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Sermon – “Consider Whether” – September 8, 2013

Sunday, September 8, 2013

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Consider Whether

Jeremiah 18: 1-11; Philemon; Luke 14: 25-33

First Baptist started out because of education, Iʼll point out on this Sunday which marks the beginning of the Sunday School year and the resumption of the regular programming of the church. Baptists worshiping in Milton were inspired to begin a school, and those most interested were people on this side of the river. They founded the church here in order to start the school here.

The school was begun to serve God. This was a relatively settled area at the time, with the nation expanding westward. Baptists saw their chance for service in the developing society of the frontier. Trained clergy, teachers, engineers and others would be an asset to the growing country.

It was taken for granted that the business of life required a spiritual foundation. The things that churches began in those decades–colleges, hospitals, orphanages, homes for the infirm, newspapers–in our secular age have lost most of their association with religion. Whether evolved into what now are regarded as businesses or social service providers, however, many people instinctively apprehend that they are supposed to serve a higher purpose than generating salaries for their owners and employees. Though the vision of the founders of places like Bucknell has be obscured by subsequent developments, the university will be glad to share that it has a mission statement, and many of the people who are there–staff as well as students–will explain their role in terms of a vocation.

A “vocation” is the same thing as a “calling.” When someone describes her life work as a “calling” she is saying that it may look like a job, but it is more. It is a life she has felt fulfilled in pursuing as something to contribute to her generationʼs effect on the world. It is always something greater than oneself. The term “calling” is easily understood in religious terms, but even the irreligious apprehend the sense of calling. Some may express it in terms of their destiny, or the successful following of their bliss, or any number of daytime television phrases, but the idea remains that it is not simply a matter of choosing what one wants to do. It is a matter of learning to want what one feels chosen to do.

Thereʼs one more connection between the idea of a calling and a college. It is that the teachers in a college are called “professors,” and to profess is not simply to say, or to teach. It is to stand for a tradition and heritage of learning in a particular field. It is to say that one believes in the approach to learning about material stuff, say, that chemistry or physics employs, and it is to be trusted to have served a long apprenticeship in the theories and techniques of oneʼs science, so that one is able ot hand the mantle of this variety of learning on to others. Chemistry is larger than its individual chemists. It is an intellectual enterprise committed to discovering and publicizing the truth, and it has its sacred principles and ethics and everything you would expect from a pursuit which has a spiritual component. A professor of chemistry is a disciple of chemistry. Even if the chemist will only admit that itʼs true because he remembers being admitted into his professional status by fellow chemists who assured themselves of his correct understanding before permitting him to be one of them, a chemist– particularly if he is a professor of chemistry–is a chemist by virtue of a calling.

This is important because it matters to the student if a teacher is merely going through a variety of techniques in order to get a living instead of sharing an approach to expanding oneʼs mind to which the teacher is committed. It matters to the teacher. A teacher with a passion for the subject imparts some of that passion to students. A teacher who knows that what is being studied is more than recitations of facts or accurate memories of what one has been told is able to impart a sense of that “something more” to students.

The origin of this stance on the world, that the world is a place in which there are great abstract things, like truth, or beauty, or justice, or being well, or being good, that make their appeal to human hearts and human minds, is in religion. Before it makes sense to think about what it would mean to discipline oneself as an initiate in medicine–to comprehend the stages of medical education not as a combination of fact-cramming, supervised practice, concluding with internships which are almost a hazing, but to recognize serving medicine as a calling by which one is elevated into handling matters of huge importance not just for individual patients but for the world as a whole, one needs a spiritual sense. One needs to know that there are lots of things which are bigger than individuals. One must grasp that there are things which are more important than what I want, what works for me, what would be pleasant, or convenient, or profitable.

When Jesus cautions the people who admire him that they have to consider the cost of discipleship before committing themselves to following him, he uses two examples. One is erecting a building, and the other is waging war. Both quickly will show whether one has calculated whatʼs necessary before beginning. Jesus wants anyone attracted to his teaching and example to think about the practical consequence of commitment. He wants people to get on board knowing what theyʼre getting into.

What they have to grasp from the start is that service to God like that of Jesus is much larger than they themselves are. The demands of discipleship are commensurate, not always with the willingness of Godʼs servant, nor that personʼs resources, but with the calling to be generous, forgiving, self-disciplined, prayerful, and at the disposal of others. Ultimately a disciple must surrender not only the freedom to live as his or her own impulses and needs direct, but relinquish life itself. Thatʼs the commitment asked by God.

The logic behind that is related to what the prophet Jeremiah relates about being directed by God to watch the potter at work. What Jeremiah sees is a pot being turned on the wheel not working out, and the potter reshaping it. “That,” says God, “is what I will do with my people Israel. If they donʼt shape up, Iʼll squash them down and start over with them.” Reformation is what the world needs, and the calling to discipleship is always a calling to reformation. Repentance–turning aside from the course one has been on, whether itʼs something youʼve been pursuing or drifting along–is the first step. The next step is to get in shape the way God wants, to become a creature embodying the qualities desired by its creator. Youʼre not that now, and you risk inviting God to give you a makeover– unless you can harness your will to what is good, and become that person you are being asked to be.

Why has that little phrase “itʼs not all about me” gained such currency? Because weʼre selfish. We choose for our own ease, our own pleasure. We prefer diversions to duties. Long before people spent all their time focused on little screens of their own right in front of their own noses, weʼd already been labeled a “culture of narcissism.”

Itʼs nothing new. People have always preferred their own way, either as individuals, from birth, or as every race and tongue in every historical epoch. We can read that between the lines of Paulʼs letter to Philemon. Paul has a favor to ask. It seems to involve at least forgiveness for the slave whoʼs gone absent without leave, and perhaps includes a request to let the slave, once back in his masterʼs good graces, stay with and serve Paul.

Read the letter. Read it through several times, and see if you donʼt notice how the apostle Paul is pulling out every stop to force a man who may not want to forgive, to forgive. What is the bottom line of it all? That the Christianity Paul introduced into the life of Philemon is worth more than anything Philemon himself can desire or claim. He owes his life to Paul. He should do what Paul suggests. There is something larger than his own feelings and expectations and societally-recognized rights here. There is the difference it makes serving God, and the difference it makes that his slave, whoʼs on his wrong side for reasons not entirely known to us, must be treated as a brother.

Every day there is a little drama in our life like this one. We think weʼre owed this, or that, or can reasonably expect something, or ought to be cut a break. There may be good deeds we would rather neglect, or faithful tasks we would prefer to postpone. There may be selfish whims weʼd like to indulge. We all are in the position of Philemon. Weʼre going our own way when a letter like this reminds us that the gift of faith weʼve received has its obligations. The apostleʼs words flatter us, cajole us, coax us–but ultimately theyʼre about what we owe, what we must do, who we must be. Our peace will come in accepting this, because living for something beside oneʼs self is the plan of God for us, since Adam and Eve were first given to each other to be answerable to God.


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