Monday, June 30, 2014

June 29, 2014 Jonah - The Call Upon Your Life

Jonah 3:1-10

I am very pleased to be back this morning, and I am very grateful to the leadership of Jordan, David, the elders and others while I was away. I have listened to both sermons and enjoyed them very much; a job very well done, as I expected.  And of course to Racene, who always keeps everything running smoothly. 

Next week ends our series of messages from the book of Jonah. Generally, I write my sermons according to where I feel led, but I don’t always know if what I have to say connects with where you are in life or to what you are thinking.  I want to be more interactive in constructing a series of messages beginning later in the summer, so here is what I want you to do to help me.  You will notice that your programs this morning contain an insert with a couple of questions.  I would like you to take a few minutes and answer those questions.  Don’t write your name on the paper, because I think anonymity will allow you to answer more freely.  Place the paper in the offering plate, hand it to me as you exit today, mail it to the office, or get it to me in whatever way you prefer.  If you want to take it home and think about it for a couple of days, that’s fine.  I’ll do this over the next couple of weeks.  I’ll take all the information and compile it into categories and do the best I can to include as much as I can.

Here are the questions –
1.   What do you wonder about?  What do you just not understand—or wish you did understand—about how life works?  Is it “Why bad things happen to good people?”  Or, maybe “Does prayer really work?”  Perhaps you wonder about “What happens when you die?” or “Why do innocent children suffer?”  If more than one thing comes to mind, write them all down.
2.  What do you worry about?  What keeps you up at night; causes your heart to beat faster, your anxiety to rise?  Perhaps it’s a financial issue.  Maybe a relationship gone bad.  Is there realistic hope in your worse case scenario?
3.  What do you wish for?  If money were no obstacle, time or other commitments could not stop you, what is your dream?  What would you love to see, or do?  Maybe travel somewhere. Have lots of money.  A particular job, or a special relationship?  Dreams are powerful motivators.  What’s yours?

Tanya has two brothers.  I first met her brother Mike in May of 1978, a couple of months after Tanya and I began dating.  Mike had come to help Tanya move her things home for the summer.  I was in the lobby of her dorm when he came walking in.  He was, I think, a senior in high school at the time.  I can still see him walking into the lobby, with all the swagger he could muster – which was quite a bit – and his long hair swinging as he walked (it was the 70s – we all had long hair!).

He walked right to me, stood in front of me, and without any other comment said, So.  You’re going to be a minister, huh?  How do you know you’re called?  Did God whisper in your ear or something?  I don’t remember all my answer, but I think it may have started with the words listen to me, punk.

But it’s a legitimate question – how does one know God has called them?

We are picking back up with our series of messages from the book of Jonah, and this morning we come to chapter three –

1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time:
“Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.
This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:  Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink.
But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.
Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Today I want to talk to you about calling.  The book of Jonah covers a lot of themes, and one of them is the calling that God places upon us.

In one sense, it’s an easy question to answer, how did you know you were called, because everyone is called.  I talk to a lot of people who feel they aren’t doing anything important with their lives.  They will say I’m just a _____.  There’s often a sense of regret in their voice, as though they believe they aren’t doing anything meaningful with their life.

But it’s not about vocation; it’s about who you are.  In America we measure ourselves too broadly by vocation, but that’s not God’s measurement.  He needs us, wherever we are, whatever we do, to live his love and his kingdom values.  Being called by God means far more than occupying a vocational ministry.

The disciples, called by Jesus, are an interesting example.  They had no theological training.  We don’t know if they had any kind of religious training.  They probably attended the synagogue, but we don’t know if they did with any regularity, or at all. 

I think it’s very, very significant that Jesus did not call his closest followers from the religious class.  Not one of them came from that group.  Sometimes, when I sit in minister’s meetings I understand why.  We’re kind of a weird group, we ministers.  One of the reasons we’re kind of weird is we live in a bubble and while we experience a lot of reality because of what we do, we’re shielded from a lot of reality as well.  You’re out there living in the middle of the some very difficult realities, balancing life and work and so many other matters.

God can use you where you are.  You don’t have to go to seminary.  You don’t have to be ordained.  You don’t have to have a special talent.  You don’t have to get up in front of a group of people and preach.  You only have to be who you are, where you are, and allow God to speak through your life. 

When I speak people expect certain things from ministers and often tune me out.  That’s just what he’s supposed to say.  Pay no attention to him.  But when you speak, or act, it carries a lot of weight.  People hear you, or watch you, and think, there just like me, so if faith is important to them, maybe I need to take a closer look at it.

It’s really a shame that Jonah could not embrace his calling, and that it was a source of misery for him.  I think his biggest problem was he was afraid of the people to whom he was called.

While we were out of town I went to a water park.  I love water parks.  I was walking around the park and there was an attraction that caught my attention.  Swim with sharks.  I don’t know why that intrigued me.  Perhaps because I wondered what kind of people would do such a thing?  There was a park information booth across from the entrance so I walked over to talk to the guy working.  There was a notebook with pictures and descriptions of the sharks, stingrays, and other fish in the attraction.

I had to ask the obvious question – there hasn’t been a problem yet, I assume?  He said, um, no.  What kind of answer is that?  Um, no.  It’s like he had to think about it for a moment.  If a shark had bitten someone you know the answer right away.  Answering in that way made me wonder if he was uncertain about answering honestly.  So I said, There’s always a first time, right?  He didn’t answer that question at all, which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence.  So I made the wise choice – I decided swimming with those sharks was exactly what I wanted to do.

I put on my snorkel and got in the water.  We were told to swim slowly across the tank, not to kick our feet, and not to touch any of the creatures in the tank.  That seemed like a given to me.  So I start swimming slowly across the tank.  About halfway across I decided to look around a little more.  I looked below me – the water was 10 ½ feet deep – and there were two sharks swimming right up toward me.  That’s when I realized I had a locker key dangling from my wrist, and I remembered reading once that marine biologists think one of the things that attract sharks to people swimming in the ocean is the presence of jewelry or shiny objects. 

They came right up under me, and then leveled off and glided just below me.  It’s hard to breath a sigh of relief in a snorkel, I’ll tell you that.  I tried to stay calm and just kept going, and when I got close to the other side there was a shallow area of water, about three feet deep, and there were two sharks right there, where I was supposed to climb out.  Just like they were waiting on me.  But, obviously I made it.  I climbed out and thought, I can’t believe I just did that.  I was so excited about having made it through the shark tank you know what I did?  I did it again!  I was excited about swimming with those sharks.  My family, surprisingly, did not share my excitement.

How can I get over my panic of creatures that want to eat me for dinner but struggle to step across an artificial line of demarcation drawn by our society?

The answer to the question how does one know they are called by God is simple – because everyone is called by God.

FCC Shelbyville | June 22nd, 2014 Sermon | David Pilkinton

FCC Shelbyville | June 15th, 2014 Sermon | Jordan Lardner

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

FCC Shelbyville | June 8th, 2014 Sermon

June 8, 2014 Jonah: The Ministry of Interruption

June 8, 2014
Jonah 2:1-10

I will be out of the pulpit for the next two Sundays, as I start vacation tomorrow.  Tanya asked me what I was going to do and I said it begins with an “f” and ends with “ish.”  She said, oh, you’re going to finish some things around the house finally?  Actually, that was just a joke I told her I was going to use today, but that was the actual response she had. 

Some years ago a friend of mine asked how things were going.  It had been one of those weeks that became very busy with everything but what I had planned to do, so I remarked that I could get some ministry done if it weren’t for all of the interruptions.  In his wisdom he offered me a really great response, saying maybe the interruptions are the ministry.

I have never allowed myself to forget those words.

As we continue our study of Jonah this morning we come to the most familiar part of the story, where Jonah is swallowed by the great fish and spends three days in the belly of the fish before being expelled back onto dry land.

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
He said:  “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me.
 From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers swept over me.
I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’
The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.
 But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.
“When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.
“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you.
 What I have vowed I will make good.  I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

That ends on a rather picturesque image, doesn’t it?

How many interruptions have you experienced in life?  By interruption, I mean some event or experience that triggered a time of questioning, suffering, difficulty, conflict, or other generally negative event.  How many times did you see those experiences as a teachable moment?  I’ve always been a bit wary of that expression – teachable moment – because it’s generally a euphemism for pain or suffering.
The story of Jonah tells us that God brings this event upon Jonah in order to get his attention.  It’s an interruption.  It’s a course correction.

I’m not willing to say that everything we experience in life is caused by God.  I regularly hear people say it was meant to be or everything happens for a reason.  I don’t look at life that way.  Feel free to believe that if you wish.  Rather than saying everything happens for a reason, my preference is to say that God can bring a redemptive moment out of everything we experience.  And some of those moments are ones we would never welcome and ones we would avoid if at all possible, but still they come our way.  The important question is not so much why do they happen, but what will they teach us?

Teachable moments or interruptions, whatever we want to call such life moments, are very important to us because of the opportunity to learn something God desires to teach us.

Jonah had some things to learn –

1.  Jonah needed to learn to love people.
The story of Jonah dates to the time when the people of Israel were coming back to their homeland after decades of captivity in Babylon.  It was an experience that made them distrustful of others who were not like them, people of other nationalities, people of other ethnicities.  They became more tribal in their thinking and caused them to believe that God confined his love and grace only to them.

They returned to their homeland and they found it populated with all manner of nationalities and ethnicities, and they didn’t at all approve of their presence in the land.

When you read the pages of Scripture we find God is, time after time, seeking to stretch people’s hearts and minds to be accepting of others.  This is the heart of the story of Jonah.  In the Gospels we find Jesus trying to open the hearts and minds of people to love others.  In the letters of Paul we find him encouraging the churches to not reject the Gentile people.

And here we are today, in our modern age, still suffering from the same deficiency of heart and mind.  For all of our supposed openness today, so many hearts and minds remain closed to others.  It’s not just one group of people who suffer from this deficiency of heart and mind, but all kinds.  People of all manner of perspectives gather in their groups and in various ways assert their pride in their belief that they are not like those others.

When Jesus called us to love others, he really meant it.  He meant it for everyone – everyone is called to love others.  Jesus called us to love our neighbors.  And when he said to love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27) one of the teachers of the law asked and who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29)  Can’t you hear the smugness and arrogance in his voice?  He was seeking to excuse himself from who he was called to love.  Jesus said our neighbor is whoever is in need, and he used the example of not just someone in need but someone who was despised by most people.

It’s tough to love other people.  Some people work really hard to make themselves lovable, don’t they?  But we are called to love them anyway.  The Ninevites were people.  They weren’t enemies of God, but his children.  Jonah couldn’t see beyond the borders of Israel, in terms of mercy.  Where do we erect our borders?  Where is the limit beyond which we won’t go?

I think it’s fairly obvious in the Jonah story that Jonah represents faith and the sailors represent the world at large.  There is, far too often, a gap between the two.  Sometimes, religious people can be far too condescending towards the world at large.  But the opposite can also be true; sometimes, the world at large is far too condescending towards religious people.  The church too often sees those on the outside as unrepentant sinners and those outside of the church too often see it as a place of uptight hypocrites.  Both need each other.

2.  Jonah needed to learn that God is relentless in pursuing us.
C. S. Lewis spoke of God’s relentless pursuit of him.

I like that way of describing God’s love for us, and for others – God is relentless in his pursuit of us.  He doesn’t push himself on us, certainly, there is free choice, but I believe that God is working always in the lives of every person in some manner.  It may be very obvious to us or it may not be obvious at all, but he is there.

The question is, what does it take to get the attention of some people?

The time in the great fish was a time of reflection and reorientation for Jonah.  His dire circumstances, as is often true for us, grabbed his attention.  Unfortunately, his attention quickly reverted to his old prejudices as soon as he was back on dry land.

It’s hard to maintain the sense of conviction that often accompanies our times of struggle, but it is imperative that we learn from those moments.  Richard Rohr says, We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast.  Unless we face a major disaster like the death of a friend or spouse or loss of a marriage or job, we usually will not go there.  As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent.  That is the great language of religion.  It teaches us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life.  These dark periods are good teachers.

Jonah’s experience in the great fish was a great teacher, but he turned out to be a poor student, quickly forgetting what he had learned in his time of adversity.

Do not forget that God is pursuing you, and me, at all times.  He is pursuing us with his love and his grace.

3.  Jonah needed a lesson in grace.
Jonah somewhat learns his lesson.  I say somewhat because Jonah does not come around totally to the mission given to him by God.

The sad part of the story of Jonah is this – it wasn’t his mission that bothered him, but the idea that his mission might succeed.  Jonah did not want to see the Ninevites repent; he wanted to see them destroyed.

There are many things we need in this world, but perhaps what we need most is more grace.