Note: this summer, sermon topics will come from questions and suggestions submitted by the congregation. This is the first in the "By Request" sermon series.
We live in a culture in which we are largely defined by what we do. And by what we do, we are talking about our job. We meet someone and they ask us, “What do you do?” They are not expecting us to say, “Well, I play golf, I read books, I visit the grandkids, I watch Masterpiece Mystery on Sunday nights, I make scrambled eggs every morning.” No, that is not what they are asking.
Our culture is very focused on the work we do, and for many people, it defines us. It is who we are.
On our mission trip to Puerto Rico, our team met together each evening and had a devotion, and then we debriefed – we talked about what we had experienced that day. And one of the comments, by more than one person, was that it was refreshing to take a break from our regular job and not to be asked by people, “What do you do?” That question was not at the top of the list of what people there were interested in.
I was asked about our church, I was asked about my family a couple of times, but mostly I was asked, “Why did you guys come here? What led you to come to Puerto Rico to help us?”
One of the questions that I found in our Summer Sermon Suggestion Box was, “How do people get called into ministry?” It is a question about vocation. But as I start, I realize that not everybody looks at work or vocation the same way that we do as Americans. It is not such a defining chracteristic for everybody.
Now I guess I would start with a little definition of terms. We really need to know what we are talking about when we say “ministry.”
We have come to have a very professionalized view of ministry. We call it “The Ministry.” But I’m not sure that is especially helpful. What I have sometimes noticed and sometimes experienced is that people look at a clergyperson as a professional who is hired to do the work of ministry on behalf of a group of a congregation. But that is not an especially Biblical, or for that matter a historically Baptist view.
Two weeks ago, 14 people from our church went to Puerto Rico. On such a trip, and especially entering into a different culture that speaks a different language, with the work we would be doing and the place we were working and staying and the food we would be eating all unknowns, most of us were a little uncertain if not a bit apprehensive. We were tentative about the whole thing.
But the people there were not at all tentative. As far as they were concerned, we had been sent by God. We had come all the way from the mainland just to help them. This was a huge deal. And do you know what they called us? We were missionaries. Missionaries! We had not necessarily thought of ourselves in that way. We thought of ourselves as church members going to Puerto Rico to do some work, to help out people who needed help, but no, we were missionaries.
Here is the deal: we are all called to ministry. Every Christian is called to ministry. It is what Christians do. It is what followers of Jesus do. So right off the bat, we need to have a more expansive view of ministry. Ministry is done by Sunday School teachers and deacons and choir members. Ministry is when you help a person in need, or offer a kind word, or give of yourself for the sake of someone else sacrificially. Ministry is when you share the love of God. In Puerto Rico, they understood - we were missionaries. The challenge sometimes is for us to own that.
I remember the song we sang the Sunday before we went on the trip to Puerto Rico, when we met at McFarland Park. We sang it again this morning. Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you. Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too. We have been as Christ to one another. I have observed many of you ministering to each other, truly being a pastor to one another and to me as well. In Puerto Rico, we were serving the people there, but there were also those times when they served us – with kindness, with graciousness, and with rice and beans and Mofongo.
There is a mutuality abut ministry. We are all in this together. We are all Christian Ministers. The first thing I would say in response to “How does a person get called to ministry?” is that we are all called to ministry. Ministry is what Christians do. You get called to ministry by deciding to follow Jesus.
Having said that, I understand the deeper intention of the question. How does a person wind up being a pastor or a career missionary or a chaplain? How is someone called to be an ordained clergyperson?
Well, it is not a one-size-fits all situation. There are those dramatic calls to ministry when a person’s life takes a sudden turn and God’s call is obvious and inescapable. We read about the call of the prophet Isaiah in our scripture earlier. Or you have Saul, blinded on the road to Damascus. It is overwhelming and powerful and God leaves no doubt about it.
For a lot of people, however, the experience is different. How did Jesus call the disciples? “Come, follow me.” That was about it. No big pyrotechnics, just an invitation to follow, an invitation to ministry.
Speaking for myself, I was minding my own business as a chemistry major with thoughts of law school, perhaps, but I spent the summer after my freshman year of college working at Ridgecrest Conference Center, which is basically the Southern Baptist Green Lake. I worked with about 150 other college students, and that summer had a big impact on my life.
I came back for my sophomore year at Evansville and as a result of that summer experience, I got involved in campus ministry back at school. It was through participating in the Baptist Student Union that I started to feel drawn toward ministry. Not as a pastor, initially because – my goodness – who would want to do that, but maybe as a Campus Minister, working with college students. And the sense of call grew from there. It came about gradually, and it came as I was involved in ministry.
It works like that for a lot of people. There are an awful lot of second career ministers out there. They may be active and involved in their church, maybe they teach Sunday School or work with the youth or visit people or serve on the church board or go on mission trips, and through those experiences of ministry, they begin to discern a call to full-time vocational ministry.
Now I grew up hearing, not infrequently, that a person had to be dragged kicking and screaming into ministry. “If you can do anything else, then do it.” The language was of “surrendering to the call to ministry.” Like you are throwing up the white flag and saying, “I can’t fight it anymore. I give up.” I’m not sure, but some preachers may have talked that way in order to make themselves seem special and above everybody else.
I have no doubt that it works that way for some people – it certainly was that way for Biblical figures like Paul - but that is not the only authentic way to be called to ministry. Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite writers and a Presbyterian minister, wrote maybe the best advice I have ever heard about vocation. I’m going to read this passage from Buechner:
(Vocation) comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a (person) is called to by God.In other words, what do you love to do that really needs doing? That is where God calls you.
There are different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.
By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Now, I am aware that there are an awful lot of people who have to work in jobs they do not necessarily enjoy. We have to earn a living. We have to pay the bills. In many cases our vocation, our real calling, may be outside of our paying job. But that does not make it any less of a calling.
One more thing I need to say about the call to ministry – whether as a career or simply as part of your life as a Christian - and that is the role of the community. Some of you may have gone on the mission trip because you were encouraged by someone else to do so. In fact, every single person who went was encouraged to go by the amazing generosity of the church, who made the cost within reach for everybody who wanted to go. The role of the community can’t be understated. Some of you may be serving in ministries in our church or in our community because someone said, “I think you would be good at that – will you think about serving there?
As Baptists, ordination is the confirmation by the church of God’s call to a person. The point is not to have a vast divide between clergy and laity – we are all God’s ministers – but ordination is a setting apart for a specific form of service.
I want to tell you about George Truett. Truett was a law student who joined a Baptist church near the college he attended in Texas. The church discovered his teaching and speaking abilities and so they elected him to be the superintendent of the Sunday school. When the pastor was away he would often speak at worship services. Church members were so sure of his gifts and calling that they urged him to enter the ministry. He wasn’t really sure. He was studying to be a lawyer. But at a Saturday meeting at the church, the congregation insisted that he was called to ministry. They pressed their case with him and then they ordained him - the next day. This was their idea, not his.
Well, it was a different time. Truett became pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and famously gave a sermon from the steps of the U.S. Capitol arguing for complete religious liberty and absolute separation of church and state. Historically, that was about as Baptist as you could get. Years later, when Baylor started a seminary, it was named the George Truett Seminary. I love the story of George Truett because the role of the community in discerning God’s call can be so important and so powerful.
So – how are people called to ministry? In one sense, you don’t have to think about it too much: if you are a Christian, you are called to ministry.
In the sense of serving in ministry as a career, the call really begins as we exercise our first call to ministry. It comes as we listen for God, as we pay attention to our lives, and as we ask, “What do we most want to do that he world most needs doing?” The call can come and the call is confirmed through the encouragement of the community, who may see something in us that we do not see in ourselves.
And while it may happen dramatically, in my experience it more often happens more organically. Experiences of ministry like leading a Bible study or going on a mission trip or volunteering with Music Camp or taking part in Youth Sunday - can help to steer us toward further experiences of ministry.
People of all ages, men and women, are called to ministry. God may even be calling someone just like you. Amen.