The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, January 23, 2011

We are called

Epiphany 3A
Matthew 4:12-23


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It’s about call.

The text today; the story of John the Baptist; the story of the Apostles, and so much of the story of our lives as Christians - it’s about call.

Call is one of those words that are thrown about in church conversations sometimes. Few of us really give it much thought. We talk about “calling a priest” - a process you all just recently experienced. But beyond that, when do we really think about God’s call?

A few years ago there was an Off-Broadway musical called Altar Boyz - with a “z” - a funny little show about a fictitious Roman Catholic boy band. One of the songs in the show was “The Calling” that humorously proclaimed “Jesus called me on my cell phone.” Of course part of the reason that song is so funny is because we all know, God’s call doesn’t quite work that way - no matter how much we might wish it did!

But how does God’s call work? What’s the difference between God’s call and our own desire? It’s pretty clear that they can - and often do intersect. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that our every desire is God’s call. So how do we tell the difference?

In my own life, distinguishing between what I want and how I’ve been called has always been a pretty slow process.

One of the more common questions you’re asked if you’re a priest - particularly if you’re a young one like me - is, “How did you know you wanted to be a priest?” It’s interesting that it’s usually phrased that way - in terms of desire, when it’s really a question of call. But it’s often asked, and I think people are usually disappointed to find that, for me at least, there weren’t flashes of lightening or voices from the heavens. There were certainly moments of clarity that crept in through my doubt, but even then it wasn’t particularly easy to discern.

When I tell the story of my call to the priesthood, I usually begin from when I was about 6 or 7 years old. As y’all know, my father is a United Methodist minister. I was always drawn to the church - probably as much because of the opportunities it afforded me to spend time with my dad as anything else - but nonetheless, the church was my playground from my earliest days. But I remember when I was still a young child in about the first or second grade, the “little old ladies” of the church started asking me, “Are you going to follow in your father’s footsteps?” I was always a fairly independently minded child - often to my parents’ chagrin - and I would respond with a defiant “No!” I think this was more of a gut reaction to the “following” aspect than to the actual question - I didn’t have to follow Dad! I would go my own way!

But despite my defiance, the seed was planted.

The years passed, and predictably, I became involved in Youth Ministries in the United Methodist Church. Even though it’s not the church I chose for myself as an adult, one thing the United Methodist Church of my youth was really good at was youth ministry. They took it seriously. They took us seriously. And they gave us opportunities to really ask serious questions about ourselves and about our relationships with God and with the church.

When I was 16 years old I had the opportunity to attend a large youth event called the Spiritual Life Rally - or “SpiLiRa” - in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was a huge event with hundreds of Methodist youth from all over the south central United States. The focus of the event was on discerning God’s call in our young lives. We were taught that we were all called - not just those of us called to serve as clergy in the church - but that we were all called to serve God in our lives, no matter how we made our living.

That was the first time that I really began to realize and accept that I was called to ordained ministry - when that seed from so many years ago began to take root in a noticeable way.

It was a frightening time in my life. I didn’t really know what it all meant. I didn’t yet understand how I could both be myself, and live into this icon that I understood of my emerging sense of call.

As the years following that event passed, life went on. I was a typical teenager - complete with all the expected troubles and anxieties. I went to college. And then I didn’t. And then I went back.

As I became an adult and began to realize that the United Methodist Church of my childhood was not the right place for me as an adult, I thought that meant that my calling had been misunderstood. I spent a number of years trying to negotiate with God. I thought things like, “Well, if I’m not supposed to be a Methodist minister, then perhaps I’m supposed to…. Blank.” The “blank” changed several times, but all the while I was developing skills and learning about myself and my passions and my abilities.

By the time I graduated from college, my negotiations with God had led me to consider going to seminary to further my education. I still wasn’t ready to pursue ordination in the Episcopal Church or anywhere else - for me, seminary was an opportunity for education in a community-based atmosphere. But perhaps, at some level, I knew that it would take me to where I knew I was called to be, even though I didn’t know how.

In my second semester in the Theological School at Drew - where I had chosen to go to seminary - our own Bishop Croneberger came and preached in our regular weekly chapel service. It wasn’t anything in particular that he said, that I can recall, but I remember sitting there during the service and thinking, surprisingly, but clearly, “I’m supposed to be an Episcopal priest.” It was a very matter-of-fact kind of thought. No flashes or voices, just, “Yeah. That’s right.”

It wasn’t until later that I really began to think about and understand what that nearly unnoticed thought meant for me.

But even then, I wasn’t yet sure. I sat on it for a while - stewing. Several weeks later, on a long road trip, I began talking about it for the first time with a friend. When we got home, I talked about it with my father. And then with a couple of my trusted professors. Then I started reaching out to area Episcopal priests. It wasn’t until nearly a year later that I really felt comfortable seriously considering the prospect of being a priest. Then, of course, the process of becoming a priest - continuing my education, and all the rest, helped me all the more to understand and claim my vocation.

So - from the first seeds of my call to the beginning of my priesthood - all told it was about 25 years.

So why did I tell you this? Most of us aren’t called to be priests. What does it matter to you?

While it’s true that most of us aren’t called to be priests, all of us are called. All of us are called to serve God and to serve each other. All of us are called to discern what it means to be baptized into the Body of Christ. All of us are called to listen for God’s call.

For must of us, it won’t be a neat or as clear as it was in the Gospel lesson today for Peter, Andrew, James, and John. It certainly wasn’t for me. For most of us, we won’t so easily notice Jesus walking down the street and decide to follow. For most of us, Jesus won’t be calling on our cell phones.

So we have to listen harder. We have to give it some thought and prayer. We have to practice looking for where our desire intersects with God’s lure - or perhaps even more, where God’s lure molds our desire.

It takes practice, and it takes community. Being here is a good first step. Now, what’s next?


5 comments:

Mark Hagewood said...

Jon,
I really enjoyed reading your calling story. I am currently working on a Design Team for a national United Methodist event for college-age people who are considering ordination in the UMC. Part of what excites me about serving in this event is watching young people hear, discern, and respond to God's calling in their lives. I am thankful that you found your calling in the ministry as I can tell from your sermons (as well as from our conversations during your time at MMC) that you have a heart for God and for God's people.

Blessings,
Mark

Jon M. Richardson said...

That's really cool, Mark. I'm glad you're doing that! And always honored to know that you're reading me :)

We'll have to try to get together sometime when I'm down that way again :)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Good sermon,Jon, although I liked the story you told me once in the car on one of our 'road trips'.

Jon M. Richardson said...

Dr. Kaeton, you'll have to remind me of the story you're thinking about sometime... There are dozens of versions of this same story... haha :) Unless it's another story altogether. hmmm.......

Jon M. Richardson said...

I'll admit - I'm a little nervous, Elizabeth... haha Thinking of some of the stories I've told you on road trips....