Sunday, September 14, 2008

Audio from Sunday, Sept. 14

Sermon from Sunday, Sept. 14

Referencing Jeremiah 20:7-18, Jeremiah's jeremiad against God.

You may remember that last week we started talking about stewardship. As you’ll recall, we talked about how being a steward means managing all the gifts that God gives us. God expects us to use all the gifts he gives us for his good and the good of all of his creation---whether those be material gifts, or financial gifts, or emotional gifts, or spiritual gifts. No matter what the gift is that God gives us, we are called on to be stewards of those gifts. And so over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about various different kinds of gifts and talking about ways in which we can be good stewards of those gifts. The first kind of gift we want to look at is spiritual gifts, those gifts for ministry that God gives us. Today, I’m going to start by giving us a bit of insight into how to know your spiritual gifts; and next week, our own Sue Hegarty and I are going to do a sermon together, and Sue will talk a little bit about how she came to understand God’s call on her life to go into mission work. Also, next Sunday after church will be our church’s ministry fair, a chance for you to come and explore your spiritual gifts as well as the different ministries of our church, so you can find a way to use those gifts here, for your good and for the good of this community.
So today and next week I want to focus in on one particular part of stewardship—our spiritual gifts. To be honest, I started to talk about these things last week, when we talked about the manifold grace of God; if you remember, “manifold” means something like “multifaceted,” like a diamond where each of us sees a different sparkle at a different angle. Each of us sees God’s goodness from a different angle, which means that each of us appreciates something different about God—and the things that we appreciate about God can give us a clue as to what we’ve been called to do. Each of us understands God a little bit differently, and so each of us has our own unique way of serving God.
That being said, it’s a lot of nice talk, but how do we know what exactly that is that we’ve been called to do? This is a question that is not exactly addressed in Scripture. At least the Scripture doesn’t give us any easy answers; it’s not as if you can turn to Hezekiah 3:14 and find out ten easy steps for knowing your spiritual gifts. Our calling is a delicate thing and seems to resist easy answers like that. At the same time, God does give us some tools for knowing what our calling is. But instead of getting recipes, what we get are stories. Throughout Scripture, we have stories of people who are undeniably doing the will of God; and through the stories of how they were called, we might learn a little bit about how God calls people.
The first person we should probably look at is Jesus—after all, Jesus is sort of the center of what we do here. The closest thing we see to Jesus getting a calling was when he was baptized. John baptizes Jesus, and do you remember what happens immediately afterward? A dove descends upon him and a voice comes from heaven and says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Now, I don’t know about you, but were I Jesus, I would have liked a fuller description of what this meant. I guess I mean I would have liked some marching orders! I would have liked to know precisely what I was supposed to do. #1. You are going to heal people. #2. You are going to set an example for people over all places and times for how they are supposed to live. #3. You will not sin ever. #4. You will die a redemptive death. #5. You will have a triumphant resurrection.
But Jesus gets none of that—he simply hears that he is God’s Son. What exactly that means the world does not totally understand, although in hindsight we understand it at least a little bit better. All that is said, though, is that Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus’ calling was less about specific tasks that were to be accomplished and more about the kind of person he was made to be. That is not to say that the tasks Jesus did weren’t important—but it is to say that his calling was about his character first, his tasks second.
It can be difficult to draw too much from Jesus’ example, since Jesus was both God and human. So look at another character, Peter. In Matthew 16, Peter finally gets it, he finally gets that Jesus is the Son of God and so he tells Jesus this. And Jesus looks back at Peter, and he says, “You are Peter (translated Rock), and upon this Rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” I always like this passage in part because it’s incredibly confusing. Peter has just basically had the light click on, and now he hears that he’s going to be a Rock, and that he has keys to this kingdom and he can bind things and loose things and you can just see him in your mind’s eye looking so confused, and thinking, “Well, this is great, Jesus, but what do I need to do now? What do I need to do next week? Am I going to be preaching and if so, what exactly am I going to preach? Am I going to be martyred? What exactly is my calling?”
And Jesus, of course, would say your calling is “Rock.” No matter where you are, no matter what you’re called on to do, whatever position you are in, you are the Rock. You approach every situation as my Rock. And as Peter’s life unfolded, it became obvious what being the Rock meant: it became obvious that being a Rock meant being the leader of the early church. It became obvious that being a Rock meant preaching a strong, unyielding message about who Jesus was; it became obvious that being a Rock meant being a foundation of the church, a touchstone for the fledgling Christian movement all over the world.
From Peter and Jesus we learn that God does not often assign jobs, he points us to our true character. Before Jesus does anything, Jesus is the Son of God; before Peter does anything, Peter is the Rock. Likewise, I think it behooves us to remember that our calling is not so much to specific tasks—it is to look at ourselves with God’s eyes and to see who we really are. If we know who we are, if we know who God created us to be, our decisions will begin to flow out of that. If you know that God created you to be generous, if generosity is your spiritual gift, then you should find ways to serve God that let you be generous—and exercise that gift God gave you. And steer clear of ways to serve God that try to get you to be something that you’re not. If your gift is generosity, not teaching, don’t say yes if they ask you to teach Sunday School. If your gift is administration, not empathy, don’t say yes to being on the lay pastoral team. If your gift is teaching, not baking yummy goodies, please don’t try to bake yummy goodies and bring them to church functions: trying to use gifts that you don’t have is just counterproductive. If we know who we are, we can act in harmony with our identity.
Now this of course should make us ask the question, “How do we know who we are?” If God gives us names, how do we find out those names? If God points us to our true character, how do we know our true character? I mean, we’re not like Jesus—we don’t have doves coming down and voices from heaven saying this is who we are. We’re not even like Peter—we don’t have Jesus here telling us that we are Rocks. How do we know who we are? Please don’t assume that you know who you are; none of us knows ourselves perfectly. We are mysteries to ourselves. I don’t know myself perfectly—in order to know myself better, I need to do two things: 1) I need to be in relationship with other people who can help me to see who I am, and 2) I need to constantly be reflecting on this question: who did God make me to be?
In a sense that question is never fully answered—we must always leave it at least a little bit open-ended. But there is a way to begin to get some insight into this question, and it is from a wonderful writer named Frederick Buechner, and it’s printed in your bulletin this week. He said that your calling is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet. Now that, if you take it seriously, can be really helpful in seeing who God made you to be. Think of it this way: there are all kinds of things in the world that make us happy. I feel happy when I watch football, when I enjoy a second cup of coffee on a fall Friday morning reading the newspaper on our deck. But there is a difference between happiness and deep happiness. I feel deeply happy when I crawl into bed at night and say, “I partnered with God to make a difference in the world today. What I did made a difference, whether it was listening to other people in the midst of difficulties, or changing diapers, or preparing a new Sunday School class, or working on my dissertation…I made a difference.” That’s deep happiness, deep joy.
The other side of the equation is the world’s deep hunger. The world is hungry for lots of things. The world wants lots of things; it wants fun experiences, it wants fine dining, it wants professional sports and it wants cheap gas. But there are things they want more deeply than that: there are deep longings written in every human heart for the things of the Kingdom of God: there are deep longings in our hearts for a simple, sustainable lives marked by meaningful work, actual leisure enjoying the gifts God has given us, and hearts regularly (and always) turned toward God in worship. This is the deep hunger of the world—the Kingdom of God—and even if the world is blindly groping for it, it is groping for the Kingdom of God nonetheless.
So with this in mind, we say that your calling is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet. When you go to bed at night saying, “I was God’s partner today,” what did you do that made you feel that way? What did you do that you saw bore fruit for God’s Kingdom? If what people really want is the Kingdom, at what times in your life have you known the deep joy of giving people what they deeply long for? Now—I want you to know that this is not only “holy” things like preaching or leading worship. The drive for the Kingdom of God encompasses every part of our being; I remember once hearing a sermon when I was in college, and Jill and I were dating, and a professor of mine was talking, and he was lamenting that few of the “best and the brightest” go into ministry, and so he was pushing for more majors in the Christian ministry department. And he said something to the tune of, “Don’t you want to be part of a life that will change the world?” And I’m sitting there, nodding my head, but it made Jill mad. Why? Because she saw the talent she had in mathematics, and she wanted to take that talent, get all the education she could, so she could use that to further God’s Kingdom too. Wouldn’t it be better for her to do what she was gifted to do rather than sit through classes that would be so boring for her about how to become a pastor?
She was, of course, right. The Kingdom is not something that only happens here in church—it happens all over this world God has given us. The Kingdom of God needs mathematicians every bit as much as it needs ministers; and it needs mechanics and bakers and accountants and actors and theologians and novelists, each who do what they do because they see God acting through them when they do it and they feel deep joy in seeing it done. Where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet—there is your calling.
Now, I must say something here: this sounds all fine and good. But how does it work out in real life? If you’re going to give people advice on how to find their calling, it has to pass what I call the prophet test. In Scripture, probably the people we think about having a calling the most are the prophets. And yet the prophets’ lives were often very difficult. Consider Jeremiah, who wrote the passage Val read this morning. That was a cheery little passage, wasn’t it? “Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;” in essence, he’s saying “God, you tricked me into this life, and I stupidly let myself be tricked.” He describes his experience as one of being compelled by God to speak his word; if he doesn’t speak God’s word, if he doesn’t let it out, he feels the word burning him up from within, forcing him to speak, forcing him to vent it out if he wants to live. In the end, he says, “Cursed be the day I was born!” I wish I had died before I was born; I wish my mother’s body had become my grave so that I wouldn’t have to experience this miserable life.
And we hear this, and we say, “Is the calling of God really about our deep joy and the world’s deep hunger? Really? Because Jeremiah just doesn’t seem very happy, really.” Yet look at this text altogether. There are two things I want you to see here: the first is the deep and abiding sense of God’s presence that Jeremiah had, even in the midst of all his problems. Even as he is talking about how the whole world is against him, he says “but the Lord is with me like a dread warrior. Therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail.” Even though the whole world is against me, they will not defeat me, says Jeremiah, because God is with me and God’s presence is enough. Those of you who have been joyous know what I’m talking about—God’s presence brings joy in a way nothing else can. You can be going through a miserable, difficult time, but if you can look and say, “God is here, with me, now, and nothing can take that away” and even in the middle of the torment you can feel joy and you can feel peace. It is important when we are looking for our deep joy in the world that we don’t just look for happiness; God’s call isn’t always going to make you happy but it can bring you joy, joy because you know he’s there, joy because you know that you are where he wants you.
The other thing we have to notice in this passage from Jeremiah is in this odd little verse: “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” This of course sounds like standard issue, boilerplate kind of Bible verse—the Bible has a million verses like this. But consider where this verse is—it is smack in the middle of this incredible lament. One minute, he is essentially accusing God of spiritual trickery, almost of rape—he is saying that he wishes he had never been born, that God had just killed him inside his mother. But it’s almost as if in the middle of this tirade, he gets perspective and he realizes, “Oh yeah. Things are not as bad as they seem—even when I feel terribly alone, as if God is against me, still in the middle of this, I can find the strength to praise him, to honor him, to remember that yes, he is good.
So I can say to you with confidence, “Find your calling. Seek that place where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I can say it to you because Jeremiah knew the joy of God’s presence even amid terrible persecution. I can say it to you because Peter knew the joy of being a Rock even when facing martyrdom, rejoicing that he was found worthy of suffering. I can say it to you because even Jesus was able to endure the difficulty of his cruciform calling because of the joy set before him. Like these three men, following your calling may not be easy, and it may not make you happy, but it will bring you joy to live your life in this way.