Sermons

By Pastor John Johnson

May 27 "Are You There?" Memorial Day and the call to Isaiah -- and his response

May 30, 2018

Friday marked the end of the school year for the younger three of my granddaughters; our oldest is a college student and her year had already ended. When I was in school, though there was less to learn since it was so long ago, we always went to school through Memorial Day. Still, I have to say that for me, despite what the calendar might say about the summer solstice, Memorial Day marked the beginning of summer, even as Labor Day marked its end.

Memorial Day. Memorial Day honors fallen veterans, but it began as a holiday in 1866, honoring the dead from the Civil War, though elsewhere I had read that there was already, by 1866, a commemoration in the states that had formed the Confederacy honoring their dead. Many of us will remember the day was long called “Decoration Day.”

The Civil War and the Confederacy. As all of us at least should know that of the wars in which the United States has been engaged, the costliest in terms of American lives was the Civil War — and that occurred when the population of the country was much less than at the time of the next costliest, World War II. The Civil War chewed up young men from both sides, and the number of volunteers became inadequate for either side to meet the needs of its army, so in 1862, the Confederacy adopted conscription, the draft.

Decades earlier, during the War of 1812, the U.S. Congress had passed a bill calling for conscription, but that war ended before anyone had been drafted, so in 1863, the year following the Confederacy’s adopting the draft, the U.S. Congress, too, passed a law calling for conscription.

And for several generations of us men, registering for the draft was part of growing up, though except for World War II, and despite the horrors of Vietnam, few as a percentage of young men of draft age were “called up,” which was the term used, “called up” by the Selective Service Administration.

Called up, as opposed to volunteered.

Called has a special meaning to Presbyterians dating to the theology of Calvinism — and I am not so sure Lutheranism really differs in this regard. The concept is that we are called to Christ’s service, it is not a matter of our choosing, not quite one of volunteering. The forms of service to which we are called vary — Paul has a wonderful description in 1 Corinthians that points out that the forms of service to which we are called vary. To put it in modern languages, some are called to be nurses, some to teaching, some to preaching, — the forms of service to which we are called vary, but, “It is the same Spirit” which makes the call in each case.

Earlier this year, we read in worship the entire short work of Jonah, as I said at the time, one of the world’s greatest works of literature in any form, a work which basically suggests, that if God is calling you to a particular form of service, you can go to the “ends of the earth” and not get away from God’s call.

At least that is a great concept; we cannot ultimately escape God’s call, though Jonah did not so much volunteer as to be conscripted by God.  In that sense, trying to escape God’s call is like avoiding going to the mailbox to get one’s draft notice from Selective Service. But we can be very guilty of trying to avoid God’s call, of figuratively “going to Canada,” to cite from recent history.

Well, what is the difference between being conscripted, being drafted, and being called and accepting voluntarily? The answer most simply is that one can not ultimately evade the draft yet remain “at home,” there is a legal penalty, but the story of Jonah’s notwithstanding — does anyone other than an ex-lawyer use “notwithstanding”? — one can try to tune out the call from God. And many of us simply do not want to hear that call; I think I tried not to hear it until about twenty-three years ago.

Thank goodness not everyone tries to evade that call, and in that respect, this morning’s reading from the Hebrew Bible is a classic for the way in which Isaiah — the first of three writers whose works comprise the Book of Isaiah — the way in which the first Isaiah understands and responds to what he hears as God’s call:

"Here am I; send me.”

Not quite the same as Jonah’s hopping on a boat to evade God’s call. "Here am I; send me.”

As we observe the national holiday in which we recognize men and women who, whether responding to a nation’s call as volunteers or as conscripts, gave that last full measure of devotion, and even as the number called to military service by this nation has diminished in numbers, the need for people to respond to that other call, to God’s call, has not diminished.

. . . to respond to God’s call as volunteers. We do have “free will,” so we are not powerless to refuse God’s call. But responding to God’s call voluntarily is not going to cause us death or, unless we overeat at fellowship, any loss of limb or real bodily injury. So are we willing to respond voluntarily, to answer God’s call with, "Here am I; send me”?

It is a call not just to one or two people to serve as pastors or to find five or ten to serve as Elders, indeed, while it is a call to each of us and to all of us as individual Christians, it is also a call to us collectively as what we know as Christ’s Church, both the small “c” and capital “C” Church.

Are we here? Is anyone here, ready to respond to that call?

And as I ask that, I want to pooh-pooh the one thing the most of us church-going-would-be-Christians do the most often together, which is to worship together. No, I do not really mean to pooh-pooh worship itself, or I would not put the effort I do into trying to say something meaningful. What I want to pooh-pooh is the notion that worshipping together makes us a church! I want to pooh-pooh the notion that for any one of you, coming to worship by itself is an adequate response to God’s call. “It’s Sunday morning, here I am, see you next week,” is not enough.

“But John, so many of us are too old to do more than that!”

And that is a challenge. But it is also a questionable excuse.

As I have often said, I love the image of a church as a sort of tripod, as standing on three legs. A tripod is the most stable  of, to be technical, “stick figures.” OK; that is not what we would call a tripod, but because three points determine a plane, if you remember your high school geometry, a tripod stands firmly. For a church, one of those legs is worshipping together; another is the combination of different ways we share with each other: we share friendship, joys, and burdens, meaning we have fun together, but that we also help others of our church family when they are in pain or grief or need. That latter is the principle application of the pastoral care you provide through me, but that I visit does not mean that others cannot also visit, or if they cannot physically visit, can make telephone calls or send cards or even bake cookies. Well, I added that cookies bit, but the point is that I do not believe there is a soul here who could not send a card or make a call. And one thing each of you can do — I have a person in each of my congregations who serves as more or less an informal helper in this regard — one thing each of you can do is to make sure that I know when we have someone who needs a pastoral visit or other assistance.

What would be your answer, if next Sunday I printed a few names and addresses in the bulletin and asked, “Would you send a card?” I would hope that more than one person would answer, “Here I am; I will send.”

The third leg of the church as a tripod is more problematic, and is the area in which most churches fall down, partly because one of the major ways of living that leg is through financial support for mission and evangelism. The vast majority of our mainline churches are too self-absorbed in surviving to realize that it is in reaching out to those who are not part of our congregations that we are really fulfilling the Great Commission Jesus gave to his disciples. It is in taking Jesus to those outside the Church and bringing them to Jesus — and maybe in the process bringing them to His Church as well — that we are ourselves true disciples.

We try. In Coolidge, the twice a week clothing and hygiene program is largely the work of two and sometimes three people; it costs the church next to nothing, yet what more might a better peopled and funded program be able to do? I don’t know; I am not gifted in that area. But just as with the Hygiene Project at Florence which serves — and serves well — fewer than thirty people for the most part, four or five or six people cannot be the only believers helping the church to be Church.

I hate to ask for money for mission for strangers, but that is something that Paul and the other apostles did as they traveled the Roman empire in the first years after Jesus’ death. We need for more of you to answer the call when we ask for mission support, “Here I am; let me help.”

There has to be more energy and effort for Christ’s Church to survive this increasingly secular society. That I know, but we cannot conscript, we can only say that the call really comes not from us, not from the individual churches of which we are family, and not just from the larger Church of all believers, but comes from the Lord himself.

I would hope His persuasiveness in asking for our participation is more compelling than conscription itself. But whether we consider ourselves volunteers or draftees, I hope that we can give that last full measure of devotion to His cause. It will not cost us our lives or limbs, but it will help make our lives more meaningful, if to God's call, to Jesus’ call, we can answer, “Here I am, Lord; let me help.”

And in his name. Amen.

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