Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sermon: The Best Call Story is Yours

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Twice a year I and a great team of others from around the state lead a two day seminar for people who are considering going into professional ministry. It is the first step of a journey toward becoming a pastor. One of the important parts of that seminar is sharing stories of call – kind of like Samuel’s. We bring in pastors from around the state who share how they felt God’s call.

When we use the phrase God’s call, what we mean by that is how they struggled to know what God wanted them to do with their lives. How did they know that God was leading them into pastoral ministry? What had God done to draw them or to push them that direction?

The story of Samuel is a perfect example of a call from God. But most people’s stories are more complex than this one. Usually they don’t hear a voice in the night, but there is clearly a leading from God and the involvement of other important people. So I invite pastors from around the state to share their call stories with these people who are considering ministry. The idea is that by hearing how other people knew and understood God’s leading, it might help these new folks who are trying to figure out God’s call in their lives.

So for example, during these presentations I might tell how I ended up in pastoral ministry.

My grandmother was one of the most amazing women that I have ever known. She had 8 kids, and she prepared every one of them to be very successful. One of her dreams was that one of her children would be a pastor, but that dream did not come true. My dad thought about it, he met with the supervising committee to talk with them about it, took a some classes in preparation, but the meeting didn’t go well, and he didn’t do very well in the classes, so he went into engineering. My dad had told me all of this as I was growing up – so perhaps God was planting a seed early on. My grandmother died my freshman year of college.

That was a very difficult time for me, I had a lot of suicidal thoughts. But across the hall from me lived a wonderful friend, and he invited me to become involved in a Christian group on campus. It was a great place of friendship and fellowship, and it taught me just how deeply God loved me, even if I didn’t deserve it. Through that group during the summer between my sophomore and junior year I went to a three week leadership camp, where I learned an incredible amount, but I also had a moment during one of our meetings where I knew that God wanted me to be a pastor, so I said to God, “Yes, I will do that.”

About an hour later I changed my mind, I remember praying, “God, I don’t think I need to be a pastor, I can serve you just as well as a teacher or a professor.” You see, I planned to get a doctorate in English Literature and work at a university. So I followed my plan. In my senior year in college I sent out applications to all sorts of graduate schools to pursue my doctorate in English Literature. I even got a full ride offer.

Before going to graduate school I decided to take a year off and earn some money to pay for this further schooling. And that is where the weird started to happen. The school that had offered me a full-ride lost my application, and the opportunity vanished. I sent out other applications and was not accepted at any of the other schools. I began to wonder what was happening while I remembered in the back of my mind that commitment at camp.

So again I prayed, “God just to humor you, I will send out one seminary application. Just one. And we’ll see what happens.” What happened was that as soon as they received it, they personally called me, and asked me to come and visit. I did, and before I knew what was really happening I was enrolled and attending United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH.

During my second year of seminary, I started working at a church for the first time, and I knew that this was what God wanted me to do, and it was what I needed to do. And my grandmother’s dream was fulfilled, and from heaven I know she was proud of me. That’s my call story.

So during this seminar that I lead, we have the attenders gather in small groups and share how they got to this point. What is it in their lives that has made them think God is calling them to a professional ministry?

They share, like I shared. It is a deeply personal and powerful time of reflection. There is laughter and tears. What I’ve learned from this is that although Samuel’s call story is pretty amazing – the best call story is yours.

I mean, it is pretty cool that God calls Samuel in the night four times, that Samuel actually hears the voice of God, that Samuel mistakes the voice of God for that of his master. And it is a little creepy and frightening that his first job is to tell his master, Eli, that God is angry with his family and will punish him, so that their family will no longer be priests in the temple. From that moment Samuel is a prophet of God, bringing messages of hope and messages of condemnation. That is a cool call story.

But yours is still better. Because your call story is the one that God has for your life. Sharing that story is more powerful than sharing Samuel’s because it is real to you – you have lived it.

Now, I know that not everyone is called to professional ministry. But everyone is called. That calling may be to be the best Christian business executive you can be, it might be to be the teacher that demonstrates God’s love to the kids, it might be to help serve at every potluck the church has, it might be to volunteer at RAM, it might be speak a prophetic word to leadership; but we are all called by God, every day. Sometimes it is easy to hear that call (like a voice calling to Samuel) – and other times it can be very hard to tell if God is speaking to us or not (like mistaking that voice for the voice of the master). Sometimes we accept that call (like saying “God, I will do that”), sometimes we refuse it (like saying “God, I don’t think I need to be a pastor”). But you are called whether you hear it easily or not, whether you accept it or not.

Think about that for a moment, how did you get to where you are? Where has God led you? When have you felt God nudging you?

Perhaps you had not thought of this before. Perhaps God is calling you someplace new today – and you are fighting it like I did. But you are called. And it may be time for you to answer, “Here I am, Lord, Speak for your servant is listening.”

Or perhaps your call has developed over your life, and the path has taken you many places you never would have guessed, through valleys, over mountaintops, and God still has plans for you.

Or perhaps you have a clear moment in your past like Samuel’s, or like mine where you knew what God was leading your toward, and you can say, this is the day it happened.

Whatever the case, I recommend that you spend some time thinking about your call story, about where God has led you, and how God has been involved in your life, because it is in sharing this story that you will touch other people’s lives. I mean, you can share Samuel’s story, but it is just a story in a book. But if you share your story, with your passion, with your heart, with your flesh and blood presence in front of another person – that has power. It is a witness to God’s activity in your life. And it will bring laughter and tears.

So as much as I love Samuel’s story, the one I hope that you leave church today with, is yours. Think about putting it into words. Who in your past helped you to know what God wants you to do with your life? How did God your attention? What roadblocks and opportunities have cropped up along the way? Where has God spoken to you, and how have you responded? When did you realize (or maybe you haven’t yet) that you were on the right path?

Oh, and remember that your story is not done yet. God is still calling you. There may be something new tomorrow that God calls you to. Never put “The End” on your call story, until God brings you into the eternal home in heaven, because until that day, God still may have more surprises in store for you!

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