Scripture: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
All of the great superheroes have one thing in common, in fact it is a requirement to be a great superhero. It is not a cape or the ability to fly. It is a great origins story. The best heroes have the best origins, because it is these origins that drive the heroes. For example, Batman had his parents murdered in front of him and vowed to be the best so this would never happen again. Spiderman was granted amazing powers and used them selfishly and then a criminal he could have stopped killed his uncle, from there Spiderman learned with great power comes great responsibility. Superman was born on an alien world and has the power to single handily conquer earth, but he was raised by ma and pa Kent who taught him to put others first. Iron Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, and every other of the best super heroes have incredible origins stories. Today is a day to celebrate and commemorate origin stories. It is Pentecost Sunday, which means this is the day that we remember the origin story of the Church and how it got its birth with the coming of the Holy Spirit. For us it is also Confirmation Sunday, where we receive young people into full membership of the church. It is with prayers and great hope that today will be just one more step as they continue to create and live out their origins stories as disciples of Christ. Today, is also Encourage the Call Sunday. In United Methodist churches all across Indiana pastors are sharing their own origins story. Pastors will be sharing how and when God called them into ministry. Often it is our default thoughts to think that God only calls special people. After all, Jesus himself said in Matthew 22:14 “For many are called but few are chosen.” However, this morning’s scripture from Timothy reminds us and encourages us that God can and does call anyone, not just the special.
The book of 1 Timothy is actually a personal letter that Paul wrote to Timothy. It is similar to another book of the Bible and another personal letter Titus. In these letters Paul is writing to his protégés, the people he is entrusting to carry on his missionary and pastoral work. In this morning’s scripture Paul is remembering his own origins story, and how he was not really first draft pick material for the kingdom of heaven. Paul described himself as blasphemer, persecutor, and violent man. These things were all true. Before Paul had a radical encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was an enemy of believers everywhere. He was a Pharisee, and he joined into the persecution of Christians because they threatened his understanding of God. The book of Acts records that he stood by approvingly when Stephen was stoned to death. He then got official permission and endorsement to go to Damascus to round up believers of Christ and bring them back to Jerusalem to be punished for their beliefs. God had other plans though. Paul was called and the persecutor became the apostle.
Paul’s story that he remembers in this scripture illustrates an important point. God equips the called, he does not call the equipped. We see this throughout scripture. Moses actively argues with God that he is not the right person to tell Pharaoh “let my people go.” David was described as a man “after God’s own heart” despite being an adulterer and a murderer. Peter was a simple fisherman, who completely denied Jesus, but he was still the rock upon which the church was built. On paper many of the heroes of the Bible, the people that God uses to do incredible things are incredibly unqualified. These are people that church PPR committees would take one look at the resume and then throw away. In verse 14, Paul wrote, “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” This is how it is with all that God calls. God specifically calls people that need to be equipped, people who cannot do it on their own, so that the Holy Spirit can empower.
Paul described himself in this morning’s scripture as the worst sinner. Considering that, and realizing that God regularly calls people completely unequipped for the task at hand, you might be thinking, with a bar that low that perhaps you qualify as called by God. How would you know? How do we know we are called by God, and how do we know what God is calling us to do? To answer those two important questions, it is best to consider two other questions: How does God call people and who does God call?
For how God calls, the answers are as different as the people who are called. Going through the ordination process, I got to hear many people’s call stories and each person’s story is as unique as the person. I suppose this is not that big of a surprise. We are all unique creations of a creative God, so why would God not call out to us in a unique way? There is not a formula for how God calls a person to service, there is no pre-set sequence of events. God speaks, the Spirit leads, and we then choose to respond. While I cannot tell you definitively how God is calling you, I can share with you how God called me. Going into college my plan was to be a history teacher. The problem is that when I was told there was going to be a need for millions of new teachers, they failed to mention there was not really a need for new history teachers. My wife went to school, to be a special education teacher, which there was a great need for. She literally had her pick of jobs. Of the positions opened to her, we decided on Corydon because it was close to the Louisville area, and we thought it would provide me a better opportunity to find a position. As the summer wound down, I still did not have anything. I ended up applying for a very part time youth ministry position at Old Capitol UMC in Corydon. I was hired and my thought process was that I would do this for a year, while I looked for a real job. There is a quote by theologian Howard Thurman that was very influential to me, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and do that, because what the world needs are people who are alive.” Alive is the best way to describe how I felt doing youth ministry. All of the reasons I wanted to teach were present, but I also felt that my particular gifts and abilities were even better suited for this role. I also felt that was I teaching was more important than history. However, I am so remarkably stubborn, and I clung to what I had set out to do. I applied for every teaching position within an hour radius. I had over 20 interviews in the course of a year. They all came back, thanks for applying but. There was one final position that I applied for at a private school in Louisville. The interview went incredible. I really felt like I knocked it out of the park. I left feeling confident, like this was finally it. I waited, and I waited. Finally, the first day of school came without hearing anything, making it a more or less default no. That night, I was hot. I was angry. We lived in apartments next to a field. I went out into that field, and I let God have it. I screamed, I complained, and I shouted until I was hoarse. When I eventually ran out of words and was silent, God showed up. In a way that is hard to capture in words, I felt the presence of God all around me. While it was not an audible voice, I felt impressed deep on my heart and soul the thought, “You need to let your dreams die, so that my dreams for you can live.” This was my calling into ministry. The process took a while but it led to ordination as a deacon in 2012.
However, God’s calling on our lives is not a one and done thing. God continues to call us throughout our lives. After ordination my plan, my dream, was to be a career youth minister. God though, had other dreams for me still. In 2013, I began to fill a great discontent within me. I identify with how the prophet Ezekiel described it, I had a fire in my bones and I could not be silent. I needed to preach, and preach regularly. This discontent grew until I got a call out of the blue for my district superintendent telling me there was a church in need of a pastor, and the profile they filled out of what they wanted was a perfect description of me. God was calling again, and I responded to the call by coming to Edinburgh UMC. God willing, I have a lot of years of ministry left, and I have no idea how that is going to look or work over the decades. When it comes to responding to God’s call the one thing I can say that I have definitively learned is that I do not want to live out my dreams, I want my life to be defined by God’s dream, God’s plans for me.
The second question to consider is who does God call, and the answer is all of us. God calls all believers. I already mentioned the scripture from Matthew 22:14 “Many are called but few are chosen.” Out of context, this scripture seems to imply that only a select group are chosen for the special privilege of serving God. However, we have to look at the full context. This verse is the teaching point from a parable Jesus tells. In this parable Jesus tells of a man throwing a wedding banquet. He send out invites, but everyone says they are busy. He invites other people and they rudely say they are not coming. Finally, the man makes it an open invitation and invites everyone in. The people in the party, the people chosen to get in are the ones that said yes. Often we probably think that being called by God works like the NFL draft, where out of the pool of all believers those who are called are the best of the best who God wants first. I think that image is wrong. God calling people to service is more like asking for volunteers. The ones who are chosen are the ones who raise their hand and say, “Yes, I will do that.” God then equips the called to make disciples of all the nations and transform the world.
We are all called by God to that mission, but we are not all called to vocational ministry. A great example of someone who is living out their calling in an area that is not vocational ministry is my wife. I firmly believe that she is called by God to make a difference in the life of people with developmental disabilities. Four years ago she transitioned from being a special education teacher to a case manager where she ensures that people with developmental disabilities are getting proper care and services. When she made this switch, she received several comments and questions about it being difficult to switch careers and to completely change fields from education to social services. She was, quite honestly, confused and taken back by these comments. She had never considered that she was switching careers. She was still helping people with developmental disabilities, just is a different way.
We are all called by God, we all have a way that we can fulfill the mission of making disciples. Some of you have no doubt found, and you are faithfully fulfilling your calling in whatever that may be. For others though, perhaps you are wondering “am I called?” The answer is yes! The question is will you put your hand up, will you respond? Jesus said “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefor, to send out workers into the harvest field.” We are the works that God will send out. How will you respond?
There are so many ways and venue to say yes to the call. There are vital ministries in the church such as Sunday school, serving in the nursery, or visiting those who are sick or shut in. Perhaps, finding a niche to serve locally such as the food pantry or across the world like mission trips is where God is calling you. God also calls to vocational ministry either as a full-time elder or deacon, or even as a part time local pastor. Pastors are not super special, they are simply people who raised their hand when God asked who will be workers in the harvest field. If you feel that is a question that God is asking you to consider, then I would really love to sit down and have that conversation together.
God is calling you, I do not know how, but I am fully confident that there is a way that God has planned for you to fulfill the mission of making disciples and transforming the world. If you are struggling to figure out what that calling might be, then my advice is “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you feel alive and do that.” For our God, is the God of eternal abundant life, and I can assure you if you are fulfilling your calling then alive is EXACTLY how you will feel. May you answer the call. May you volunteer and be one of the chosen for what God is asking you to do. In doing so may you find abundant life and purpose like never before. May your experience be the same as Paul’s (the same as mine) where the grace of our Lord is poured out on you abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.