August 31, 2008

Exodus 3:1-15
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

The concept of being called by God or called by God in Jesus Christ is one that runs all the way through the Hebrew and Greek scriptures — our bible.

God called Abram to leave his family and his country, and to go to a new land where God would make him and his descendants into a blessing to the world.

God called the boy Samuel to be a prophet to the people. God called him to speak words of judgement against those who were not living in God’s ways so that they would turn and follow God.

Another prophet, Isaiah, explained that God called him even before he was born. He believed that his whole identity and nature was to be one who gathered Israel back to their God. That was his call.

Jeremiah too was a prophet appointed by God to speak God’s words. When God called him, Jeremiah said, “O God, I don’t know how to speak! I’m only a boy!” But God said, “Do not be afraid, because I am with you.”

In the Greek scriptures, God’s call was heard in the voice of Jesus.
Peter and Andrew heard, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

People in a crowd heard, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

And folks in the marketplace heard, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Some heard the call to go on a mission. They were given the job of healing the sick, casting out demons, and proclaiming Jesus’ message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near!”

Others had the challenge of putting their love into action. They heard, “You give them something to eat.”

All were called to a radical new way of being in relationship with one another. They asked how many times they should forgive someone who has hurt them. And they heard, “seven times seventy times.”

Some who had many possessions heard, “Sell what you have, and give the money to the poor.”

And whether they had great riches or very little wealth, everyone heard Jesus’ call to love God and to love their neighbours.

The other night I was watching the late night CBC show “The Hour.” In his opening monologue, the host, George Stroumboulopoulos, mentioned the story of Moses at the burning bush. George is a sceptical and nominal Catholic who attends church only on Christmas Eve when his mother insists. He doesn’t claim to be too excited about religion, and yet I notice that the topic of church comes up fairly regularly on his show.

George got the Moses story a little bit wrong, assuming that the burning bush incident and the giving of the 10 commandments happened on the same day, rather than much later as Moses leads the Hebrew People out of Egypt. But his reason for bringing it up was to quote some scholar who was suggesting that the burning bush that Moses saw was not actually there, but in fact, it was a hallucination. The story gave George the opportunity to muse and joke about what Moses might have been smoking. And I’m sure that there were many laughs around the country as he compared a drawing of Moses with long hair, beard, and flowing robe, to a picture of some well-known drug dealer and user who looked rather similar.

But, you know, it doesn’t really matter whether Moses saw a burning bush that was really physically there, or whether he had a vision of one, or whether he dreamed one up. The bush itself does not really matter in the experience, except as it draws Moses’ attention towards what God is calling him to do.

When I think about my own experience of God’s call, I don’t have any stories about burning bushes, bright lights, or visions. God’s voice didn’t come to me in one sudden and powerful experience that could be dismissed as a hallucination.

As a teenager at camp, I helped lead the singing at Sunday worship, and I noticed both the way people responded to my voice and the joy I felt when I helped the congregation to praise God. In university, I really wasn’t sure what God was calling me to do with my life. I’d given up the idea of professional music because I thought that my call was to work with people in some way. I studied psychology, family and group dynamics, counselling, and more. When asked about my gifts, I would say that I was a good listener.

After my undergrad, I took some bible and theology courses as preparation for a pastoral counselling program that I was considering. But in time, I began to learn that God was calling me not only to listen, but to speak. When we didn’t have a minister at our church for about a year, I tried out what I was learning in my theology classes, and shared some reflections on scripture. I served on the search committee, and began to think deeply about God’s call.

One Sunday, I preached at worship, and Pauline Brown (a Presbyterian missionary to India) who was home visiting, spoke to me after the service. She said, “You know that this is what you’re supposed to do, right?” I didn’t know, actually, but I was beginning to know. No burning bush, no bright light, but I was beginning to hear God’s voice.

I guess I can relate to Moses and others who have heard the call of God to missions and responsibilities that seem beyond their abilities. God spoke to Moses and said, “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Like Jeremiah, whose response was, “I don’t know how to speak! I’m only a boy,” I was thinking that I couldn’t possibly be ready for seminary and ministry yet. I wasn’t old enough. I wasn’t wise enough. Perhaps a few years from now I’ll be ready.

But I went to explore what theological education would involve. I went to an open house day at Knox College in Toronto. I met the faculty, other students, and heard about the program and courses I might take. At the closing worship that day, we sang this short song from the Iona Community in Scotland:

“Take, O take me as I am;
Summon out what I shall be;
Set your seal upon my heart
and live in me.”

And that’s when I knew that God was calling me to act now. Whether I felt ready or not, it was time to go, and God would go with me.

I hate to spend so much time telling you about my particular experience of call, because God’s call is not only to ordained ministry. God’s call is not only to prophets and teachers and leaders. God calls each and every one of us. God calls us to love God and our neighbours. God calls us to offer our lives to God’s purposes — sometimes in small ways like helping a neighbour, listening to a friend, caring for a relative, or making an offering for some good project. God calls us to big things too — things like mission work, things like full-time ministry, things like dedicating our whole lives and all that we are to serving and following the way of Jesus.

And God keeps calling us over and over to new and exciting challenges. God keeps speaking to us through the words of the prophets, through the voice of Jesus, through the nudging of the Spirit, and through the voices and responses and affirmations of the Christian community.

Next week, as we welcome our new team minister, Gwen, who has been called by God to minister among us… and as we begin a new year of ministry together… May we open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to listen for God’s voice, and to hear God’s call again. And may we respond with joy, with courage, and with hope for all that God will accomplish through us. Amen.