t about recharging so you can hit the grindstone harder when you return. Sabbath is rest for the sake of rest. It is a mercy.

Man was not made for the Sabbath, as if God needs us to take a break. But Sabbath was given to us as a mercy, as a grace, so that we can rest, so that we can worship, so we can grow as a community. When Jesus was criticized for healing a man on the Sabbath, he asked, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”

The people didn’t even bother to answer.

Sabbath is a gift of mercy and grace. And as Jesus shows us, sometimes rules need to be bent, perhaps even broken, to extend mercy and grace to others.

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Here I Am!

Isaiah 6:1-8

6 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

School is out, which means that there will be a lot more children on the streets, crossing intersections, and running out into the road after stray balls. I live in a residential part of Staunton where houses line both sides of the street; we are just 1.5 blocks away from Gypsy Hill Park. So we get a lot of foot traffic in the summer, especially when the pool is open.

Since we are in a residential part of town, you can probably guess what the speed limit is right out in front of our house: it is 25 miles per hour. I don’t know about you, but 25 feels pretty slow to me. And I’ve been known to break the speed limit every now and then, especially when coming off the interstate or other fast-moving roads.

But ever since my children have been old enough to walk, I’ve become “that guy.” Nobody likes “that guy.” Nobody likes the self-appointed hall monitor. Nobody likes the self-appointed neighborhood watch guy. Nobody likes the self-appointed rule master when you’re playing board games. I’m the guy that takes it upon himself to monitor the traffic.

I tend to be a pretty mild-mannered guy, until I see someone speeding down my road while I’m out for a walk with my children. I yell, “Slow down,” or “25” at passing cars, probably more frequently than I would like to admit. And no, I don’t think it helps. But it does make me feel a little better about myself.

This past week we were walking to the bus stop when a big, jacked-up 4×4 came zooming north from the stop light. I raised my hand, preparing to make a gesture to “slow down,” and the man sticks his hand out the window and waves back. Sometimes my efforts are misinterpreted.

I know that I’m not alone in this endeavor. Our friend, Jaimie, who also has Elementary-aged children, was noting the speed of the traffic the other day. She said, “Sometimes I just want to get my hair dryer and stand along the road and point it at oncoming traffic to see if anyone slows down.”

I responded, “Yeah, it’s a good thing that impersonating an officer isn’t illegal.”

It would be a bit much for me to say that I feel that I am “called by God” to be a self-appointed traffic monitor. But I do feel as if it is important to look out for one another, and maybe I am called by God to protect other people, especially the little people whose lives have been entrusted to me. Sometimes calls can be specific, and sometimes they can be rather general. Either way, I believe that God is always calling us to something.

The point that I’m trying to make by telling this story is that we need to broaden our understanding of calling. Too often we reserve the language of calling for pastors and overseas missionaries. Indeed, these are positions that we should only enter into if we sense a clear call from God. But I believe that God calls us all to be agents of healing and hope, and that God can call us to do so as medical workers, teachers, carpenters, garbage collectors, and yes, even self-appointed traffic monitors. The most important thing we can do is be available. The most important thing we can do is to be like Isaiah and say, “Here I am, Lord. Send me!”

Let’s start with our text from Isaiah to understand this call from God, and then we will expand the circle. Isaiah 6 begins by stating that King Uzziah has died. I think that this is little more than a way to put a date to this event. They didn’t have our standardized calendars yet in Isaiah’s day, so they couldn’t say “It was 2018 when this vision came to me.” The year Uzziah died, Isaiah received this vision. He saw God, or at least the robe of God. No description of God’s appearance is given, so many have speculated that Isaiah was looking up at a large deity, and all he could see was the waist down. These theories are mostly to preserve the idea that nobody can see God and live. Moses saw God’s back side, Isaiah saw his lower half. But one day we will see him face-to-face

God is surrounded by seraphim, winged, angelic beings that are regarded by some traditions as the highest-ranking of all angels. And these highest-ranking angelic beings call out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

And when the seraphim speak, the whole place shakes.

This entire event makes Isaiah feel a little insecure. He is like Wayne and Garth when they meet Alice Cooper, “We’re not worthy!” Isaiah’s exact words are found in verse 5, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

The first thing that I want to point out about being called by God is that you’re not worthy. You’re not good enough, perfect enough, or holy enough. Nope, like Isaiah, we aren’t worthy, but God uses us anyway.

Every pastor knows that it is an honor and privilege to be invited into your lives, into your homes, and into your hearts. I get to be there with you in times of great joy, like weddings and births, and I get to be there in times of suffering and pain. I get to be here today sharing my understanding of the Bible and God’s desire for our lives. That is an honor, and I am not worthy.

But I do believe that I am called to be here.

God doesn’t call us because of anything that we have done. God calls us because of what we can do together. It is because we aren’t worthy that sometimes we need some reassurance.

When I first sensed a call into ministry, I tested that call with several key leaders. I spoke with my pastor and some friends at church. I went to visit seminaries and ministry programs. And one person gave me a great metaphor for interpreting the calling. He spoke of flying in an airplane at night. If you have ever flown at night, you probably have noticed that as you approach the airport, the runway is clearly marked with lights on all four sides. This makes really good sense to me, because you need to know exactly where the runway starts and ends. A few feet either way may be a disaster.

The words of wisdom that I received were that when God is calling you to do something, things will line up like the lights of along a runway/landing strip. Sense of call? Check. Affirmation from the church and/or loved ones? Check. Funding? Check. Opportunity? Check!

Obviously, I’m oversimplifying things a bit. Things don’t always line up as perfectly as we would like. And I also wouldn’t want to say that if there are a few misaligned lights along the way that it isn’t God’s call. Sometimes God is calling us to do something, but the timing isn’t right, or the place isn’t right. We need to continue to be aware of God’s leading, and make those adjustments. But we can take it as an affirmation that we are in the right place when things line up.

I can offer friends Mike and Kristin as examples. For years, Mike and Kristin have wanted to do some type of overseas ministry. They felt a call to the United Kingdom, where Kristin had spent a brief period of time earlier in her life. They were accepted as workers with Mennonite Missions Network. MMN found them an appropriate location in Ireland where they wouldn’t have to learn a new language. The girls were excited about the opportunity. Things were coming together, until the position was closed.

Mike and Kristin could have said that this had never been God’s leading or calling, but almost everything lined up. So they took this as an affirmation to keep trying. After several years of searching for the right opportunity, Mike and Kristin were approached about a position in London. It was a good time for Mike to take off work for a year. It worked well for the girls to switch to a UK model of school for a year. And they even found someone to rent their home for a year.

The cherry on the top was that Kristin had always had a fascination with the British Monarchy. And just last week she got to be in England during the most recent Royal wedding.

Again, like all metaphors, this one can break down. When the lights don’t all line up, sometimes we are just a little off in discerning God’s call, and we shouldn’t abandon our sense of call all together. But when they do all line up, take that as an affirmation that you are on the right path.

One thing that I am hoping for, because I haven’t yet arrived, is that it will continue to get easier to discern God’s calling. Logically, it makes sense. The more time you spend with God and the better you get to know him, the easier it will be to discern when something is the leading of God and when it is something else.

In John 10, Jesus calls himself “the Good Shepherd.” In verses 3b-4, he says, “[The Shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

The better you know the voice, the easier it would seem to follow the Shepherd.

Now the astute among us may say, What about when Jesus called his original disciples? It sounds like he just says, “follow me” to a bunch of fishermen and they do just that.

I would simply say that we don’t know whether or not the disciples have any previous connection with Jesus before he officially invited them to follow him. But I’m going to guess that they did. Whether by personal contact, or through word of mouth and reputation, I can’t imagine that they would drop their nets and follow him with nothing more than an invitation from a stranger to come.

But yet God does call people who don’t seem to know his voice. It is those times when the experiences of others comes in handy. Remember the story of the calling of Samuel. Young Samuel is living with the elderly priest, Eli, in the local synagogue. When God calls Samuel, Samuel thinks it is Eli. It is only after several attempts that Eli is able to instruct Samuel, “It is the Lord calling!”

If you are having difficulties discerning the call of God, surround yourselves with people who have experience in this area. And if you sense that God wants to use someone in a particular way, please tell them.

One of the challenges that many people face today is a lack of self-confidence. This is especially true in the church where we teach people to be humble and not to boast. If you see gifts in someone and feel that God can use that person in some way, please don’t keep that to yourself. Your words might be all they need to volunteer at the Mission, to teach underprivileged children how to read, or any of the many other ways God calls us to live out our faith.

Here’s a little more encouragement for you today: you’re going to fail.

The Lectionary reading ends with verse 8 for a reason, things get a little discouraging after that. Isaiah is being called to be a prophet among the people. With a little coaxing, he agrees to this calling. And then God says it isn’t going to turn out too well.

Isaiah asks how long he is to be a prophet, and God responds in verse 11b-12, “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.”

Well, that’s encouraging. Hey Isaiah. I’m going to send you to your people with a message, and they aren’t going to listen. They won’t pay attention. They will fall to their enemies, be carried off to exile, and never see their homes again.

By all reasonable standards, it sounds like Isaiah is going to fail, and God knows it.

But nobody ever called me reasonable.

How do we measure effectiveness in our life as Christians? It looks different from the metrics of the world. The rest of the world says that to be successful we need money, mansions, power, and authority. We use a different metric. Or at least we should.

I hear stories about some denominations where every month the pastor is required to submit a document to their bishop. That document has two lines and two blank spaces where the pastor is to fill in a number and give an update. The lines simply say: new attendees, new baptisms.

Most pastors, month after month, give this slip of paper to their bishops with a zero on it. How do you think that makes the pastor feel? Like a failure!

Unfortunately, as the church began to decline in the United States, we began to take our cues from the rest of the world and started using worldly metrics for success and efficacy. A successful church is one that is growing quickly, starting satellite branches, with million-dollar budgets. Bigger is always better! Or so they would have us believe.

Indeed, there are some advantages of big churches, but that can’t be our only way of measuring effectiveness. Those “butts and bucks” churches have begun to fade, and we are now asking what an effective church looks like in the 21st century.

I simply like to say that what God is looking for isn’t churches or Christians who are effective by the world’s standards. God is looking for faithfulness, not effectiveness. And sometimes those are not one-and-the-same.

Isaiah warned the people, and they were carried off into exile anyway. The disciples ministered to people far and wide. When they were rejected by a town, they were told to take their cues from Taylor Swift and shake it off. Eventually, they were all killed for their faith. And Jesus Christ himself, the one many had hoped would lead the people out from under the oppressive regime of the Romans, was stripped, beaten, and crucified, put on display for all to see.

Were these people effective? Most people would say no. Were they faithful? Absolutely. I may not be effective when I yell at a speeding truck to slow down, but if I’m truly called by God to care for the little ones around me, then I am at least being faithful.

How are you being called? We have two people who will be leaving for Jamaica in a couple weeks to teach Bible School. We have a handful of people who work in various capacities at the Valley Mission. Some of you feel called to share with your neighbors. Some feel called to teach stewardship of God’s creation. My suggestion is that if you sense these calls, don’t sit on it, act on it! Talk to people, listen to them and to God, and see if those lights line up. And no matter what the outcome, if you are faithful to your calling, you will never fail.

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