Archive for April 18th, 2010

Third Sunday of Easter

I ought to know better.  I ought to know and trust that God is going to show up whether I have a sermon I feel good about or not.

Both of my children had surgery this week to put tubes in their ears.  This family event, along with an unexpected funeral, threw my sermon writing off-kilter this week.  Pastors often have weeks like this, weeks that lead you to climb into the pulpit praying a little harder than usual that God will speak through you in spite of the mess that is your sermon manuscript.  This week I was praying that the congregation would forgive my terribly written transitions and my boring illustrations and just listen for God’s Word in spite of it all, in spite of me.  And they did.  A number of people in my gracious congregation even told me afterwards what a good sermon it was.  Which kind of fits my concluding point to this Sunday’s sermon.  That it is the community of faith that nurtures us and encourages us while we pursue our call.  Thanks, church, for being such a good church!  And thank you, God, for showing up in spite of me and in spite of the week I had.

What follows is the sermon from the third Sunday of Easter.

“Our Call”

Acts 9:1-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

April 18th, 2010 – Third Sunday of Easter

One of the greatest joys of being a minister is listening to people share the stories of their faith.  I love to hear how God is at work in your lives.  I love to hear where you are in your faith journey.  I love to hear how and where and to what God is calling you.  In fact, many of the faith stories I hear are stories of call, stories about how God is calling you or beckoning you down a certain path or in a new direction and how you respond to that call.

Some of these stories of call that I have heard are very dramatic.  I remember one woman telling me about a vision she had while casually observing a tree outside her window.  The tree abnormally grew very dark and black before her eyes and then suddenly burst into a great shining light.  After reflecting on this vision, the woman decided it was God’s way of telling her she needed to make some big changes in her life.  So she gave up everything and entered seminary in order to pursue a life as a minister. Another woman I met told me a story about how during a group meditation I was leading the risen Christ came to sit next to her, gently held her hand, and spoke to her about the peace he desired for her and for her life.

Other stories of call that I have heard are less dramatic, but still equally valid.  I’ve often heard people tell me that they simply had a feeling that they were supposed to call and check on an old friend.  And when they did, they discovered that that old friend really needed an encouraging word that day.  I’ve also heard a busy father tell me that God had been working in his life and calling upon him to spend more time with his children.  So he ended up cutting down on his hours at work and dedicating more time to his family.

I love hearing such stories of call because they reveal that Christ is alive and working in our lives and in our hearts.  I also love hearing these stories because it is a wonderful part of our faith tradition to share them.  Our faith stories bear witness to the living God among us.  Our faith stories also connect us to our brothers and sisters of the Old and New Testaments who shared their stories to bear witness to the living God who was at work in their lives as well.

Paul’s familiar story of his experience on the road to Damascus is just one of these many wonderful stories from our tradition.  This story of Paul’s is often called his “conversion story,” but Paul himself would probably refer to it as the story of his call.  As a faithful Jew, Paul was very familiar with the stories of God’s call to Abraham and Moses, and to the prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Amos.  Paul considered himself to be called by God just like these prophets.  In his letter to the Galatians Paul describes his Damascus road experience as a moment when “God who had set me apart from my mother’s womb, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”[1]

Paul’s story of call certainly could be classified as one of the more dramatic. God hit Paul hard and fast.  He got the bright light, the vision, and the voice that called him by his Hebrew name, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”   To which Paul responds, “Who are you, Lord?”  And the answer shocks him.  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Paul thought he had been doing everything right.  Paul thought that his persecution of the Christians was what God had called him to do in order to preserve the Jewish Law.  But, as it turned out, God was calling him to a different role.  God was calling him to be a prophet for Christ.

We have to give Paul credit, I believe, for the way he embraced this radical change and this radical new call.  Luke portrays him here as immediately submissive.  He is struck blind, but he doesn’t protest.  He doesn’t cry out.  He doesn’t complain about what is happening to him or ask God to find someone else.  Instead, he allows himself to be led by the hand, blind and vulnerable, into Damascus.  Boy, if only I could follow so obediently.  If only I could handle change like that.

One of the common threads of all the stories of call that I have heard is the thread of change.  Every call from God seems to lead us to some sort of change.  God calls us to leave the old behind and embrace the new.  God calls us to take on a new role or a new task.  God calls us to change something about our attitude.  God calls us to change something about the way we are currently living our lives.  Every call seems to lead to change.  And once again, sometimes these changes are dramatic and sometimes not so dramatic.

You’ve already heard the changes to which God’s call led the people in my earlier illustrations.  The woman who had the vision of the tree decided it was time to change the direction of her life and career by entering seminary.  The father who had felt God calling him to spend more time with his family changed his schedule, cut back on a few things, and began to spend more time with his children.  And Paul, well Paul changed his whole perspective of faith, which led to him changing his whole life.

These changes were pretty dramatic.  But God does not always call us to such dramatic change.  Sometimes the change to which God calls us is simply a change in our attitude. In her prayer entitled, “A Disciple’s Prayer,” Joyce Rupp writes about our common calling of being an instrument of God’s love no matter whether love is what we are feeling at the moment or not.  She writes, “How easy to believe that I am an instrument of your love when my life is going well, O God.  How difficult to believe this when my life seems to be going nowhere, or is filled with many concerns and activities that wear me out.  Yet, you greatly desire to proclaim your goodness through every part of my life, no matter what the situation is.”

Ms. Rupp prays to be faithful to God’s call to be an instrument of love in spite of the fact that her life is not going well.  “I do not need to have good feelings in order to be an instrument of your love” she prays.  “I do not need to always feel satisfied with what I am attempting to be and to do in order to be a disciple of yours.  It is the intention of my heart that makes the difference.”  She concludes her prayer by embracing the simple attitude change to which God is calling her by saying, “I give myself to your cause.  I place my heart in yours and enter as fully as I can into your loving embrace.”[2]

God’s call always seems to lead us to change, even small changes such as a change in our attitude.  But no matter whether God calls us to a big, life-altering change or a little attitude change, change is scary, unwanted, and uncomfortable.  So instead of embracing God’s call and following it, oftentimes we will avoid it, or run away from it.

I remember the woman who experienced the risen Christ sitting next to her during the guided meditation I was leading.  This woman’s life had been pulling her in so many different directions that to simply sit still for a short meditation and a time of quiet was a rare gift.  In her vision Christ seemed to be telling her that he desired more peace in her life.  I desired this for her too because I knew how many committees she was serving on, how many extracurricular activities in which she was involved, and how frazzled and worn down she was by her busy life.  I had hoped that Christ calling her to find more peace in her life would have encouraged her to make some changes, just some small changes, or different choices, so she could spend more time in quiet meditation, so she could spend more time with Christ and find some peace.  But I guess change didn’t really seem possible to her, or comfortable.  As far as I know she continues to lead a busy, frazzled life.  As far as I know, she continues to run from her calling.

I think my favorite part of the story of Paul’s call on the road to Damascus is the way it concludes.  Being struck blind by his vision, Paul’s companions need to lead him by the hand the rest of the way into Damascus.  Then God sends him a disciple, Ananias, to bless him, to bless his new calling, and to welcome him to the Christian community of faith.  I like this ending because it reveals how it is the community of faith, or the church, that guides us and nurtures us in our call.  It is the community of faith that calls upon us to pay attention to the ways in which God is leading us.  And it is the community of faith that encourages us, sustains us, and guides us as we follow God’s call and face the changes that come with it.

I believe we American Christians, with all our emphasis on individualism and individual freedom, can learn a lot from societies, both contemporary and ancient, that place a strong emphasis on community.  In monastic communities, men and women who have felt called to leave the world behind and dedicate their lives to prayer and study, worship and service live together in community.  The life of a monk or a nun is a quiet one, with lots of time alone with God, lots of time for prayer and reflection.  But, these monastics always make a point of gathering with the community at various points during the day.  Even the most disciplined monks and nuns, or those who have felt called to live alone as a hermit in some bleak and rugged cave in the middle of the desert or the middle of a forest somewhere, even these solitary souls regularly make their way back to the monastic community for worship and communion.  Why, we might ask?  Why this emphasis on community? Well, because they believe that faith can only be nurtured in community.  Living in isolation, living without the faith community, our faith becomes whatever we want it to become, not whatever God wants it to become.  Living in community, our faith and our sense of call are nurtured by a group of believers seeking the faithful path together.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German pastor and theologian, wrote in his book entitled Life Together, “The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.  He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word.”

God knew Paul’s call needed to be nurtured and encouraged within the community.  So he was led, blind and vulnerable to Damascus and to Ananias.  Paul was led to the community to seek his faithful path.

So, as we gather today to seek our faithful path and to listen for God’s call in the midst of community, let me close with some questions for reflection.

To what is God calling you today?

To whom is God calling you today?

Where does God desire you to go?

What changes will you need to embrace to get you there?

And how can we help you follow this calling?

Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.

[1] Galatians 1: 15-16

[2] Joyce Rupp, Out of the Ordinary: Prayers, Poems, and Reflections for Every Season, (Ave Maria Press, 2000).

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