Is this really God calling?
29th July 2007
St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville
Pericopies: Hosea 1: 2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11: 1-13
Text: Luke 11: 11-13
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Good Morning. As most of you know, Reverend Sue has suffered a very painful bulging disc in her back, and, although she is definitely recovering, she thought that preaching this morning might be pushing it. So, you get to hear me preach this morning. That’s like going to a Red Sox game and discovering that Curt Shilling is injured and your mother-in-law will be pitching in his place.
The Gospel this morning was very rich in sermon material – The Lord’s Prayer, and the scripture that inspired the beautiful hymn “Seek Ye First”, and, as I was preparing this sermon, I was especially struck by the last part of the Gospel reading:
“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
It seems so clear. Surely none of us would ever deny nourishment to a child; and, in the same way, God would never deny the Holy Spirit to any of us who ask.
I’ve had the pleasure of attending a number of spiritual retreats, and, at many of these, there is an opportunity for each of the attendees to ask the Holy Spirit to come into his or her heart. Our fundamentalist Christian brethren call this moment being “born again”, but, whatever it is called, it is a moment to be treated with great reverence and respect, because it really is a big deal. I particularly remember a retreat when one woman and I were the only two who hesitated at inviting the Holy Spirit into our hearts. When she was asked why, she answered that she felt she was unworthy and that she was afraid God would not come into her heart. You can see why that would be a scary thing, but, as this morning’s scripture clearly states, God would never deny the Holy Spirit to anyone who asks, and God certainly did not deny her once she summoned up the courage to ask. Then the retreat leader turned to me and asked why I hesitated. I answered that I was afraid God would come into my heart, and I’d end up at a mission in Borneo or even worse, Brooklyn.
Ok, so maybe that was a little over the top, but sometimes I’m a little thick, and I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand that the Holy Spirit is always a gift, never a punishment. If I dreaded Borneo and Brooklyn that much, God wouldn’t send me there – that would be like giving me the scorpion when I asked for an egg.
Similarly, I believe that, just as we don’t expect our young children to take on more responsibility than they are ready for, God doesn’t ask us to do more than we are prepared, able, and equipped to do. St. Paul talks about this in his first letter to the Corinthians. He tells us that we are all members of the body of Christ, the Church, and that every one of us is indispensable; and, each of us has been given special gifts to do the work God has given us to do – these are called the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is true of course that some folks are Called to do God’s work in Borneo and Brooklyn, and they love it! They revel in it! They are Called to it, and they have been given the special gifts that equip them to do God’s work in those places. But, if we were all Called to Borneo and Brooklyn, who would do God’s work here, where we live, on the border of Maine and New Hampshire? In fact, it seems to me that most of us are Called to do God’s work right where we are, in our own time and place. It seems to me that God Calls us to do the very things we are most suited to do.
I definitely feel Called to do God’s work right here, in this time and place. Now, I admit that I have often been surprised at the stuff God has Called me to do (like giving this sermon), but, once I begin, I always find that I can do it and I seem to be suited to it. So, how does this happen? How do we go about discovering our own Gifts of the Holy Spirit?
Well, as the scripture says, it begins with asking God to send his Holy Spirit into our hearts. Then, we need to listen. In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah found God not in the earthquake or the fire, but in a “small still voice”, a “whispering breeze”. Listening for God’s voice is not easy stuff.
Here’s an example. Most of you know that I have been involved in Stewardship work for a long time. I promise you, I did not ask for that work. But I did feel Called to do it, and I was happy to do it for nearly 30 years. Nonetheless, I have recently been feeling like I’m being Called in other directions, so I asked the vestry and the parish, and God, if someone else should be Stewardship chairman. As this morning’s scripture says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find”. A few months after I asked, Linda Loucony announced at a vestry meeting that she felt she was being Called to do Stewardship. Both Linda and I listened to God’s small still voice and I’m certain we all agree that, under Linda’s leadership, this year’s Stewardship campaign was one of the best ever.
So, how do we know when we are being Called by God? How did Linda know? I wish I had a simple, straightforward answer to that question. I remember several years ago when my brother, Jim, told me he had decided to quit his executive position with AAA and go to seminary. After a long pause, I responded, “If this is a Call from God, you answer it, no matter what anyone says; but, if this is a mid-life crisis, buy a Corvette.”
When someone feels they are being Called to ordained ministry, the Episcopal Church has a long and well-defined “discernment” process. Although the details of the process vary somewhat from diocese to diocese, the process seems to do a pretty good job helping folks decide whether they are experiencing a true “Call” from God. (Some priests I know have wondered if maybe the process is just so torturous that only those who are truly Called by God can tolerate the associated pain and suffering.)
Well, I’ll leave ordained ministry to the Church, but, what about the rest of us? Scripture tells us we have all been given special gifts, and we are all Called to lay ministry. But how do we discern those gifts and how do we know what lay ministries we are Called to do? The Church has no formal “discernment” process for us. So, how do we know?
It seems to me that this morning’s scripture is a good place to start: first we ask God to come into our hearts. Then comes the hard part: we listen for his answer. We ask and then we listen – sounds like conversation. But this is a special kind of conversation, the kind we call prayer – a conversation with God. Often, when we say the word “prayer”, we think of formal prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, or the Nicene Creed, or all of the prayers we say every Sunday morning – these are all good examples of prayer - we certainly are praying whenever we praise God or talk to Him in any way.
But discernment is different. It’s not just praising or talking to God, it’s also listening for an answer. Discernment requires a conversation with God.
For me, at least, this is much harder than talking to God. I often have trouble paying attention to people I can hear loud and clear, much less the small still voice of God. I wear hearing aids because I’m hard of hearing, but my wife tells me my bigger problem is that I’m hard of listening.
I have such a hard time listening for God’s direction, yet, God seems to work in wonderful ways in my life. I guess this testifies mightily to His patience, because He often has to wait a long time for me to shut up long enough for Him to get a word in edgewise.
Ok, so let’s face it. Listening to God is hard to do. It is definitely a learned skill.
So, where do you go to learn a skill? One good choice is to learn from those who are more skilled than we are. And where do we find such people? Here: at church, at Bible studies, at services, and at other church functions. In a way, St. John’s is a school where we learn how to interact with God. We have a teacher, our priest, and we learn from her during her sermons, when we attend courses she teaches, and whenever we talk to her and share our lives and our spiritual issues with her.
We also have a perfect textbook, the Bible. Whenever we read it God is talking to us. Sadly, as Episcopalians, many of us never become very familiar with the Bible. We are only exposed to the Bible on Sunday mornings as we hear the lessons for that week. I think we can learn a lot from our more fundamentalist Christian friends who read the Bible every day.
We also learn by doing – on the job training. When we do church work, we are accompanied by good folks who are doing God’s work, and their goodness rubs off. (That doesn’t mean we should spend all day praying and praising - Liz Jason refers to such folks as being “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good”.) Often, I have found that God talks to me through my fellow parishioners. There is much wisdom to be found in each other.
So, let us pray:
Dear Lord, please send your Holy Spirit into our hearts, and give us the courage, the humility, and the faith, to accept you as our personal savior and to turn our lives over to you. Teach us to listen, Lord, Guide us, and transform us into the people you would have us be. This we pray in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.