Sunday, May 20, 2012

Did You Get the Call?

This sermon is based on notes of a presentation given by the Rev. Thomas Weitzel. The main points are his; most of the illustrations are mine. 

When I went to Wheaton College I met a lot of PKs. I even dated one--a Preacher's Kid, that is. Talking to them is enough to put you off the idea of entering ordained ministry. And sure enough, only about 10% of Protestant clergy is made up of PKs. I don't know if they get tired of church or tired of having to be the perfect child. But whatever the reason, it means that 90% of people called to the ordained ministry have parents in different occupations. Mine were a bartender and a nurse. Which makes sense: one heard a lot of sinners' confessions and the other helped make people better.

I can't find any reliable statistics on what professions contribute the most people to the ordained ministry. I did an informal poll on Facebook and got an agricultural engineer, a high school computer science teacher, the head of a construction company, a music teacher, and a manager at Office Depot. But one thing I do know: all of the Twelve were something entirely different before they were called to be apostles. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector. Paul was a tentmaker. We don't know what Matthias was! We do know he wasn't one of the original Twelve. But Jesus called them and they followed him. Their primary vocation became spreading the Good News of God in Christ. And who they were changed.

When we think of being called, we do so almost exclusively in regards to the ordained ministry, as if every other person in a church just sort of wandered in by accident. But when Jesus as the Good Shepherd spoke of calling his sheep, there was no indication that this applied to clergy only. We are all Christians because Christ called us. He doesn't always call us to change jobs. Often he needs us to be his agents in place, so to speak. But we are nevertheless called by him to serve him.

There are many ways to serve Jesus. Figuring out how we should do that may not be obvious. At least to ourselves. A lot of people, when they realize what they are called by God to do, find that those around them are not the least bit surprised. They've noticed what our gifts are even if we haven't. And God provides and equips us with what we need to accomplish what he calls us to. Often when we discover our call, we say to ourselves, "Yes, this is what I was meant to do!" When you find your call, you find yourself. 

That vocation gives us a role, an identity. Not every identity comes from a call; it could come from some other external motivator. Like your situation in life, such as marriage or becoming a parent. It can come from a job we get or a career we choose, such as becoming a cop, a teacher, a nurse, a fisherman, or a builder. Or it may be your role within a group: the leader, the spokesperson, the facilitator, the negotiator, the advocate, the joker (every group has one), the cheerleader, Mr. Fix-it, etc. It may not be our sole identity but it is something that is true and important about us. And having a clear identity is crucial. If you know how you fit into a group or into the world, it can give you a measure of peace. 

When we have a clear identity, it gives us a purpose. You know that you are to educate. Or to nurture. Or to protect. Or to make peace. Or to envision the future. Or to figure out the details of realizing that future. A recent study found that having a sense of purpose actually extends your life. It is also an important part of personal happiness. 

Once you have a purpose, you can work out how to translate that into action. If your identity is a nurse, and your purpose is to make and keep people healthy, that leads you to work in a hospital or a doctor's office or a home health agency. If your identity is an artist, and your purpose is to create works that affect people, that could lead you to create works of beauty or that question stereotypical thinking or confront people with reality.

Having a clear purpose is essential to ministry as well. Again if your identity is a nurse, your purpose is still to make and keep people healthy, and you might become a parish nurse, a ministry many churches offer. Or you could see your purpose as helping those who are at the end of life and your ministry could be working in a nursing home or for hospice. If your identity is an artist, your purpose is still to create works that affect people, and your ministry could be creating art that questions or confronts or inspires. You have a ministry, whether inside or outside the church. But it's impossible to do really effective ministry if you don't have a sense of purpose. Which goes back to having a clear identity. Which goes back to having a call.

You can lose your identity. Your situation changes. Get a divorce and you lose the identity of being a spouse. Lose custody of the kids and you may feel like you've lost your identity as a parent. Lose your job and you lose your identity as a manager or scientist or just as a breadwinner or a productive member of society. Loss of identity leads to feeling that you are lost in other ways, too.

When people lose their identity, they often lose their purpose and action. This can lead to depression and paralysis. But usually it leads to seeking another external motivator because we can't stand having an identity crisis. This can be good. A person who lost a business may create another. A person who is divorced may resolve to be a better parent. But losing an identity can lead to bad choices of a new motivation and identity. The divorced person could decide to a player or party animal. Or to be a bitter enemy of his or her ex-spouse. Or a stalker.

If one's identity as a member of a group is lost, it can also lead to an identity crisis. My mother's increasing hearing loss meant she could no longer continue as head nurse of the recovery room at her hospital. She got a degree in librarianship and found a position in the hospital as tumor registrar. Whenever cancer was discovered or treated at the hospital, she kept track of the patient and his or her treatment and progress. This is a vital position because the statistics help doctors and researchers decide on the effectiveness of certain treatments. It's also necessary for the hospital to keep its certification to treat cancer.

On the other hand, losing your identity within a group can lead to bad decisions, including betrayal of the group. In the early years of the Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold captured Ft. Ticonderoga and played a key role in several important victories. He was severely wounded at the battles of Saratoga and, had he died of those injuries, he would have gone down in history as a great American hero. But he was passed over for promotions, investigated for corruption and acquitted, and was told he owed Congress money for his invasion of Quebec because he could not document all of his expenses. His military advice was ignored and he offered to surrender West Point to the British. When that plot failed, Arnold went over to the British and his name became a synonym for traitor ever since.      

God calls not only individuals but groups to serve him as well. He called the nation of Israel and blessed them so that they in turn may bless all the nations. In the same way, God's calls his church and blesses it in order that it might be a blessing to the world by bringing it to Christ. And that means he called this church as well. Which means everything we said about an individual's call is true about the call of a local congregation.

God is our motivator. He calls us as a group to an identity. That identity in Christ gives us purpose. And that purpose leads to action in the form of ministry. Unfortunately, churches can also get lost. And, according to the Rev. Tom Weitzel, to whom I am indebted for the chief points of this sermon, when a church is lost in any way, it is because it has lost its sense of call.

Any organization, if it's been around a while, begins to drift from its original purpose, its reason to exist. And its prime directive then becomes the perpetuation of its own existence. Along the way, it may forget what need led to its creation. We've seen that happen with companies doing brand extension, putting their name on whole lines of products that have little or nothing to do with the core business. Many movie studios make more money from selling the merchandising rights to the movie than from the movie itself (which explains why some movies seem like 2 hour commercials for toys.) We saw that happen when banks forgot their business fundamentals and began to act like casinos, taking and making bets on credit, even against their own clients. We've seen that happen to churches that have drifted so far from their original call and purpose that they seem to be in some other business altogether.

Like a person who has lost his identity and sense of purpose, a church may seek a motivator among things other than God, such as an obsession with success or a worship style or its institutional history or the latest cultural or church fad or a particular stand on a political or theological issue. A lot of mega-churches have as their motivator a celebrity preacher. If he or she retires or gets caught in a scandal, the church, its sense of purpose, and its ministry suffer. If its call from God has been lost, a church can't fix things by merely multiplying or tweaking its ministries. It needs to recover God's call.

It was God's call that motivated the prophets. It made them God's spokesmen, it gave them purpose and it defined and fueled their ministry. And what they did was issue God's call to his people--a call to return to the Lord.

All calls are first to faithfulness. We are called not merely to have faith in God but to be faithful to him. In a marriage, or any relationship, trust is a two-way street. It makes no sense to expect God to be faithful on his end and yet not strive to be faithful in return. If someone you were married to or were friends with or had business with, insisted that you keep up your part of the relationship while failing to do the same, you would be outraged at the injustice. Faithfulness is vital to returning to God and hearing his call.

Pastor Weitzel lists 10 elements of faithfulness. I'll touch on each briefly.

Number 1: Put God first. That should be a no-brainer but like most obvious things, we cease to pay attention to them and forget about them after a while. And it doesn't help that a lot of people think religion's primary purpose is to make them feel good about themselves. That's why everyone talks so much about spirituality. It's a word that most people have such a vague grasp of that it can be made to mean whatever they want. Put the word into Google and you get things like "…an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being…,"You are everything, yet you are nothing…," and "…that which relates to or affects the human spirit." The last is closest to the dictionary definition except that it narrows it down to the "human" spirit. Modern spirituality is all about "me." But we are created in God's image. God is the original Spirit. We're trying to draw the Mona Lisa from a very bad copy rather than going to the real thing. So we need to state the obvious: put God first.

Number 2: Seek and do God's will. That's both easy and hard. We know the broad outlines of God's will: love him, love one another as he loves us, go and make disciples and teach them all that he said. Which does cut off some avenues, like hating others, running off disciples and teaching them stuff he never said. Again, obvious things that get overlooked. What's difficult sometimes is knowing God's specific will in whatever time and place he has put us. For that we need to practice discernment. At this time that goes beyond the scope of my message though we shall return to it in the future.

Number 3: Pray daily. Again to maintain a relationship you have to communicate. It's vital for keeping a marriage healthy. Would you really want to be in one of those marriages where you barely speak? It is essential to a healthy relationship with God as well. Talk to him daily. You might be surprised at what comes up and how good you'll feel after sharing your deepest fears and hopes with the one who loves you more than anyone can.

Number 4: Worship weekly. Worship comes from the same root as the word "worth." In worship, we tell God how much he means to us. We do it with others the same reason we watch sports with friends or "Game of Thrones" with others. Because we love sharing what we enjoy with others. We also do it because God is Love and we are most like him when we are doing things together out of love with those we love.  

Number 5: Study and know God's Word. A few years ago, a study showed that most religious people knew woefully little about their own faiths. If you love cars, or cooking, I know you spend a lot of time looking up and reading about them. I bet you know all about your favorite shows or singers or teams. If we know more about them than about God and his acts and teachings as described in his word, what does that say about our real priorities? And how shall we answer the foolish and erroneous things said about God's word, if we don't know what it actually says?

Number 6: Love and serve others. When Jesus told a parable about the last judgment, his criterion was: what you do to others you do to him. Do we truly look for Jesus, however obscured by sin and misfortune, in others and do we really serve them as we would if they were Christ undisguised?

Number 7: Tithe thankfully. It's not like we are doling out a piddling allowance to a kid who's done nothing to deserve it. We are returning a small portion of the gifts God's given us for him to use in building up his kingdom. And we ought to do it with gratitude. Gratitude is an part of happiness.

Number 8: Share the Gospel. If you found a good doctor, who really helped your pain or diagnosed a persistent problem or cured an illness, you'd tell everybody. If you knew a reliable and honest mechanic, you'd pass the word on. If you discover a great singer or a really funny comedian, you'd want everyone to give him a listen. Why not Jesus? 

Number 9: Participate at church. When someone invites you to a party, you ask what you can bring. When you arrive, you ask if there's anything you can do. If the host or hostess looks like they're trying to do everything, you pitch in. This is your church. We can always use help. And like any activity, you get more out of it when you put something into it.

Number 10: Repent unfaithfulness. Repent, as we are learning in our Bible study on Mark, basically means "change your mind" or "turn around." God doesn't want people continually wailing but people who, when they realize they're on the wrong track, reorient themselves, change direction and get back on the right path.

If you've been neglecting God, if you've forgotten his call, forgotten who and whose you are, if you lost your sense of purpose and momentum, change the way you think and act and return to the Lord. Think of it as a second honeymoon with the person without whom love would not be possible.

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