Monday, July 21, 2014

July 20, 2014 A Vision of Faith, Hope, and Love

July 20, 2014
I Corinthians 13:1-13

The Beatles were pretty close.

When the Beatles sang all you need is love, they weren’t far from the truth.  Love is the greatest element we need in our lives, but coming in a close second are faith and hope.

The realists among us would remind us that we also need food, clothing, shelter, and some other things to get us through life – and they would be correct – but today, let us think in terms more lofty and grandiose.

Many of you probably had this week’s Scripture passage read at your wedding, or perhaps it was read at a family funeral.  You probably know most of the first and last verses of the chapter by memory, and could fairly accurately guess some of the others. 

For all the beauty of the passage, it is also one that is extremely challening.

This morning’s message is one of vision.  It is not a vision that provides specific details of what we need to do, but rather a vision of who we are.  You have to be something, I believe, before you can do something.

If I speak in the tongue of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Have you ever read anything that is so beautiful and at the same time so challenging?

I believe that one of the reasons why this chapter is so beloved is because it speaks to the hope we all have of living up to the ideals of love.  Not that we accomplish such a lofty goal, but we try, and we know we need to try.

At the end Paul writes, in verse 13, And now these three remain:  faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love.  In that verse is a vision, I believe, of three gifts we are given, and these three gifts are the foundation of all we are called to be.  These three gifts define who we are as the people of God.  These three are the qualities of who we are called to be before we do anything.

Faith has been a great gift in my life.  I can’t imagine life without faith.  Though we live in an age of growing skepticism, I continue to believe faith is a great gift to the world.  It is my hope we can present an image of faith that is far more appealing and far healthier than those narrow and dogmatic versions we see far too often.

When I think about faith, it is not in abstract terms.  When I think about faith, I think about the people who helped to plant faith in the heart, mind, and soul.  Faith is not merely an abstract concept, but a living reality that is transferred through flesh and blood individuals who have exercised great infuence over our lives.

A 12th century theologian by the name of John of Salisbury wrote we are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.  We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

My faith, like yours, rests on the shoulders of many people.  My faith is not mine alone.  I have faith because I was raised in a household of faith.  My parents modeled faith to me.  Other people modeled faith to me.  My faith has been strengthened by people who were, and who are, living demonstrations of faith to me.  Some of them are still among us, while others form part of the great cloud of witnesses spoken of in Hebrews 12:1. 

It was through my family and others that I learned not only the value of faith but also the importance of being a part of the church.  I have served in churches where saints modeled faith to me and taught me what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Many people have invested in my life; many people have had faith in me.  I have not arrived at this point in life on my own or by my own doing.  And I am grateful I have not come to this point in life on my own, and that I do not continue from this point on my own. 

At camp I thought a lot about people like Bob Mack, Joe Bliffin, Karl Marshall, and Gene Carter, individuals who were so important in my faith development.  I thought about the saints in my home church who invested so much into my life, such as Mrs. Poland, my junior high Sunday School teacher.  We wanted to hurry out the door to get to Wilson’s Grocery to buy some candy between Sunday School and church, but Mrs. Poland stood at the door and took each of us by the hand and told us of how she believed God would use each of our lives.

When I came home from camp and announced that I felt called into ministry my mom told me two things – one, there is never any shame in leaving the ministry.  Isn’t that an interesting response?  That might tell you something about my home church.  My mom had seen it all and knew what I was getting into. Two, I should spend a week with Reverend Norris, our minister at the time, to see what the life of a minister is like.  I never did the second, spending a week with Reverend Norris, unfortunately, but I haven’t done the first either.  I haven’t quit, although there have been times I have sure thought about quitting.  But even when I thought about quitting, even when I really wanted to quit, I couldn’t, and it was because of hope.  There has always been hope that continued to pull me along. 

Where would we be without hope?  If you’re a golfer you understand hope.  I am not a very good golfer.  Some of you have invited me to play a round of golf, so I've been trying to get my game in decent shape so that I won't embarrass you.  Let me say something this morning - I generally don't get a second invitation to play golf, after accepting the first one.  Don't feel bad if you don't want to invite me to play again when you see how poorly I play.  I did have one great shot though, back in the 1980s.  I was playing in Harrodsburg and made my only eagle.  It was the 18th hole, a par 5, and my second shot landed about six inches from the cup.  I think I took half an hour to line up that put!  I was not going to miss it, because I knew it would probably be my only shot at an eagle, and because the restaurant in the clubhouse looked out to the 18th green and I wasn't going to miss an eagle in front of that audience!  Although I had a terrible round overall, I had one great shot, so of course, I was convinced I was becoming a good golfer.  Now that's hope!  

Hope, wrote Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
What a beautiful way to phrase the reality of hope – it perches in the soul.
It is my prayer that hope is so deeply embedded in your heart and soul that it never stops at all.  Never let go of hope.

So much has been written, so much said, about love, that it’s easy to ask what else is there to say?  Whatever I can think of to say about love, someone has already said it, and said it better.

My task is not to find something new or earthshaking to say about love, but to remind us of its centrality in our lives.  Love is the foundation to everything that we do and everything that we are.

When I lived in another community I used to drive by two houses that were situated side by side along a highway in the countryside.  They were the only two houses within sight of each other along that part of the highway.  There was something very striking about these two houses – both were surrounded by very tall privacy fences, one slightly higher than the other.  Every time I drove by those two houses I wondered what took place between the two families to cause them to erect those fences.  Why was the first one erected?  And was the one that was slightly higher, as was my guess, the second one erected?

I see those two houses with their high fences as a metaphor of our world.  Those fences represent the brokenness and alienation between people.  Those fences represent the fractured relationships that litter the landscape of humanity.  Those fences are present in real and in spiritual ways in our own community, in our own families, and perhaps our own congregation.

Today, tragically, religion sometimes contributes to the fractiousness of our world.  Sometimes religion functions as a wedge between people rather than as a bridge or a bond.  Sometimes religion concerns itself more with building fences rather than lowering them.

We are living in a truly transformational time, and we struggle with how to stay relevant and with how to capture people’s time and attention.  People no longer look as quickly or look at all to churches for their answers.  But the needs of people have not changed, and these three gifts – faith, hope, and love – are still much-needed by humanity.  They are the answer.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

July 13, 2014 The Importance of the Minority Report

July 13, 2014
Numbers 13:25-33

It was a great experience at camp last week, although I am really feeling it this morning.  Today, and next Sunday, I am doing something that I rarely do – I am recycling old sermons.  I don’t like to reuse sermons, just as I don’t like to eat leftovers, because once I’m done with a message I move on.  As we are between sermon series, however, and as I was at camp all of last week, it seemed to be the prudent thing to do.  As usual though, when I use an older sermon, I find that I spend a good deal of time changing and rewriting it. 

In our nation, we have a time-honored tradition of the dissenting opinion on our Supreme Court.  And we can recognize how important those dissenting opinions – those minority reports – can be.  The Dred Scott Decision, for instance, handed down on March 6, 1857, in a 7 – 2 decision, ruled that African-Americans could not be citizens.  That ruling is widely considered to be the worse decision in the history of the Supreme Court.

That was a time that needed a blistering dissenting opinion.

There are times when we need a dissenting opinion, and those dissenting opinions generally come as a “minority report.”  Imagine where we would be as a nation if not for the minority report.  The Abolition movement, women’s suffrage, and the Civil Rights movement all began as a “minority report.”  Today, there are still voices – too often in the minority – that continue to call upon us to live up to our ideals of freedom and equality.

This morning, our Scripture reading tells us about a “minority report.”  The passage comes from the Old Testament, where we have been spending a good deal of time as of late.  One of the reasons why I have spent a good deal of time in the Old Testament in recent months is because we too easily ignore so much of what it has to teach us.  We are, we often say, “people of the New Testament” and forget the many valuable lessons found in the pages of the Old Testament.

Numbers 13:25-33 –
25 At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land.
26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran.  There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land.
27 They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey!  Here is its fruit.
28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there.
29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.”
30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”
31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.”
32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak) come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

In three brief points, I want to share with you about the importance of the minority report –  

Caleb and Joshua were an important voice for the minority report.  They were part of a group, sent by Moses, to spy out the land of Canaan – the Promised Land.  Most of us know the Hebrew people spent forty years wandering in the wilderness before entering the land, but you may not know the people were on the borders of the land not long after gaining their freedom from Egypt. 

It is not a long journey from Egypt to Canaan.  Even traveling by foot, the Hebrew people were able to reach the borders of Canaan in a relatively short period of time.  Upon their arrival at the borders, Moses sent in the group of spies.  When they returned, their report was very discouraging.  The land was, as promised, flowing with milk and honey and other bounty, but the majority of the group felt they could not enter the land because of the power of those who lived there.  Caleb and Joshua provided the minority report, convinced they could – and should – enter the land.  But the people went with the majority, which condemned them to a generation of wandering in the wilderness, and with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, none of them would enter into the Promised Land.

We often talk about the principle of majority rule in our political system, but we must always remember that the majority is not always correct.  This is why the majority is not permitted absolute rule, because there is such as things as the tyranny of the majority, where the rights of the minority can be trampled upon.  The majority rules in terms of our electoral process, but the majority cannot infringe upon the rights and freedoms of the minority.  This is an important point to remember when we hear the voices that criticize activist judges who overrule certain majority decisions.  If the majority wields their power to infringe upon the rights of the minority, that minority must be protected.

Sociologists tell us about something called the plausibility factor.  The plausibility factor is a tool that helps us to understand the ways in which groups of people think.  Because we tend to reflect the thinking of those with whom we surround ourselves, we might not realize when we take upon ourselves a way of thinking that is harmful to others.  This is when we need the minority to remind us that the majority is not always correct.

In one church I served we never had a unanimous vote.  If it appeared an issue was going to be decided unanimously one hand always went up in opposition.  Once, when the issue was so innocent and innocuous – and with the traditional, single no vote – I was amazed that anyone could vote against the issue.  A few days later, when I asked him why he voted against everything, he said I’m not opposed to most of it.  I just don’t think anything should be unanimous.  Everything needs a little opposition.

In retrospect, I understand his point, because, as I have said, sometimes we need to hear a voice of dissension.  I should hasten to add, however, that just as the majority isn’t always correct, neither is the minority.  Some people just don’t like change and they’ll do whatever it takes to prevent it.

When I was in seminary, a professor gave us some helpful advice.  He said there will be 5% of the people in the congregation who will think you walk on water.  Another 5% will think you don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.  The other 90% just want to get out of church on time.  After all these years I’ve decided that outside of perhaps quibbling about the percentages, he was correct.  I also have learned that you can apply that formula to just about anything in the church.  About 5% will be out on the leading edge, pulling the church forward, and another 5% will be against just about anything that is proposed.  Sadly, many churches play to that 5% or less who are always trying to stifle progress and forward movement.

So if the majority isn’t always correct, and neither is the minority, how do we discern the difference between what is right and what is wrong in the life of the church?

As people of faith we say that there is a standard by which we measure truth, but who gets to determine that standard?  We will turn to the Scriptures for guidance, but who gets to determine the proper interpretation of Scripture?

The answer, I believe, is working it out in community, as the body of Christ.

How many of you, if I asked to give me three occasions when you were wrong could do so in five seconds?  You might be able to tell me when you acted incorrectly, but how many could tell me when your point of view was wrong? 

We all say I’m not always right, but the reality is, we have a very hard time figuring out when we’re wrong about something.  This is why I am not much on solitary faith.  Although I believe we can worship on our own, and should, I don’t believe it leads to a healthy faith if we do not gather with others.  It is in the give-and-take, the living and striving together, that we discern what the Spirit is calling us to be and do.  There is a pull and pull, a give and take that exists among a group of people, and it is a healthy and needed dynamic.

At camp last week I witnessed an interesting moment.  When you spend a week with junior high students there is always the potential for some kind of crisis, especially with the boys.  One day, something happened that required discussion at the daily staff meeting.  We wondered if something should be said or if it would be best simply to ignore it.  We decided to let it go and not say anything about it.  The next day, it happened again.  We couldn’t ignore it the second time, so Rob, the camp director, gathered the guys together.  Rob was not a happy camper, so to speak.  He told the boys they had to work it out and sent them off by themselves. 

After thinking about it for a few moments, I thought that it might be best if one of the camp staff was nearby, just to keep an eye on them.  I stood at a distance where I could still here, but most of the guys didn’t notice me.  It was interesting as one of the guys – who could be a challenge – rose to the occasion.  I was worried that the group might unfairly blame one of the campers and take it out on him in an unhealthy manner, which is how it appeared might happen.  There were some recriminations being offered, but the one young man rose to leadership, pulled them together, and they worked it out very effectively.  I was impressed with the manner in which the problem was handled.

It was a minority report that saved the day for the young men, and reminded me that sometimes all it takes is for one person to speak up and an crowd of people can be directed in the proper direction.

As we worship together as God’s people, may be strive together always to be under the leadership of his Spirit.

July 6, 2014 Jonah: Letting God Be God

July 6, 2014
Jonah 4:1-11

For many years I thought of myself as being fairly literate when it comes to technology.  I’ve realized in more recent years that if I ever was, I am no longer.  Part of it may be my impatience at learning new things.  I don’t like to read manuals and I don’t like to spend time learning how to operate a new device.  I learn a few basics and that’s about it. 

So I’m often surprised when I learn something new.  Nick and Tyler recently showed me a feature about my phone that I did not know existed.  If you push the home button twice it shows all the apps that are running in the background.  I checked it the other day and there were 33 different apps running, using power and memory.

I had no idea.

I think there is a mental and spiritual parallel to those apps running in the background.  I believe there are, for lack of a better word, “apps” that run in the back of our minds, operating like a software program telling us how to act and think.  They determine how we see people, how we see the world, and how we think about things in general. What this means is that you and I may not be the independent thinkers that we believe we are.  We have been conditioned to see ourselves, others, and even God in particular ways and we may not even be aware that it’s because those “apps” are running in the background of our minds. Those apps – or influences – are tremendously powerful.  Not all of them are negative; but not all of them are positive either.

As we conclude our series of the book of Jonah this morning, I think it’s fair to say that Jonah had some very faulty “apps” at work in his heart and mind.  They were “apps” that caused him to look upon the Ninevites in a very tragic manner.  But it wasn’t just the Ninevites; it was also God.  Jonah wanted God to deal with the Ninevites in a way that suited not God, but Jonah.  Jonah was not at all pleased with the way God dealt with the people of Nineveh.  What Jonah needed to learn was to Let God Be God.

1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 
He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.
But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.
When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”  “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.
11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Chapter four begins by telling us that Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.  With whom was Jonah angry?  God.  Now, I can understand when people become angry at, or disappointed in, God after the very difficult loss of a loved one.  Anger at loss is understandable in some circumstances.  But why was Jonah angry?

Jonah was angry for a really, really bad reason.  Here’s what he says in verse 2, and you can almost see him stamping his feet and throwing a fit as he says it – is this not what I said when I was still at home?  That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Jonah is angry about God being a God of love.

Jonah did not flee to Tarshish because of fear or anxiety about the task God gave to him.  It was not the thought of personal hardship that caused Jonah to flee.  It was not because he felt ill-equipped for his task.  Jonah fled because he did not want to see God demonstrate love and compassion.  Think about that for a moment.  Jonah wanted, not compassion, but a ring-side seat to a Sodom and Gomorrah style destruction of a people he detested.  I have to admit that I’ve not always had the most positive attitude about some people, but I try to keep that to myself, because I recognize it’s wrong to feel such a way.  But poor Jonah didn’t even have the good sense to keep quiet about how he felt.  He blurted out his feelings to God with no hesitation and he lacked the good sense to be embarrrassed about it.

Jonah’s complaint is especially tragic because he’s doing more than simply objecting to God’s actions.  The folly of Jonah’s complaint is that he is objecting to the very nature of God.  It is God’s nature to be compassionate and loving, and Jonah knew this, and because God was prone to compassion and love, Jonah wanted nothing to do with the mission he was given.  Sadly, it wasn’t that Jonah did not understand the nature of God; he understood it very well – he just rejected it.

I have stated a couple of times during this series that Jonah is not a very sympathetic character, and we become painfully aware of what a tragic figure Jonah is as we read chapter four.  This chapter gives a very stark comparison between God and Jonah.  God is loving and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, while Jonah gleefully anticipates the destruction of the large city of Nineveh. 
So, as we wrap up our brief study of the book of Jonah, here are a couple of thoughts to remember –

We don’t get to determine who is worthy of love and compassion; God does.

If you’re a parent, at some point you’ve dealt with an angry, petulant child.  Perhaps it was in a check-out line or other public place, where the child decides to have a fit that comes complete with the stamping of feet, crossed arms, pouting lips, and an angry outburst.

Maybe one of the reasons why humans have such a proclivity to separating ourselves from others is because when we get to know people we find they aren’t always that scary, or that different.

No one is outside the circle of God’s love.
However much we want to shrink the circle, God wants to expand it, or do away with the circle all together.  In Christ there is no east or west.  I think we can extrapolate that out and say there is no black, white, Hispanic, right, left, American, Russian, Iranian, South African, gay, straight; pick a category of people who make you uncomfortable and know that God loves them as much as he does you or me.

Jonah did not approve of the manner in which God loves.  He wanted judgment and punishment, not grace and mercy.  Jonah wanted to shrink the circle of God’s love, allowing in only those of whom he approved.  There are still too many people who want to shrink the circle of God’s love, but however much they might want to shrink the circle, God wants to expand it, or do away with the circle all together.

Paul says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all on in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).  Those were the divisions of Paul’s day, and they were very deep divisions between people.

If love is foundational to the nature of God, so it should be for us.
Jonah has been gone for many centuries, but in some ways he is still with us.  Jonah’s closed mind still occupies the heads of many people who cannot open themselves to God’s inclusion of all people as his children.  His cold heart continues to beat in the chests of far too many who cannot – or will not – love other people, especially people who are different.

The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.
Albert Schweitzer

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.
Thomas Merton

FCC Shelbyville | July 13th, 2014 Sermon

FCC Shelbyville | July 6th, 2014 Sermon

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.