Monday, July 28, 2008

Self-Imposed Exile (Jonah)

July 27, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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oday we’re continuing to talk about exile and redemption, and the God who does not wait in Heaven or in holy places for us to fix ourselves up and come find Him, but who plunges into the mess of exile to come find us and call us home. Today we are going to use a rather famous story to better understand exile and God’s character. I’m referring to the story of Jonah. While the most obvious feature of that story is Jonah’s being swallowed by a whale, that’s not really the point of the story so much as Jonah’s self-imposed exile in running from God’s command and then the salvation of a city of exiles through Jonah’s obedience.

Each week we have seen that God’s story of exile and redemption has a personal challenge and a community challenge. Today’s story will be no different.

Self-Imposed Exile

We’ve talked about Adam and Eve’s disobedience and the resultant exile from the Garden and God’s intimate presence. We’ve talked about Moses’ crime and resultant exile from his people and community. In both these examples human beings did something that God told them NOT to do. Jonah’s exile takes on a slightly different feel as he refused to do something that God told him TO DO.

It’s the very first sentence in the book of Jonah: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Ammittai saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.’” (vv. 1-2) Ninevah was one of the great international cities of the known world and the Babylonian Empire – comparable to New York City or London. It was also corrupt, pagan, and as far from God as could be imagined. And God was calling on Jonah to serve as prophet and take a message of judgment to Nineveh.

And Jonah’s response could not have been any clearer. It’s there in the very next sentence: “But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the lord.” (v. 3) He set sail in the opposite direction from the task to which God had called him. His shipmates soon learned what he was up to – there in verse 10: “…the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.” Talk about a poor witness – not only was he specifically and intentionally disobeying God’s will, he was trying to get as far from God as possible and telling everyone around him about it along the way.

Now comes the familiar part of the story: a storm, tossed overboard, and swallowed by the whale. The whole of chapter two, which you heard some of in the call to worship, is a prayer from the belly of the whale. Jonah hits bottom, as the saying goes, and realizes he is dead apart from God’s mercy. I pray you’ve never reached that point, but some of you have and know what that is like. If so, this story is for you.

I imagine more of us relate to the first chapter – having a pretty clear understanding of what God is asking of us, and avoiding it, disobeying it, or outright running from it. If that’s you, this story is also for you.

The bottom line is this – you are free to choose exile. You are free to do what Moses did and “settle” for exile, far from God’s plans and purposes. But God always comes after us. Remember Psalm 139 that we’ve used for several weeks running? “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (v. 7) Will we remain in exile or turn back towards God? Moses turned back after 40 years away. Jonah turned back and cried out at the point of death, and God delivered him.

That’s the personal challenge of this story: you may well have turned away from God – not so much committing overt acts of sin, but realizing what God wanted from your life, and heading the other direction. Know that God does not and will not leave you alone. You can tune Him out, make exile your home, and drown Him out with noise and distractions. But here’s the recurring theme in Scripture: God is there with us in exile. I pray that we would turn to God far sooner than did Jonah or Moses. It is a lie that there is any better place to be than in God’s will. As the Psalm and the song says, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” (Psalm 84:10)

Jonah finally realized that it was no good to flee from the presence of the Lord, and he turned his face toward Nineveh. And God called him once again at the beginning of chapter 3: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.’” (vv. 1-2) Jonah was back where God wanted him to be, though we will see that challenges still remained. Again, this is proof that God can and does use those who have messed up!

Going to the Exiled

Chapter three is the story of what happened in Nineveh. Remember that this was a “wicked city” and Jonah’s instructions were to go preach about God’s judgment. What happened was surprising, and certainly beyond Jonah’s imagination. The people responded to the Word of the Lord and began showing signs of spiritual repentance and turnaround. Jonah thought he was announcing the vengeance of God and instead he ushered in the transforming power of God’s Word and Spirit.

Again, this is a reminder that God does not just dwell in holy places and await us in the heights of Heaven. God is out among the exiled – in the darkest and most wicked of places. And God is stirring human hearts even there. If you do nothing else this week, ponder what it means that God redeemed the New York City of the ancient world. His Spirit blew through there – through the brothels and the businesses and the pagan cults and the politics and changed human hearts.

Are there people and places you and I have written off as too far from God? Too hopeless? Too far gone?

Have we given up on the city? Have we given up on the gangs? Have we given up on the poor? Have we given up on this generation of youth? Have we given up on the school system? Or the government? Or the politicians? Have we given up on the institutional church and our own denomination?

If so, what is left? Will we huddle and cluster with like-minded folks and watch the world wind down or blow itself up? Is that all that’s left – holy huddling? The story of the Bible from start to finish says otherwise. It says that God is out among the fallen world restoring and redeeming and rescuing His creation, to the glory of His own name.

And remember that God used Jonah’s washed up faithfulness to accomplish this! That’s two huge lessons: that God cares about the lost and exiled, and that God uses imperfect people like you and me to accomplish His will.

A Challenge for Us

So what will we do? The same two questions from past weeks remain for us today. Are you feeling far from God? If so, know that God would not have it so, but invites and calls you back to Himself. His invitation comes through the various invitations of Jesus Christ, “Come, believe, follow me, and I will use you for God’s glory.” (e.g. Mark 1:14-18)

What does that look like? Well, there’s no magic formula or prayer, but prayer is a good start. Use your own words or use the prayer of confession when we pray it later in the service. The gist of it is to say to God, “I’ve been running; I’ve been tuning you out; and I’m sorry; I’m ready to listen.” How do you know what God wants from you? For one, I think most people have a general idea – it’s what we’re running from. But, specifically, it is through reading the Bible, praying, and worshiping that we learn what God wants. Again, it’s not magic – it’s not the next set of lottery numbers you should pick, but it’s faithful choices that come out of the godly character that develops in those who turn towards God.

And what shall we do together? I have become convinced that we have become too insular. We too easily draw into the “holy huddle.” And God is here when we gather! But God is on the move out among the exiled. If we want to be obedient to God and responsive to His Word and Spirit, then we must go where God is and join in what He is doing. I see us doing this more and more, so this is both cheerleading and challenge. Be creative; be responsive; be out of the box, because God is out of the box. I believe we are to begin in our little corner of Nineveh – the streets, neighbors, and gathering places right around us, here at the church and near your own homes. What is God doing? What would He do through you? Near the end of our text, God asks Jonah, “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know… right and left?” (Jonah 4:11) God would ask us the same question: “Should I not have compassion on your neighborhood, where there are more than 10,000 persons – many of whom who do not yet know me?”

Postscript

Chapter four of Jonah is a fascinating and piercing postscript to Jonah’s story. I say piercing because it is all to close to my own heart. Jonah is disgusted with God for showing mercy on the wicked people of Nineveh. Jonah has grown up with God and has been faithful and religious (except for the recent escapade)… how dare God show mercy on these wicked people?!

God uses a plant to teach Jonah a lesson, but the bottom line is that you and I are no more deserving of God’s mercy than anyone on the planet. No pedigree, education, status, background, and especially no track record on our part qualifies us for God’s love and mercy. It is only God’s generous love and grace that rescues a soul from death, and God has proven Himself generous to a fault. As we grow in godly character and see God on the move and at work in people’s lives, we may wrestle with a sense of fairness and what is due (whether us or others). Jesus made it clear through parable and teaching, as does the Apostle Paul throughout the rest of the New Testament: none is righteous, not one. That is to say, not one of us deserves anything but immediate judgment and death. Remember the lesson from the Garden? It was God’s first great mercy to delay universal judgment and death and only exile humanity. And it was God’s first great grace to then come wading into the mess of our exile to offer rescue and a way back home.

That is the good news of Jesus Christ, who is God come to offer us rescue and invite us back home. Amen.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Far from Home (Exodus 2-3)

July 20, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Today we continue in a series on exile, noting from last week that God does not hide-out in sanctuaries made of human hands or on the clouds of Heaven. Rather, God has come after humanity-in-Exile to find us, speak to us, lay claim to us, and invite us to come home. For the rest of the summer we are looking at stories from the Bible that illustrate the God who seeks and saves, even and especially in the places of exile.

There are two exile stories in today’s text. As we look at them, remember the two application points from last week. Exile and redemption are our story, so listen to see if you hear your story in one of these. And as followers of the God who seeks and saves, we are challenged to go out into places of exile with the good and hopeful news of God’s love through Jesus Christ. Consider what that would look like for us as well.

Runaway to Exile: Moses

The first story of exile I want to look at with you is that of Moses. We only read part of his story today, but it is a fascinating one. Born to Hebrew slaves during a time in which male babies were not allowed to live, his mother hid him away in the river and he was found and raised as an Egyptian prince in Pharaoh’s household. The story picks up with him seeing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and Moses striking and killing the Egyptian. Later, when word gets out among the Hebrews and then reaches the Pharaoh, Moses fled for his life.

It is interesting to note the progression from a rationalized sin (killing another man) to facing the judgment of one’s peers (that the Hebrews saw him as a murderer) to really getting worried that “the matter had become known” to fleeing the consequences. This is familiar to us, right – it is more typical these days to avoid cheating off a test, not because it’s wrong in and of itself, but because one might get caught.

The deeper point, related to our theme, is that sin has consequences, one of which is often some form of exile. Like Adam before him, Moses faced immediate death as a consequence, or the delayed judgment of exile. Unlike Adam, whom God allowed exile, Moses simply ran for his life.

We saw last week that Adam and Eve’s sin resulted in exile from God and from paradise (the immediate presence of God). Moses’ sin illustrates an additional consequence of sin. There are not only vertical consequences for our relationship with God, but also horizontal consequences, affecting our human relationships with family and community. Moses fled his family and his people.

Maybe you know what it is to have to simply run away from your problems and sin. Maybe you know some folks for whom that is the case. Maybe this part of Moses’ story is your story.

Enslaved in Exile: the people of Israel

There is a second story of exile in this text. It is the story of the Hebrews. They are not in Egypt by chance or by happy choice. They came there during famine, at the mercy of their brother, Joseph, whom God spared though his brothers plotted against him. At the end of Genesis, Joseph directs his family to take his and his father’s bones back to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but his brothers and their descendants remain on in Egypt. As the number of Hebrew people grew, they became a threat to the Egyptians, who enslaved them and eventually even tried to reduce their numbers through infanticide.

In today’s text, we read of the Hebrew people crying out to God for help because of their enslavement. Was this a form of exile? Was it their fault?

I was going to include the story of Joseph today, but it was too much to squeeze into one service and sermon. But that story describes the sin of Joseph’s brothers – the sons of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. They plotted to murder their brother (reminiscent of Cain and Abel!) because they were jealous of him. At the last moment, a trading caravan passed by and they sold Joseph to make some money. Their sin of murderous rage was complicated further with their greed. Joseph’s story is a wonderful story summed up in Joseph’s words later to his brothers: “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.” (Genesis 50:20) That, too, is a story of God following one into exile at the hands of another person’s sin.

Ultimately, Joseph’s family followed him to Egypt, settled there after the famine, and never returned home, despite Joseph’s instruction at the end of Genesis to return home with his bones and those of his father, Jacob. Those who ended up enslaved in Egypt were there because of the murderous and greedy sins of their fathers and the reluctance of those fathers to relinquish a “good thing” when they thought they had it.

Maybe you know what it is to suffer because of the decisions or actions of someone who went before you – a parent or grandparent. You feel little responsibility for where you are, yet there you are all the same. Perhaps you’ve even cried out like the Hebrew people for God’s intervention and help. But will God leave Heaven and find us when we are so far from home?

God’s Two-fold Redemption

Today’s text is also the story of God’s reaching out to those in exile, whether from personal sin that separates from family and society or from generational sin of which we are unwitting heirs. Interestingly, the redemption of Moses and the redemption of Israel are woven together in this one story.

Moses fled Egypt and finally stopped running in the land of Midian, where he remained for 40 years, according to tradition. We later read in Exodus that he was 80 when he returned to Pharaoh with the Lord’s message, “Let my people go.” Moses had not only fled into exile, but as verse 15 tells us, he settled there. Though the word only means that he made a home there, I think the double-meaning in English applies to us. How many of us have “settled” for exile rather than seeking the blessing of being right with God and others? At any rate, this is the story of God coming into exile to redeem a sinful son, and that’s exactly what God did.

You probably know the story of the burning bush. Moses, now 40 years into exile, was out tending his father-in-law’s flocks and came upon a bush that was burning, yet not being consumed. There, Exodus 3 tells us, the physical presence of the Lord (angel of the Lord) spoke directly to Moses, even calling out his name. God indicated that Moses was standing on holy ground and proceeded to call him to service, in effect restoring him to service of God. Note, too, Moses instinctive reaction – perhaps because of the glory of God, but perhaps because it had been his posture toward God for 40 years – he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:6)

So that’s the first example in this text of God going into exile to bring a child back home. God went and got Moses, the murderer and exile, and not only brought him into a holy encounter with God, but called him to obedience and service.

The second account of God’s going into exile is precisely what He does through Moses for the Hebrew people. They are enslaved in Egypt and calling out for God’s help. Does God quietly call from the Promised Land for them to find there way back home? No, God goes and calls a Deliverer, empowers him for the task at hand, and sends him into the heart of Exile – into the Pharaoh’s court – to bring God’s people out of slavery and home to the Land of Promise. Again, God’s story is one of coming to get us when we are lost and far from home, really regardless of what put us there.

Far from Home

So here is what all that means for you and me. It’s the same two applications as last week (and indeed every week), but fine-tuned a bit with the details of today’s text.

First, each of us experiences exile in some way because each of us has sinned and come short of God’s glory and perfection. In addition to that, each of us is heir to the sin that has gone before us – that is, human and generational sin. We see both these types of sin in today’s text, as well as the separating, exiling, and enslaving consequences of that sin. The great Good News is that we are not left to our own devices to escape slavery, find our way home, and climb back up into the good graces of God. The Bible assures us (and experience confirms) this to be impossible as well as very discouraging. The great Good News is that God has come after us – God has come after you! God does not hide out in holy places awaiting your discovery, but comes to where you are. God comes into the darkness; God comes into the depression; God comes into the sorrow and the pain; God wades right into the sin and shame. And where God is, as demonstrated with the burning bush, that is a holy place and a holy, inviting moment. We can still look the other way or hide our face. But God is in those places, speaking! Do you understand the amazing grace of that? It is not when and where you are at your best that you encounter God, but when and where you are at your very worst. And God says, “Come, believe, follow me; come home to me.”

Second, as those who gather in the church building every week, it becomes so easy to forget the character of God described in these texts and believe God only exists here in this holy place waiting for folks to find Him. But God is not hiding out here; God is out there with those in exile. God is on the move. God’s heart is for the nations and for those who are far from home. Jesus said that he came to “seek and save the lost” and we must recapture an understanding of God that is not static and stale, but vibrant and on the move. It is important to do so to share joyfully in what God is doing all around us. Otherwise, we run the risk of turning the church into a place of exile from the world. That is why I push so hard for us to look outside our walls. That is why it is so important for us to get up and get out, to meet and love our neighbors, and to see what God is doing around us. If we can really grasp that and run after the God who is on the move to those in exile, we will not only meet God ourselves, as He heals and holds us, but we will share in what God is doing, even as Moses did as he responded to God’s call to serve. We have another searchlight opportunity this Thursday night with VBS at Brighton Place – come join us!

God is on the move: that is why you and I have been found and are here today. God is on the move; we cannot stay still! Amen.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Exiled (Genesis 3-4)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
July 13, 2008

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Today we are starting a new series that will take us through the summer until Labor Day. I got the idea for this series from a video we watched this spring on what it means to be a “missional church.” The sermon is not about being missional, though I will continue to talk a lot about us being a lighthouse and a searchlight in this neighborhood as we strive to reach those beyond our walls. Rather, what caught my attention was a brief statement the speaker made while talking about Israel in the Old Testament. He pointed out that until a certain point in their history, the Israelites conceived of God only in lighthouse terms [that’s my description of it]. In other words, God dwelled in the tabernacle in the midst of Israel and in order to draw near to God, you came into the camp into closer proximity to that dwelling place of God on earth.

What completely turned this understanding of God on its head was Israel being conquered and taken into “exile” by the super-powers in the world at the time. The Temple was destroyed, the holy city of Jerusalem was left in shambles, and the people were taken far from home and far (they thought) from God. The Exile was not only seen as physical separation from home and God, but as punishment for unfaithfulness and a spiritual separation. In many ways, Exile was explained and experienced as the earthly consequences of individual and corporate sin, and it was a time of great sorrow and despair.

And then, the Israelites found something surprising. God was not just in the holy Temple or the holy city. While they continued to long for home in hopes of also returning to God’s favor, the Israelites discovered something that was a foretaste of the Gospel – the great “Good News” of the New Testament. God was not far away, waiting for them to journey back home; God was there with them in Exile. This brings us to our texts for today.

Exiled from Paradise (Genesis 3)

I’m just going to highlight one part of the story of the Fall, and that is the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin. As you know, God created them and put them in a paradise, the Garden of Eden, to serve and worship Him and enjoy God’s presence. When Eve listened to the Lie and Adam disobeyed God’s command, the consequence was to be death. We must never forget that is the consequence of sin. Sin equals death.

God’s first great mercy was to delay death, and Exile was the consequence. Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, from paradise, and were not able to return. The immediate consequence of their disobedience, their sin, was to lose the closeness of being “home with God” and to be put out into a world of their own making. But here’s the interesting and hopeful part: God followed them out into the world, for we continue to read of God speaking to humanity, as we’ll see in the next story.

This is the pattern that will continue throughout the Bible and human experience. God made us for relationship, worship, and enjoyment of Him, we sinned and turned away, God forestalls the judgment of death and allows us to endure separation or exile as a temporary state before death, and comes after us to offer us a way back home.

Exiled from God’s Presence (Genesis 4)

In Genesis 4, there is a second story of Exile. Adam and Eve’s children, Cain and Abel, make an offering to God. When Cain’s offering is not pleasing to the Lord, he becomes angry. Note that Cain had not yet sinned – in v. 7 God says, “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” But Cain does not master sin, and anger turns to murderous rage and he kills his brother.

There are swift and severe consequences for this horrific sin. Cain is exiled from family, from productive working of the ground (farming), and most of all, from God’s presence. We read that Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and settled in Nod, making Exile his home. Did God come after him? We don’t read of it there. Was his sin too great? I’d like to suggest that God did go with him. God somehow marked Cain in such a way that others who might see him and want to take vengeance would be deterred. Somehow, even in severe judgment, God went with Cain, to direct others away from his deadly choice. What I cannot say is what would have happened if Cain had turned around and thrown himself on God’s mercy. He did not, but chose to make his home in Exile. That appeared to be his self-chosen fate. But God did not abandon him; he abandoned God.

The Implications of God’s Pursuit

More of this pattern will become clear in coming weeks as we read of exile from family, exile from society, self-imposed exile, and other situations where God does not abandon us. But in anticipation of all that, consider two implications coming from the character of God revealed in these stories.

First, God is not waiting for you to get your life together in order to know you or for you to know Him. God is not a waiting God, but a seeking God, and comes to you wherever you are, even if that feels like some kind of exile. Are you in the depths of depression? God is there. Are you living in a way that is disobedient to God? God is right there, nonetheless. Are you far from your literal and spiritual home? God is right there. That can be scary news because sometimes we feel a little better with some distance from the one we have offended. But ultimately and most significantly, it is Good News, because the hopes of you earning your way back into God’s good graces is slim indeed! God is where you are. That’s huge. Though humanity abandoned God, God has not abandoned us, but come after us to bring us home. That is Good News! If you are here and struggling with being connected with God, hear the Good News in this, God’s Word: God is with you in Exile and would like to welcome you home.

The second implication has to do with how we understand church. This is the difference between being only a lighthouse church or also being a searchlight church. If God is not a waiting God, who is waiting for folks out there to come find Him in here, then neither should we be waiting, come-to-us Christians. The mission of God is out there – and that is where we should be.

We’ve participated in that mission in an extraordinary way through VBS at Brighton Place this past week. We had the first VBS last Thursday night and it was far beyond my wildest imagination. We were expecting 5-10 kids and more like 30 showed up, with some older siblings joining in the fray. I was also amazed by the response from our church - about 12-15 people... a middle schooler, a high schooler, a college student, a 20-something, a couple of parents of small children, several in their 40s and 50s... and here's the part that really got me pumped (okay, there are several things...): this was not a church program, but a group of people who have heard me for two years running challenge every member of the church to find a personal ministry and mission. The staff didn't plan this... we had nothing to do with it. The elders didn't form a committee or call planning meetings. This was initiated by two parents who caught a vision for the children of our neighborhood and they ran with it. They didn't recruit volunteers heavily - just said, "If you can join us, come on!" So everyone who came did so because the Lord moved them to do it... everyone there wanted to be there, wasn't guilted or pressured in to it, but sought out this opportunity to love our neighbors.

Here's the other thing that amazed me... I just about melted into a weepy puddle when a single mom and her 11 yr. old daughter conducted the lesson (again, not handed to them, but planned entirely on their own because they felt called to this). They did a skit on the parable of the wedding banquet. The 11 yr. old was dressed up fancy and was throwing a party and sent out invitations to all her rich and powerful friends - her mom delivered these to various kids sitting around, who had been dressed up as baseball star, doctor, mayor, etc... - each then read the excuse on the back of the invitation as to why they wouldn't make the party. Finally, the mom returned to say that no one could come - all the powerful people were busy. And the 11 yr. old sends her mom back out to invite everyone to come to the party. Then they read the verse about how Jesus came for the poor, the lame, the blind... and man, the Gospel was preached to all those gathered 'round. It was electrifying.

One bonus... near the end of the invitations, one was given out to a really cute 4-5 yr. old girl who couldn't or wasn’t interested in reading her lines. Instead of making an excuse to not go to the party, she went running up to the 11 yr. old (who had been playing with her for the past hour), hugged her, and said she would come to her party. I'm about to start crying again typing it on my screen. Wow. For those who have ears to hear...

We’ll have another opportunity to do VBS-on-the-road on July 24. God is on the move. I invite you to come be a part of pointing to a gracious God who comes to find you where you are. Amen.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Five and Two is What? (John 6:2-14)

July 6, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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[audio may vary significantly from manuscript below]

As many of you know, I was elected to serve as a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which met for eight days in San Jose, California, and ended about one week ago.

As has been the case for as many years as I can remember, that Assembly discussed and voted on a number of hot-button issues and generated controversial headlines. I have included a summary of these decisions and their implications in the newsletter that is going out this week. If you can’t wait for that, you can access my blog through the church website and read more about it this afternoon.

What I want to share with you this morning, however, is something that in many ways trumped all of that business for me. It was a personal experience with the presence and power of God, and it preceded the Assembly, ran throughout it, and continues even now. This will be less of a sermon and more a personal testimony, but I believe it will point us to God’s grace and way of working in our lives. I am more than willing to talk about the Assembly and the various decisions and implications, but for today, I’d like to hold this story out to you as something far more important that I learned.

One Small Lunch

The story in today’s text is probably familiar to many. It is the story usually referred to as “The Feeding of the Five Thousand.” In it, Jesus has withdrawn to a mountain with the disciples, but is followed (for miles and miles) by a very large crowd eager to hear him teach. As meal-time comes and goes, Jesus tells the disciples to go see what food they can pull together, and all they can come up with is one boy’s lunch of five loaves and two small fish.

I know you probably know what will happen, but can you pause the scene in your head long enough to imagine those moments? Can you imagine the thoughts and words of the disciples when they come back together and that’s all they have? Ridiculous! Impractical! Impossible! Help! What will we do?!

And Jesus takes that meager offering and does the impossible. What a story!

That’s the story I want to share with you…

Gearing Up for Battle

In terms of ministry, my first love is being pastor of Good Shepherd. There is nothing I love so much as living among you, praying for you, sharing God’s Word with you, and caring for you. It is only reluctantly that I fulfill responsibilities at presbytery and within the denomination. And yet, I do take those responsibilities seriously. And honestly, I am concerned about the Presbyterian Church (USA). I find myself and most of our membership to be in a very different place theologically and practically than the whole of the denomination. I am clear about that when folks join the church and we put a statement of faith on our bulletin to try to be clear about what we believe here.

And it seems as if part of God’s calling for me is to speak truth and demonstrate faithful engagement with the denomination. Without seeking it (and in fact shying away from it), God has opened up positions of leadership in the presbytery, putting me on the governing Council and having me chair of the committee in charge of presbytery worship, theology, and polity (how we organize and work together). It’s nothing I imagined or sought out, but I can’t imagine being in a more significant place to speak truth and demonstrate faith.

About nine months ago, it became time to nominate people to serve as General Assembly commissioners. With no seniority, and not qualifying for the many special categories of geography, ethnicity, and gender, I was nonetheless selected to be a commissioner. I was convinced (and still am) that God had a purpose in sending me to GA (General Assembly).

I follow Presbyterian theology and history and plugged in quickly to the many “renewal groups” who work at the Assembly level to try to maintain biblical and historical standards in the church. In the months and weeks leading up to the Assembly, I began to “gear up for battle,” becoming familiar with all the items of business and the process of supporting, opposing, and amending business presented first in committee by topic, then on the floor of the Assembly. And I participated fully in all that, even leading the worship each night for the gathering of renewal-minded commissioners and friends as we reviewed the previous and coming day’s business.

Even as plugged in as I was, I wondered sometimes what one voice could do among nearly 900 commissioners and a denomination that is even slower in changing course than an individual church.

Throughout all that, God was focusing me on one particular thing.

My Small Offering

In the week leading up to GA, I believe God began putting something on my mind and heart. That something was the witness of the denomination to the world we are supposed to be reaching with the Gospel. In particular, I was and am grieved by Christians suing Christians as some congregations decide “enough is enough” and move to be released from the PCUSA. While those legal actions are oriented mostly around church property (and therefore money), I think the cost to either church or denomination pales in comparison to what such actions costs our witness to each other and the world. In many ways, it is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a messy divorce, where the collateral damage greatly outweighs the terms of the settlement.

Specifically, I am concerned for those congregations who believe that their conscience is bound if they remain in the PCUSA, and they must leave, only to find hurdles to leaving that can seemingly only be overcome in court.

But what I became passionate about – filled to the bursting point over – was the recognition of what fighting each other over property is doing to our witness. You know that our mission to our neighbors and the world is of paramount importance… what is gaining the building if we lose our voice? This is what I felt compelled to say to the Assembly… but it seemed so unlikely and impossible given the limitations of “my one voice” amidst the whole.

Typically, Assembly business comes as an overture from a presbytery (a regional gathering of 30-140 individual churches). But, it is allowable for two commissioners to make an overture while at the Assembly, if certain strict guidelines are met. I decided to see if I could do such a thing and somehow address this immense topic of our gospel witness to our neighbors and the world.

I will tell you that such concerns are not the current climate of the church. In recent years, leaders have instructed presbyteries to get all they can and to not let people leave with anything. Church members who leave believe that church property belongs to the local church, and it is inconceivable to simply walk away from what they and their parents and grandparents have built.

I wrote a resolution, imploring presbyteries to create some kind of pastoral and gracious process for those who are convicted they have to leave. In short, I was challenging the denomination to put the interests of others above its own interests. This would have implications in a number of areas. I found another commissioner to co-sponsor it with me. But he was mostly being nice, I think.

I asked friends in the renewal networks for help and they thought it was simply too idealistic and a long-shot, and they had more pressing issues to focus on like overtures on re-defining marriage and radical statements on Israel/Palestine and the Iraq war. In reply to my resolution, one good friend who is probably the foremost expert on how things work at the Assembly wrote to me and said:

You know, don't you, that there is no chance that this will pass. You will be fighting the ACC, which will argue that it is unconstitutional because it allows presbyteries to act in their trustee capacity in a way contrary to the best interests of the PC(USA) -- despite what the Constitution actually says, which you quote. You will be fighting [the powers that be]… You will be fighting most commissioners who want to go along to get along… Sorry to be a wet blanket, but I don't want you spending your time on this unless this is a number one issue for you.
You know what – he was absolutely, 100% right… it was silly, impractical, and impossible. And you know what else? I went ahead anyway. I don’t know that I have ever been so convicted that I had something of the Lord that needed to be said. At that moment, I could relate to the boy with the five loaves and two fish!

Giving Up Control

This brings me to the significant spiritual lesson I experienced. At every point – every point – common sense would have told me to quit. I had more important work to do and could have contributed significantly there. As my friend told me, even getting the resolution approved was a long shot that required much follow-up on my part. It would then go to a committee to be debated and given a thumbs-up or thumbs-down recommendation to the whole Assembly. And then the Assembly would debate and respond, or perhaps just rush through it without debate as happened when commissioners got tired and it was late in the day with hundreds more overtures to approve.

Throughout all this, I became increasingly aware of the need to pray. The matter was out of my control, beyond my skills, facing seemingly insurmountable hurdles, and yet I felt that the Lord wanted me to persevere.

In addition to praying more and more, the most interesting thing happened. I skipped several meals. Let me say that I never, ever forget to eat. Nor did I wake up and think, “Today I will fast and pray for the Lord’s will.” I have fasted before with youth programs like the “30-hour famine.” I have fasted and prayed as part of a church-wide prayer vigil. But this was different. This was fasting and praying out of the desperation and need of the moment. It didn’t occur to me until later to describe it as fasting. I simply reached the lunch break, knew I was going to be speaking to my resolution, and knew that the thing I needed most was God’s help and blessing, so I found a quiet spot and prayed. This happened during at least four different meals. I don’t say that to highlight my own spirituality. Trust me when I say I’m no superstar. I don’t say it to indicate some new technique to manipulate God or work a deal for His blessing. What I am sharing with you is that I experienced a level of dependency on God out of need in the context of pursuing His will that was new for me, and I saw God’s power and presence as I continued in this way.

I also don’t know exactly how to appropriate that experience for you or me in daily life. There is value, of course, in prayer and fasting as a spiritual discipline, but this was something else. This was sensing God’s direction on something, clinging to it tenaciously, yielding my own control and common sense, and throwing myself on God’s grace. In other words, if you find God is asking something of you, trust Him to give you what you need when you need it. Really, the rest is up to Him.

Now, it is tempting to end the story here. I do mean that the rest is up to Him. This is, after all, the story of something fully beyond my own control and capability. That makes it God’s story, and I cannot control how the story turns out.

But, I know you’d be interested in some of what I have seen so far.

Feeding Two Million?

The story of this vision and message that God laid on me has not come to an end. It appears to be out of my hands now, as I am only following up at this point on what the Lord began. And I don’t know how that story will end. But I can share with you a number of near-miraculous things happened around that resolution.

The first hurdle was, as my friend noted, making it past the stated clerk’s office. The clerk decided which commissioner’s resolutions were valid business and which ones weren’t. This resolution specifically called for a different stance than the one originating from the stated clerk who was deciding its fate. And yet, it got through.

The resolution was assigned to the church polity committee, the last item of business after a nine-hour discussion on whether or not to change the definition of marriage in church’s constitutional documents. These folks were worn out and more than a little combative. While the full Assembly would later vote definitively to keep the traditional definition of marriage, the church polity committee voted only 38-20 to do so. And I was called in and given 4 minutes to speak of grace and care for one another. After I did so, the committee called the denominational head legal counsel, who had authored the aggressively litigious policy currently in effect. He was the other chief denominational official the resolution specifically sought to counter. Miraculously, he spoke briefly and said, “Ending up in court is not working well for us.” Several on the committee spoke against the resolution, calling it idealistic, impractical, and na├»ve. And several said that it sounded like the Holy Spirit. When the vote was called, it passed 49-3.

The item was to come to the full Assembly on Friday of that week. And on Thursday, I got two surprises. The first was that another resolution came through another committee, calling on the denomination to establish a two million dollar legal defense fund, to be paid out of the mandatory per capita budget. I thought, “I could not have dreamed up something more exactly opposite to what I believe the Lord is trying to say through me.” And I was concerned that it was being considered before anyone had a chance to hear what I had to say. The second surprise was that because of the amount of business and limited time, the Assembly voted to shorten time at the microphone from 3 minutes to 2 minutes to 1 minute. My original (very succinct) 4-minute presentation to the committee now had to be done in 60 seconds!

When the legal defense resolution came up, I decided I’d at least get 60 seconds worth in and say some of what I had to say against litigation. I challenged folks in this way (the first 20 seconds worth):
There is an immeasurable cost to what this motion proposes. And brothers and sisters, that cost is not the two million dollars, which is inconceivable enough as we struggle to support our missionaries. The immeasurable cost is the damage done to real human beings in our midst and to our witness to Jesus Christ in the world as “Christians sue Christians.” Friends, there is a better way!
That resolution ended up being amended in such a way that it has little to no effect. And the next day (Friday), I got another 60 seconds to describe what that “better way” might look like:
This resolution calls on [us] to be the initiators of GRACE. And beloved, grace is both unconditional and winsome. The resolution points us to the appropriate resources, but for this resolution to make any real difference, YOU will need to catch the spirit behind it and communicate it back to your presbytery and to your own church. Beloved, there is a better way! I ask you to vote yes not just to approve some words, but to embrace and carry home what I believe to be the wind of the Holy Spirit.
The Assembly then voted and approved the resolution 519-157.

But God was not yet done with this word of grace. On Thursday of that same week, I got an aide appeared at my C-05 seat with a note from the new moderator of the PCUSA asking me to give the closing prayer on Friday night. This was the “last word” to the Assembly after the big day of discussion and voting on all the controversial issues. And I was given 60 more seconds to speak a third time of a better way.

From that prayer and resolution, God is opening doors with the leadership of the denomination and with presbyteries all over the country. People seem to be drawn to this idealistic and fragile grace as hope in the face of a denomination that seems to be imploding.

I don’t know how the story will end. If God desires to do more, He will do it. I certainly believe no less strongly in the need for biblical standards in the church or for speaking the truth and demonstrating faithfulness. But I also have some sense of what it must have been like that day when a young boy handed over five loaves and two fish and it was given to the Son of God.

As we move on in our life together, seeking God’s will and Word as a family of believers, I invite you to listen hard for God’s Spirit. As you get a sense of what God would do in and through your life, I encourage you to offer up all you are and all you have, and watch as God does far more than we could ask or imagine, for His glory and name. Amen.