We are called
The following sermon was preached by Kurt K. Hendel, Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Ministry Professor of Reformation History, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, March 17, 2014.
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalms 121; Romans 4:1-5. 13-17; John 3:1-17
I suspect that most of us gathered in this sacred space this morning have given quite a bit of thought to our vocation. Indeed, we may already have done so early in our lives, through our own initiative or because of the comments, the suggestions, or the urging of family members or friends. Perhaps we at least did so when we chose a college or university to attend or when we were required to declare a major. Our sense of call was certainly operative as we decided to enroll in seminary and to pursue a specific course of study in preparation for our own particular ministries. Since we made that decision, all of us who seek rostering have, of course, been unable to avoid reflecting, writing, and speaking about our sense of call and our vocational identity over and over again since the entrancing, endorsement, and approval processes compel us to consider carefully what our gifts, our visions of ministry, and our vocational identities are.
This time of the academic year is a particularly relevant moment to consider our call. Juniors are preparing endorsement essays, visiting teaching parish sites and applying for or accepting CPE opportunities. Middlers are interviewing with potential internship supervisors and impatiently anticipating internship assignments. Seniors are eager to have conversations with the bishops of the synods to which they have been assigned and, hopefully, in the near future with call committees. Ph.D. graduates are anticipating ministry in the church throughout the world. Even those of us who are exercising our call to ministry in this seminary may be evaluating how we hope to pursue our vocation in the future. In addition to all of this, the church and all those who claim an Irish heritage celebrate the life and ministry of St. Patrick on this particular day. All of these realities focus our attention on our sense of call and how we envision our ministries.
And so do the pericopes for this week. I continue to be amazed by the timely relevance of Scripture for my faith journey and for our journey together as God’s people. This became apparent again when I was encouraged to focus on the first two readings for the week of the second Sunday in Lent since the other preachers in our chapel services will likely explore the Gospel lesson. The first two readings are, of course, intentionally related since they both deal with the call of Abram. The biblical account of Abram’s call, in turn, invites us to reflect on our own particular call as God’s people who count ourselves among the spiritual heirs of Abram.
The Jahwist’s account in Genesis 12 is quite brief, but it is filled with so much meaning. Let me read it again:
Now the Lord said to Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your
father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will you a great nation, and I will
bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless
those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the
families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went as the Lord had told him.
It is readily apparent that the call to Abram consists of three parts: First, God gives a command. Secondly, God makes wondrous promises, and, thirdly, Abram does what God commands him to do. It sounds so simple, but to think that this is the case with God’s call would be far too simplistic.
God says, “go,” but going requires leaving home, friends, family, a circle of support, all of which are so crucial for us human beings. Picking up and going is a tremendous challenge because of the essential human need for companionship; for a caring community; for emotional, spiritual and physical sustenance; for continuity, stability and security. The potential dangers on the way, the uncertainty about what the destination will be like, the lack of clarity about what lies ahead also need to be considered. We obviously do not know whether Abram struggled with these realities, although it is not unreasonable to suspect that he did. What the text does tell us is that Abram did respond to God’s command, and he went as God had commanded him to do.
Because of your willingness to share, I am aware of the call stories of some of you, but I do not know how most of you found your way to this place. I trust, however, that all of you are intentionally pursuing God’s call, just as Abram did. It is likely that God did not speak to you as directly and, perhaps, also not as clearly as God spoke to Abram according to the scriptural record. Rather, God probably used various means to address you and to clarify your calling for you. That was surely true for me, and I must admit that I still wonder why a few decades ago God chose a Roman Catholic priest in Bavaria to be the first person to alert me to God’s call for me. This man was the local parish priest in the village where I lived at the time. He was well-aware that I was one of a very small community of Lutherans in the vast see of Bavarian Roman Catholics to whom he was called to minister. Yet, he suggested to me that I should become a priest. He may well have recruited some of my Roman Catholic friends and classmates as well, and that should have been expected. However, I had no idea why he included me in his recruitment efforts. I had never considered pastoral ministry as a potential vocation at that point of my young life, and I was quite certain that I was not called to be a priest. Hence, I readily, though politely, responded negatively to the priest’s proposal without suspecting that God was using this man and later other people of God to clarify God’s will for me.
We all know, of course, and we confess with joy and confidence that we receive God’s ultimate call in our baptism or, if we become part of the community of faith through other means, that this divine call is confirmed in this blessed sacrament. Our baptismal call comes as a gracious gift, without any prerequisites and without any merit or preparation on our part, as was the case with Abram’s call as well. As we were born again through water and the Spirit, God welcomed each of us as a child of God, gave us our identity and called us to be God’s representatives and laborers in the world. Our baptismal call, in turn, informs all the vocations that we pursue throughout our life, including our call to pastoral or other ministries in the church. Thus our particular ministry is also a call from God, and, like Abram, we are faced with very real challenges as we respond to that divine call and go where God leads us. While some of us bring our immediate families with us, some of us travel alone. Most of us leave behind homes, families, friends, other vocations, safe and familiar contexts and other blessings that have contributed to our sense of security and of well-being. Yet, we venture into the unknown, the uncertain, the new, the exciting but also the intimidating.
How was it possible for Abram to respond to God’s call and how are we able to do so? As we consider Abram’s call story and compare it with our own, we may be struck by the thought that it might actually have been relatively easy for Abram to respond to God’s call and to do what God commanded. After all, that was a call with quite a benefits package! The promises that God made to him were exceedingly generous and might well have been an impetus for obedience. He was promised a land, not a small farm or even a Texas-sized ranch, but a whole territory where he and his descendants would live.
Then there was the matter of those descendants. Abram and Sarai had not been able to have children, and it seemed clear that they would never enjoy that divine blessing. While the promise was obviously difficult to believe, as Scripture confirms, God, nevertheless, assured them that their descendants would be a great nation. Their fervent hope of progeny would, therefore, be fulfilled.
Their physical well-being was also guaranteed since God insisted that all those who befriended Abram would be blessed by God and all those who chose to be his enemies would be cursed.
The best was yet to come, however. If Abram had any hope that his life might somehow benefit others, that hope was fulfilled in a wholly unexpected, astounding manner. God promised that all the families of the world would bless themselves because of him. Those radical, generous assurances were certainly sufficient motivation for obedience. They were clearly worth whatever risk Abram and his family were taking. However, in our second lesson for this week St. Paul insists that wealth, heirs, power, glory and even a lofty reputation were not Abram’s motivation for obeying God’s command. Rather, Abram responded affirmatively to God’s command because he believed in God and, therefore, he also trusted God’s promises. Faith was his motivation, and this faith empowered him to obey and do God’s will.
As we clarify how we hope to pursue our baptismal calling, a variety of factors are likely at play. We certainly consider our own priorities, the gifts that others and we ourselves recognize in us, the example of family members or acquaintances who inspire our respect and emulation, our own spiritual journeys and faith convictions, and so on. However, as was the case with Abram, our desire to serve God and God’s people as pastors, deaconesses, diaconal ministers, teachers and various other baptismal vocations are ultimately journeys of faith, or at least they should be.
Our faith enables us to discern God’s call and to follow it. Faith, that gracious gift of God instilled in us and nourished through the means of grace, frees us to heed God’s call and to serve people; not because of who they are but because they, like we, are God’s beloved; to walk with them on their faith journeys or to invite them to walk on that journey with us; to celebrate with them and to help carry their burdens; to care for all people of the world and for the whole creation. Ministry, whatever form it takes, is truly an adventure, but it is an adventure of faith.
However, what about those blessings that were promised to Abram? Was he unique? Are we not so fortunate? Actually, we are, for we do not only receive a call from God, as Abram did, a call that is a wondrous blessing in and of itself, but, as was the case with Abram, the promises that accompany our calling are also exceedingly generous. We are not assured that our vocational journey will lead us to the promised land, but we are assured that wherever we are called, God’s people will be there. They will invite us to accompany them on their walk with God. They will welcome our ministry even as they minister to us. They will look to us to help them discern God’s call and will for them.
God does not promise that our descendants will be a great nation or that our name will be celebrated for generations. However, God does promise that there will be children who listen attentively when we share the stories of faith with them, who appreciate our willingness to sleep on cold basements floors with them during youth retreats, who try our patience but also make us laugh during those weekly confirmation classes, who are eager to participate in service projects that we plan for and with them and who are grateful for our attentive listening and our empathic support when the pressures of their young lives threaten to overwhelm them.
God does not insist that those who curse us will be cursed by God. However, God does promise that God never forsakes us; that we live life in God’s presence; and that the Holy Spirit will give us wisdom, patience, courage and hope as we go where God calls us to go.
God does not promise us that we will be a blessing to all the families of the earth, but God does call us to share the message that is radical good news for all the peoples of the world and that is a blessing to all. That message is, of course, highlighted in the Gospel lesson for this week: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world should be saved through Him.”
As we become the means of God’s means of grace, we are the messengers of God’s promises. Thus, people are blessed, not because of who we are but because of our ministry through which God is at work. The proclamation of God’s message of grace, freedom and life through our words and action is the ultimate reason why God calls us into ministry. This witness is at the heart of what it means to be leaders of a public church and to inspire God’s people to be a community of faith that is present and active in the world. This message of grace inspires and frees all of us to manifest our faith in loving service of the neighbor.
Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises and in and through Christ and His ministry of reconciliation all the families of the earth continue to be blessed. We are privileged to share this wondrous good news with the world, and people are, therefore, blessed through us and through our vocations. So, dear people of God, Seniors, Middlers, Juniors, Ph.D. candidates and those of us who continue our ministries in this place, pursue your divine calling joyfully, confidently and faithfully. Like Abram, you have been chosen by God, and you are called to be instruments of God’s grace in the world. As you pursue your vocation faithfully you will be a blessing and you will be blessed. Amen.