August 21, 1732 (267 years ago yesterday) is remembered as the beginning of Moravian missionary work. It was on that day that the first two missionaries were sent out from Herrnhut to serve in the Carribean. Here is a part of that story, as told on the Moravian web site:
In 1731, while attending the coronation of Christian VI in Copenhagen, the young Count Zinzendorf met a converted slave from the West Indies, Anthony Ulrich. Anthony's tale of his people's plight moved Zinzendorf, who brought him back to Herrnhut. As a result, two young men, Leonard Dober and David Nitchmann, were sent to St. Thomas to live among the slaves and preach the Gospel. This was the first organized Protestant mission work, and grew rapidly to Africa, America, Russia, and other parts of the world.
Zinzendorf came to know John and Charles Wesley, who had been converted through their contacts with the Moravians [on their own missionary visit to America as well as in Europe]. The Wesleys later founded the Methodist Church [my own heritage].
(http://www.moravian.org/zinzendo.htm, August, 1999)
"So then," Paul wrote to the Romans, "Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service" (Romans 12:1, TEV). And he went on to say, "we are to use our different gifts in accordance with the grace that God has given us" (Romans 12:6, TEV). What does it mean to be a living sacrifice to God? What kind of a life is in store for someone who might attempt to dedicate his life and talents to God today?
At the beginning of the service, we remembered two young Moravians whose gift was to be the first of the Moravian missionaries to America. Their function in the body of Christ was quite different than mine has been. Only a few years after Dober and Nitchmann, an English minister also set out to America. This is his story, as told on a Georgia internet site:
John Wesley, known today as the founder of Methodism, was a young Anglican clergyman when, in 1736, he arrived in Savannah as the religious leader for the young Georgia colony. Appointed by the Trustees for the Georgia Colony, he was the third person to have this responsibility in just three years. The first leader, Rev. Henry Herbert[,] became ill shortly after arrival and died enroute to England; Rev. Samuel Quincy, appointed to replace him, proved unsatisfactory to the trustees by 1735. Since Mr. Quincy was still in the parsonage when Wesley arrived, the Moravians, whom Wesley met and "discoursed with" on the voyage to Georgia, offered him lodging. The daily experiences shared with the Moravians during this period had a lasting effect on his life. Some historians suggest early Methodist Class Meetings reflect Moravian influence.
Although John Wesley had accepted the appointment as minister for the English Settlers for the entire colony, he came expecting "to convert the Indians". His regular duties left no time for evangelizing native peoples. He felt the ministry to be unsuccessful. Late in 1737 he returned to England and never came to America again.
(http://www.coastalgeorgia.com/jw.html, August, 1999)
Being a missionary to America proved not to be one of the gifts God had given John Wesley. Instead, the trip to America turned out to be a time for Wesley to discover the limits of his own faith - and, of course, to discover the Moravians. It took several more years, and several more Moravians, before John Wesley discovered his own mission of bringing hope and healing to the poor of his own country.
What will life be like for you if you attempt to dedicate your life to God's service? No one preaching this morning has the answer to that question. We each have our own place and function. That's why Paul wrote to the Romans, "We have many parts in the one body, and all these parts have different functions. In the same way, ... we are all joined to each other as different parts of one body." (Romans 12:4-5, TEV).
So I can't tell you what you should expect in your life. But I can tell you something about my life. And since we are all united in one body, perhaps you wil be able to find something about your life in mine.
What has my life been like when I have tried to dedicate it to God? My text this morning is selected from Lamentations, chapter 3. You are welcome to follow along (it begins on page 891 of the pew Bibles), but I will be reading selected verses from the New Jewish Publication Society version (The Writings: Kethubim, 1982). You may be surprised at the text, but pay attention!
The Shepherd not only leads but also drives us sheep along the way. I am one who knows what it is to be afflicted by God; I am one for whom Lamentations is a song of intimate memory.
The text I am using is a song of lament, but not a song of despair. It is a song of complaint and discouragement, but it is sung by a person who is living close to God. Too close to God, it seems. The singer says, and I say, that life with God is not always a bright and happy thing. Jesus promised us "life in all it fullness" (John 10:10 TEV). All of it! Life full of light and of darkness, life full of joy and of sadness.
And life is full of God. Life is so full of God that sometimes I can't see how anyone else can be getting any of God's attention. When life goes well, God seems to lavish good things on me; when life is hard, then "on none but me", it seems, "God brings down his hand".
My relations with my God have not always been pleasant and sweet, and nothing reassures me more than this. Yes, I walk in a maze, not knowing where I will be led. Where will I live? Who will I work for? What will I do? Where will I find friends who will listen to me and help me?
But I know that God has taken an interest in me. I know this because God has taken the time to wall in my ways and to direct my paths, even though I myself may not know where I am going. I know, as it says in Psalm 25, that God "guides the lowly in the right path, and teaches the lowly [God's] way" (Psalm 25:9, NJPS). I know, because I was there. It happened to me.
Sometimes I still wonder what I'm going to be when I grow up. As the decades have passed, I learned that I am not cut out to be an academician. (I love intellectual pursuits but I have a lot of trouble with schools.) I was taught that I am not called to ordination, although for years I longed to be the one who served communion. I have tried to change careers only to discover that I was still a data processing professional.
Once, when I was young, God directed me to be a public school teacher. As I was walking past a school in Madison, I knew in my heart that I was called to be there - not in that particular school, but in a school. So I starting taking the education courses I needed, quit my job, began student teaching, and entered into one of the worst times of my life.
It's true that Paul wrote to the Romans, as we read this morning, "If it is [our gift] to teach, we should teach" (Romans 12:7, TEV). But the word in James seemed more compelling at the time: "Not many of you should become teachers," he wrote at he beginning of chapter 3 (James 3:1, TEV). Nothing was right. My skills and training proved to be virtually irrelevant to the situation I was in and I had no clue what I could do to make things better.
That was when I came to love Lamentations. That's when I learned to pray, "You got me into this, God. You're going to have to get me out." And so I entered into one of the best times of my life.
God had walled me in and weighed me down. God had turned my path to a way that I could not understand. I had done everything that I thought God had asked of me and my world was falling apart. Nothing I could do made any difference; I had to give up. And that is why I say it was one of the best times of my life.
"A lurking bear"? "A lion in hiding"? How is all this reassuring? How is this the good news of Jesus Christ?
Frederick Buechner comes at this image in quite a different way in his book The Magnificent Defeat. Buechner begins with a fable told by the Hindu teacher Ramakrishna about a tiger cub who was raised by goats. The cub believed he was a goat ... until a tiger king came and showed him who he really was. Applying the story to us, Buechner says,
human beings as they usually exist in this world are not what they were created to be. The goat is not really a goat at all - he is really a tiger - except that he does not know that he is, with the result that for the time being he is, in a sense, really not a tiger. [...]
So the problem remains. And to anyone who is looking for a good reason not to be a Christian, I can suggest no better than that to be a Christian is only to make the problem worse. Because a Christian is one who has seen the tiger. "In the juvenescence of the year," T.S. Elliot wrote, "comes Christ the Tiger," and it is a wonderful image because it cuts through so much rubbish. Not the soulful-eyed, sugar-sweet, brilliantined Christ of the terrible pictures that one can buy. But this explosion of a man, this explosion of Life itself into life.
We look at him. We glance up from our grazing for a moment, and there he stands, and suddenly we see what a tiger looks like, what a human being really looks like, and if we thought our goathood was a problem before, [...] we reach the point here [...] where the contrast becomes so painful that one or the other of us simply has to go. [...]if this is what it really is to be human, then what am I? [...]
(Frederick Buechner, "The Tiger";
The Magnificent Defeat, pages 91, 92-93;
©1966 by The Seabury Press, Incorporated.
Quotation from T.S. Elliot, "Ash Wednesday";
Collected Poems, 1909-1962, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.)
God pounces on me lest I become comfortable eating grass. I tend, notwithstanding Paul's warning to the contrary, to think of myself more highly than I should (Romans 12:3). Which is not to say that I have no accomplishments at all. As a computer programmer, for example, I am already a master. But when programming becomes my self-identity, my "goathood", God sends me to teach youth Sunday School classes or to lose myself in church camping.
Or, all by myself, God sets me chest deep in a flooded river. I was rafting down the Devil River one year during the spring flood. (Some of you have been there, but most of you haven't seen the river in flood.) I ran down the rapids and into a tree that had fallen across the river. The raft was sucked under the tree by the force of the current and I was left to contemplate how to escape drowning while the same current was pulling at me. I looked upstream and saw the water rushing down on me over the rapids. For years afterward, just remembering that moment set my pulse racing and put fear into the pit of my stomach.
Perhaps God didn't set me in the river; it may after all have been my carelessness with the rubber raft. At the very least, God took the opportunity to use that river to teach me the truth of the Psalm we read this morning:
What if the Lord had not been on our side? ...
If the Lord had not been on our side ...
then the flood would have carried us away,
the water would have covered us,
the raging torrent would have drowned us.
(Psalm 124:1-5, TEV)
In these things, I am no master.
Another time, God set me to leading a group of adults studying the book of Revelation. I didn't know Revelation well before that; I thought that I didn't even like the book very much and I certainly didn't want to spend several weeks with it. But God had taken an interest in me and I discovered one of the most wonderful, terrible, beautiful books in the world.
But that is not all. God has sent afflicted co-workers to me for wisdom and assurance. People have kept me from bed in the middle of the night to explain the nature of Trinity. They have interrupted me at work to inquire about my view of the inspiration of scripture. People have asked me to walk city streets to discuss their sense of personal failure and invited me into the woods to hear confession.
In these things, I am no master. But I am God's worker.
God has taken an interest in me and will not leave me alone. God repeatedly finds new work for me to do. Nothing is more reassuring than knowing that God cares enough about me to keep on interfering in my life. I have no better hope about my life than the certainty that God will waylay me and that ministry will be thrust upon me in unexpected ways.
Rich as I am in things that I hardly need, God reminds me of my poverty. I do have more than enough of things that don't matter, things that clutter up my time and distract me from life. Remembering the bad times is not as hard as living them, but it stills cuts through the clutter and reminds me that all these things are next to nothing. When your plans fall apart or when you are standing in the flood waters, when a friend comes to you with needs that you cannot possibly meet, all these things we own are as helpful as next week's recycling.
God is all I have, and for that reason I have hope. What choice is open to me, except to trust God and to walk whatever path God opens for me?
That God is all I get is my hope and my faith. "The Lord is my portion ... therefore I will hope in [God]" (Lamentations 3:24, NJPS). Or in the words of Psalm 16, "You, Lord, are all I have, and you give me all I need; my future is in your hands. How wonderful are your gifts to me; how good they are!" (Psalm 16:5-6, TEV)
Therefore the song in Lamentations does not end with walls, and stones, and crouching lions, but it goes on:
Life with God is not always a bright and happy thing. The path may not be clear for any of us. The work we try to do may not be successful. At times we may find ourselves trapped in situations from which we cannot escape. Life with God can be frightening, frustrating, dangerous, and dark. This has been true for me; the lament of our text today has been my song:
But the song goes on.
God has never left me alone. God has set me wandering in a maze and God has pounced on me from unexpected places. God gives me work that I cannot do. The Shepherd not only leads but also drives us sheep along the way. But never has God lost interest in me. Because of that, I am confident that I will not be left in the trap. Therefore I sing not only Lamentations 3, but also Psalm 124:
We have escaped like a bird from a hunter's trap;
the trap is broken, and we are free!
Our help come from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
(Psalm 124:7-8, TEV)
We have no mission but to serve
in full obedience to our Lord
To care for all, without reserve,
and spread his liberating word.
(Hymn #694, verse 5.
Fred Pratt Green;
©1971, Hope Publishing)
Go in confidence and peace, to love and to serve the Lord.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
July and August, 1999
Based on graduate program application, November 19, 1990