This is the Story of a Call
Episode 30 – August 26, 2019
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Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
Yusuf/Cat Stevens – “To Be What You Must”
Reading No. 1
Jeremiah 4:1-10 God Calls Jeremiah
Reading No. 2
This reflection is based upon a sermon offered at Sharon-Hope United Church on August 25th, 2019. Sections of this sermon were first offered at Emmanuel College on January 30th, 2019.
Jeremiah. Poor Jeremiah. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you…”. I used to get all warm and mushy when I heard these words. It’s comforting to feel so known and to be so cherished. But this is not simply a warm and fuzzy passage.
This is the story of a call. There is doubt. There is hesitation. There is angst.
It starts more than three years ago. I was sitting comfortably on the couch in our Toronto home, watching Paw Patrol deep into the night with a sick baby while surfing on my laptop. There was a job posting for a position in a new “pioneer” ministry that was being developed in East Gwillimbury. The vision was a “mixed economy” approach to ministry, where five local United Church congregations could be strengthened alongside one another, while a new Community Minister would be placed in one of the new housing developments.
If you’ve been listening to this podcast for sometime, you will know the spiel by now. But here’s the Reader’s Digest condensed version: Our former presbytery, which was a regional gathering of United Churches, noticed that East Gwillimbury was about to undergo a massive population shift and there were questions about how the Church should respond. So, in the way that Jesus lived and breathed in, with and among his people, the concept of the Community Minister emerged as a way to get to know new residents as their neighbour first; being curious about their hopes and dreams for their new home, assessing gaps, and filling needs where appropriate. Then, through the relationships built over time, the community ministry would invite neighbours into conversations about God, and about the Spirit. Instead of inviting people to come to church, Living Presence Ministry was bringing the Church out into the neighbourhood.
And three years ago, reading all of this, I was moved. It was brave. It was so brave that I started thinking about how cool it would feel to be a part of it. But…I wasn’t a minister. Not only was I not a minister, but I wasn’t even an inquirer (a churchy term for somebody who is trying to discern whether ministry is the right path for them). I wasn’t even looking for a job. I was studying to be a psychotherapist. I was deep into the Gospels of Freud, Jung, Rogers and Winnicott. I was definitely not a minister. It wasn’t even on my radar.
So, even though I could suddenly feel my heart burning with possibility, I sounded a bit like our friend Jeremiah. “Nope. Not me. I don’t know anything about ministry. I can’t do this,” So, I didn’t apply. I closed my laptop. I put the baby in his bed. I went to sleep…eventually. Because that fire made it difficult for me to turn my brain off. Looking back I realize that God had placed a call upon my heart.
Four months later I was on that same website and the Pioneer Ministry position had been reposted. Once again I was moved by the project. Once again I was struck by how this was the bravest thing I’d seen the United Church attempt in years. Once again, something tweaked inside of me. So I figured…well, the worst they could say is “no.” I fully expected a “no”. I was, after all, not a minister.
Spoiler alert: They didn’t say no.
One day in October, my husband came home from work to a welcome of, “Guess what!? We’re moving!” And now we live in a house, owned by the United Church, which hosts potluck dinners and playgroups, liturgies and community meetings. There’s a neighbourhood food pantry in our basement. It is a place for prayer and gathering. I am recording this podcast from this house right now. The Burrow, as we call our home, is a very busy place.
But most of the time, I’m kind of just…around. I drink a lot of coffee. I talk with a lot of people. Just being around and available and authentic—that is the bulk of my work. I pray, head into the day, try to keep a handle on my caffeine intake, listen with curiosity…and hope for the best.
But sometimes this ministry isn’t all lollipops and sunshine. Everybody knows where I live and it’s not unheard of to have people show up in the middle of the night. There’s the skepticism of a population, many of whom have been harmed by the church. There’s the backlash for those who don’t like what we have to say. Living Presence, and I personally, were targeted and harassed by a local politician who took exception to being publicly called out for her racist and xenophobic comments and behaviour. It was raw and it was frightening.
Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you.
In our passage from Jeremiah today, our protagonist is worried and fearful. “I do not know how to speak! I am only a boy!” However, Jeremiah’s agenda seems somewhat irrelevant. Only God’s direction and words matter here.
I am often asked to speak at various gatherings about Living Presence, and I’m always a bit nervous when I’m asked to comment on “new ministry”. I get nervous because sometimes we interpret “new” as “better”—or some comment that what has come before has been the wrong thing. That if I’m going to talk about the possibilities held in different approaches to ministering alongside God’s people, that somehow this is a commentary that all of the years and collected wisdom from our congregations and denomination is irrelevant. Broken. Obsolete.
This is simply not true. The old and the new are always a part of the one. They are inseparable. Otherwise, both will flounder. So, it’s always important for me that congregations I speak with know I value them and all I have learned from being formed within traditional church congregations.
But I do wonder if mainline protestant congregations, have an unrealistic and problematic expectation of comfort. I’m not old enough to remember the full Sunday schools and bank accounts churches enjoyed 50 years ago. However, many congregants do, and there is an expectation that this is what the church should be trying to get back. We want to go back to the “good times”. Of course we do. We were comfortable then. But comfort is a remarkable expectation for followers of a man tortured in a state sanctioned execution.
So, I’m not sure God cares much about our institutional comfort.
Jeremiah. Poor Jeremiah. God is not calling this boy to an easy, comfortable life. This is a book of disaster literature written for the survivors of war, exile, pain and trauma. There is nothing comfortable about Jeremiah’s call. There is nothing foreshadowing that anything is going to be easy.
Listen to the verbs at the end of the passage: Plucking, pulling, destruction and ousting…
But there is also building. There is also planting. The dismantling is not indiscriminate. This is not “burn it all down”. Tear down that which is harmful and that which is no longer useful. Tear down that which does not lead towards God’s purpose, leaving room for something more.
Like Jeremiah, the Church is called to purpose, not an easy, comfortable existence. I wonder if the Church has some work to do about naming our purpose, before expending so many resources in an attempt to simply maintain our survival. Isaiah names one part of this purpose quite plainly and we heard it in song earlier.
When we feed the soul who’s hollow
When we bear the outcast home
Then our light will rent from the darkness
And our healing swiftly come.
Today was an opportunity for me to thank the people of Sharon-Hope United Church. They are a part of the Living Presence Ministry, so they have been a part of tending to souls yearning to figure out what more there is to this beautiful, broken, messy life. They have been a part of quite literally feeding and housing outcasts. And, I’ve been grateful to our Steering Committee, our Region, and our partner congregations that unlike the Pharisees, who knew healing and loving needed to take place, but were keen to keep things safe—to be comfortable—Living Presence has been afforded the opportunity to take some risks; to stretch the boundaries of what outreach and mission can look like. So, I am grateful. Looking around the community when we gather, I can see that the risk is starting to pay off. It’s still not particularly comfortable, but meeting people authentically and passionately rarely is.
And the part of this story which I left out of my talk at Sharon-Hope this morning is that I am now a candidate for Ordered Ministry with the United Church of Canada. Specifically, Diaconal Ministry, which I look forward to talking about in greater detail in a future podcast. It is a stream of ministry dedicated to education, service, social justice and spiritual care. I attend school at the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg, and (knock wood) hope to be Commissioned in May of 2021. I would not say ministry formation has been comfortable. But it has been transformative. And it started in the middle of the night, with a sick baby watching Paw Patrol. It started when I wasn’t looking for it. It started when God placed a call upon my heart.
This is the story of call.
The call of a prophet.
The call of a minister.
The call of of The Church.
There’s been doubt. There’s been hesitation. There’s been angst.
There may be plucking. There may be pulling and there may even be some destruction. But for our church communities to live and breathe their purpose, we need to let go of the idea that things should be comfortable.
I am trying to let go of the idea that things should be comfortable.
However, though we may not be comfortable, we are also not alone…
“Do not be afraid.” says God. For I am with you.”
May it be so.