Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, "Wise Up"

Sermon 8/16/09, Ephesians 5:15-20

Wise Up

Some of you may know that one of my responsibilities for the extended-church – the church-beyond-the-local-church, is my role as Conference Youth Coordinator for the youth in the North Central New York Conference of the United Methodist Church. I oversee the youth programming for 7th-12th graders on the conference level. This past week, I spent some time planning for one of our upcoming events: A small group of young clergy will be leading interested youth and young adults to an event in Texas in November called Exploration. Exploration is an event for young United Methodists who are considering whether or not they are being called into ordained ministry. It’s an event to help them figure out, or at least dig deeper into the question of how God is calling them. It’s an event I went to twice myself – when I was in high-school, and then college – and it was so exciting for me to see hundreds of other young people thinking about becoming pastors.

The event, Exploration, is all about discernment. Discernment, in regular use, means being able to figure out, to comprehend, understand, something that seems obscure. And in a theological sense, it means essential the same thing – to discern is to figure out what God’s will for our lives is, something that sometimes seems obscure and hard to grasp, certainly! Discernment is the process of figuring out what God is calling you to do. It isn’t always easy to talk about what gifts and talents we think we have, but I can tell you that I think discernment is one of my gifts, and one of my passions. I love being able to help someone figure out how God is calling them, love helping a person see where God is leading them. I’ve certainly had to decode God’s call on my own life, and I love seeing God’s plan unfold in the lives of others. I have a passion for working with young people, as you know, but one of the main reasons I love working with youth so much is because I so enjoy being there at a time of life when they are doing so major discerning. I don’t believe God ever stops calling us – God has a call for each one of us in this room, right now! But I think young people, because of all the changes going on in their lives in such a short time, tend to be more open for listening to God’s call, more open to believing God has a purpose that they can fulfill if they choose to follow.

Today in our Old Testament lesson, we find some words about discernment. After some weeks of following King David, this week we hear of David’s death, after 40 years as King of Israel. He is succeeded by his son, Solomon. We read that Solomon “loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David,” and that Solomon was devout in offering sacrifice and praise to God. During one such sacrifice, God speaks to Solomon, saying, “Ask what I should give you.” In other words, what blessings do you want from me? Solomon responds that he knows God showed steadfast love to his father David because of David’s faith. And Solomon says he is like a little child, not knowing “how to go out of come in,” and that he has been chosen as God’s servant to govern many people. So Solomon asks for “an understanding mind to govern [God’s] people,” and the ability “to discern between good and evil.” God is very pleased with Solomon’s request, and because Solomon asked for this, the gift of wisdom and discernment, and not riches or victory over enemies, God will grant him wisdom and discernment, as well as riches and honor and long life, as long as Solomon walks in God’s ways.

When we think of Solomon in the scriptures, if we know anything about him, we’re likely to think about him as someone with wisdom – “the wisdom of Solomon” is famous – he’s known for being just and fair and knowing what is right in difficult situations. But I believe that more particularly, what Solomon asks for and receives in this passage is not just the gift of wisdom – not just knowledge, or good use of that knowledge – but Solomon actually asks for and is given the gift of discernment. He’s given the ability to understand situations, to discern between good and evil, and to know what God would have him to in a given situation. Solomon gets the gift of discernment, and I think his wisdom comes from knowing to ask for such a powerful gift.

I hope discernment is something I can teach you and help you to seek after as Solomon did. I told you that I see discernment as one of my gifts – it’s a gift from God, but I believe that it’s also a gift God shared with me through my mother. All my life, my mother instilled in me and my siblings a sense that God calls each one of us. We might have to figure out what God was calling us to do, she said, but she made it clear that God would call each of us, have something in store for each one of us, if we would follow. So I grew up believing, confidently, with certainly, that God would call me. I searched for God’s call on my life, listened for it, and tried to prepare for it. My search led me to consider camping ministry and youth ministry before I found my spot in pastoral ministry, and it led me to different work experiences and educational plans before I made it to seminary and then my first congregational appointment. But never in the process, even when I wasn’t sure of the details, did I consider that I might not be called by God to do something.

It wasn’t until I was an adult and leading a congregation of my own and trying to help people hear God’s call in their lives that I realized that not everyone grows up with the same understanding about being called that I was raised with! Many people, too many, it seems, really don’t feel that God has called them, or don’t even believe that God will call them, to anything in particular. Maybe when we talk about being called by God, we tend to think of it too exclusively as something that it meant only for calls into pastoral ministry. But if that’s our understanding, we need to broaden it. God calls us to be disciples – and that’s a call that is extended to each one of us. And because we are unique, individual, each one different – God’s call to us is unique too. What is it that you are called to do?

Frederick Buechner , a theologian with a great sense of humor, has written about God’s call in a way that I like. He says: [Vocation] comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing cigarette ads, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren't helping your patients much either . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. (1)

So where does your deep gladness meet with the world’s hunger? The process of figuring out that answer – well, that’s discernment. And it’s my passion. And it’s my plan, my intention while I am here with you to help you understand first, that God is calling you, and then, how God is calling you, and of course, how to actually answer that call.

So what are you called to do? What is God asking of you? What has God got planned for you, if you are ready to follow? If you don’t know how to answer those questions, I suggest that first, like Solomon did, you pray for God to give you an understanding heart and mind. And second, I suggest that if you happen to know someone who has the gift of discernment, that you talk with that person if you’re struggling to hear God’s call, and listen for what they see in you, how they see God moving in your life. You should pay attention when someone points out your strengths and talents and wonders if you’ve ever thought about doing such and such thing – God speaks through us – and I had a number of people encourage me right into God’s call for me. And finally, if you have the gift of discernment, or if you think you can see God’s plan for someone else, I urge to speak up. You might be the voice of God’s call for someone else – God can use you to encourage someone who can’t quite understand where God is leading them.

God is calling. Let’s wise up, and figure out what God is trying to tell us. Amen.

(1) Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking.

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