I know I said I was only going to post once on Sundays but I wanted to do a separate post for the poinsettias. Oops.
Here’s today’s sermon – enjoy!
Here I Am, Lord! … Um, Lord?
My mom hates preaching.
In fact, I can remember many Sunday mornings growing up where she looked exhausted because she had been awake for half the night with a case of “blinking cursor syndrome” on a sermon that just wasn’t working.
Now one might argue that she went into the wrong profession. But to that I would say two things. The first thing I would say is that while it is arguably extremely important, preaching is not all that there is to ministry. I have several friends working at large-staff churches or in community organizations who rarely preach and still are engaged in some of the most meaningful and vibrant ministries. And the second thing I would say – which is much more relevant to this morning’s sermon, I promise – is that I do not think that anyone chooses to go into ministry; I think we are called to go into ministry.
That is not to say that ministry is not fun; that it does not come with exorbitant opportunities to find grace and happiness and that most people in ministry – myself included – feel blessed on a daily basis to be able to do what they do. But I do not think it is something we choose to do; I think it is something we are called to do.
I have spent a lot of time talking about call over the past several years. When I was in college I took part in a ministry fellowship program through the Fund for Theological Education and those of us in the program were guided through conversations, speaking at great length about why we were discerning vocational ministry in our lives. My applications to seminary all included essays that asked about our call into ministry: Was there one moment when we knew for sure that you were being called in ministry? Was it a gradual process of enlightenment? Were you still unsure? Are you still unsure? Seminars and supervisory meetings in seminary and my fieldwork and clinical work brought the same questions. When it came time to write my ordination papers, I said the following about my call into ministry:
I feel called to parish ministry as a full-time vocation. I love the inner workings and the daily happenings of the church. Sorting through church administration, administering pastoral care, developing Christian Education and promoting missions energizes me. I want to meet people where they are and walk with them on their journeys. I want to find a way to merge my love of the arts, nature, storytelling and social networking with the needs of my congregation and of the United Church of Christ. I look forward to preparing worship – in and beyond Sunday mornings – to aid people as they experience God in their own lives. My hope is that I will enter my first call with humility, touched by the grace of God and will work with my congregation to be the best pastor that I can be.
Call is a tricky thing. In fact, I am not sure that I will ever completely understand what it is or what God really wants me to do. But after spending the last nine years contemplating my own call, I have come to at least one conclusion: I do not think that people who are in vocational ministry in churches or nonprofits – meaning people who get paid to be in ministry – are the only people called into the ministry. I think – in one way or another – we – every single person in this room, every member of this community of faith – are all called into the ministry. And it is not something you choose to do; I do not think that anyone really chooses to come to this church and to be part of its ministry and community. It is something you are called to do.
This morning we read one of the most powerful call stories in the entire bible. The Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you … Do not be afraid … for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Mary was called to be mother to Jesus, to be mother to Emmanuel, God with us. And we are so, so very grateful to her.
Mary did not enter into the ministry in exchange for the security of salary packages, parsonage living and health benefits. She did not enter because she needed a job and she thought it might be a good fit. She entered humbly as a servant of God, in exchange for the opportunity to serve – and to make the world a better place.
I think Mary’s call story is a bold reminder to all of us that God’s ministry does not always happen in a vocational setting. It is happening all around us. It is happening right here, at this church, through our leaders, our volunteers and everyone who worships with us. Every single one of us sitting in this church right now has their own call story to tell. And yes, those stories are still evolving. But they are real.
Mary was a minister called by God to be part of something absolutely incredible. And while I may have been called to be the pastor of this church, like Mary, everyone here was called by God to be ministers part of something great.
As far as we can read, Mary was devoted. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord,” she said. “Let it be to me according to your word.”
That is what Mary said. But I often wonder what she thought. Was she as confident – both in herself and in God? Or was she anxious? What she scared? Did she think that she was the right person to do what God was calling her to do? Did she ever say, “Oh no, Lord – you’ve got the wrong girl!”
My mom has often told the story of sitting at her desk one night Saturday night – err, Sunday morning. It was the middle of the night and the Sunday morning deadline was rapidly approaching with an unfinished sermon. Exasperated, she said, “Okay God – you got me into this! You need to get me out of it!”
I wonder if Mary ever said that. I wonder if Mary ever said, “Here I am Lord! … Um, Lord? Are you still there, Lord? It’s me, Mary! Here I am, Lord! Are you there? Do you remember me? You called me to bear your son and I need a little help here! Lord?” It was a long journey for her to get to Bethlehem. Did she ever feel alone? Did she ever wonder where God was?
Now, arguably, I am reading through the lines. But I think Mary’s call story – the call to physically bear the Son of God for the salvation of all humanity – is one worth reading through the lines. Because it could not have been easy; Mary’s entire world was turned upside down when she took this call. But God never left her side. And yet look at the beauty and the grace and the hope that came out of all of it!
God will never leave our side, either. And I wonder what beauty and grace and hope are going to come out of the ministries that we have been called into?
Today we light the last candle on our Advent Wreath, the candle of love, a reminder of God’s undying and everlasting love to each and every one of us. I couldn’t help but think of our weekly Assurance of Grace as I thought about this candle: “One fact remains that does not change: God has loved you, loves you now and will love you always. This is the good news that brings us new life!”
God loves us always and unconditionally. That is our starting point. And while there have been, there are and there most certainly will be to come times in our lives when we feel called into something that we do not understand, when we cannot see God in the midst of the confusion of the world and when we do not feel adequately equipped to do the ministry God has called us to do, remember this – God will never leave your side. The proof is in the generations of those who have come before us; humans who are not perfect who have beaten the odds and been part of incredible ministries. God was with them. Take comfort in knowing that God will always be with us.
Ministry is hard. And I am not talking about pasturing churches; I am talking about real, raw ministry; the type of ministry you all are doing – in this church, in this community, in your homes, in the world, with your families and your friends. And it is okay to cry out and wonder where God is amidst the humanity of the world when things get hard. It is okay to scream, to throw yourself down and to call desperately for God to help pick you up.
Because in the end, God loves you and that never changes. God will give you the strength to stand up and say, “Here I am, Lord.”
We are entering the final leg of the journey to the manger. Now is the time when we are called to experience the magic of the season. We are called to love each other; to love our families, our friends our neighbors and our enemies. We are called to think about the ministries that we are apart of – and to push ourselves a little bit further.
And are we allowed to have doubts? Yes. Are we allowed to feel flustered? Yes. Are we allowed to feel inadequate? Yes. But we are also called to feel the love of God, to be comforted by that love and to use that love to fuel the ministries that we are a part of.
Here I am, Lord. Say it with me – “Here I am, Lord.” Thanks be to God for all that God has done for us, to us and through us!