5th Sunday of Easter, 2018
St. George’s Episcopal Church
Derek M. Larson, TSSF
This week as I reflected on our readings for today, I was particularly struck by what they had to say about the call of God. Many of you know that I have been in discernment about becoming an Episcopal priest for a few years and will be moving in just three months to attend the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX as a postulant in the Diocese of Atlanta. Perhaps its because discernment has been so present on my mind lately, but so much of today’s readings remind me of my own call. Three lessons of discernment especially stand out to me.
The first comes from a line in the middle of our story from Acts about Philip and the Ethiopian man. Philip felt drawn by God to speak to the man, and after sharing with him the meaning of scripture and the story of Jesus, the man promptly asked to be baptized in a ditch on the side of the road. “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away.”
Have you ever felt snatched away from something? Perhaps you were in the middle of a project or the climax of an invigorating book and you heard the cry of a child, the knock on a door, the ring of a telephone. Or perhaps you’ve had something snatched from you? A job promotion was given to someone less qualified. A friendship ended after some silly argument. A close friend or family member taken from life too early. It’s not a pretty word, snatched. We don’t like being snatched or having things snatched from us. It’s jarring and surprising. It makes us feel out of control. But sometimes God doesn’t just call us, God snatches us. “The Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away.”
Seven years ago, in my final semester of college, I stood at the front of a room behind a pulpit, annoyed at the assignment I had been given and this class I was required to take. In fact, I was so unenthused by the prospect of taking the course, I had intentionally avoided registering for the class until the last possible moment. And yet there I stood, the eyes of the professor and all my peers pointed at me. What was the class? Preaching 101!
It’s not that I didn’t like religion or spirituality. I was majoring in it! I loved the academic study of scripture and theology. Eschatology, Soteriology, Christology! Existentialism, Mysticism, Postmodernism. I loved it all! But at the time I had made up my mind that I would never become a preacher.
I grew up in the Church. My dad was an Evangelical pastor; my mom helped with the children’s ministry. By the time I was 18 I was the music minister! But the thought of being the pastor of a church? It made me shudder.
Part of that is because I honestly didn’t feel like I fit in at the churches I had grown up in. In those churches the pastors all seemed to be extroverted, hyped up, aggressive people who took everything in blind faith and asked very few questions. The scripture was always preached literally, dogmatically, and, honestly, with little depth. As I looked around the room at the aspiring preachers in my Pentecostal University’s required class for religious majors, they all fit the bill. But for a quiet, introverted, academic person like myself, becoming a pastor seemed out of the question. Instead I was set on becoming a religious studies professor where I would keep my nose in books and pass my fingers over the pages of ancient manuscripts. What could be more fitting for me than that?
In that last semester of college, the assignment was for each of us to write and give a sermon while our peers took notes offering constructive criticism and support. Aspiring professor that I was, I preached my sermon wearing a brown suitcoat complete with elbow patches while standing in front of a white board, explaining the scriptures with diagrams and the exposition of Greek words. If I was going to preach, I’d do it my way. When I finished, the students were invited to share their thoughts. Overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly the most common thing shared was that I seemed more like a teacher than a preacher! To which I responded, “Precisely. I have no intention of becoming the pastor of a church.”
But then the professor spoke up, “Don’t put yourself in a box,” he said. “God very well may be calling you to be a pastor, and I think you’d be a wonderful one. God doesn’t need every pastor to look exactly alike. In fact, God is a God of surprises. You may think you know exactly where you are going in life, but God may just snatch you up for something else.”
God is, indeed, a God of surprises.
I can relate to Philip’s experience with the call of God. It’s a lesson I’ve learned in my own discernment. So often God’s call is a surprise that snatches up from whatever we are doing.
Three times in our short passage Philip is called to something surprising and unexpected. Often when God calls us, God calls us to surprising things, and we must be intentionally open to hear and follow the call.
A second lesson I have learned through my own discernment is that thankfully while the call of God is often unexpected, we never hear it alone. We discern God’s voice in community, as today’s passage also points out. When asked by Philip if he understood the words of scripture, the Ethiopian man responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me.”
That sounds so much like the many conversations I’ve had since that day in preaching class. I had been so sure about the direction of my life, but my professor’s words had moved me in a way I had not expected, and now I was unsure. I needed help from others to make sense of what he said and the voices battling within me about the direction my life should take. Since then I’ve spent years in prayerful conversation with family, friends, pastors, committees, and spiritual directors to come to a better understanding about where God is calling me, and I’m so thankful for the community that’s grown from it. Many of you have been such a crucial part of that journey. As I wrestled with which vocation to pursue, it was through the voices of others that God continued to speak to me.
Finally, this week I am struck by the emphasis on love in the passage from 1 John and the gospel, especially the words, “there is no fear in love.” While my professor’s words immediately resonated within me, it took a good amount of time for them to fully sink in. I felt the Spirit speaking through those words and I carried them with me, but I also carried with me the baggage of my own bias, prejudice, anxiety, and fear.
Anytime my heart beckoned me closer to God’s call in my life, my brain would counter with reasonable arguments for why I could never be a pastor. Almost 4 years after that initial call to pastoral ministry, while on retreat at a local monastery, I noticed that all my hesitations about pursuing priestly ministry were surface-level and attached to fear, anxiety, or worries about fitting in and being good at it, while the draw towards the priesthood was deeper, more consistent, and peace-centered. I felt God asking me to step out beyond my fears as so many in scripture had done upon their calling. “Perfect love casts out fear.”
So, the three lessons I am sharing with you today. One, often God’s call is surprising. God loves to snatch people out of their comfort zone and bring them to a place totally unexpected. God doesn’t call the qualified; God equips and qualifies the called. So where might you be surprised by God’s voice? Where are you attached to comfort and routine? Where might you find God snatching you up to something new?
Two, God’s call always comes in community. You aren’t expected to figure it all out on your own. Look around. Who are the people that support you? Who are the people that pray for you? Many of them are even in this room. If you feel that God may be calling you to something, find a community of people to discern with you. God speaks through those around you.
And three, while God’s call may at times be intimidating, it always bears with it the fruit of love. Perfect love casts out fear. Trust that God’s loving call is deeper than any surface feelings of anxiety and fear.
May you hear the call of God in your life. May you be surprised and snatched up to new and unexpected places. May you hear the voice of God in those around you. And may God’s voice be a never-ending presence of love in the depths of your being. Amen.