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THE CALL TO MINISTRY

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Pastor to Congregation (in a cartoon): 'Brothers and sisters, years ago the Lord Jesus called me to be your pastor... And now I feel like the Lord Jesus is calling me elsewhere...' Choir, spontaneously: 'What a friend we have in Jesus!'

It's St.Patrick's Day, 17th March, 2001 - the anniversary of the death (about 460 AD) of one of the greatest Christians who ever lived.

Patrick was a man of prayer, saturated in the Scriptures, possessing incredible faith and evangelistic energy, and above all a deep love for God. For thirty years he tramped the roads and forded the rivers of Ireland to see men and women 'reborn in God' and come to know the Christ he loved so much. An amazingly effective missionary, he baptized tens of thousands of people and established hundreds of churches throughout that green land. Within a century this once pagan country became predominately Christian.

You've all read Angela's Ashes or seen the movie and of course the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is very different from the churches Patrick planted. But you can say that for every church over time - even the churches of your own denomination. I'm a Baptist - and our Anabaptist forbears would be astonished at some of the goings-on in Baptist Churches around the world today!

'We ought to fish well and diligently, as our Lord exhorts,' Patrick wrote. 'Hence, we spread our nets so that a great multitude might be caught for God.' So let's hear one of St. Patrick's favorite stories:

'When Jesus had finished speaking to the crowds, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.' (Luke 5:4-11)

Here we have three discouraged men - four if you count Andrew, Simon Peter's brother who appears in other accounts of this - or a similar - story. They were fishermen - not recreational fishermen, but workers whose families went hungry if there was no catch.

It was a very bad day. They had fished all night and caught nothing. Now it was morning, the morning after a night of failure, and they were washing their nets to be ready for the next night's work.

There was a big crowd on the beach, listening to Jesus - pressing in upon him. Jesus is in the water - out a way from the crowd. Then he steps into Simon's boat. 'Put out a little way from shore', he asks Peter, and he does.

From the boat Jesus continues to teach the crowds. Finally he is done. The crowd goes home.

1. JESUS INVITES US ALL TO A LIFE OF RADICAL OBEDIENCE AND COMMITMENT

Jesus then turns to Simon. 'Put out into the deep water', he tells him, 'and let your nets down for a catch.'

It was really quite audacious for this carpenter and 'landsman' to tell a professional fisherman how to do his business. They were 'the experts in the trade' so Peter answers Jesus by explaining some fishing facts to him.

Peter and Andrew, James and John - they were not stupid men. They knew the lake, the ledges where the fish congregated, the kind of weather which brings in a good catch. Their families had been working the lake for generations. They knew the time to fish, and where to fish; they had gone fishing at the right time and at the right place, and come up empty. (I was in a fishing boat on that lake in Galilee last year and they told us that the fish move from the deep water to the shallows during the night...)

'It won't do any good,' he says, 'We have worked all night - and have caught nothing. There is no point to it.'

Have you ever been there? You do your best. You work hard. And the results are zero, zilch! An important relationship goes sour and there is nothing you can do. You watch a marriage dissolve and you can't save it. A project you have labored on just will not work out. People are leaving the church... The harder you try, the less you produce. All your wisdom tells you to just give up.

I have, and the last thing you want to hear are the words 'try harder'.

I can appreciate the sentiments of Alexander. Alexander is the main character in Judith Viorst's children's book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. His story opens with these words: 'I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there's gum in my hair, and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running, and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I think I'll move to Australia. In the car pool Mrs. Gibson let Becky have a seat by the window. Audrey and Elliott got seats by the window, too. I said I was being smushed. I said, "If I don't get a seat by the window, I'm going to be carsick and throw up!" No one answered. I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. And, that's just the way it turned out. That night I told my Mom, "It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day." My mom says some days are like that. Even in Australia.'

They are, believe me!

But these two stories about Peter and fishing - here and the post-Resurrection story in John 21 - are all about making a new beginning after failure.

FAILURE

Failure is making a mistake or error in judgment. But failure is not really about the mistake you made. Failure is based upon how you respond to that mistake. Failure is when you give up on something you've been trying to do and not getting anywhere. Being a teenage or unwed parent does not make you a failure. Failure or success is about how you will now care for that child. Getting hooked on drugs or alcohol doesn't make you a loser. But refusing to get help or treatment will. Your failed marriage is no reflection on your ability to love. Failure is about how you now use that love to reach others. So failure is all about your response to various situations. By the way, I may say 'I have failed' but I must never say 'I am a failure.'

Albert Einstein failed at math before he figured out e=mc2. Michael Jordan had to fail at making his high school basketball team before making the NBA. History is littered with millions of similar examples. It is your response to failure that determines your destiny.

'Master, we have done everything we should have done, but we have caught nothing... We tried our best all night - we tried it and it didn't work.. yet - if you say so - I will let down the nets.'

Why Simon agrees to row out into the deeper water we do not know. Perhaps he was learning to trust Jesus; or perhaps he did it to humor him; perhaps it was because of something in Jesus' tone of voice; perhaps his mother taught him to respect religious teachers. Whatever the reason, Peter agrees to do what Jesus asks of him.

King Amaziah, says the Hebrew chronicler (2 Chronicles 25:2) did what was pleasing to the Lord, but did it reluctantly. Peter too obeyed the Lord, but reluctantly.

You know the rest. They threw the nets out from Simon's boat and engulfed such a great catch that the nets began to break. Indeed they caught so many fish that when John and James came alongside to help, the boats began to sink. They probably caught more fish in that one cast than they in the entire previous month.

These men were used to fishing according to one particular paradigm - at night, near the shore - staying safe there rather than risking the stormy winds that often hit in the middle of that sea.

Sometimes the Lord invite us to do something different, but like Simon Peter we are reluctant to move away from the familiar...

The four last words of the church: 'THAT WON'T WORK HERE!' The seven last words of the church: 'WE'VE NOT DONE IT THAT WAY BEFORE!' Or: 'WEVE TRIED THAT - AND IT DIDN'T WORK!'

These are faithless sayings which deny the truth that Jesus 'makes all things new.' I have a friend whose expertise is counseling the adult survivors of early childhood ritual, Satanic, sexual. physical and/or emotional abuse. She calls her counseling practice 'New Beginnings'. I like that! The motto of our little counseling practice: 'It's never too late to have a happy childhood.'

RISK

The life of faith is a life of risk. That's the message of today's text.

In order to 'mount up on wings as an eagle' we have to leave the comforts of the nest. God is like a mother eagle pushing its young out of the safety of the nest in order to teach it to soar.

I saw this in a couple of places on the Web: 'To laugh is to risk appearing the fool. To weep is to risk appearing sentimental. To reach out for another is to risk involvement. To expose feelings is to risk exposing our true self. To place your ideas, your dreams before the crowd is to risk loss. To love is to risk not being loved in return. To live is to risk dying. To hope is to risk despair. To try at all is to risk failure. But risk we must, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The man, the woman, who risks nothing does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.'

To follow the Lord means to obey him even if the whole thing doesn't make sense.

Many a miracle does not happen because we give up too soon and do not try one more time.

But: will _our_ nets always be filled?

Not necessarily. Remember Jeremiah, a prophet whose experience of 'failure' is not a good model for the Church Growth Movement! We trust the living God and leave the outcomes to him.

In 1981 our family was called from Australia to pastor a church in Canada. We were lovingly farewelled from a wonderful church, sold our home and most of our possessions, and left our two oldest children behind (they have since drifted away from the church). After a few months in Canada we were told by some of the church-leaders that our 'style' wasn't what they wanted. Why, we asked ourselves, did we go all the way across the Pacific - for this? In retrospect we can understand it all better: God had a ministry of encouragement to pastors and their spouses for us to do which would reach around the world, but we needed a dose of discouragement first, to understand the struggles of these special people!

Sometimes taking risks for God will result in loss and pain before we understand the 'why' of it all (and sometimes we don't understand that either!).

How about this: 'Who would ever dream of amputating his own leg? Nobody-- unless that person had lost his mind or was faced with the grim choice of losing either his leg or his life? That was Bill Jeracki's terrible predicament, according to The Denver Post, when he was out fishing alone in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. He was trapped when a boulder fell on his leg, and he was unable to free himself. Knowing that as night came on he might die of exposure, Bill did what he knew he had to do. Relying on his skill as an assistant to a doctor at a Denver hospital, he took a nylon rope out of his tackle box, tied it tightly above his knee, and cut off his leg with his knife. He then dragged himself to his car and drove 10 miles to the nearest town. He not only survived the trauma, but with an artificial limb he is out fishing again. What a decision--your leg or your life! But what if the stakes were even higher? 'What profit is it if you gain the whole world, and lose your own soul?' (Matthew 16:26). [ Our Daily Bread, January 12, 1995].

Everything in the life of faith begins with encountering the living God, and surrendering to his will for us, whatever the cost and whatever the outcome.

2. JESUS CALLS US TO AN ATTITUDE OF CONFESSION AND SURRENDER

Simon was afraid, for he knew that compared to this teacher sent from God he was a wretched sinner not worthy to be in the same boat. He fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.' Jesus said to Simon, 'Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be fishing for people.'

Part of every authentic 'call to ministry' is the 'Who, Me?' component. 'I am not capable (Moses), worthy (John the Baptist), I am not clean (Isaiah)' - you might like to continue the list...

This is the penitential part of the process. We recognize that without Christ we can do nothing (actually, these disciples never caught a single fish in the gospel accounts without the help of Jesus!); without his empowering we are nothing.

These days (in my 60s), when my sins are more of a horror to me than they used to be (and knowing less than I used to know!) I find myself praying the Jesus Prayer prayer over and over again: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Have mercy on me a sinner.'

Simon Peter walked away from this incident a different man. His life would never be the same.

Confession of sin, and receiving 'absolution' is an important component of individual and corporate worship. It amazes me that many of the so-called 'Free' churches can go many Sundays without a call to confess and be forgiven!

3. JESUS CALLS US INTO A LIFE OF DISCIPLESHIP - BEING WITH HIM.

The disciples left everything, and followed Jesus (verse 11). They left the greatest catch they had seen in their lives, a fisherman's dream. What a great 'fish story' it would make! They walked away from it all, all that success! They renounced everything else to obey the call of the Master.

Discipleship is about commitment!

In the words of President Roosevelt, 'No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his body, to risk his well-being, to risk his life for a great cause.'

A South African missionary society wrote to David Livingstone, 'Have you found a good road to where you are? We want to know how to send some men to join you.' Livingstone wrote back: 'If you have men who will come only if they know there is a good road, I don't want them. I want men who will come if there is no road.'

An Episcopal pastor was having a cup of coffee in the restaurant across the street from the church. He was reading his paper when the fellow next to him noticed his clerical garb and asked what church he was with. He pointed across the street to the Episcopal Church and the fellow said 'Why that's the church I go to myself.' At this the pastor perked up and said 'That's strange. I've been preaching there for five years and I don't believe I've ever seen you.' The man responded, 'Come on now, preacher. I didn't say I was a fanatic.'

Suddenly there is nothing more important to Peter than Jesus. Jesus now is the number one priority in his life. He walked away from secure job and everything and everyone he knew and loved. He left everything to follow Jesus.

The bottom-line was stated well by Jim Elliot: 'He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.'

'CALL' AND MINISTRY

God calls us to serve in our work - that's our Divine vocation, ministry. Sometimes God calls someone to leave their so-called secular vocation and be a pastor or cross-cultural missionary.

Sometimes a 'call' will come when we are really discouraged in our work; sometimes when we are successful. Christian wisdom says that usually a 'restlessness' will precede a call to another ministry, but escaping, running away from a tough job to enter pastoral ministry does not augur well for a ministry-future.. Have you heard of the black cotton-picker in the American South who was very tired one scorching day. He looked up to the heavens and said 'O Lord, de sun am so hot, de work am so hard, de cotton am so grassy dat I believe you callin' me to be a preacher!'

The key to all this is commitment in our current vocation until God calls us out of it. When I was a boy my father used to quote the text , 'Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.' Any vocation is sacred if you're called to it by God. Martin Luther understood this when he wrote, 'The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays -- not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.'

Further, our 'vocation' begins with our families. A first grader became curious because her father brought home a briefcase full of papers every evening. Her mother explained, 'Daddy has so much to do that he can't finish it all at the office. That's why he has to bring work home at night.' 'Well,' asked the child innocently, 'why don't they put him in a slower group?'

For pastors, too, 'ministry' begins inside your front door to your spouse and family. Our 14-year-old son Paul said to me: 'Dad, you love the church more than you love the family, don't you?' 'Why do you say that?' I asked lamely. 'Well,' he said, 'if someone phones or comes to the front door with a problem we may not see you for the rest of the night - even on "family nights". But if they've made an appointment to see you in your study, we can't interrupt you. So the church can interrupt the family but the family can't interrupt the church: so the church must be more important than the family!' (In logic, that's called a syllogism: this and this therefore that). Anyone out there got a smart response?

4. JESUS SENDS US INTO THE WORLD TO BE EVANGELISTS.

As many commentators say, here's a story about the birth of the church. From this point on Peter and the disciples will begin a new life, taking in not fish but humans. Peter is now called, not to catch live fish so that they will die; but to catch people so that they will live! The catch would be enormous, universal in its scope, but not universal in its results, not accepted by everyone. There will be both success and failure.

Who are called to be 'soul-winners'? Every follower of Jesus!

Some are called by God to the ministries of 'Word, Sacrament, Pastoral Care and Leadership' to equip others for their ministries (Ephesians 4:12).

But, again, every vocation of every Christian is a 'calling'.

Before many church services a good deacon will pray, 'Lord help us to leave our weekday activities, our concerns and worries behind us as we come now to worship you.' Rather, I'd like to suggest you bring those activities and worries and concerns. Jesus the Lord is involved in our everyday lives. In the Lord's Prayer is the petition, 'Give us this day our daily bread.'

VOCATION

Finally some classical Christian wisdom on the topic of vocation:

  • 'Your motives are mixed. So are mine, for I shall not know this side of death why I became a preacher; and I have no right to assume that all that moved me in the choice was of angel brightness. Sometimes we see how incredibly raveled are even our best desires.' (George Buttrick, Sermons Preached in a University Church, Abingdon, 1959, p. 109).

  • Traditionally, an 'inner' call was dominant when one entered monastic life; but the call to the presbyterate/pastorate needed an 'inner' call confirmed by the church. God always calls people to leadership in the community of Jesus Christ through the community. Calvin taught that there is a 'two-fold' call to pastoral ministry: God calls, but the church must also call. Wesley distinguished between an 'inner' and 'outer' call.

  • The call to 'ministry' is a subset of the call to be a child of the living God. The New Testament talks about the 'high calling of God in Christ Jesus' (Philippians 3:14); it is a 'holy calling' (2 Timothy 1:9); and a 'heavenly calling' (Hebrews 3:1).

  • Sometimes people wear rose-coloured spectacles when considering a call to pastoral ministry / full-time evangelism / cross-cultural missionary work. Those people are considered fortunate, because they have lots of time to sit around and meditate, without being bothered by the hassles of ordinary living. A mother-of-nine told the evangelist Gypsy Smith that she believed God was calling her to be an evangelist like him. 'Isn't that wonderful!' he responded. 'God has not only called you; he's already provided you with a congregation!' Jesus said to Peter: 'Follow me (leave your home)'. To the Gadarene demoniac (Luke 8:26-39): 'Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.'

  • [From a Catholic pamphlet written for Vocations Sunday]. Six 'vocation indicators' - Faith (words and actions that indicate a deep-down commitment to Christ and his Church); Idealism (often expressed through initiatives which promote peace, justice, and strive for a better world); A Search for Greater Meaning (eg. an authentic questioning of current lifestyle); A 'People Person' (either extroverted, or a quieter 'one-to-one' personality); Leadership (ability to draw others to oneself, make decisions and take initiatives); Strength of Character (integrity and a sense of responsibility for one's own actions and decisions).

  • God may have to call you more than once before God gets your attention. God had to call Samuel three times before he got the message.

    DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

    1. Some people - pastors and others - hear a 'call to ministry' in a dramatic way. They have a 'Damascus Road' experience as Paul did or a 'Burning Bush' encounter with God like Moses had. Others commit their lives to following Jesus after a miracle like Peter's. For still others, the call creeps up on them. Does it matter?

    2. Talk about the idea of 'vocation' as any calling to follow God - whether as pastor, homemaker, secretary, teacher, whatever. Why has the Church always seemed to put one 'calling' - the pastoral vocation - higher than others?

    3. 'All Christians are ministers. Some ministers are pastors. Therefore we should never use the word "minister" in the singular as if there's only one kind of ministry.' Do you agree? (If you do, why do most churches persist with this habit?).

    4. About confession: here there are two opposite errors - finding sins where they don't exist ('scrupulosity') and ignoring sins that are serious ('antinomianism'). Can you think of some examples? How can we avoid these extremes?

    5. In another study we will examine the four basic purposes of any church - worship, formation, community, mission. Did you note this four-fold pattern in this story? (Worship is essentially the offering of our lives - our work, our words, our relationships, whatever - to God so that we can be a blessing to others. Formation is the process whereby the Word of God applied by the Spirit of God in our hearts and minds helps us become more like the Son of God. Community is the relationship between persons where spiritual gifts meet human needs. Mission is doing in our world what Jesus did in his - ministries of justice, mercy, and calling people to faith).

    6. Jesus, a carpenter, taught those fishermen something about their trade. We sometimes feel that nobody can tell us about our situation unless they've been where we are. 'Unless you've walked a mile in my shoes, don't tell me anything.' How true is that?

    7. From the John Mark Ministries Retreat Questionnaire: 'For what non-altruistic reasons are you in ministry or doing good?' How can we work on our motives?

    8. Karl Barth, perhaps the twentieth century's greatest Protestant theologian, used to say he was suspicious of any effort to cultivate spiritual expertise, particularly among the clergy. As far as life in the Spirit goes, Barth wrote shortly before his death, we are all beginners, amateurs. What do you make of that?

    9. One of the challenges of the pastoral vocation is that we are 'servants of the church.' One pastor wrote: 'Let me free-lance ministry, give me a degree and tell me I am special, encourage me to tack up a shingle, allow me to set up office hours, call me a professional, teach me some exotic spiritual "gnosis" that makes me holy, but do not hold me accountable to the church. I love Jesus and I want to serve him. But he married beneath his station.' Anyone identify with that?

    10. According to James Dittes, many pastors go into that ministry because they're 'little adults'. The 'little adult' is the child who is classroom monitor when the teacher leaves the room, the school patrol boy or girl, the child who enforces adult values. The 'little adult' may be respected or even admired by other children, but rarely will this child be popular. Dittes' thesis is that 'little adults' are attracted to the pastoral ministry. As pastors they now enforce God's values among wayward adults just as they enforced adult values upon wayward children. Think aloud about that!

    11. 'God called Moses right where he was. No stained glass windows, no Gothic architecture, no mighty organ playing in the background - only God's strong voice from a bush, while he was tending the sheep of his father-in-law.' Tell the stories about your / your spouses' call to ministry.

    12. There was a little man in a cartoon who had just been fitted with a new pair of glasses, and remarked 'I'd like to see things a little less clearly please.' Sometimes God's call is loud and clear, but we are still reluctant. There's a classical response to the question, 'Should I leave this job and enter pastoral ministry?' Response: 'Don't' (unless the call is loud and clear)!

    13. Most people a generation ago felt they were called to pastoral / missionary work for life. Today for most that is not the case. Why?

    14. The old hymn says 'Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling...' Is that how Jesus calls?

    15. In a sermon Luther asked the congregation to look at the most common instruments of their labours and they would hear a call. 'Look at your tools, your needle, your thimble, your beer barrel... your scales, your measures, and you will find this saying written on them... "My dear, use me towards your neighbor as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his".' Share with the group how you have ministered to your neighbours recently...

    PRAYERS OF THANKSGIVING AND INTERCESSION

    Loving God, like Peter and Andrew, and James and John, we sometimes feel discouraged - we work hard at what we do - we care for our boats - we tend our nets - we batten down the hatches when the seas get rough - yet - sometimes our labour seems to be in vain. Help us to not be discouraged - bur rather grant that we might hear your voice and accept your direction and venture forth again in obedience to your word. Guide us to the deep waters where the catch you have for us lies waiting - and strengthen our hands for the work it requires.... Lord hear our prayer...

    A PRAYER

    As you filled the nets of the disciples, O Lord, so we ask you to fill the nets we cast at your direction.
    -- grant that our prayers for healing might be answered...
    -- grant that our work for justice might lead to a more equitable sharing of what this world affords
    -- grant that our words of forgiveness might bring reconciliation
    -- grant that our acts of compassion might satisfy those who are in need and grant that our way of being might prompt others to praise and glorify your name... Lord hear our prayer


    Be not far away, O Lord; you are my strength; hasten to help me. I will declare your name to the people; in the midst of [even this] congregation I will praise you. [Adapted from Psalm 22].


    St. Patrick's 'Breastplate'

    I bind unto myself today
       the strong name of the Trinity,
    by invocation of the same,
       the Three in One and One in Three.
    I bind unto myself today
       the power of God to hold and lead,
    his eye to watch, his might to stay,
       his ear to hearken to my need.

    The wisdom of my God to teach,
       his hand to guide, his shield to ward,
    the word of God to give me speech,
       his heavenly host to be my guard.

    Christ be with me, Christ within me,
       Christ behind me, Christ before me,
    Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
       Christ to comfort and restore me.

    Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
       Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
    Christ in hearts of all that love me,
       Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.


    Written by Rowland Croucher, March 2001.

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