A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
August 19, 2018
Scripture: Luke 9:57-62
When I decided to a do a sermon series about calling, it was largely because I was inspired by my conversations with Laura Mac-Holmes, the principal of JP Lord School. Laura preached at last week’s backpack blessing service, and she talked a bit about how she sees her work as her calling. She talked about this sense that it is God’s desire for her life that she work with the extraordinary students with disabilities at JP Lord, and that in fact, she was made for, especially formed for that kind of service. That is one sense of calling, when we talk about “what is my vocation?” “What does God want me to DO with my life?”
I talked with the children last week that we as Christians, all have one calling, and it is the same for all of us. Once we know we are loved and filled with the love of God and the presence of Christ, we are called to be God’s love, to be Jesus’ hands and feet, in this world. We have one job: to be God’s love in the world. Simple, right?
Well yes. And no. Because how exactly we are being called to live out God’s love in the world in each moment can actually be quite complicated. Like I said to the kids a moment ago, it would be great if God would just call us up and be like, “Hey Betty, I’m gonna need you to do this for me today.” But of course that’s not how it works.
So we have to do this thing called discernment. Discernment is about making decisions, trying to think and talk to folks and listen and hear what God is calling you to do.
Around eight years ago, I began exploring my call to ministry. I had recently returned to the Christian faith, and I had experienced something of a conversion where God in Christ was made real to me in a whole new way. So I began getting deeply involved in small groups and Christian education at my Methodist church. I was working full-time as an Academic Administrator at Creighton University, but I began to have the sense that God was calling me to serve in a more significant way.
Now the thought of me being a pastor at that time was both terrifying and ludicrous. I mean, the idea that I might stand up ever – much less every week – and talk in front of a large group people…about God…well, that just seemed ridiculous. So I took a counseling class. I thought, sure, that’s how I can serve. I can be a counselor. Of course, I ended up doing my final paper on pastoral counseling. But I still thought it was absurd to think I might be called to be a pastor.
Now one thing you might not know about me – I like to have things settled. I detest unclarity. I hate the fuzzy beginnings of projects where it’s not quite clear what the outcome will be or what the goal is. I especially hate when that project in the fuzzy beginnings stage…
is my life.
So I decided to go on a retreat and get this all sorted out. I scheduled a couple days of silence out at the St. Benedict Center, and I showed up armed with my bible, a discernment workbook, and an agenda. I was going to get this thing discerned. About 24-hours into my retreat, I was a wreck. I was so anxious and frustrated and straining to make some clarity happen, that I was just about to pack it all in and go home. It was bad. Super bad.
In fact, it’s a great example of how NOT to discern, how to guarantee that you are NOT going to hear God’s voice. Because my main motivation was not at all to hear God’s voice and guidance, but to get rid of my anxiety about what my future would look like. I was failing at putting God at the center of my discernment process.
On the bright side, today’s scripture tells me that I am not alone. This ninth chapter of the Gospel of Luke is a really long one. And its 62 verses contain story after story about disciples who are not quite getting it right. They are not quite understanding who Jesus is. They are not able to put aside their own egos and agendas in order to follow him. In today’s reading, we literally have potential disciples who are all excited and bold and say, “I will follow you wherever you go!” And then when push comes to shove, they are like, “well… I mean, I’ll follow you, but I’ve got some other things to do first.”
Now I really want you to hear this. Imagine yourself in this situation. Jesus is literally standing there saying I’ll show you the way to God. You just have to follow me. He’s already proven who he is through acts of wisdom and healing and casting out demons. Maybe not everyone has figured out he’s the Messiah yet, but they have certainly seen and heard of the presence and power of God in him. So this literal human Jesus is standing there – right in front of these people. He is literally present with these folks, and they can’t manage to put him first. How much harder is it for us!
It resonates with me and my experience on my discernment retreat that weekend. I mean, I was all like, “That’s right, God. Here I am, your humble servant. I will follow your call wherever it leads me…as long as it’s not too difficult and seriously I’m going to have to know by Monday.” I was unable to set my own preferences and timeline aside in order to really listen.
Two giants of the faith, St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Catholic Jesuit order) and John Wesley (founder of our own Methodist movement) emphasize the importance of indifference when discerning what God is calling you to do. Indifference means that you go to God with no desire except to do God’s will. Indifference means that essentially, you don’t care. You don’t care what the outcome is. You don’t put your finger on the scale one way or the other. Because if you already know what you want the answer to be, or if you put limitations on the answer, then you will not be able to really hear God.
So St. Ignatius and John Wesley both encourage indifference when we go to God, so that we can hear and follow God’s call without our own desires getting in the way. In the Methodist tradition, there’s a prayer called The Wesleyan Covenant Prayer. It goes something like this:
“I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee. Exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing.”
And it goes on. Essentially, its purpose is to move us to indifference. To help us not care whether we are chosen for a certain kind of work in God’s kingdom, or whether that work is done by someone else. To not care whether we become famous and admired because of what God asks us to do or whether we are disdained for doing God’s will. To not care even – whether we feel full of God’s presence or we have to go through periods of feeling God’s absence. Whether we have every need fulfilled or whether we have to go without. Because only when we can set aside our own desires and preferences can we really discern how God is calling us to be God’s loving presence in the world.
So how do we do that? So how do we set those things aside? With how very strong our own ego and desires can be, how do we set those aside, in order to desire only God’s will? Well, it takes practice.
Now I’m going to work on the assumption that when you come to church, at least some weeks, you find yourselves centered in God’s love and committed to be God’s love in the world. At least some weeks, when you are here in worship together, by the end of the service, at least some of you are thinking, “Yes! I want to do God’s will. I want to be God’s love in the world whatever it takes.”
About how long does that last? Anybody make it past the parking lot? How about if someone cuts you off in traffic, are you still desiring nothing but doing God’s will and being God’s love in the world?
To be honest, on a good week, my centeredness in God because of the practice of Sunday worship lasts until the alarm goes off on Monday morning. To be even more honest, sometimes it only lasts until about 2 PM on Sunday. Yep, and I’m the pastor.
But you know how I remain focused on God? I have a practice of studying the scriptures and praying every day. I meet with a clergy covenant group every month to talk about the highs and lows of life, and to be held accountable for whether I am showing God’s love to the world. Now, sometimes I fall away from my practices because I get busy. Because I put other things before my love of God. And when I skip my spiritual disciplines, I can feel the fruits of the spirit withering on the vine. There goes patience, there goes kindness, there goes hope.
Sunday worship is absolutely essential for grounding ourselves in the love of God and being empowered to be God’s love in the world, but it is not even close to enough. Remember what I told you about the disciples messing up all the time even when they were literally in the presence of Jesus? We have to open ourselves to the presence of God as much as we can if we hope to hear and obey God’s desire for us day-in and day-out: in every moment of our lives.
So back to my discernment retreat story. Like I said, I was a mess. Full of anxiety, almost a physical sense of panic that I HAD to get this call thing figure out. TODAY. I was freaking out. And then I started to get depressed. After breakfast on my second day, I stepped into the elevator at the retreat center. I was riding up to my room, staring at the buttons in despair. And there was this big red light next to the emergency call button, and a placard that said, “If light blinks, call has been answered.” And I kid you not, the freaking light blinked.
Now I didn’t take that as a sign that I should be a pastor. But it did make me laugh and somehow, I’d say miraculously, all the anxiety I was feeling was released from my mind and my body. Because it gave me the assurance that as long as I put my trust in God, as long as I put my love for God first, the call had already been answered. I just needed to stay connected to God, and listen and love and take the next right step.
About 1,000 of those steps have led me here to this place. And I am still trusting that God will show me – will show us – the next right step in how we will be God’s love in the world.
Thanks be to God.