Our Call Story – a sermon

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Wouldn’t it be great if every call from God was so very clear?  My own call story ends up with one of those “aha!” moments, but the reality is that it took quite a while for me to get there.  As I mentioned last week, thanks to Jeanne Ritter’s evangelistic efforts, I grew up in the church.  In middle school, I joined the youth group, but when I was in eighth grade, the youth leader ran off with the proceeds of our fundraisers for the year, so began to I look elsewhere.  Throughout high school I was active in Young Life and the youth group at the local Christian Missionary Alliance church.  I can’t find it anymore, but there was a day when I pulled over on the side of Manheim Pike after a Friday morning Bible Study and wrote in my Bible the moment I decided to make Jesus my Lord and Savior, as if he hadn’t already been for years.  The best part about having that moment marked for posterity was that I never had to think about it again.  So, without so much as a thought about asking God what he might want me to do with the rest of my life, I applied to only one school, the University of Pittsburgh, and set off to become a civil engineer.

God has a funny way of using our plans and various bad ideas for good.  Even though I hated almost every moment of the two semesters I spent I Pitt, the friends I made there were the reason I met Cassie.  We’re not there yet, though.  I transferred to Millersville University after my freshman year, and upon realizing they didn’t actually offer an engineering degree, I changed my major to meteorology for three weeks before settling on business administration.  For three years, I worked hard to graduate on time so that I could get money and buy stuff.  I had even planned how to spend my first million: a Benz with a personalized license plate that read “MIL TKT.”   Yet again, God had different plans.  Once back in Lancaster, the rector of my childhood church invited me to serve as a part-time youth minister.  I found myself leading Bible studies, prayer meetings, See You at the Pole events, and giving all sorts of talks and homilies.  I didn’t know it at the time, but God was preparing me for a different sort of future.

For Spring Break my sophomore year, I initially planned to go to Germany to visit a friend studying abroad, but when that didn’t pan out, I went to Pittsburgh to visit old friends and attend the Jubilee Conference for Christian college students.  It was there that Cassie and I first met.  A year later, I returned to Jubilee ready to propose.  I barely remember the big day. I couldn’t pay any attention as the speakers made their presentations; I was too afraid of the diamond ring in my jacket pocket.  The afternoon was spent in small groups based on your major.  I went through the motions, so as not be suspicious, and attended the one for business students.  As the first half ended before a short break, the leader asked a question that changed my life forever.  “Are you studying business to further God’s Kingdom in some way, or just to get money and buy stuff?”

After years of trying to get my attention, God finally resorted to a “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” type moment.  I was quite content to “get money and buy stuff” until that very second.  Despite what God had been doing through the youth ministry at Saint Thomas, I had successfully ignored any sense of call in the name of crushing fingers on the corporate ladder.  Suddenly the comfortable façade I had created came crashing down.  Get money and buy stuff was no longer an acceptable answer, and now, hours before I asked Cassie to be my wife, I had to figure out what God was inviting me to do with my life.

The two-by-four across the back of the head is often the last option God uses to get our attention, but some of us are thicker than others.  For Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the call was much easier.  With no more than a few words, they are ready to drop everything and leave family and career, in order to follow Jesus.  It is always dangerous to compare one Gospel story with another, but because Matthew is careful to tell us that Simon was called Peter, one gets the sense that this might not be the first time Jesus has met these men.  As we heard last week, Andrew and Simon Peter met Jesus down by the Jordan River, and some think that John the Baptist’s unnamed disciple was John.  No matter how you parse it, unlike my three years working for Saint Thomas, these men were paying attention when God came calling.  They were ready to follow Jesus no matter where he was headed.

Too often, call stories are reserved for the professional minsters among us.  It is probably because we had to tell the story approximately three million times during the discernment process, but the reality is that God calls every disciple to ministry: through the church, through other volunteer efforts, and even through whatever job you might have at any given moment.  As the Christian Vocation Project puts it, “The call to be a priest, monk, or nun, however sacred, is, in and of itself, not superior to the call of an architect designing a house, a mechanic repairing a car, or a nurse caring for the sick.  It is our faithfulness to God and not our station in life that honors a call.”[1]  Take, for example, the call of Andrew and Simon Peter.  Read at face value, this story can be used to suggest that being commercial fishermen was not their true calling, and only after Jesus comes and calls them to be “fishers of people” do they really have a vocation.  Instead, I believe that the many years they spent working hard as fishermen were preparing them to become successful apostles.

Think about their work for a minute.  In the first century, as it is today, the life of on commercial fishing boat was difficult.  Fishermen studied the water, learning its ebbs and flows; the right time to fish, and those days when it would just be a waste of time.  Even when the waters were favorable, they often worked long hours, sometimes overnight, to bring in enough fish to make a decent wage.  There were days when the conditions were perfect, when the fish should be biting and the nets should be full, but after hours and hours, their best efforts were frustrated.  Other times, when the day seemed questionable, or when a stranger invited them to push out a little further or throw on the other side of the boat, and the haul was unimaginably large.

If that doesn’t sound like the life of ministry, I don’t know what does.  The qualities that made Simon Peter and Andrew good fishermen made them excellent fishers of men.  The same is true of almost every vocation.  If we are paying attention, there are parts of every job that teach us how to be a better disciple and a better witness to the Good News.  It when we begin to see how God is continually calling each of us as individuals to a life of ministry that we can then begin to then discern how God is calling us as a community to service.

Over the course of the next year, we will spend some time doing both of those things.  It’ll be important to do some work of individual discernment, looking at our own spiritual gifts and seeing how they fit into the call God has for each of us.  At the same time, we will be engaging in a process of communal strategic discernment, asking God how we can best use the many gifts we bring to build the Kingdom here in Bowling Green.  Some of this work will feel like a review.  “Didn’t we do this during the search process?” someone will invariably ask.  I’m sure you did, but this isn’t the same church it was when Holy Cow was here; it isn’t even the same church it was at Christmas.  Together, we will do the work of listening for God’s call so that unlike my call story, God won’t have to use a two-by-four to get our attention.  I look forward to the work ahead as we listen for Jesus’ call to follow him wherever he might lead.  Amen.

[1] Listening Hearts, p. 8.

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Call Stories

A lifetime ago, back when I was in college and serving as a part-time youth minister, I used a book called Roaring Lambs by Bob Briner to lead a study with my kids.  The basic gist of that book is that the church needs to reevaluate what it means by calling and vocation.  His thesis is that the church has, hopefully unintentionally, created a hierarchy of vocation such that missionary and full-time, ordained minister ranks higher than everything else.  We’ve told kids (and adults, for that matter) that wanting to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, welder, or music composer isn’t a noble calling because it isn’t ministry.  Bob Briner thinks this is garbage, and so do I.

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Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a series of call stories that invites us to think beyond the specifics of who is called to what and maybe give some time to think carefully about each of our callings as disciples of Jesus.  Take, for example, the call of Andrew and Simon Peter.  Read at face value, this story can be used to tell people that their work as fishermen was not a calling, and only after Jesus comes and calls them to be “fishers of men” (the play on words is too good to get bogged down in the gendered language, imho) do they really have a vocation.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Instead, I believe that the many years they spent working hard as fishermen allowed them to become successful apostles.

Think about their work for a minute.  In the first century, as it is today, the life of a commercial fisher was difficult.  They studied the water, learning the ebbs and flows; the right time to fish and those days when it would just be a waste of time.  Even when the waters were favorable, they often worked long hours, sometimes overnight, to bring in enough fish to make a decent wage.  There were days when the conditions were perfect, when the fish should be biting and the nets should be full, but after hours and hours, their best efforts were frustrated.  Other times, when the day seemed questionable, or a stranger invited them to push out a little further or throw on the other side of the boat, when the haul was unimaginably large.

If that doesn’t sound like the life of ministry, you’ve not been paying attention.  The qualities that made Simon and Andrew good fishermen made them excellent fishers of men.  The same is true of almost every vocation.  There are parts of every job that teach us how to be a better disciple and a better witness to the Good News.  Whether it is days on end of dealing with the general public or hours crunching numbers, everything we do has the chance to help us grow as disciples and make us better apostles.  How has your vocation been a calling to ministry?  Where can you see God at work in your current job?  Even for those who are retired or unemployed, where is God teaching you in your searching, in your volunteering, and in your free time?  Every breath is a gift, a calling to the service of God.

The Kingdom of God is Still Near

For those of us who run in Episcopal circles, the past few months have been really topsy-turvy.  While it is true that Episcopalians span the political spectrum, it is equally true that the majority of Episcopal priests tend to sit left of center.  The old joke that Episcopal congregations have altar rails to separate the Republicans from the Democrat might not be as true as it once was, but there is still a statistically significant difference between the political balance of the church’s laity and her clergy.  As you might guess, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has brought with it much consternation.  In recent weeks there have been two major controversies around the decision by some congregations to cease the habit of praying for the President by name and around two decisions by the Washington National Cathedral to 1) hold the usual interfaith prayer service on the eve of the Inauguration and 2) to allow a choir to perform at the Inauguration itself.  I will not weigh in on any of those questions because, by and large, it has been yet another opportunity for the Episcopal Church to shoot itself in the foot by behaving badly in disagreement.  We should have learned our lesson in 2003 following the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, but sadly, the rise of social media since ’03 has allowed us to be only more publicly cantankerous than we were before.

I will say this, however, that no matter what you think about what will happen when Donald J. Trump is sworn in at noon on Friday, the central message of Jesus is still true. The Kingdom of God is still near.  For my Republican friends, know that the Kingdom of God was near when the Affordable Care Act became law.  For my Democrat friends, know that the Kingdom of God is near even as it is being repealed.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent upon who is in office, but rather, its unveiling is the ongoing work of the Body of Christ, of which we are constituent members.

Our task, in light of the ongoing dis-ease in our country and the wider world, is to see Christ in each other, to be about building the Kingdom on earth, and to be discerning God’s will for the world in which we live.  It is that final piece that causes the most problems, since both sides of our current debates are good at claiming God is on their side, but if we work hard at the first bit, at seeing Christ in each other, and especially looking for Christ in those with whom we disagree, then the Kingdom of God comes even closer than it had been before.

As we approach an historic moment, with some who rejoice, some who mourn, and some who fear, I’m looking toward the Kingdom, looking for Christ in my neighbor, and committing now, more than ever, to work toward God’s dream for creation that God so loved that he sent his only Son not to condemn for its failures, but to save for its potential.  The Kingdom of God is still near, dear reader, pray that your eyes might be open to see your place in bringing it into reality.

God Equips the Called – a sermon

You can listen to yesterday’s sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read it below.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this week thinking about the year 2008.  Friday marked the sixth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, which occurred on a nasty January weekend in 2008.  As I reflected on the six years that have passed, I was reminded, more than a few times, of just how much I’ve learned doing this thing called “full-time, ordained ministry” day in and day out.  I remembered, in particular, another weekend in 2008, this time in November, when I flew off to everybody’s favorite vacation destination, Oklahoma City, for a conference called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent.”  It really was a great conference, filled with alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the greatest minds in the Emerging Church, and good fellowship with a some of people with whom I’m still in touch.  Yet, for all the good that the weekend had to offer, I still remember vividly the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.

There I was, twenty-eight years old, not even a year-old priest, still trying to figure out life in Lower Alabama, mixing it up with some of the most imaginative minds in the Church.  It all came to a head sitting in one of the lower level meeting rooms at some Oklahoma City hotel at three o’clock Friday afternoon.  Jonny Baker, the head of the Fresh Expressions Office in the Church of England had set up a labyrinth experience like I had never seen before.  There were maybe a dozen prayer stations spread throughout the room complete with running water, working televisions, sand displays, and lighting effects.  As I took in what was happening around me, a little voice crept into my ear and told me, “You’ll never be this imaginative.  Give it up.  Why waste your time.”  As I plodded through the labyrinth, feeling depressed about how I’d never come up with something that engaging, I came to a station where we were invited to, and I’m not kidding, write down our fears on a piece of paper, fold it into an origami boat, and float it down the flowing river that Jonny had built in the middle of the room.  This really happened, I swear.  I knew my fear, it was that I was inadequate, not just to develop some alt.worship opportunity at Saint Paul’s, but for the whole shebang.  I grabbed a pen from the bucket and began to write down my fear, when, just a few letters in, the pen dried up.  I looked down in exasperation, and noticed that this wasn’t just any old bic pen, it was a promotional pen that somebody had given away somewhere.  But it didn’t say, “Saint Swithin’s by the Sea” or “Church Pension Group” on it, instead it read, “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.”  I tucked that dead pen in my pocket, and never looked back.

I think that “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called” should be the lens through which we read this morning’s Gospel lesson.  Instead, I think it is most often read through the lens of guilt and inadequacy.  Here’s how the story goes when we read it that way.  Jesus, fresh from his baptism in the River Jordan, complete with doves and voices from heaven, followed by 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, moves to Capernaum by the Sea.  The next day, Jesus was walking on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when he runs in to two fishermen, Andrew and Simon Peter, who presumably, he’s never met before.  He says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and they drop what they’re doing, leave behind steady jobs and family, to follow Jesus wherever he’s headed.  Just a few feet down the beach, their chief competitors, the Zebedee brothers, are mending their nets when Jesus calls out to them.  Not knowing him from Adam, James and John hand their nets to their father and walk off into the sunset with Jesus.  The sermon writes itself, “Would you be willing to give up everything to follow Jesus?  I bet not, and you wanna know why?  Because you are selfish sinners, that’s why.”  Maybe the sermon wouldn’t be that extreme, but you get the idea, like the example of Jesus’ baptism, the calling of Jesus’ first disciples seems so over the top, so impossible a model for us to follow, that it seems useless to even read the story.

Unless.  Unless, we’ve missed some vital details along the way.  Let me tell you the story one more time, this time including some of the details we can reasonably assume based on the Gospel accounts.  After Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, he spent some time with his cousin, listening to him preach.  One day, two of John’s disciples, Andrew and presumably John, the son of Zebedee, followed Jesus back to the place where he was staying and spent the day with him.  Convinced that they had found the one they were looking for, the Messiah, both ran off to find their brothers to tell them the Good News.  Andrew returned with his brother, Simon, who Jesus called Cephas, which is translated as Peter.  Eventually, Jesus headed out into the wilderness for the forty day fast that would steel him for the journey ahead, and after he returned, he found out that John had been arrested by Herod.  Realizing this didn’t bode well for him, he decided to set up camp in a small fishing village on the Sea of Galilee, called Capernaum.  Having reconnected with Andrew, Simon, John, and James, the five spent time together as Jesus continued to teach them, to share his story and his vision for the Kingdom of God.  Ultimately, Jesus realized that the time was right for him to begin his ministry of formal preaching and teaching, and he went down to the shoreline, where he knew his friends would be working and called to them saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  They drop what they are doing to join their friend in the ministry that they will share, proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom to the people of Israel. Did you hear the difference?

in the first version, Jesus calls the already equipped, while in the second, he equips the called.  Jesus spent time with his disciples, equipping them for the difficult journey ahead, helping them to understand God’s plan for salvation, preparing them for their work as evangelists, a task to which every disciple is called and for which none of us feels very well equipped.  Of course, evangelism is what this week is all about.  From the Collect to the prophecy of Isaiah to Paul’s appeal to the Church in Corinth and the call stories of Andrew, Peter, James and John: this week’s theme is evangelism.  Now, before you get all hyperventalaty, after all most of us would rather have a root canal then engage in evangelism, remember – God equips the called.

Over the next few weeks, as we slog through the rambling beginning to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, evangelism will come up again and again.  He’ll remind them how he shared the Gospel with them.  He’ll comfort them, and us, that you don’t have to be an expert in rhetoric, homiletics, or theology to tell people about Jesus.  He’ll assure them, and us, in the knowledge that while we might do the talking, God is doing all the work.  He’ll share with them, and us, that the key to evangelism is simply knowing the saving power of Jesus in your own life.  He’ll reassure them, and us, that all we have to do is plant the seed, God will do the watering.

Evangelism is a scary word for those of us who think we aren’t equipped, but if we are paying attention to God’s work in our lives, then we quickly realize that everything God does is equipping us to share the Good News.  Simply put, evangelism is done when one person who knows the power of God in their life is willing to tell someone else about it.  It takes the form of relationships.  It looks a lot like conversations over coffee or lunch because that’s exactly what it is.  Evangelism is as simple as sharing the hope that is in you: the hope that comes through life in the Kingdom of God.  It isn’t elaborate, it doesn’t need to be painful, but it does need to be genuine and cloaked in prayer.  The Spirit will do the work; all you have to do is tell the story.  God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.  He did it for the hot headed Zebedee brothers, for that blow-hard, Peter, and for his brother Andrew.  He’s done it for me, and he’ll do it for you.  Follow Jesus, and he will make you fishers of people.  Amen.

Fishers of Men

I apologized for it yesterday, but I should probably do it again.  I’m all for trying to take the gender specificity out of Scripture when possible.  I’m not sure repeating the word God eleven times in a sentence is helpful, as in “God is fully known only by God God’s self, God’s only Son, and God’s Holy Spirit,” or some such thing.  I do think that expanding “brothers” to include “sisters” make a whole lot of sense, and in most cases swapping out men and mankind for people and humankind is a wise move.  There is, however, one place where I’m a bit old fashioned, Matthew 4:19, as Jesus calls out to Andrew and Simon Peter saying,  in the NRSV, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  I understand the intent, but it just doesn’t have the flow that the King James and old RSV had in “I will make you fishers of men.”  And, yes, I know that the Greek is better translated with a somewhere in the middle version, “fishers of people.”

Of course, in either case, the gist is the same, Jesus has called Peter and Andrew to a new vocation of Evangelist.  In yesterday’s post, I posited that Jesus had used this call specifically for these two brothers who made their living as fishermen, but as I’ve thought more about it, reflecting on the Collect and the lesson from 1 Corinthians, I can’t help but think that maybe, on some level, we are all called to be fishers of men.  In Ephesians 4:11, Paul specifically lists evangelism as a gift of the Spirit, and certainly some are gifted Evangelists, but it seems to me that the work of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ is a universal expectation of the faithful.

This is, of course, a frightening realization for many Christians who would rather have a root canal then tell someone about Jesus, but as I mentioned on Tuesday, it really has nothing to do with us.  Just as it had nothing to do with Simon Peter and Andrew.  Jesus doesn’t say to them, “Y’all are smart enough, savvy enough, and good at sales, c’mon with me.”  No, instead Jesus says, “I will make you fishers of people.”  He’ll give you what you need.  He’ll provide the access.  He’ll supply the words.  He’ll do the work, all Simon Peter, Andrew, and I have to do is be willing to a) experience God’s presence in my life and b) share how that presence has been a blessing to me.  As a broken pen once told me, “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.”  He did it for the hot headed Zebedee brothers, for that blow-hard, Peter, and for his brother Andrew, and he’ll do it for you.

Call Stories

The more I read and think about Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the more I think that it shouldn’t be preached by a member of the clergy.  Here’s why.  The ordination process is riddled with opportunities to tell one’s faith story.  I mean, ad nauseum.  Whether you were born and raised in The Episcopal Church or picked up out the gutter by a Bishop on her way to a visitation, the details of how you ended up felling called to ordained ministry are read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested by Rectors, Vestries, Discernment Committees, Bishop’s Commissions on Ministry, Standing Committees, Seminary Admissions Officers, Classmates, family, friends, and at some point, even the family pet.  As a result of the at process (that can last upwards of 5 years or more), clergy are programmed to hear the phrase “call story” and immediately think, “ordination.”

Which is, of course, a load of crap.

The truth of the matter is that each of us has been called to be a disciple in our own unique way.  In Matthew’s Gospel, while speaking to fishermen-come-apostles, Jesus calls them to be “fishers of men” (sorry for the gender specificity, it just sounds better in this case).  In speaking to lawyers-come-disciples, Jesus calls them to be lawyers for the Kingdom.  The same is true for doctors, teachers, candlestick makers, home economists, letter carriers, engineers, entertainers, small business owners, retirees, students – you name it.  Which is why, I think that this lesson shouldn’t be preached by clergy.  It should be preached by lay leaders who have figured out how their call to be a disciple impacts their everyday lives: at home, work, school, or play.

At the very least, I hope that the ordained preachers out there can figure out a way to open this story up to the widest possible interpretation, rather than taking the chance to, once again, rehearse their own call story on yet another set of ears.

What Does Evangelism Look Like, Anyway?

I’m always grateful when someone feels compelled to share a blog post.  I’d say it is humbling to know that my thoughts are influencing preachers and lay people alike, but anyone who knows me, knows that humility isn’t something I’m very good at.  I do consider it a blessing to be invited into the lives of people I don’t even know, which is, apart from my own spiritual need to do this, the main reason I keep blogging even on busy and stress filled days.  Of course, as much as I enjoy having my posts shared, I do need to remember the Cardinal Rule of Blogging, “never read comments on your stuff.”  It can be hard to put yourself out there, only to have a troll say mean things about your theology.  Of course, having a rule like “never read comments” means that you’ll a) miss important critiques, which means b) I always read the comments.  So yesterday, after my Facebook friend and Priestly colleague shared my post, I saw this comment:

“It is slightly easier for clergy to talk about the importance of telling people about Jesus when we hold a position in which people expect us to do so. Not to let the laity off the hook but I can understand how its more difficult for them in a culture where “evangelism” has become almost synonymous with a kind of fundamentalist bigotry. I agree evangelism is important but I think we have to go beyond simply guilting people for not evangelizing and teaching them “how”.”

A fair critique.  In the midst of my snark, (that should not be construed as guilt, I don’t do guilt, I think it is of the Devil and has no place in the Kingdom of God) I forgot to mention just how one might go about doing evangelism.  The RCL sort of gives us an “in” to the topic of evangelism by including 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 in Sunday’s readings, but stopping at verse 18 is like turning off a football game at halftime: you think you know what’s going on, but halftime adjustments, which make up verses 19-31 of 1 Corinthians, chapter 1, mean that a whole new game is starting at the next kickoff.  In fact, we’ll have to wait two weeks, through Super Bowl Sunday, I mean The Fest of the Presentation, to see where Paul is going with, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  For those who’d like to look ahead, you’ll note that Paul rambles his way through a pretty helpful definition of evangelism from 1:18 to 3:11 (we’ll get there on 6 Epiphany).

Items worth noting in Paul’s theology of evangelism are:

  • You don’t have to be an expert in rhetoric or theology to tell people about Jesus (1:18ff)
  • Evangelism is the work of humans, but under the power of God (1:25ff)
  • The key to evangelism is knowing the saving power of Jesus (2:1-2)
  • The Spirit precedes the evangelist (2:12)
  • The goal of the evangelist should be nothing more than planting the seed, God will do the watering (3:6)

All that to say, evangelism is done when one person who knows the power of God in their life is willing to tell someone else about it.  It takes the form of relationships.  It looks a lot like conversations over coffee or lunch because that’s exactly what it is.  Evangelism is, as I’ve said before, as simple as sharing the hope that is in you: the hope that comes through life in the Kingdom of God.  It isn’t elaborate, it doesn’t need to be painful, it just needs to be genuine and cloaked in prayer.  The Spirit will do the work, all you have to do is tell the story.  “Jesus Christ came to save sinners, of whom, I am the worst of all,” will suffice for me.