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Sermon for Sunday 24 May 2020

First Reading                                                             Acts 1:12-16

12Then {the disciples} returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. 14All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. 15In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 16“Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20“For it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and ‘Let another take his office.’ 21So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” 23And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. 24And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

Psalm                                                          Psalm 68:1-10

1Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him. 2Let them vanish like smoke when the wind drives it away; as the wax melts at the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God. 3But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; let them also be merry and joyful. 4Sing to God, sing praises to his Name; exalt him who rides upon the heavens; Yahweh is his name, rejoice before him! 5Father of orphans, defender of widows, God in his holy habitation! 6God gives the solitary a home and brings forth prisoners into freedom; but the rebels shall live in dry places. 7O God, when you went forth before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, 8The earth shook, and the skies poured down rain, at the presence of God, the God of Sinai, at the presence of God, the God of Israel. 9You sent a gracious rain, O God, upon your inheritance; you refreshed the land when it was weary. 10Your people found their home in it; in your goodness, O God, you have made provision for the poor.

Second Reading                                              1 Peter 4:12-19; 5:6-11

12Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” 19Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

6Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Gospel                                                                  John 17:1-11

1When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. 6I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 8For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

Vocation and Occupation       

            Now I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling slightly more hopeful today.  With Governor Cooper easing some of the restrictions this week, I’m beginning to see a light at the end of this seemingly very long tunnel.  I know we still have a long way to go, and none of us know quite yet whether or not the light we see, is the end of the tunnel, or a train.  But for now, I struggle to remain positive and choose to see the light as hopeful.

Next week we’ll begin having in-person worship services here at Bethel which means I’m feeling encouraged at the thought of an eventual return to normality, so as I walked this past week getting some fresh air and exercise, I began singing the Doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below.  Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts, praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  Amen.”  We’ll recite this again later and I hope it gives you some encouragement as well; a bit of support as we remember that God is still with us, protecting us and encouraging us even as we continue with our distanced gathering this week.  I hope you too have felt a bit more hopeful since the Governor’s announcement on Wednesday.

A second thing that provided me with a bit more hope and joy this week, was that two of the other pastors I traditionally meet with each Tuesday, were finally able to get together in fellowship and Bible study.  We did of course observe all social distancing guidelines and even with the current restrictions, I did enjoy catching up with them as we discussed what’s going on in our lives as well as in the life of our congregations.  As has been our custom, we visited for about an hour and then we began to study our readings for this Sunday.  Normally the hour to 70 minutes we set aside to discuss the week’s readings is sufficient.  However, this week was different.  Our discussion of the first reading progressed as usual and after about 20 minutes we moved on to our Epistle reading.  Yet, the first reading continued to rattle around in the back of my brain.

Our first reading for today is from St. Luke’s second book, the book of Acts, and focuses on Jesus’ ascension and the first few years of the church.  Now for those who have been keeping up with the liturgical calendar, this past Thursday we observed the Ascension of our Lord; Jesus’ return to the Father to sit at God’s right hand to rule in glory.  And just before Jesus ascended, He commanded the disciples to return to the city and wait for the promised Holy Spirit.  That event, the sending of the Holy Spirit, we will commemorate next Sunday, Pentecost.  But this week, Luke records a few of the things the disciples did as they waited.

Of importance was the fact that the disciples didn’t just sit around and get bored.  They used that time of waiting to be in prayer.  I believe I can, without being too far off base, say that they also devoted themselves to continued study of Hebrew scriptures and the discussion of all that Jesus taught them because Luke does say that they were of one accord; they were in agreement about what they were doing and what Jesus had commanded them to do.  Think about this for just a moment; it wasn’t just the 11 disciples who were praying, studying and discussing all Jesus had taught them and coming to a common agreement, Luke tells us that there were about 120 people in that house who were gathering, praying, studying and in agreement.  When was the last time you could get 120 people in the same room and get them to be in complete agreement about anything, let alone be in agreement about all things? 

I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a situation like that.  They shared a common bond, a common call, and a common mission.  They set aside the “what I want”, and instead focused on what God wanted them to do.  Anytime we set aside our desires and perceived goals and focus instead on what God is calling us to do, we find that agreement in mission will always be much easier to achieve.  The second thing they felt led to do was take care of the business of the church.

Judas, as we know from the passion readings, betrayed Jesus and in the end, took his own life, a tragic event.  For whatever reason, the disciples felt compelled to replace Judas with another.  Notice here what was going on, they didn’t go about this like you do a popularity contest.  There were strict criteria here that they felt they needed to follow.  Not everyone qualified.  Just because the person being nominated was part of the group, just because one of them bothered to show up on the day of elections, this didn’t automatically make that person eligible to be one of the disciples.  Note here that the qualifications were that someone had to have been following Jesus from His baptism to His ascension.

To be considered for the position of becoming an apostle, the individual had to faithful, one who set aside their lives and agendas for the sake of the gospel.  Notice that in verse 21 Peter says that the person considered had to have “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord went in and out among us.”  Those considered had to be men of good standing and good character, having spent time in study and prayer with Jesus and the others.  The disciples weren’t simply trying to fill a seat, they were trying to find a partner in ministry.  And what was the overarching goal?  And this is extremely important, “one of these men must become with us a witness to his [Jesus’] resurrection.  As I said, this is an important statement and I want you to keep that in mind because I’m going to put a pin in that and come back to this in a few minutes.  It was at this point that the other two pastors and I moved to the second lesson.

It was also at this juncture that our discussions took a turn.  Normally, before I meet with the pastors, I pre-read and pray about the lessons, and this week it seemed my attention was on the gospel passage.  But as we dug deeper and deeper into the epistle reading, the Holy Spirt spoke through one of the pastors and he made a statement that really challenged me.  In short, he said: “we have both a vocation and an occupation.”  Up to this point I had never thought about assigning a different meaning to these two words. 

For me vocation and occupation have always been synonymous.  As you’ve heard me say many times in the past, we can’t sperate who we are as Christians with what we do in our everyday lives.  To follow Jesus means that we obey and place God first, not only in our life but in everything we do.  Every action, every thought, and every decision the Christian makes is centered on doing it as if we were doing it for God.  We think, say, and do everything to glorify God: or at least we’re supposed to!  So, for me, everything flows from the aspect of being a Christian.  Needless to say, I argued the statement from that point of view.

Thankfully, my compatriot held his ground and insisted that we needed to examine his statement further.  As we began to study our reading from 1st Peter, his statement became clearer and clearer.  We do indeed have a vocation and an occupation.  Consider that not only in our epistle reading, but throughout the Bible, God has given us commands, statutes and examples of how the righteous are to live their lives in service to God and others.  St. Peter tells us that one of the things we can expect is trials.

Trials can come in many forms.  Most often we think of trials as tests to our faith under extra ordinary circumstances: the death of a loved one, sickness, financial difficulties, hardships and the like.  But trials can also come in much more subtle forms.  At work, for example, we’re tempted to do less than our best, instead only doing the minimum required and we use terms like “good enough for government work” to explain away our performance.  Or, it might be an opportunity to lie or cheat, thinking no one will know or we’re at a very small risk of getting caught.  Or, it might be a failure to disclose information with the result of improving our bottom line.  What we need to remember is that it’s overcoming the little trials that help us during the bigger trials.  This leads to humility.

Humility is simply recognizing our strengths and our limitations.  Oftentimes it feeds our ego to take credit for work done even though we couldn’t have done the work without the help of others.  While serving in the military as a supervisor, it was common for the upper echelon to express their appreciation for a job well done by a work section.  The upper levels of supervision didn’t have the time to go and thank all the folks involved, nor did they have the names of the individuals who accomplished all the work.  It was easy to take credit for the work of others.  Humility tells us that we need to not only inform the higher ups of who the key people were, but also to pass along that appreciation and recognize the appropriate people.

As Christians, we know and understand that everything we have, our talents, gifts and blessings come from God.  When we successfully use these gifts, blessings and talents and others complement us, we need to remember that we didn’t succeed on our own.  We need to humbly recognize and give praise to God for giving us this ability.   Peter also reminds us in verse 8 to be sober-minded. 

Being sober minded and humility go hand in hand.  Humility recognizes that you can accomplish the task before you because of God’s help and with God’s help.  Being sober-minded means we also recognize our limitations and our dependence on God not only for His blessings but also for His protection as well.   Now to this point you might be asking me, pastor, all this is well and good, but, what does this have to do with Vocation verses Occupation.

The key to this is found back in our first reading from Acts chapter 1.  Recall that I asked you to keep in mind the latter part of verse 22.  Here in verse 22 Peter tells us clearly what our vocation is; we “must become witnesses” with the church of all time to the resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus in His last earthly command clarified what this means; we are to Go, make, teach, and baptize.  Everything we do in this life we do to fulfill this command.  Being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection is our vocation.  Our occupation is the various roles we fill throughout life.  Our occupation is the avenues by which we fulfill our vocation.

Think of our occupation as the various roles that we’re called to play in this life.  In childhood, my occupation was as just that.  God gave me parents in order to learn what God expected of me not only as a Christian, but as a citizen of this world.  In school, my occupation was to learn about the world around me and how God made that world.  In that occupation I learned the rules and about obedience.  As I grew and sought employment in various industries, my occupation was to provide a service.  I was expected to take what I learned as a child, both from my parents and others, and apply that to the work setting, always remembering that my vocation was to become a witness to Jesus’ resurrection.  Even later, I became a husband, than a father and even later a grandfather.  Still later I was ordained as a pastor and very recently I’ve been elected as the Dean of the Southern Piedmont Mission district of the NALC.  Again, all these are occupations; all these are the opportunities, places and settings in which I fulfill my vocation.  But our vocation never changes. 

In baptism we were made God’s children; we were called, redeemed and sent to witness to God’s salvation and love found in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.  We can never separate ourselves from our vocation, no matter what our occupation or occupations might be.  Think of it this way: our vocation is the who and what, our occupation is the where, when and how.  In our vocation, everything we do is in witness to and to the glory of God for what He has done for us.  In our occupations, we show and voice that witness to those to whom we’ve been sent.

The one thing we must remember, is that everything we do is as if we were doing it for God Himself and to the glory of God.  This is why, no matter what the world might try to tell us, we can never separate our vocation from our occupation.  You see, satan will try to trick us into thinking that we must set aside our Christian beliefs, teachings and values in order to be politically neutral or correct.  And in some occupations, this is a very difficult task.  However, we must always look for the opportunity to fulfill our vocation despite the difficulty.  Yet, if everything we think say and do tells others that we are different from the world around us, God will show us a way to fulfill our vocation without violating the rules.

So, my friend was right all along; we have both a vocation, that is to be a witness to the resurrection of Jesus and we have an occupation or for most of us, many occupations.  God calls us to many mission fields, as someone being taught, as someone performing a service, as a parent, a grandparent and/or someone in a position of supervision or teaching.  These are the various settings, or occupations that God places us in to fulfill our ultimate mission or vocation.  These are the settings where we, in our thoughts, words and deeds soberly, humbly, and faithfully honor and praise God for all the blessings that flow from His throne of grace.


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