What are we Called to Do?
Scripture: Exodus 3-4
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I love the Moses story. It’s just so human… and it’s just so God.
Here Moses is, minding his own business, taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep and God suddenly appears, in a burning bush, no less – one of God’s more flamboyant moves.
God basically says: Moses, my son, I’ve got a big job for you to do.
It’s an important job.
It’s a job of liberation.
And you’re the only one who can do it.
And did you hear how many times Moses protests? Four times!
1. Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
2. What if they ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
3. But what if they don’t believe me or pay attention to me?
4. My Lord, I’ve never been able to speak well, I have a slow mouth and a thick tongue.”
and then finally,
Please, please, just send somebody else!
I love that it’s so real.
Moses really doesn’t want the challenge.
He doesn’t have the self-confidence
And old God is like an insistent school teacher who sees talent and potential
in the kid who hasn’t quite found their way
– and is going to push them into their full, God-given potential.
And of course, there’s only one character in the story who’s going to win the argument.
What does it meant to be called? – Amy
As ordained ministers, Kent & I have been steeped in the call language.
We don’t talk about being hired to work at a church, we talk about being called to serve at a church.
We believe that God has been active and alive in these calls: nudging us here, pulling us there, introducing us to this person and that person, inspiring us in a sermon, a song, a scripture reading, a Bible study, a seminary lecture, or a walk out in Creation.
We frame it all that way.
And when student Seminarians come into our midst, we actively talk with them about their calls:
Where is God calling you in ministry?
To the local church? The hospital? The academy? A non-profit?
How can your time with United Parish help you discern that?
Our Discernment & Engagement team serves as more than just a fancily-titled nominating committee; their ministry is to help our members discern their call within our congregation, and help them engage in church life in a way that best uses their unique gifts as well as nourishes their souls.
And at their best, they can help all of us discern our bigger calls in the wider world.
Kent: Call-Equip-Serve at the heart of our 2012 Vision
When I first felt called to this church in early 2013,
I saw that at the heart of this congregation’s vision for itself
was this idea of Call-Equip-Serve,
namely, that this congregation should be in the business of
calling its members,
both individually and collectively, to the work of ministry
and then equipping us to do that work
and sending us out in the world to serve others in our calls.
It’s a beautiful vision, but I’m not always confident that we’ve emphasized it
or deliberately articulated or practiced it during my nine years here.
I’ve become aware that some of us already have calls to ministry,
although we may not think of them that way.
Awareness of the variety of calls in the congregation
We heard from David two weeks ago (8/28/22) about his call to serve others and how he's done that in affordable housing, how this church has equipped him to do that and how he's finding new ways to do that in retirement.
Doug and Carolyn came here from the Midwest, called to be grandparents.
I look out on this lawn and see many people who have been called to the vocation of parenting, one of the most important calls there is.
Some of us may already be clear on our call,
some of us may have one but not see it that way
some of us may be switching our calls? (Robert pivoted in his call while on sabbatical with me.)
some of us may be trying to figure it out
some of us may have never thought about it before
How do you discern a call?
By doing the same thing that we ordained people
putting on the theological lens and noticing
how God is nudging you here, pulling you there,
introducing you to this person and that person
inspiring you in a conversation, a worship service, a news program,
a book or article, a walk out in Creation
And a call doesn’t necessarily stay the same your whole life long
It may pivot and shift.
And it sometimes to help think of as the basic or foundation call:
for instance, I think all Christians are called to serve others,
following the example of Jesus
But the specifics vary according to the gifts and talents God has given us:
some may be called in music
some may be called in encouragement
some may be called in writing
some may be called in financial management
some may be called in cleaning and making spaces liveable
some may be called in hospitality.
A call doesn’t necessarily mean mastery or only one thing.
It means God wanting to use as many of our gifts and passions as possible
to further God’s work in the world.
The journey doesn’t stop at the discernment of a call, however.
We need to be equipped with the tools or skills to live into that call.
Sometimes those tools and skills can seem pretty straightforward and obvious:
an OB-GYN needs to learn how to deliver babies, how to perform surgeries, and needs to know what medicines will best help their patients.
They also need to be able to stay focused in a crisis, help their patients and their patient’s family members stay calm, and have the skills to tend to their own hearts in the aftermath of a difficult case.
For the OB-GYN, their Medical school, their teaching hospital, their colleagues, and even their patients all help equip them to live out their call and better serve their patients.
How was Moses equipped to serve his community?
The more we think about it the more we notice:
Moses’ mother and sister - making sure he was safe as a baby
the Jewish midwives who volunteered to help deliver him
God - patient with Moses until Moses could trust, prepared a way for the israelites (pillar of cloud and fire)
Sister Miriam, who we heard about this summer, who rallied the community in times of despair and in times of rejoicing
Brother - shared leadership duties so that Moses could lead from his strengths
Community - trusted Moses, even when they were discouraged
Sometimes, taking time to notice what we’re uniquely equipped to do helps us realize what God is uniquely calling us to do.
Moses was uniquely equipped to challenge Pharaoh, having been found in the river by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as Pharaoh’s adopted family.
When we are trying to discern what God is calling us for, it can be helpful to look at our specific context, and see how we already might be equipped to serve a unique purpose.
For example, growing up bilingual might equip a person to volunteer as a hospital translator. Working in the finance industry can equip a person to serve on the endowment or financial planning team of their church. Working the 12 steps can equip a person to sponsor someone else on their own journey.
Finding or identifying God’s call for your life doesn’t mean it always stays the same
or that it’s always easy, or is always the right fit
And sometimes, perhaps often, or daily,
God and we may need to have a prayerful chat about where our call is taking us.
Moses questions —> Kent’s questions
I have to confess to you that I returned from this fantastic sabbatical
that I had waited so long for
and that you and the Lilly Endowment generously made possible
and I returned feeling like:
God, I don’t know if I have it in me to do this anymore
I don’t know if I have anything left to preach
or do the kind of pastoral care that I know people need and deserve
or lead worship again in a Sanctuary that frankly,
is 50 years overdue for a paint job
and architecturally does not represent very well our theology
or what our community is currently about
(we can talk more about that later)
Lord, I’ve given so much of my heart and soul to the four churches
you’ve given me to serve,
and I just don’t know if I have anything worthwhile left in the tank.
My passion for it is shot.
Do any of you ever feel that way?
Like the tank is empty and you just don’t know if it will ever refill?
It’s hard, right? It’s an existential problem.
And like Moses, I argued with God. I said, “Lord, this sucks.
Here United Parish and Lilly have been so generous
and they expect me to be ready to go again and I just don’t know.
And, I mean, I need a job and health insurance
and I still need to prepare for retirement.
And 15 years ago, I really thought I was called to all this, but now…
So if you still need me to do this and serve you here,
then I need you to give me some juice, because I’m not feeling it.”
And God started talking through Robert’s voice, but like a lot of us,
I sometimes have trouble hearing God when they talk through my spouse…
So God led me by the nose over to Mark and Lietza,
who’ve been beautifully steering our financial planning team for the last year
and they laid out the challenge of the $10-12M pricetag on our building
and said in stark, realistic, business-like terms:
-at one extreme, we can exhaust all our resources, get some grants, do a few capital campaigns and maybe make it work…for now
-at the other extreme, we can sell the building and go elsewhere (which is probably not a top choice for any of us!)
In between lie lots of options.
And I got excited about that.
Because I thrive on possibility, on new projects,
on the promise of the unknown and untapped potential.
And I got a little juice…
And then, while I was on my way to see our beloved Caroline on her deathbed,
I called my brother,
who despite having very different theological and political views than I,
is one of my steady prayer partners.
My brother has also been an entrepreneur since he was 12yo
and he thinks likes one.
And he asked me two important questions: What do you have energy for?
And I said:
for figuring out the mission and strategy for the future of this community
And he asked, what’s the opportunity here?
That our building crisis means we have to re-think church in new ways for a new time.
And I got a little more juice…
And then I confessed to Susan and Amy in our weekly worship planning
that what really leaves me uninspired about leading worship here is our old Sanctuary.
I know it’s a beautiful, classic neo-Gothic space, but it just feels tired to me.
It’s felt that way since I first got here,
and not at all representative of the real vitality of this congregation.
And when I’m up there on the Chancel I feel SO FAR away from you all.
And I really hate that.
And honestly, it’s not the future of dynamic worship
and it’s not our theology.
And they agreed.
And so we went in the Sanctuary and we started dreaming about some alterations we could make,
some experiments to try, that would honor the original intentions of the space and its architecture
AND allow us to make worship more open, more vital, warmer even, just like our community and our theology.
And God said, “there’s some possibility here, and you like possibility…”
and that gave me some more juice…
We’ve been talking since the earliest days of the pandemic about how even amidst tragedies God is finding a way to “make all things new”- “see, I am doing a new thing”, God says through the prophet Isaiah, “now it springs up, can’t you see it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland”.
We’ve talked about it so much that it probably feels like a tired pandemic cliché by now, but God’s new things don’t happen in discrete, time-bound blocks of the year.
They unfold like a peony, with more petals in the opened flower than you ever thought could’ve fit inside the bud. We, the larger mainline protestant church,
have been grappling with existential challenges since before the pandemic-
the church eras are turning over, and like the espresso beans that a perfume tester sniffs in between batches, the pandemic I think cleared the residue of the previous era from our hearts so that we could more clearly perceive what is newly evolving, and what we are newly called to do and to be.
Asking who we are called to be as Christians in general, though, might be an easier question to answer than asking who are we as the United Parish family
called to be in this moment and this setting, which we all by now know is no longer the setting that any of us were raised or formed in. It certainly isn’t the same setting United Parish was founded in back in 1970. So how do we meet one another where we are, not where we were?
What is our Church’s call at this moment in our history?
Sometimes a challenge shines a light on our call- in the midst of the devastating injustice of slavery, Moses faced an incredibly serious and singular challenge- leading his people to freedom.
One of the main tenets of Human Centered Design, that you heard me preach on this past spring, is to let the need inspire the idea.
We have our pick of challenges in this day and age, in our world with climate change, and ongoing threats to democracy, in our neighborhoods with lack of affordable housing or adequate mental health services,
and even within the boundaries of our church property, with a 12 million dollars of external building repairs quite literally looming over us. Gesture to church.
All of that puts questions on the table of who we are, what we’re called to do as a congregation, and how could that shape our relationship with our church building?
Or even more specifically, how could that shape our response to our church building crisis? Because that’s what we’re in right now, there’s no sugarcoating it. (Pieces of stone are literally falling off of our building…)
Just like our three founding churches, we have a crisis with our building that brings up a lot of existential questions….and opportunities.
What if, like Mordecai once said to Esther, we were born for such a time as this?
Can you imagine what could grow, if all of us worked on discerning our individual calls, and thought about what we really needed to be equipped for them and how this community could provide it, and then got super-clear on where we’re called to serve, and who?
Can you imagine the ripple effects on our church community’s broader work of figuring out what we’re called to do as a congregation, exactly who we’re called to serve and in what specific ways?
This isn’t a new process for our congregation-
look at Thrifty Threads, our thrift store, rapidly expanding in reach and income, or our partnership with the Food Pantry.
What would it look like to have some whole-church discernment about the best ways to use the gift of this space?
What New Thing could God do with us?
So leaving this worship today, we, as your pastors – would like ALL of us to start thinking more intentionally about what each one of us is called to do.
What are the gifts and talents you have been given?
How is God nudging you to use them in this time?
And what do YOU need to be equipped to do them?
And how can this congregation help you OR how is it currently helping you?
And finally, WHERE is God calling you to serve others right now?
Are you already doing it?
Are you searching for a place to do it?
Are you afraid of doing it?
We’re aware that not everybody here may be as excited about the potential for change as your pastors and staff. We get that. We’re here for you. We’re all in this together.
We are also realistic enough to know that things cannot always stay the same. That God loves us just the way we are and loves us too much to let us stay that way.
This I know, Christianity is a faith that is ever forward-looking and we are called to look forward in this moment.
And like Moses, God is speaking to us right now, nudging us out of our comfort zones, into a new time, a new era,
a new Promised Land, that God can see but we cannot yet see what it is.
And God is inviting us to pick up the call.