Preached September 15, 2013
Text: Philippians 3:10-14, Mark 12:28-34
Yesterday morning, I hosted a meeting of the Board of Ordained Ministry for our United Methodist Annual Conference here in Western Pennsylvania. The “BOM” as we call it has a number of jobs related to clergy evaluation and credentialing, but one of our most exciting roles is to receive new candidates for ordained ministry.
The best part of interviewing candidates for ministry is hearing their stories – listening to what God has done in their life, and what God is doing right now. When the Board finishes a weekend of interviews, I am absolutely exhausted – but also renewed and encouraged by the faith stories that were shared and the faithfulness of God in so many different lives.
I remember, too, when I was going through the ordination process myself. You don’t get far in the process without becoming comfortable with telling your “call story,” as they refer to it. You tell that story – the story of God’s faithfulness in your life, and the ways you’ve experienced God’s calling or God’s leading – to your own local church; to the District Superintendent; to your assigned mentor; on your seminary applications; to the District Committee; to each other in seminary; and finally, two or three or five years into the process, you tell it to the Board of Ordained Ministry. By then, you’ve told it so many times that you can mutter it in your sleep.
Except – except that you really can’t, because it is a continually developing story. Each time you tell it, there is a little more to add, a little more that you are learning as you walk further down that path of faith.
My own call story – which is really just one piece of the broader story of faith that we each could tell for ourselves – always began with growing up in a parsonage. Going on hospital visits…teaching the kids when I was just a young teen myself…youth retreats and mission trips…
It continues through my college years, when I said I wasn’t going to be a pastor, but then realized one day that my interests – my double-major in psychology and communication, with a minor in religion – looked an awful lot like a pastor’s profile. Huh. What to make of that?
Then there was my first job after college, public relations, successful – I traveled with the CEO on the corporate jet for goodness sake! – but couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted to be more involved in people’s lives, wanted to help people live well rather than just helping them spend money.
When I started seminary, that’s pretty much where my call story ended. It didn’t have a clear direction or an obvious end point. Maybe something like hospital chaplaincy. Maybe.
In seminary the calling expanded, unfolded. I heard women preaching for the first time that I remember. I knew female clergy growing up – but I don’t recall ever hearing one of them preach! Hearing a women’s voice from the pulpit for the first time was part of my call story. So was coming to realize that I really preferred the theology classes over the counseling classes – maybe chaplaincy wasn’t quite the right fit after all. The Holy Spirit continuing to work, to shape, to lead.
Maybe academic, teaching…but found it was too detached, too theoretical for my way of thinking…
This guy dragged me to Chicago… ☺ …and would you believe it, I found I really loved urban ministry…and liturgy…and teaching in the local church…maybe an associate pastor position, where I can teach and lead but not really have to preach every week…
When I interviewed with the Board of Ordained Ministry, that was pretty much where my call story ended. If I were to continue the story today, it would include the unexpected call to be a solo pastor here, rather than serving first as an associate, as I expected, and it would include the ways that I am learning about God and faith as I live into marriage and parenting. My faith story continues – as does yours – throughout my life.
The Disciple’s Path series that we are following through the fall this year is all about sharing those faith stories. It is about learning what it looks like to walk a path of faith that continues throughout our lives, and sharing that journey with one another along the way.
Discipleship – following Jesus, learning to love God and love our neighbors – is not something we do, and then we’re done. It is a journey that is marked by particular waypoints – baptism, conversion, confirmation, membership, for example – but these are not the goal of the journey of faith; they are not the destination. A lifetime of walking with Jesus is the goal. A lifetime of loving God and loving our neighbors, as Jesus describes in Mark 12.
We use different language to describe that goal. Some of us can tell about the moment of our conversion, for example. For others of us – myself included – conversion is not so much a moment as a process, a gradual unfolding, until one day you wake up and realize it is happening. Some of us, as I have done, tell of a sense of calling. You might not feel comfortable with that language, but maybe you could tell of fulfilling your passion, or using your gifts, or doing your duty, for God.
Whatever the language, it is the endpoint of walking fully with God and one another that matters. That’s what being a disciple of Jesus – a follower of Jesus – means at its core: walking with God and one another in love.
In A Disciple’s Path, they define a disciple as a
“follower of Jesus whose life is centering on loving God and loving others” (A Disciple’s Path: Companion Reader, p. 20).
The emphasis is on the word “centering.” It is not centered – as if it one’s life is fully, completely focused toward the center – but centering, recognizing the need for “lifelong, …continuing transformation by the grace of God.”
John Wesley used language of “going on to perfection.” In the Methodist tradition we speak of grace that leads us to perfect love. We speak of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying grace. God’s grace goes before us – prevenient grace, that is present in our lives long before we even recognize it. God’s grace makes things right – justifying grace that restores us to right relationship with God and each other. And God’s grace continues to guide us, make us more loving – sanctifying grace, that keeps working on us, growing us, shaping us into better people, more fully the people God created us to be.
Some people use the metaphor of a house to describe prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace. Prevenient grace, the metaphor goes, invites us up onto the porch. It is the sidewalk that leads us to the house, the welcome mat at the door. Justifying grace is the doorway we step through when we enter the house – the place where we go from “outside” to “inside,” from “enemy of God” to “friend of God.” And sanctifying grace happens in the rooms of the house, in the living, cooking, eating, sleeping, sharing life together that goes on within the house.
It’s not a bad metaphor. We could also borrow the athletic language that the Apostle Paul uses in Philippians, when he says, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me…” (Phil 3:14). Using that language, we might think of grace in terms of running a marathon. Prevenient grace would go before us to clear the path, justifying grace qualifies us to run the race, and sanctifying grace urges us on to the finish line. But all of it – from start to finish – is an expression of God’s deep love for us – God’s love that, as the saying goes, “loves us just the way we are, and too much to leave us that way.”
Whatever language we use, this fall we have opportunity to share the journey of faith together. Some weeks ago, there was a news story of a Marine who came alongside a 9-yr-old boy during a 5K race. The boy was struggling to finish the race and had fallen well behind his original running buddies. He asked the Marine, “Please, sir, would you run with me?” and the Marine responded by slowing his pace and shortening his gait to run beside the boy, encouraging him on to the finish line.
Sometimes, walking with one another can make all the difference. I think that’s a pretty good description of discipleship, really: walking with God and one another. As United Methodists, we do that by sharing some common practices: prayer, being present in worship, giving of our gifts, serving others, and witnessing to our faith. Those are our membership vows in the United Methodist tradition – we commit our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. And those are the practices we will look at more in depth over the coming weeks.
For now, though – I encourage you to review your own journey of faith this week, and to share it with someone else. Use whatever words come most naturally – but don’t be afraid to tell what God is doing!