August 21, 2016: "Calling"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 21, 2016
Exodus 3:1-12 & Matthew 5:13-16
Today is a special day for you and me as it was four years ago this morning that I stood behind this pulpit as your pastor for the first time. Me standing in the pulpit that day was the culmination of so many things: years of training and study; hours upon hours upon hours of prayer and discernment; utter faith that God would put me where I needed to be even if it was in a place I had never heard of before. That was all on my end—this is to say nothing about the work that was done here in Enid before I was called: a congregation scarred yet resilient, uncertain yet faithful, willing to take a risk and rely on God’s ability to make God’s vision come to life. When I survey the course of these past four years I can summarize them in one simple phrase: God is faithful! Again: God is faithful!
This summer you have been suggesting topics and questions for me to reflect on in my Sunday sermons. We have touched on topics such as What is truth?, What happens when we die?, How do we relate to people of other faiths?, and What do we do about evil? The question I will take up today I have been saving as a way to mark the anniversary of our coming together in ministry. The question reads, and I have the card here to prove it, “How do we keep Pastor Andrew for another 25 years?”.
I’m not sure how this person landed on 25 years; lets try for 30 years because that will put me close to retirement. The first and most obvious answer to this question is to be sure the Pastor’s wife is happy, am I right? One need not be married long to learn that lesson. You’ll need to be sure that our three dogs are happy too, because, let’s be honest, they run the show. I’d like it if you could turn down the heat in the summer and turn it up in the winter and get me advanced screenings of my favorite TV shows. A weekly appointment with a masseuse would be nice, and maybe a vacation home by a lake with someone to teach me how to play golf. Let’s get a church plane and pilot because driving all over this state takes too much time, and finally, if you want to keep me for another 25 or 30 years, figure out how to relocate Baltimore, Maryland, and Sherman, Texas—my hometown and Katie’s—within walking distance of Enid.
Now in all seriousness, these things are just things and I’m not here to today to make demands or give you a list of things that will keep me happy. Instead, I want to take some time to think with you on what it means to answer God’s call and what I think it means for us to answer that call as pastor and congregation.
If you had asked me ten or fifteen years ago what I thought I would be doing today, pastoring a church would not have been the answer. I thought that God’s call on my life was to be a musician. It is the thing that brought me the most joy and it was safe. It just so happened that the church was a place where music and my talents were valued and needed, and that was great. I was perfectly happy as a church musician, directing the choir and playing music for worship. It was perfect because while I was doing the thing that I enjoyed the most I was also getting a weekly dose of God. It always pleased me to tell folks that I was a church musician, to see their approval and hear how noble it was of me to work for the church. To me, it was enough. It was not enough to God, however, and over time I felt the push, the pull, the nagging from God to do something more.
From the pushing and pulling and nagging from God came my enrollment in seminary and my declaration to Baltimore Presbytery that God was calling me to be a pastor. This led to years of classes and exams on religion and philosophy and theology in Seminary, which led to more classes and exams from the Church to be sure the classes and exams had really stuck. I told my call story so many times I could tell it in my sleep, and sometimes I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I was sure this is what I wanted to do with me life. The way was always clear—one way I think God moves us toward our calling—and now today I can’t image doing or wish to be doing anything else with my life.
But I think that it is important for you to know that while the process to becoming a pastor was mostly smooth and exciting, it was also terrifying. In this way I can identify with Moses at the burning bush. When God appeared to Moses and told him to go down to Egypt and demand the release of the Israelites, Moses balked. He said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” To be certain, God has never called me to demand the release of captives from bondage. Yet, I know what Moses was feeling. Moses was perfectly happy keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro; his work as a shepherd was safe and rewarding and nobel…I’m sure he found some joy in it, too. For Moses it was enough. But for God it was not enough. God had something very specific in mind for Moses, but Moses was scared.
Who am I? That is a question I’m sure you’ve asked yourself while looking at the mountain God or life has put before you. I did, and I still do. I think there is a widely held belief that a white collar and a black robe and a stole somehow makes one immune to fear or trepidation or gossip or even doubt. This just isn’t the case. These things that pastors wear, that I wear on a regular basis, mark us for what we do but they do not protect us from the very human feelings of inadequacy, frustration, pain, or sadness. Pastor’s are brokers of spiritual mysteries; we stand between God and congregation and come up with words so that the two can communicate. My work on a weekly basis is, as Karl Barth once said, is to keep the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other; they have to speak to each other or there is no meaning, no relevance. My calling is to keep one ear open for what God is saying, while keeping the other ear open to what you are saying. Somehow, and sometimes only because God is so powerful, I can get those two to meet, to speak to one another, to translate, for our good and for the good of the Kingdom.
I won’t be shy in telling you that I love what I do. I love preaching, studying the Scriptures, going to them on behalf of this community and not coming away until I have found a word of life. I love being invited into the most intimate areas of your life because it is there that I get to see the real you. When I sit with you when one a loved one has died, it is a sacred honor to hear your questions, to share your memories, to search with you for meaning. When I hold your hands in prayer over the rail of a hospital bed, or in a nursing home, or at your dinner table, I do so confident that God hears us when we pray. When I baptize your children, share with you the bread and the cup, look through family picture albums, or stand by you on your ranch watching as calves are being born—and I did that this past spring—these are sacramental moments and I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve them. Blessing your children before the first day of school, handing checks to worthy causes in this community, serving as an ambassador for what and whom this congregation stands for…you must pinch me at times because it is hard to believe that this is my life.
And yet, as much as I love preaching, there are times when I just can’t find that word of life. The honor of being with a family to mourn the death of loved one puts me in the presence of death more often than anyone would like. Praying at the side of a hospitable bed communicates the reality that life is fragile and not guaranteed. Baptizing children comes with a reminder of the children who do not survive their earliest years and of those who are unable to have children. As exciting as it is to give a check to a charity on behalf of the congregation, there is never enough to make their work obsolete. I am afraid that one false step, one bad sermon, on missed called, one stand that I take could make the whole house of cards come tumbling down. There are moments when I wonder if my work as a pastor does anything for God or for God’s people, and I am particularly afraid that one day the shoe will drop and I will wake up to find that all this has been just a nice dream and nothing more. Who am I that I should preach, teach, preside at the sacraments, be invited in your life and share mine with you?
For all the ways that pastoral work is different from other types of work, and pastors are different from other professionals, we are also the same and no pastor should try to convince you otherwise. The fear and frustration, sadness and inadequacy, pain from gossip or disrespect—these are not reserved just for pastors…every person feels them. Nor are the joys reserved just for pastors, either. If we survey the whole scope of the Bible, we see clearly that God does not just call people to be pastors; God calls people to be teachers, prophets, community organizers, medical professionals, care-givers, workers of charity and agents of hospitality. God does not just call us to the pulpit, but also to the classroom, to the food pantry, to the garden, to the courts of law, to the halls of politics, to banks and stock exchanges, to sources of energy and commerce, to the hospital and to the nursing home, to the deliver room and the embalming room. Not one of these callings brings any less joy to God or to the one who has been called; none of these are immune to wild ups and downs of life. So to each person that God calls—teacher, preacher, baker, candle-stick maker—God offers this assurance to soothe fears and point joy: “I will be with you.”
“I will be with you” is what God promised Moses in his calling to stare down the evil of Pharaoh and Egypt and demand the Israelites be set free. God followed through. From their journey out of Egypt after the plagues, to their crossing over the Red Sea on dry ground, to finally settling in the Promised Land after decades of wandering and complaining, God was with Moses and the Israelites. In the end, God’s calling to Moses was fulfilled and the result was a people who were free, established in a community of mutual concern and respect, set up as a beacon, a light house, guiding all nations to the Lord. God’s promise to Moses and the Israelites is ours; wherever God calls us to go, whatever task God gives us to do, no matter the trails and tribulations we might face, God is with us. And that is enough; it is enough to soothe fear, it is enough to lift sadness into joy, it is enough to replace feelings of inadequacy with confidence, it is enough to pursue the calling God has for each of us, unafraid, because if God is for us and with us, what can possible stand again us?
There is something that a lot of pastors do when they first start in a congregation, and I didn’t do it four years ago because I had no idea of what was to come. But in light of what we’ve discussed today, I think these are important things for us to hear and take to heart.
I promise, as your pastor, to love you with the same love I have received from God. This love does not take into account wrongdoing or worthiness, but is a love born from the belief that each of you is created in the sacred image of God. Don’t get me wrong—there will be times when that is and will be hard to do. But I won’t give up. Please, don’t give up on me, either.
I promise to remain in this congregation as your pastor as long as the Lord calls me to be here, and I promise that I will not turn tail and run when things get tough, when times are hard, when the challenge of ministry seems too much to bear, or when it appears that there is something better. I would love for God to give me a long-term ministry here. So when I preach a bad sermon, miss your call, forget a milestone, or do something you disagree with, offer me grace and the chance to make amends.
I promise to listen to you and communicate with you clearly and often. This means that I will not have all the answers, I will not try to solve your problems, and I will not tell you that all you need is more faith or more prayer or more from the Bible. I will listen, and only after listening, will I speak. In the same way, understand that it is a grace when you ask me, “Pastor Andrew, how are you?” and you mean it and stay around for an answer.
I promise that I will pray for you, as I have from the moment I first became aware of Enid four years ago. And I promise that I will ask for your prayers for me and my family, because I know and believe that pastors aren’t the only ones God listens to.
I promise I will care for you. I will be there when you are sick, when you are mourning, when you are facing the time of death. I will be there when children are born, when those children graduate from college, and when they inevitably give you trouble. I will be there to celebrate new jobs, new houses, new opportunities, new life. And I promise to welcome you into my life, into my joys and into my sorrows, because your power to minister is no less powerful than mine.
I promise, in all things, to do everything in my power to embody the good news of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, because there is nothing in heaven or on earth or below the earth, no power or ruler, and no power of hell that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. So don’t leave the heavy lifting to the professionals. In fact, there are no professionals in the church; all of us have the gift of faith, the gift of love, the gift to proclaim God’s power and God’s grace.
This is my calling and yours. This is our calling as pastor and congregation. In fulfilling our calling to one another in this place, we practice the very thing Jesus calls us to be above and beyond all else: salt and light. When you and I build our life together on mutual love, fervent prayer, grace, and relationship, we are salting each other and expelling the darkness. The miraculous thing about practicing these things first within these walls is that it becomes so easy and natural to do it outside these walls. What we do in here prepares us to do the same out in the world, and the world needs love and fervent prayer, grace and relationships; it needs salt and it needs light. It needs you and me, not because we have some magical power or the answer to everything, but because we carry within ourselves the life, death, and resurrection of the One who has called us out of darkness and into marvelous light.
As we enter into this fifth year of ministry together, to one another and to the world, may God bless us and allow our light to shine, so that others will see our love, our faith, our good works, and even our shortcomings and failures, and give glory to our God in heaven. Amen.