Sermon: "The Call," September 7th, 2014

The following sermon was delivered by Rev. Foster Freed of Trinity United Church Nanaimo, on the occasion of the covenanting service between St. George's United Church and its new minister, Rev. Ryan Slifka.

“The Call”
(Jeremiah 1: 4-10)

            First and foremost, let me say how delighted I am to be here in your midst this afternoon.  This is, in so many ways, an exciting day: an exciting day for Ryan, an exciting day for this congregation, an exciting day for Comox-Nanaimo Presbytery.  It goes without saying that I am pleased to be in your midst…and that I am honoured to have been asked—by Ryan—not only to attend, but to offer a word as part of this wonderful occasion.  That having been said, honoured though I was—and still am: at the same time that I was honoured when Ryan got in touch with me, to be honest I was also a wee bit puzzled…a wee bit puzzled as to how I might appropriately respond, when Ryan made the suggestion…made the suggestion that I might consider taking Jeremiah…taking the first chapter of Jeremiah…in other words, taking the call of Jeremiah as my text for this auspicious occasion.  Recognizing, as I do, the importance of the prophet Jeremiah…sharing with Ryan a deep love for Jeremiah, a love which—in both of our cases—likely owes something to the fact that we are privileged to call Ed Searcy our mentor and our friend…and yes, recognizing the fact that Jeremiah’s account of his call has a deep personal echo for Ryan, especially (as Ryan pointed out to me) the fact that he sees something of himself in Jeremiah’s protest that “he is only a boy”…


                        …trust me Ryan: your boyish good-looks will get you only so far in this gig…


                                    …in short, despite the many solid reasons why I understood and appreciated Ryan’s suggestion that I might consider preaching on the call of Jeremiah, I was initially quite resistant to that notion.  What I heard myself thinking, the instant Ryan pointed to Jeremiah’s call…the thought that instantaneously crossed my mind (although I did not share this with Ryan at the time), my first thought was simply: “Were I preaching, Ryan, at your Ordination service, I would use Jeremiah’s call in a heartbeat.  But this is not an Ordination, where the focus should be upon you and your call.  This is a Covenanting service where the focus is much broader: upon you, yes, as the ordered person called to serve here at St. George, Courtenay, but beyond you to take in not only this congregation but also Comox-Nanaimo Presbytery and beyond the Presbytery…the wider United Church and—if I may be so bold—the wider Church Universal.”  In short, my initial reaction was to look for a different text…although I kept coming back to Jeremiah…kept coming back to Jeremiah and his call, until I came back so often that a tiny little light bulb finally turned on in my thick skull, and I recalled one crucial fact: a crucial fact that made it easy for me finally to throw up my hands, and suggest to Ryan that Jeremiah would be a welcome companion for our gathering this day.  That simple fact is simply this.

            Every Biblical call story…without exception…every Biblical call story, from Abraham on down, presupposes a called community.  Oh yes: there are sterling individuals who are the focus of those stories: Abraham and Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Paul the Apostle and Mary the mother of our Lord.  All of them are the recipients of a dramatic call…and yet all of them are called against the backdrop of a people who have been called.  And yes, all of them are commissioned as discrete persons…as individuals accountable for their personal response to the One who has issued the call.  And yet they are all commissioned on behalf of a community that has also received a commission from that same God.


            And it seems to me…it seems to me that it is perfectly acceptable to be reminded of Jeremiah’s call on an occasion such as this, provided…provided that we don’t make the error of regarding Ryan as the only person in our midst who is here this afternoon as the result of a call…as the result of a commissioning.  Indeed: living as we do, in a post-Christendom North America, we may actually be in a better position to realize that the Church is no longer primarily to be regarded as one part of some larger Canadian cultural fabric.  Surely it is easier for us, than for many of our forebears, to recognize that our being here today—being part of the Church—is not something anyone does just for the heck of it.  In 2014, no one in Courtenay will lose their employment—or lose a promotion—because the boss finds out that they aren’t a church member.  We’re not here, this afternoon, because this is the fashionable place to be.  We are here because in some way—in some way we may not fully comprehend—we have been touched and changed, called and commissioned to be here as witnesses of and fully implicated participants in a new beginning in the life of St. George’s United Church.  And so please…whether you are here as a Presbyter, a congregant, or a soon to be fully-covenanted pastor…recognize that you are not here to see what some abstract “they” is doing in this place upon this day…but that you are participating in what “we-together” are doing in this place!  Let’s be clear on that from the get-go.  The burden and the joy of this particular call do not rest exclusively upon Ryan’s shoulders; this represents a shared burden…and a shared joy.  Let’s be clear on that.  And yes…let’s be clear on something else. 


            Just as we dare not lose sight of the fact that every Biblical call—even the most individual of calls—takes place against the backdrop of a called and commissioned community…let’s also not lose sight…let us also not lose sight of the fact that every Biblical call presupposes that those who are called will form a minority people…a leaven in the loaf people…against the backdrop of a wider world that has not yet heard the call…that has not yet embraced its commission.  That further fact…the fact that we as Church…have almost always represented a minority report….that further fact seems to me to be especially important in this time and place.  Consider!


            Consider the extent to which all of us, even those like Ryan far too young to have  a personal memory of such things…consider the extent to which all of us continue to be haunted by the almost unprecedented growth the mainline Protestant churches experienced in the aftermath of the Second World War.  It is, I suspect, next to impossible for a minister—even in 2014—to begin a ministry just about anywhere in Canada, without finding themselves regaled, early on in their ministry, with tales of how wonderful things were back in the day: when Sunday school classrooms were packed to overflowing…when ushers and greeters really earned their keep simply by finding space for all the unwashed who crowded our doors…the days when Prime Ministers had no choice but to listen attentively when Primates and Bishops and Moderators spoke to the great issues of the day.  I don`t know if you have yet been regaled with such tales, Ryan: but if not yet, eventually you will be.  And there are, or so it seems to me, twin dangers associated with such tales.  The obvious danger…the obvious danger…is that we can expend all of our energy in nostalgia: wishing away the present moment by fixating on a past that will not soon return to us.  But I think the further danger—and I suspect it is actually the more dangerous temptation—is that we will be so obsessed with restoring the church to what it once was, that we will fail to serve the church as it now is.  Realizing full well that it is hard not to worry about that most troubling of questions: ``Does the Church have a future?”…let me be so bold as to suggest that even that unavoidable question can turn out to be more of a distraction than a help.  Given the fact that none of us know what tomorrow will bring…let alone what the next half-decade will bring…it seems to me that the only question with which God needs us to wrestle isn’t “Does the Church have a future?” but simply: “Does the Church have a present?”  Knowing full well that we are indeed, part of a minority community: let’s not presume that we can determine where we will land in 2064, but rather be content to seek faithful ways of being the Church in 2014!  That’s all God asks of us…that we be here now.  That we be here, that we be here now, as those who have said “yes” to God’s invitation to be a part of this faith-community and this faith-journey.  Beyond that?


            Beyond that the further recognition that our call to community, our call to be a part of this minority community, is unlikely to evade the scandalous truth that ought to be apparent not only from the call of Jeremiah…but from virtually every other Biblical call: namely…that every Biblical call story, from Abraham right on down, involves a Cross.  Involves diminishment, travail, challenge, conflict and loss. That was certainly true for Jeremiah…who found himself called to say awful things…found himself called to share heart-breaking news…with people he deeply loved.  If ever there was a prophet who received his calling kicking and screaming—at one point going so far as to inform God that God had betrayed him—if ever there was a prophet who suffered as a result of their call, it was the prophet Jeremiah. And no…no…please don’t get me wrong folks…and please don’t get me wrong Ryan…


                                                …would the ushers please lock the doors so that Ryan can’t escape during this next section of my remarks…


                                                            …this call too, perhaps not as dramatically as with Jeremiah, but this call will also embody a Cross: will also entail diminishment, travail, challenge, conflict and loss.  And I am reminded here…reminded of an essay I recently read by the American Pastor and writer, Lillian Daniel who’s most recent book includes a terrific essay that bears the very wise title: “We and They”.  In that essay, Daniels—writing chiefly with us clergy in mind—in that essay Daniels makes the point that we pastors are continually irritated to discover just how short of the mark our congregations inevitably fall.  Poor us!  She then proceeds to remind us—lo and behold—that our congregations are continually irritated when they discover just how short of the mark we inevitably fall.  While I hope it is far too early for the bloom to have come off of this particular rose, I have no doubt that it will not be long before the people of St. George’s discover that Ryan—along with the gifts for ministry that he brings to this place—will bring no shortage of idiosyncrasies, peculiarities and downright limitations, just as he will soon discover that the people in whose midst he now serves—along with their gifts for ministry—bring their own idiosyncrasies, peculiarities and limitations.  One of the great challenges of being not simply called and commissioned individuals—but of being called and commissioned communities—is that part of our challenge is learning to put up with one another.  Mutual forbearance…learning to adjust to one another not as we might like the other to be but as the other really and truly is…mutual forbearance is not merely a quality that will make your shared life in this place more pleasant but rather a quality, a quality without which you will be highly unlikely to have a shared life.  While it may be true that there are many other crosses you will have to bear together over the coming years…all of those other crosses will be infinitely lighter to carry, if you choose—from the outset—to accept one another, to receive one another, in forbearing love. 


            Permit me one final observation.


Having noted that every Biblical call presupposes a called community…having noted that every Biblical call presupposes the likelihood that the called community will find itself to be a minority community…and having noted that every Biblical call inevitably includes a cross…let me finally note (and here is where I may raise a few theological hackles, but fools rush in and here I go)…

 …let me finally note that every Biblical call, understood in the context of a Church whose canon includes New as well as Old Testament texts…let me finally note that every Biblical call so understood involves either a foreshadowing or a proclamation of the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. Either a foreshadowing or a proclamation of the love that reached out to us in Christ!  And no: please do not misunderstand me.

What is not being claimed here is that the prophet Jeremiah knew all about Jesus when he went about fulfilling his calling in the streets of downtown Jerusalem, some 500 years prior to the birth of Christ.  A fairly conservative Evangelical seminary recently fired its Old Testament Prof who had strayed too close to making just such a claim.  If he could not get away with making that claim within the precincts of an Evangelical seminary, I am certainly not going to get away with that claim in the precincts of a United Church gathering such as this one.  But that erroneous claim is not the point.  My point rather is this.

When we, as congregations, as denominations and yes—as pastors—believe that our call to ministry is undifferentiated from the call of a Jeremiah—or an Isaiah, or an Ezekiel, or an Amos—when we fail to see not only the parallels but also the differences between our call and theirs, disaster is bound to follow.  Ours is a mediated call: a call explicitly in the name of Jesus Christ.  And ours, unlike theirs, is a call on the far side of the Cross: a call issued to those who know…those who need to have indelibly stamped on their psyches, that God—in and through the incarnation of the Word, in and through the life and death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ—has embraced this world in love, thereby vowing never to abandon this world though the gates of hell might clamour, and though every bit of evidence to the contrary might appear to give the lie to so outrageous a claim.  Oh yes….without a doubt…without a doubt:

 There may well be those rare occasions when Ryan will need to speak to you in the garb of an Old Testament prophet: bringing a word of steely caution—perhaps even steely judgment—into your midst.  And yes: there may well be those rare occasions when you, as the people of faith may need to speak an equally sharp word to the wider community in which you find yourselves.  There is, to be sure, a prophetic dimension to the ministry that we are here to celebrate this day.  Nevertheless!

Prophetic ministry in the aftermath of the coming of Jesus Christ is a prophetic ministry that is always at the service of the Gospel, the Good News about the God who so loved this sin-sick world.  Having ourselves experienced so extreme a love, we as a people ought to be constitutionally incapable of giving up on any sister and brother (even one to whom we have no choice but to speak a tough word), knowing—as we do—that our God, through the sending of his beloved child, did not give up on the likes of us.  And so yes: Ryan!  Your call here, first and foremost, is to be a relentless witness, a tireless witness, to the good news.  And yes: people of St. George’s Church: your role as a faithful community, is to serve as a relentless witness, a witness—in word and in-deed, here inside the four walls of this church but even more so beyond these four walls—to that same good news.  And yes: Presbyters.  Our role is to help remove any of the obstacles…any of the road-blocks…that may stand in their way, as they seek to bear witness to the love of God made known in Christ.


Friends in Christ!  May we be truly and richly blessed this day!  Blessed to be a blessing, blessed to be faithful to the shared call that is ours this day!  Through Christ!  Amen!!