About 15 years ago, I was a teenager trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was 17 and at the time, I wanted to be a psychologist or a counselor of some kind. I also thought about being a Rabbi (since I was Jewish at the time) or a cantor- someone who leads the Jewish congregation in worship and singing. I thought about doing something with music. I don’t think I ever envisioned life as a pastor. One of the main questions I get when people find out I am a pastor is, “how did you choose that path?” Or “how did you end up being a minister?” In fact, just last weekend I was asked this very question at a wedding I was officiating. People find this odd and wondrous calling mysterious and strange. People also found the Holy Spirit to be strange with its call by tongues of fire and many languages.
But the fact is that the Spirit calls each of us to something and chooses strange ways to call us. Spiritual writer, Anne Lamott, in her book Traveling Mercies, writes about the struggle with her faith and her inability to open up to the possibility of God. In the midst of this, she experiences the unrelenting grace and acceptance of God. When she realizes that God is working in her life, she says, “I’ve heard it said that the Holy Spirit very rarely respects one’s comfort zones.” I certainly discovered this to be true as my journey began to unfold.
So on this Pentecost Sunday, I want us to explore together this idea of calling and how the Holy Spirit plays a role in each of our lives to call us to something. This is also “Encourage the Call” Sunday in all United Methodist Churches in Indiana. All pastors are encouraged to share their call story in hopes that we all may be encouraged to follow the call placed on each of our lives. This also means that we are to to encourage the call in other people’s lives. And what a perfect Sunday to do this. We celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on this day and its call upon our lives as followers of Jesus. And we celebrate two baptisms that signify a new beginning in the kingdom of God- another leg of the faith journey, and the celebration of the fact that God names and claims each of us as God’s own. We also celebrate that God has been working in these two girls’ lives from the beginning.
Baptism is the perfect reminder that we are called persons, marked persons, and that we are sealed with God’s grace. Today, you made promises to Zoe and Samantha in their baptisms, that you will help them grow in faith. They also make promises to you as their congregation, and to God that they will continue to grow in the grace of knowledge of God’s love. We celebrate the calling on their lives, as well as our call to respond with growth in discipleship. Baptism, after all, is a part of God’s call upon our lives.
What does “calling” really mean anyway? What does it mean to say that we each have a call placed on our lives? When I began the process to be an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church over 12 years ago, I was told over and over again that I needed to share my “call story.” In other words, what were the defining experiences, persons, or aspects of my life that led me to believe that I was supposed to be a pastor. The first and obvious part of my call story was becoming a Christian after being a part of the Jewish faith. Last week in Sunday school in our Renegade Gospel study, we wrestled with answering the most important question we will ever have to answer: Who is Jesus? Or responding to him when he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” We went back and forth in the class with this question, discussing all kinds of ideas, but never landing on a definite answer or one that everyone would be satisfied with. We all see Jesus in different ways depending on our experiences, our personal faith or opinions, or even our struggles in perhaps needing proof of who Jesus is, but not finding any. Some of us needed to be reminded that “I don’t know” is an okay answer, and it certainly leaves room for growth.
For me, my call to ministry centered around the answer to this question. And after a lot of soul searching, a lot of questions, and a lot of “I don’t knows,” I finally arrived at the answer that made the most sense to me: that Jesus is the Messiah, is God come to us in human form, who takes on our sufferings and our pains, and shows the world what unconditional love and compassion looks like. Jesus invites us to follow him. He doesn’t say, “pray a certain prayer and you are saved” or “believe these exact things and you are good to go…” No…he says, “follow me.” When we venture to answer this question from Jesus, “Who do you say that I am,” we must then be prepared to follow Jesus- not just state who we think he is.
So the call on my life came in the form of answering this question. I wanted to follow Jesus and have a part to play in leading and encouraging others to follow Jesus, to learn about him, to wrestle with him, and to share his love and radical teachings with those around us. Once I answered this important question of Jesus, I had to be able to articulate my call to ministry further. I realized that my call was also shaped not just by my own profession of faith in Jesus as Lord, but also by the people who had helped me along the way- those who encouraged me in my studies in religion at Butler, professors that guided and mentored me. Those who gave me opportunities to engage in leadership and ministry in the church, as well as in hospital settings. Those who were a listening ear and support when I doubted myself. And above all of these persons, experiences, and opportunities, there was this thing called the Holy Spirit that I realized was guiding me all along.
In Romans, Paul talks about how the Spirit bears witnesses with our spirits that we are children of God. In the Pentecost story of Acts, it is the Spirit who makes its presence known among the people gathered together in one place, waiting for a miracle, waiting for Jesus’ promise to be fulfilled. They knew something was coming, but they were not sure what it was. But when it came, they knew without a doubt it was something miraculous, mysterious, and probably frightening. That is what a call on your life looks like. It can be miraculous, mysterious, and without a doubt, frightening. The Spirit’s call on our lives calls us into the unknown, and we have to trust in its leading.
We celebrate Pentecost every year and hear this scripture, and I sometimes wonder what new message I can squeeze out of it. But I think that it really speaks for itself. We have this dramatic moment of a rushing wind, tongues of fire, and people speaking in strange languages. The church was never going to be the same! But I also found myself wondering what the people gathered there did later on that day. We are told that this event happened in the morning. What do you suppose people did immediately after their visit from the Holy Spirit? We know that some eventually went on to make new disciples of Jesus, baptizing them and welcoming them into the family of God- even non-Jews. But did those gathered take a moment to realize that in this visit from the Spirit, that a call had been placed on their lives? And what would they do now that they have received such a miraculous gift?
Friends, today we celebrate and acknowledge that we, too, have received this miraculous gift. We, too, have a calling placed on our lives. Some of us know what our calling is and we can share our call story easily. And perhaps some of us are still trying to figure it out. But I firmly believe that our faith gives us the gift of discovering the Holy Spirit’s leading, both in our lives and the lives of generations to come. Pentecost is the birthday of the church, but it is also a day to celebrate our lives and the paths we have taken, and to share our stories with someone else: to encourage the call. We have some great kids in this church who are in need of you, as adults, to encourage them on their life’s path and open their hearts to the leading of the Spirit and the courage within themselves. I am reminded that sometimes, the Spirit, speaks to us in the form of people who love and care for us. At the end of the day, it was really my mom who encouraged my call. I believe that the Spirit was with her when she asked me one day, “So, are you going to get ordained and be a minister?” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know…I’ve been thinking about it, but it’s such a LONG process.” And her words to me were, “You might as well!”
Acts 2, the Pentecost story, is so much more than a story from long ago where we encounter tongues of fire and strange languages and people who appear drunk! It is the story of our lives today when we are open to the ways in which the Spirit is acting in our lives to create transformation, new life, and change. It is the chance to discover anew the Spirit’s role in our lives. Oftentimes, in church, we get really comfortable talking about God or Jesus, but the Holy Spirit remains somewhat of a mystery. With images like fire, doves, the wind, and even a ghost, the Spirit is the least human of the roles of God. Yet it plays a key role in our lives, our communities, and our churches because we understand the Spirit to be the fullness of God at work in our broken world. The Spirit’s role is to take part in what the Jewish faith calls “tikkun olam:” healing or repairing the world. The Spirit invites us to take part in this crucial task of repairing the world and calls us to use our unique gifts, passions, and talents in doing so.
It is also the Spirit that guides and sustains us not only as human beings, but as a church community. It reminds us that we are not to get too comfortable or stuck in our ways that we never move forward. There was an article circulating this past week from religionnews.com called “5 Ways Churches Have Inflicted Pain on Themselves.” (http://www.religionnews.com/2015/05/19/5-ways-churches-inflicted-pain-commentary/)
The article rightly makes the claim that the so-called “decline of Christianity” isn’t about God losing faith in humankind, it’s not about the church or society losing our moral compass, and it’s not about fickle millenials or the worship wars of traditional or contemporary. It argues that Christianity isn’t in trouble: churches are. God will not be held hostage by churches- God will do what God will do, whether churches stay in business or not. In the end, churches have inflicted pain on themselves in these 5 ways: 1) we stopped trying and settled into maintenance mode instead of taking risks and standing up for the injustices around us such as racism, inequality, corporate greed, obsession with money and sex. 2) We stopped giving: over the past 50 years, giving has dropped by more than half as a percentage of family income. We are depriving our churches of the resources we need and have focused too much on the facilities we wanted rather than the ministries and mission that God wants.
3) We turned inward and have stopped connecting with our neighbors. We open our doors on Sunday mornings, but only welcome each other. 4) We fixated on Sunday morning: we come and sit in the pews for a jam packed hour of singing, praying, announcing, chatting, learning, and then send people to the parking lot and feel that we have done our duty for the week. And finally, 5) We trashed our reputation by becoming judgmental, angry, self-serving, boring, and old. From the outside looking in, the church appears to have nothing to offer. These reasons and more are why many believe that the church is in trouble and have inflicted pain upon ourselves. But there is still a chance to turn it all around, and it starts with making room for the Spirit to lead and guide us on new paths of renewal, revitalization, and fruitfulness. The problem is that so often it is ignored or pushed aside, and we do not listen for its calling to us.
So today, let’s be reminded once again that Pentecost is the story of the call that is placed on each of our lives that guides us to be the best version of ourselves that we can be, as individuals and as a church. It starts with responding to the call to follow Jesus. Not just to worship him, but to follow him. And it is the reminder that we are to share our call stories often and with many people, especially our younger generations. What is the calling upon your life, and what are you doing with it? How do you feel the Spirit leading you as a part of this faith community? This Pentecost, let’s listen to the calling of the Holy Spirit and the call to follow Jesus, that we may not be numbered among those churches who have inflicted pain upon themselves, but that we may be a church that is alive, well, and strong in hope and life.
May the coming of the Holy Spirit bless you this day, that you may be filled with its knowledge, love, and power, and may you go out into the world knowing that you are called. Amen.