Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In our years as missionaries in Eastern Europe, Janna and I would enjoy the surprise care packages which came from our friends at home in Minnesota. Normally, these were items which could bring tears to the eyes of the even the most reserved Minnesotans, especially the stoic, Norwegian Lutherans; packages of wild rice, blue berry pie filling, and Skippy peanut butter. Sometimes, the crumbled newspapers themselves were the real treasures-dated editions of the Star Tribune.
In one package I received a little paperback book written by Presbyterian minister Michael Lindvall, “The Good News from North Haven.” It’s sort of a Presbyterian Lake Wobegon where all the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are above average. In one chapter the pastor of North Haven Presbyterian Church has been called to an elderly member of his congregation on her death Minnie MacDowell. He has made the visit three times before. Pastor Lindvall reads the 23rd Psalm and then questions Minnie, “Are you prepared to die?” The answer is always yes. But this time when questioned she answers, “No.” And then she begins the story of how four years earlier when their little congregation had called Lindvall to serve them as their pastor, she had been on the Call Committee. It was her responsibility to send the confirmation letter, and the letter of regret to the two final candidates. She then offered the sad confession that she had mixed the letters up, and that Pastor Lindvall was to have received the “Dear Sir, we regret to inform you” letter. With that said, she turned to the pastor and sighed, “I just couldn’t die with such a thing on my conscience.”
It is a wonderful moment in the book, but a terribly awkward moment in the personal life of Pastor Lindvall. The poor pastor suddenly struggled with the question of whether he was truly called to North Haven, and what was the reason that he had been sent there. As some would say, always the bridesmaid, but never the bride.
There are those who are always finalists but never winners. They get so close but never quite make the cut. Of course, those kinds of experiences can mark a person and make them bitter and twisted and sour. In the book of Acts, Joseph Barsabbas, was one of those unfortunate souls. He was a part of group of 70 disciples that Jesus formed and trained and sent out into ministry. But when Jesus chose the 12 who would be his inner circle, Joseph didn’t make the cut. Then when Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and there was an opening among the 12, Joseph Barsabbas was in the running again. This time it was only a choice between two candidates Joseph and Matthias. Twice he was worthy to be nominated and twice he received the letter, “Dear sir, we regret to inform you.”
Oddly, nothing is said about Joseph’s reaction to this rejection in the book of Acts. Which is quite remarkable. The Book is filled with disgruntled and frustrated characters. Since there is no mention of any dispute, however, the 12 Apostles were able to move immediately on with their mission. Scripture teaches us that the almost apostle Joseph Barsabbas handled the decision with courage, selflessness and faith in God’s will and ways.
My friends, let me share with you two convictions drawn from this story. First, even you consider yourself a reluctant, almost apostle, God is inviting you now to follow and to share the good news of his king. Second, to be successful in that calling, you need to be nurtured with vibrant and authentic enthusiasm.
I wish that painful, spiritual moments were reserved for the clergy. Unfortunately, for all men and women who dare to call themselves Christian, there will be occasions when they will question God’s purpose and will. Indeed, the entire 120 people in the Upper Room in Jerusalem were struggling with how to make sense of Jesus choosing Judas, and the Judas ultimately betraying Jesus. They were convinced that they needed to make things “normal again” and select a new apostle to take the place of Judas and so they did.
We can be a lot like the disciples gathered in the Upper Room. When personal challenges come our way, we may try to be stoic and in charge. We don’t panic, but with a stiff upper lip, we carry on. Of course, some do choose to be fatalistic, “Whatever is for you won’t pass by you.” Still others spiritualize the experience. God is in control, so all will be well. All of these perspectives have some positive aspects, but none of them does everything to alleviate the crushed hopes, the bruised egos, and the lost dreams. So why do we do it?
I remember the pastor who confirmed me saying that he went into the ministry because of a sermon he heard where he was a confirmand. “We are only one generation away from faithlessness.” He had faced many disappointments and frustrations in his ministry, but he knew he had a role to play regardless of the circumstance. We are all called to be witnesses to Christ’s life, death and resurrection as well. The hope and salvation of future generations is dependent upon us and our commitment to the faith today. And yet act at times, like Pastor Lindvall in North Haven, we may wonder whether we were called by mistake. When things don’t work out as we hoped, we may question whether we were simply sent the wrong letter. Or perhaps we may think that our belief isn’t strong enough.
The word “belief” itself has shades and intensities of meaning. Years ago, when we were missionaries on home stay visiting our sponsoring congregation in Minnesota, in what we referred to as the Haug Missionary Horse and Pony Show, we passed an Amish horse and buggy, and our youngest son asked curiously, “Why do they use horses instead of cars?” I tried to explain that the Amish didn’t believe in automobiles. After a few moments, he asked, “But can’t they see them?”
There are people who believe in God in much the same way- Sure, I believe in God, they say, so what? Doesn’t every sensible person believe in God? But if someone would suggest that because they believe in God that they ought to change their practices of business or labor, or personal behavior they would be quite shocked.
You see, to believe in God in the Christian sense, pushes the word belief to its highest point and widest reach. Believing is doing. That was how Joseph Barsabbas felt about the call to discipleship. The almost apostle wanted to walk as a true follower of Jesus. He wanted something more of his life than a little excursion of the mind or time, and to follow Jesus occasionally along the way. For Joseph Barsabbas, to offer himself meant total surrender to Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord and friend.
But my friends, Joseph Barsabbas didn’t abandon that dream when he wasn’t chosen a second time. He still believed that God had called him to make a difference in the world. According to tradition, he went on to become a bishop in one of the early churches in Palestine. For he knew that without playing his part, the world would be merely a generation from faithlessness. As I a missionary in Eastern Europe, I have seen it. I have seen it in despairing faces without hope- and I know that it can appear closer to home as well. God needs you. How will your children and grandchildren know the wonder of God’s love? How will they know the comforting power of God’s strength? How will they know the overwhelming promise of everlasting life? How will they know the compassionate arms of Jesus unless you tell them?
This leads me to my second conviction. As one who dares to call yourself Christian, in order to be and remain vital and effective, you need to be nurtured with vibrant and authentic enthusiasm. I read a story recently that comes close to home. At a wedding, the minister, the groom, and the best man were out in the hall waiting for the ceremony to begin. The groom was unusually nervous and agitated. He kept pacing and wringing his hands. Finally, the minister became so concerned about him that he asked, “What’s the matter, have you lost the ring?” The groom replied, “No, sir. I’ve lost my enthusiasm.”
The lack of enthusiasm has a way of zapping the joy from life. Oddly, the world appreciates and understands emotion and enthusiasm, until it becomes religious- and then immediately it is suspect. Yes, when you bring a grand and glorious abandonment to your following in Jesus’ footsteps you are often looked upon as going too far, or simply mad. Still, a Christian cannot survive long without a source of enthusiasm.
So where do you find and generate the enthusiasm for God’s calling in your life? I think that is why the story of the almost apostle Joseph Barsabbas is so important. Fundamentally, he knew that there was only one place where he could count on being nurtured. It was to be found in the church. Even after he had been passed over and received his “Dear sir, I regret to inform you” letter twice, he knew he had to return to the company of those gathered in the Upper Room. That is one of the primary reasons that we gather here each Sunday as well. We gather with fellow believers to share our stories and our sorrows. We gather around his Holy Word, to be challenged, instructed and comforted. We gather at his Table to be nourished with his Body and Blood, for here he strengthens us for the journey. And finally, it is this place where we can trust that the Holy Spirit will appear and empower us.
My friends, there will be moments when you may question God’s call for you to follow. It may be your Joseph Barsabbas moment. Or you may wonder whether some Minnie MacDowell has delivered the wrong letter. But trust in the nurturing power of the church and in God’s call in Jesus Christ to use you. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.