You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it below.
My former Bishop once shared with me that every call story has two parts: the call to leave and the call to where. At the time, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about. It was the fall of 2015, I had just finished a sabbatical, and the Pankey family was quite happy in Foley, Alabama, thank you very much. Soon after those words, Keith and I had one of our quartly-ish planning days wherein we would leave the office behind, take our Bibles and our Prayer Books, and spend several hours listening for the Spirit. As the day unfolded, we began to realize that God was calling us to try something new. It was time for me to stretch my leadership wings a bit. Just a few days earlier, I had heard that the Vicar of a small mission church up the road was going to give up driving an hour each way on Sunday morning as a gift to himself for his ninetieth birthday. We prepared a plan to present to the bishop in which I would continue to serve Saint Paul’s three-quarter time and be named Vicar at Saint John’s for the other quarter. Bishop Kendrick was excited about the possibility, but by the time he could check out the details, St. John’s had already invited another retired priest to fill their Sunday void.
As spring rolled around, Keith and I went back to the drawing board. We were still praying for what God had in store for us next, and for the first time in nine years, there was nothing. We decided to keep listening. In mid-April, while attending a Gathering of Leaders conference, I received my answer. It was time to go. I had no idea where I would end up, but I knew that the time had come. I also knew that I wanted to have complete control over the where question. I began to scour the Office of Transition Ministry website for neat places to live. The South Carolina coast sounded nice. The Mississippi Gulf Coast wouldn’t be bad. I might have even settled for the mountains of Colorado, when in June while at Sewanee for my last set of summer classes, fellow DMin student and friend, Paul Canady, the Rector of Christ Church, New Bern, where our own Cortney Dale serves as the Associate, sent me a Facebook message with a link to your parish profile that read, “I’m just going to put this right here for you… it’s got some good things going for it. Downside, of course, is that’s it’s not near the ocean.” I clicked the link, read for a minute and decided that moving from the Gulf Coast to Bowling Green was not in my plans. Less than 24 hours later, Elise Johnstone, Canon to the Ordinary across the border in Lexington approached me in the hall of the School of Theology and said, “It isn’t in my diocese, but there is a great church in Bowling Green, Kentucky that you should take a look at. Solid budget, University town, and Amy speaks highly of the people.”
The Holy Spirit has her ways, and getting the point across that I am not in charge of either the when or the where was made abundantly clear to me during 2016. I am not the first person to learn this lesson. In fact, the call to go without having an answer to the where question has been a part of God’s plan for salvation since Adam and Even first ate of the forbidden tree. In our Old Testament lesson for this morning we heard one of the many call stories in scripture that involve God inviting someone to go without a final destination. As my friend Nurya Love Parish paraphrased the story, “God says to Abram, ‘Leave behind everything familiar, and go to the land I will show you.’ Not the land God has shown Abram. Abram has to leave before he knows where he is headed.” All of salvation history hinges on Abram’s willingness to leave everything he knows behind and begin a journey to some unknown land that God has promised.
Abraham was faithful and “it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham’s faithfulness to the call of God to go without an answer to the where is, to Paul’s mind, the premier example of the life of faith. Moreover, the promise of God that is fulfilled in Abraham’s willingness to leave everything he knows behind is a promise to bless not just Abraham and his family, but the whole world. Indeed, all the families of the earth will be blessed through Abraham. Again and again, disciples are called to go. Sometimes, like in my case, it is the call of God to a professional minister to pick up and move, but more often, the call to go without knowing where it will lead comes to the average Christian sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning. These are the calls of regular disciples to go out and be a blessing to the world. Whether it is local work with the homeless, the outcast, or those in prison; or international service to bring clean water, education, or healthcare to those in need, God has a call to go for every disciple. God has a plan to bless the world one person at a time through each of us who call Jesus Christ Lord. If we are willing to listen, and more so, willing to take the risk and GO, each of us can experience the blessing of Abraham; the blessing of following God’s call to go and be a blessing to someone else.
This is easier said than done, to be sure, which is why the story of Nicodemus is paired up with Abraham. Nicodemus wants to be faithful to the call of God to follow Jesus. He feels a pull to this Rabbi who is “from God,” but he just can’t commit. He can’t give up all the comforts that come with his position of power as a Pharisee and leader of the Jews to follow the call to go without having some idea as to where it is all headed. And so, he finds Jesus under the safety of darkness. In the shadows of doubt and fear, Nicodemus knows he can meet Jesus on his own terms. In the safety of the night, he can get his questions answered without his fellow Pharisees finding out. Nicodemus wants to follow Jesus, but he wants total control over how it’ll take place.
Jesus’ answers to Nicodemus’ questions seem like a series of non sequiturs, but in reality, they are a continuation of the call of Abraham. God is calling Nicodemus to give up all control, to leave everything he knows behind and follow Jesus to an unknown destination. “You must be born again,” Jesus says, “the birth you have is one of power, prestige, and privilege, but you have to give all that up to follow me. You have to get out of the darkness and into the light. You have to be willing to risk everything to be my disciple. You have to be comfortable riding the wind of the Spirit that goes wherever she chooses.” Nicodemus couldn’t do it, at least not yet. Later on in John’s Gospel, we’ll hear stories of his growing faith. He stands up for Jesus, albeit somewhat tepidly, when the Pharisees begin to plot for his arrest. After Jesus’ death, it is Nicodemus who helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus’ body; bringing with him nearly one-hundred pounds of spices.
While it never does seem like Nicodemus can fully commit to following God’s call to go, we can take some solace in his struggle. None of us is the perfect disciple. None of us is always able to drop everything and go. Each of us, from time to time, will want to have our say in how the when and where questions gets answered. We all go astray from the will of God occasionally, but God’s grace is strong enough to overcome our doubts. God didn’t give up on Nicodemus when he disappeared back into the night. God continued to call him, continued to challenge him to give up control, continued to try to pour out blessings through him, and God does the same for each of us. Every time we go astray, God beckons us to return. Every time we cling to safety, God calls us to go. Every time our faith fails, God forgives, and invites us to try again. And when we do answer the call to go, God makes us to be his blessing in the world. Every call has two parts: the call to go and the call to where: righteousness is found in our willingness to leave the safety of what we know to go to what we don’t know in order to be God’s blessing to a world that desperately needs it. Amen.