Some of the best moments of my career in ministry have been the least expected, right from the start. In seminary one day, I was sitting in my polity class—where they teach you about the theology and rules of working in the United Church of Christ—and the Conference Minister comes walking in. “Well now, that’s interesting,” I thought. “He doesn’t have time to just show up at random. What does he want?” Sure enough, he was looking to see if anyone was interested in applying for a position covering for a pastor on sabbatical. I needed a summer job, so I said sure, I’d be interested. Now, mind you, this was at a time when I was still intending to go on for doctorate and teach, rather than become a pastor. But I got the job, and when I sat down behind the desk my first day, I thought, “This just feels right.” And there I go, sucked into ministry.
Later, when we lived in Pennsylvania, I had some trouble finding a new position in ministry. So I was working in an office and doing pulpit supply, trying to preach as often as I could. One day, I got a phone call from the president of a congregation I’d visited months before, some 80 miles from us. Their yoke with another congregation had fallen through, and though they couldn’t afford to hire a minister, they were determined to continue. What would I think about doing a long-term supply for them?
It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. This was the church I like to talk about being way up in coal country, in the mountains of northeast Pennsylvania,1 where the breezes blew, trout streams ran down the hills, and because there were so many Greeks and Eastern Europeans in the area, onion-domed churches dotted the landscape. It was near Centralia, where the coal fire has burned underground for decades, which we visited. There were only a dozen people in church on a good day, maybe 20 on Easter, and they were so grateful to have any kind of pastor at all. When we left, I took them all out to lunch at a local diner. Tried to, anyway. They didn’t want to let me pick up the bill.
More recently, I was again out of work for a while. In fact, this is when I attended Moraine Park. I fully expected to go into web development full-time and be done with pastoral ministry. But then I got a phone call from Wes K., whom a few of you have met. The pastor of his church in Oshkosh was departing, and they were in need of an interim. Would I come talk to them? I did, and felt like my ministry with them began even in the interview, as I explained to them the steps they would need to take to call a new minister, and the developmental work they would need to do. You know how well I love that endlessly kind and sweet congregation. It was another high point in my career to serve there.
What all of these experiences share, in addition to their surprise, was the irresistible nature of the call. God wanted me, and I didn’t hesitate to say “yes.” I didn’t look back for a moment. No regrets then, none now.
Of course not all good things happen by surprise. Ask just about anyone who’s had a baby. Some things you wait on and nurture into existence, like our own relationship.
But when God calls, you must answer. When Jesus visits a village of Samaritans, there is the possibility that they might receive his gift of grace and mercy, as he is apparently willing to give to anyway, Jew or Gentile. But the difference between Jews and Samaritans is that Samaritans don’t recognize Jerusalem at the site of the only and holy temple of God. They reject Jesus because he is determined to go there to preach, heal, and liberate the people. So this village is dismissed as faithless, and Jesus moves on.
Still, he has no time for revenge or fighting with the people he has left behind. The disciples want to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans, but he “rebukes” them. It’s a distraction, just keep moving on to the next town. Perhaps they’ll understand us better.
Luke tells us Jesus has the same message for other would-be followers.1 One guy promises to follow, but Jesus reminds him in some of the Bible’s most beautiful language that there is no money in ministry:
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
If Jesus ever owned a home, he gave it up for his ministry, and survived on the generosity of others. If you want to answer God’s call, you can’t let poverty distract you.
Another wants to bury his father, one of the most important social obligations of that day, but Jesus turns him away, saying “Let the dead bury their own.” Family can’t hold you back from the work to which God calls you.
Even a man who wants to say goodbye to his family before he falls in behind Jesus is rejected. Don’t look back, keep your hands on that plough, boy. Do you suppose Jesus went to say farewell to Mary before he left to become a wandering preacher and healer? Perhaps that’s why she grabs his brothers and goes looking for him at the start of his ministry.
And what about you? What phone calls with a nervous, hopeful voice on the other end of the line have you not returned? When have you let yourself be distracted from your calling by anger, concern over money, family obligation, even simply a desire to linger, to take one last look behind you before you move on?
An early name for the Christian movement, as you may have heard, was “The Way,” as in a road, or a path. Jesus calls us to get on the way, and to go as far down it as we can. There are many obstacles along the way, some from outside forces, and some blockages that we put there ourselves. But there is no greater satisfaction than doing what we know to be right, even if it does come at significant cost to ourselves. Those who are determined climb the obstacles and keep moving.
God will not judge those who can’t give up on their desire to set things right, those who are thwarted by financial anxiety or family obligations. Though there is no excuse for allowing ourselves to be stopped from answering Jesus’ call by these things unnecessarily, we all have to make our own decisions about what we can and cannot do. There’s a reason I’m not a missionary in a third-world nation. The point is that God is calling, always calling, always filling us with the Holy Spirit to let us know of the joy of setting our faces on Jerusalem and falling in behind Jesus on The Way. No matter how far we go, we are always invited to take just a few steps more. Do what is right, and keep moving. Amen.