On a shelf in my office I have a book entitled, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary. As you can probably guess from the title, it’s a book for pastors, and it’s full of wisdom collected from pastors who found serving a church more difficult than they had anticipated when they went to seminary. One chapter is entitled, “Don’t Talk about Your Call – They Won’t Understand!”, and in it the authors advise pastors to never tell their congregations stories about their own calls to ministry. Apparently call stories can be hard to relate to, so in order to avoid blank stares and people scratching their heads, it’s best for pastors not to mention how they felt called to ministry in the first place.
Now I have to tell you that I never bought into that little bit of wisdom. I can understand how some pastors might end up talking about their call to ministry with a flourish or embellishment that make it hard to relate to. But I disagree with the notion that people in any given church won’t be able to relate to being called. In fact, I think Christians everywhere have on some level experienced God’s call or God’s direction in their lives at some point, and I think there’s a great benefit to sharing those experiences with others. So, contrary to the accumulated wisdom of countless pastors who have gone on before me, I’m going to break the rule and tell you a bit about my call to ministry.
The very first thing that I want to say is that my call to ministry was fairly unremarkable. During my high school years, as my family suffered through a number of tragedies, I developed a deep sense of compassion for people who are hurting. I also felt the urge to help however I could. You might say that it was a calling, but at the time I don’t think I would have described it that way. I simply felt heartbroken when people were suffering, and I wanted to be a friend to them in the midst of their pain. As I went through my college years I could never seem to leave that feeling behind, and pretty soon I had begun to think about going to seminary to become a minister. At first it was like a simple tug on my sleeve, that gradually became harder and harder to ignore. And I did try to ignore it. I swore to God that I wanted to be a doctor instead. Then when I began seminary I swore to God that I wouldn’t claim any particular denomination as my own. Then after I became a Presbyterian I swore to God that I wouldn’t ever be the pastor of a church. Then when I became a pastor of a church I learned not to tell God about my plans anymore.
So there you go. That’s pretty much it. There were no burning bushes, no blinding lights, no miraculous experiences. At first I didn’t even know what it was, and only now can I look back and see how God was gently and patiently guiding me along the way, calling me again and again and again until I simply couldn’t ignore it or avoid it any longer.
That’s usually the way it is, isn’t it? When we hear about God calling people we tend to think in terms of grand and miraculous events that send chills up your spine and make it impossible to ignore what God is saying. As a result, we tend to miss those little tugs on our sleeves, or the small whispers that come to us in the midst of our busyness and our noise. But usually, that’s how God’s call to us comes. One of my favorite stories from the Bible comes from 1 Kings; it’s the story of Elijah waiting for God’s call to him in the wilderness. It reads:
The word of the Lord came to Elijah and said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
So often we think of God’s call in terms of burning bushes or blinding lights, but more often than not in scripture God’s call is a quiet call, sometimes even coming in the midst of silence. In our two scripture readings for this morning, we find God’s call coming to people in some pretty unremarkable ways. Our reading from 1 Samuel tells us that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” When God’s call does come, Samuel is simply lying down in the temple, and hears a voice that he can’t even distinguish from the voice of his master, Eli. In our New Testament reading, Philip and Nathaniel are just minding their own business when the call comes. Nathaniel, in fact is sitting under a fig tree and doesn’t even believe Philip when he tells him who he’s found. Jesus’ actual call to Philip consists of only two words: Follow me. There’s nothing overtly special or remarkable about that. In both of these call stories, God’s call was easy to miss or disregard. Taken together, these reading pose a question for us: How do you know when God is calling you? If God’s call to us can be so simple and so unremarkable, how will you know when it comes?
Answering these questions requires us to admit up front that God has to compete for our attention. We have other calls to worry about, don’t we? We live in a world in which cell phones ring during meetings, and movies, and dinners, and worship services. Just this past week the New York Philharmonic was stopped in the middle of a symphony because a concert-goer’s cell phone kept ringing and ringing throughout the performance. Calls are everywhere we go. I was once praying with a family in the emergency room when a cell phone began to ring. I had to just pray through it, which was more difficult to do once I recognized the ring tone as my own.
The moral of the story is that it’s difficult to pray when your phone is ringing. It’s difficult to worship, too. It’s difficult to hear God’s call to you when so many other calls (which are really just noise) get in the way. One of the most important things we can learn to do is separate God’s call from all the commotion around us. We live amidst an astounding of reverberation of voices all vying for our attention and trying to influence our decisions. I’m afraid that from now until November our airwaves will be full of political ads and election cycle news. We are surrounded daily by voices that say, “buy this product, and you will be happier.” There are voices that say, “vacation here, and you will find what you have been missing.” There are voices that say, “we’re in big trouble,” and voices that say, “don’t worry, everything is great.” There are so many voices aimed at us everywhere we go, that sometimes it’s hard to figure out which ones to listen to.
I once heard a story about a captain of a battleship who once heard voices on the radio, and when he looked into the night’s darkness he, saw lights in the distance. Knowing that his ship was on a collision course with another vessel, the captain sent out a signal. “Alter your course,” he said. He received a quick reply saying, “Alter your course.” The captain was upset that his message was ignored, and he sent another message, “Alter your course – I am the captain.” Soon came the reply, “Alter your course – I am seaman third class Jones.” Angrily, the captain sent a third message. Knowing what fear it would evoke, he said, “Alter your course – I am a battleship.” Then came the reply, “Alter your course – I am a lighthouse.”
One of the real task of Christian life is to tell the lighthouse from the other voices around us. It’s to hear God calling us to love, and to serve, and to worship, and to hear that call above all the noise.
Now that’s not all that easy to do, and in fact, it involves some preparation. Scripture tells us this. Eli tells Samuel to go lie down and listen. If you want to hear what God is calling you to do, you have to listen! Philip, after telling a skeptical Nathaniel about Jesus, tells Nathaniel simply to come and see. If you want to see Jesus for yourself, you have to go, and you have to see! For most of us, it isn’t that we aren’t called by God, but that we don’t listen, we don’t go, and we don’t see. Experiencing God’s call requires some effort on our part.
Frederick Buechner once wrote that “the place where God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What that means is that in order to hear our calling, we must be out in the world, seeing and listening to needs, hearing and being affected by the deep hunger of the world. God’s call to us comes through the needs of the world, the suffering of the world, the hunger of the world. But we won’t hear it if we don’t go, or see, or listen.
The cards that we printed with the words of Philippians 4 on them were meant to prepare us to go out into the world, thinking and reflecting upon things like truth, and justice, and things worthy of praise. There was a time in Christian history when the text printed on the cards would have been interpreted in exactly the opposite way. “Think on these things” would have equated to withdrawing from the world to live a life of contemplation. We hear those words differently today. Today they are a call to go, and see, and listen. They are a reminder that one of the ways in which we experience God’s call is through other people. Samuel needed an Eli to tell him how to hear God’s call. Nathaniel needed a Philip to being him to where Jesus was. We need each other to hear God’s call to us as individuals and as a church.
Today, I encourage you to take up the challenge. Take up the challenge to go out into the world, anywhere and anytime. Go out into Mint Hill, or Matthews, or Charlotte. Go, and just listen. Go, and just see. God will call you, but it won’t be through a divine ring tone in church, or a burning bush in the parking lot, or a blinding light on Lawyer’s road. God’s call to you will come as you simply see and listen to the hunger of the world, and come to understand that it can be met with your deep gladness, your joys and your gifts.
Remember that God speaks to us, and continues to speak to us. We’re all here today because God has spoken to us all through Jesus Christ, our Savior, God-with-us. God has spoken to us in his birth and his life, his teaching and his love, his death and his resurrection. In Jesus, God speaks to you and me and calls us to be his faithful disciples. And if you think about it, that’s pretty remarkable.
Thanks be to God. Amen.