Pastor Tom Sorenson
June 9, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer
Let me tell you a story: "There was a man who was considered a success in the eyes of the world, for he was a lawyer. He had many possessions. Some people considered him wise, for he had many letters after his name. He thought of himself as a man of faith. In his mind he believed the teachings of his faith and he tried to live according to his understanding of his faith. He was a leader in his church, and he did many (or at least a few) good works.
"Yet as time went by the man became sorely troubled, for he knew in his soul that his success was all dust and ashes. And the Spirit of the Lord came to him and said: ĎYou are not meant for this. Put aside the things of the law and come, follow me.í But the man did not trust the word of the Spirit and clung to his old ways, trusting his life to his own efforts and abilities. The man made excuses, saying to the Spirit when it called him: ĎI cannot, for I have many responsibilities, and I cannot leave these things and follow you.í And again he said: ĎI cannot, for I am advanced in years, and I cannot leave all this and begin a new life at my age;í but the Spirit would not leave him alone. It drove him into the wilderness, where he was tormented by demons and became sorely depressed. Yet still he refused to follow the call of the Spirit. He continued trying to trust in himself and not in God. Still the Spirit would not leave him. It drove him deeper and deeper into the wilderness, so that it became impossible for him to continue to live as he had. All his efforts to trust in himself were of no avail and led only to despair. And at last he said to the Spirit: ĎAmen. Let it be with me as you will.í Finally, he trusted himself to God. He put aside the things of the law and followed the Spirit into a new life of service to Godís people. When he did, he found a joy and a freedom he had never known before."
That, of course, is a highly stylized version of my own story, the story that led me to seminary at Seattle University and eventually here, with all of you wonderful people. Of course, it isnít literally true; but itís true in the way most Bible stories are true. It expresses in story form the essence of my experience, its inner, spiritual meaning rather than its mere external, observable facts, which are a lot less important.
As Iím sure youíre sick and tired of hearing by now, Iím being ordained this afternoon. I have, as you might imagine, been doing quite a bit of reflecting on how that came to be and what it means... Since itís been a bit hard for me to think about anything else this past week, I thought Iíd share with you some of my reflections on the nature of divine call generally and my own call in particular, in which you have played such a major part. Thatís why the Scripture readings this morning are not the regular lectionary readings for this Sunday. Rather, they are passages that deal with the issue of divine call.
Sometimes it just bowls me over how bizarre all this is. Ten years ago I was a reasonably happy and successful lawyer. I had just opened my own law office in Edmonds; I was full of hope and optimism for the success of my own practice after several years of working for other firms. If you had told me then that today I would be standing here, with a Master of Divinity degree from Seattle University, about to be ordained in the UCC, and preaching to my own congregation in Monroe, I would have been sorely tempted to file a petition for involuntary commitment against you because it would have been clear to me that you were out of your mind. Yet within just a few years I had closed that law office and was enrolled at seminary at Seattle University.
I vividly recall my first day there. A roomful of us beginning seminarians was gathered for orientation. The leaders asked each of us to introduce ourselves and say a little bit about how we came to be there that morning. Very quickly a theme emerged. Person after person, myself included, men and women, Protestants and Catholics, had all had the same experience. Person after person described how for a long time they had discerned that God was calling them to more intentional ministry in the church. And person after person described how they had thought, like Jonah must have thought: Youíve got to be kidding. Youíve got the wrong guy. You canít possibly mean me. Thereís no way Iím doing that. The metaphor that developed for this experience, that got so overused it became a running joke, was: God called, and I hung up.
The problem we all faced, or maybe it was the grace we were all given (the two are often very hard to tell apart), was that although we hung up on God, God never hung up on us. Like an overly persistent telemarketer, God kept calling back! If an obnoxious telemarketer can eventually wear down your resistance, imagine what itís like when itís God on the other end of the line! What it can be like is told in the form of a fable in the parts of the book of Jonah we heard read this morning. God called and told him to go to Nineveh. Jonah tried to hang up too, except they didnít have telephones in those days. So the story is about him trying to flee to Tarshish, which was in Spain, 180į from the direction from Israel to Nineveh, which is in modern day Iraq. Things got very stormy for Jonah. Thatís what can happen when you try to run away from Godís call. Things can get so stormy that your ship threatens to sink. (In order to avoid mixing a metaphor here, I guess we have to assume that God is calling on a ship to shore phone, or maybe itís a ship to heaven phone.) Things can get so stormy that those on your ship with you are sorely tempted to throw you overboard just so they can get some peace and quiet.
Those of us in that room that morning at Seattle University were, of course, all taking the first steps on what we saw as our journey to Nineveh. Maybe, like Jonah, we had just landed on the beach in a pool of whale vomit. But we had picked ourselves up, dried ourselves off, and were there seeking directions to our own Ninevehs. (I bet you didnít know you live in Nineveh, did you.) We were there trying to acquire the gear necessary for the trip and get some idea of what we were supposed to do once we got there. We had finally decided not to hang up. Maybe we just got so seasick that we were ready to do anything to get solid, stable ground under our feet again. If youíve ever been literally seasick, as I have, you know how desperate you become for the sickening motion to stop. I guess that room that morning at Seattle University is where it began to stop for me.
So you see, I am convinced that a call from God can be a very real experience in a personís life. It has been real in my life, and Iíve actually had more than one call experience. Everyone in that room at Seattle University that morning had had a call experience. Now, many of us in that room were beginning a journey that would lead to ordination, as mine finally will this afternoon, and all of us were planning on going into some kind of professional ministry. Now, if the experience of a call from God were limited to people like those of us in that room that morning, it wouldnít much be worth preaching about here. But you see, itís not limited to people like those of us in that room that morning. Our denomination recognizes this fact right in its Constitution, which contains a provision that reads: "The United Church of Christ recognizes that God calls the whole church and every member to participate in and extend the ministry of Jesus Christ by witnessing to the Gospel in church and society." God calls all of us to ministry. God does not call all of us to ordained ministry, but that in no way means that God does not call us. So lets talk a bit more about what that call experience can be like for anyone, whatever your particular call.
First of all you need to remember that my metaphor of the phone ringing is just that-a metaphor. No phone literally rings. And God doesnít shout at us. For most of us there is no voice from a burning bush telling us to go to Egypt. There is no lightning and no thunder. The experience usually is something not even Cecil B. de Mille could make into a stirring epic. It may start with nothing more than a vague sense of unease in your life, a sense that something isnít quite right. It may develop into a sense that you canít quite put into words that maybe thereís something else that youíre supposed to be doing. Or maybe itís that nagging conscience of yours telling you that you could be doing more to be a faithful disciple. Maybe itís a still small voice that comes to you in moments of quiet reflection that reminds you that all is not well with the world and that maybe you should be doing more to try to change that fact. Maybe it comes in a dream. Maybe it comes from other people telling you that you have a gift that you should be doing more to use, or from your telling yourself that. Maybe it comes in several of these ways or in others I havenít thought of. But it comes, and it wonít go away.
It isnít always a call to a dramatic change in the way youíre living your life. It can be. Mine was, and it was what I needed. But it doesnít have to be. It may be a call simply to treat the other people where you work with more Christian charity; or to volunteer at the Senior Center or the local food bank; or to write a letter to your elected representatives urging them to do more to address some justice or peace issue; or to increase your giving to your church or some other worthwhile cause. In other words, it may be a call simply to do what you already know you ought to be doing. Your personal Nineveh, that place to where God is calling you, can be almost anything. Assuming that the call is authentic, what it is isnít nearly as important as your hearing it when it comes, and not hanging up.
Now, as my friend Dennis Hughes, whom some of you will meet this afternoon, told me several years ago, there is no such thing as a non-dangerous theology. As with anything good and valuable in life, there is a danger in this theology of call that Iím talking about. People do no end of horrible, hateful, destructive things while claiming that they did it in response to a call from God. We need look no further into history than September 11, 2001, to see that this is true. The call to evil, which is also very real, often comes disguised as a call from God. If it didnít, no one would ever respond to it. How, then do we know that what we think is a call from God really is one?
There is no simple answer to that question. Let me suggest two things, however, that I think would go a long way toward winnowing out the calls of evil if people who experience a sense of call would apply them consistently and conscientiously. First of all, it is crucial that an individualís sense of call be confirmed in a faith community. The procedures that lead to ordination in the UCC have such a safeguard build into them. You donít just show up by yourself and say ordain me. You have to be sponsored by a local congregation, first for what is called in care status and then for authorization for ordination pending call. Then you have be called (in a narrower sense) by another congregation. In the case of the other kinds of call weíve been talking about, it is important for an individual, if she has any doubt about it, to talk to her faith community--her friends, her pastor, an appropriate board of the church that deals with the area in which she perceives a call. Otherwise the risk of an idiosyncratic idea disguised as a call is simply too great.
But this safeguard alone is not enough. Some communities of faith will affirm a sense of call that most of the rest of us would recognize as the call of evil. I think, for example, of those faith communities that support and encourage a supposed call to kill abortion doctors, or to harass the parents of gay children who died as victims of hate crimes by proclaiming their joy that the dead son or daughter is, as they so mistakenly believe, now in hell. There really are such. And so something more is needed. Itís not easy to say what that something more is. The best Iíve been able to come up with is that the person should be able to say honestly, and have the idea confirmed in the broadest possible faith community, that what he or she is called to do is consistent with the best, most fundamental, most indispensable tenets of the faith. In the case of Christianity, is what I am being called to do consistent with Christís Gospel of peace, love, and justice for all of Godís children? If what you think you are called to do requires you to violate a central principle of your faith, like the Christian call to non-violence and the prohibition on killing, or the Christian duty to comfort those who mourn and suffer, then you can be pretty sure that the call is coming from a source other than God.
No procedure or set of criteria will completely eliminate the false calls. Some people will always do evil in the name of God. This does not mean, however, that all calls are false or that we should expunge the notion of call from our faith vocabulary. It is a real experience. Scripture is full of call stories, from Yahwehís call to Abram to leave Haran and go to the land of Canaan in Chapter 12 of Genesis to the Risen Christís threefold call to Peter to "feed my sheep" at the end of the Gospel of John. By calling me as your pastor you have played a central and indispensable role in the fulfillment of my personal sense of call, and for that I will be forever grateful. We think we know where God was calling me. Now you need to ask the next question. Where is God calling you? Where is your personal Nineveh? Youíve all go one. Are you ready? Get packed! God is calling! Thanks be to God.