posted by Amy on Mar 4
Today I preached my first “official” sermon. (Ask my kids–I’ve been preaching for years.) The theme for Lent at Arch Street UMC in Philadelphia is “God is Calling.” Here’s what I said:
Today’s scripture (Matthew 4:18-22) reads as follows:
“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”
You can almost imagine this little story as a clip on YouTube. Four men, two sets of brothers, are working. Two are out fishing in their boat, and two are helping their father mend nets. Jesus comes along and says, “Come with me, and I will make you fish for people.” So they drop everything and follow him.
That’s all the video clip would show—a sudden call from a stranger, and an equally sudden decision to go. I ask you, does this seem plausible? Maybe. But can you relate to it? No! Neither can I!
I’d be willing to bet that there was more buildup than that. Let’s imagine what might have preceded that moment. I think they had all met before, perhaps many times. At the very least, I think Peter had met Jesus and had seen some of his signs and wonders, and had heard him preach to the crowds. Peter would have talked about him to the other three, and would have gotten them thinking about this new thing that was happening in the world. The more they talked, the more they wanted to get involved, to become a part of it. Maybe Peter was in Nazareth the day Jesus went to the synagogue and read this from the scroll: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” and then he sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” What if you had been there, and had seen that happen? What would you think? Would you go back to your normal business? Yeah, you probably would. But would you keep thinking about it in the days and weeks that followed, while you were following your usual routine? Would it get under your skin, and make you start seeing things differently? Would you talk to other people about it, and to God? I think so. Then one day Jesus would come by and say, “Come with me,” and you’d go. I think it was more like that.
I propose this bit of additional context because of how I experienced my call to ministry. It seemed sudden at the time, but it really wasn’t. There could be a YouTube video of me waking up one morning in March a year ago, in my house in Colorado, with the conviction that I should go to seminary. The video would show me at my computer on a normal, everyday morning, except that instead of answering emails from clients, or looking over a contract I’m working on, I’m online looking at the website for Eastern University, because I had picked up some literature about Eastern at a conference. I find out that they have a joint degree program. In four years I can earn both a Master of Divinity and an MBA in urban economic development. That’s what I need to do. I’m sure of it.
Almost as soon as I had that idea, I started backpedalling. This is not uncommon with those who are called. Jeremiah told God he was too young. Moses told God he wasn’t a good public speaker. Jonah told God he’d rather not go to Nineveh. (And it’s another reason I think the first four disciples may have taken more convincing than Matthew depicts.) My way of backpedalling was perhaps typical of a lawyer. I decided the best way to prove that I was being foolish and delusional was to apply to both programs and be rejected. Then I could get back to my own plan for my life.
It didn’t work. Palmer Theological Seminary accepted me, and gave me a scholarship, and then I realized I wanted MY plan for my life to be whatever GOD’s plan for my life is. So here I am, one year later, standing in front of you during Lent to talk about how God is calling all of us. I’m here to tell you that Jesus is calling every one of us to be his disciples and to do with him what those first four people did. I believe each of us has a divine purpose and has a responsibility, as a Christian, to discern our calling and to follow it.
On my own journey, many messengers, teachers, and experiences pointed the way. One was the first Sojourners and Center for Action and Contemplation conference on politics and spirituality in Washington, D.C. in January of 2006. One night during the conference Jim Wallis preached about Moses and the burning bush. He said people needed to personally take a stand, to bet their lives on changing the world. I knew he meant that literally, and I felt like he was talking directly to me. It made me very uncomfortable.
A year and a half later I found myself at the annual Sojourners Pentecost Conference in Washington, D.C. learning about Christian social justice work of all kinds. Four months later I went to the Christian Community Development Association Conference in St. Louis. While I was there, several people asked me if I was a pastor or worked for a church. I told them I was a lawyer in private practice and had no idea what I was doing there. They all got this little smile on their faces and said they were sure God would let me in on it soon.
I no sooner got back from the conference in St. Louis than I heard about a United Methodist social justice conference in Fort Worth less than a month later. I signed up. Right before I left for that, a friend said to me, “Amy, have you considered the possibility that you are being called to ministry?” No, I hadn’t, but now that I was hearing it from him, it made perfect sense. I said yes, I guess maybe I was. Then I put it out of my mind, seemingly, until that morning four months later.
We don’t all have to go to seminary, but I am convinced that God is calling all of us to build God’s kingdom. Jesus is calling all of us to be his disciples. What does that mean? It means to put Jesus first in your life. It means to make a concerted, disciplined effort to be like Jesus.
What was Christ like? He healed the sick and fed the hungry. He personally did that—he didn’t write checks. He didn’t depend on the synagogue to do it. He also prayed and fasted, and he preached and taught. And he worked inside a community of friends and disciples. When he said to make disciples of everyone, he was saying that people need to be like him, to do as he did: Heal the sick, feed the hungry, pray, fast, preach, teach, and live in a community of believers.
There are many distractions, diversions, and life circumstances that intervene to prevent people who call themselves Christians from actually being followers of Christ, but there’s nothing that’s more important. Discipleship is not an overnight thing, it’s a process. But it doesn’t happen accidentally or randomly. We can’t stay physically healthy without observing certain disciplines of rest, exercise and nutrition. If we want to be musicians or athletes or artists we have to practice, persistently. And we can’t be spiritually well, or grow spiritually, without making a deliberate effort to care for our souls.
Lent is a perfect time to get serious about discipleship. There are numerous traditional spiritual disciplines that have been followed for millennia to help people grow spiritually and strengthen their relationships with God, and therefore make it possible for them to hear God calling. I highly recommend to you that you pick one thing that you are going to start doing in imitation of Christ, put it on your “do list” or appointment calendar, and begin doing it. Start with something attainable. If you think you should spend a half hour every morning studying scripture, cut it back to 15 minutes—but be sure you do that, and make a habit of it. Then, when that habit is firmly established, add something else. If you want to start fasting, don’t start with skipping three whole meals—start with fasting during the daylight hours, one day a week. You could learn (and practice) a new way of reading scripture, such as lectio divina, or a new way of praying, such as breath prayer or centering prayer. Or do as John Wesley did, and start visiting the poor, the sick, or the imprisoned. Form or join a prayer chain, a Bible study, or a Christian service group. But do something, and do it regularly.
Do as Jesus did. Take time to talk to God, and listen, and then obey. Ask every day to know God’s will for you, and for the power to carry it out. Be sensitive to all the ways that God answers that question. Let the Holy Spirit lead you. Pay attention to what God is saying. Do this intentionally, prayerfully, faithfully, and your life will change, and so will the lives of those around you. God is calling. There’s nothing more important for you to do than to listen, and heed the call. It will make you whole. It will make you happy. And it will make you a blessing to others.
I’ll close with a quote from John Wesley: “O, Begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. . . . Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way: else you will be a trifler all your days. . . . Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”