"Of Credits and Debits"

Message preached July 9, 2000
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon 2 Corinthians 11:16 - 12:10

It was a clear day. The sun poured in through the windows, but in such a way that there were no shadows. The couch was comfortable, there in the parlor of the Bridgewater Church of the Brethren. I ran my hand along the grain of the fabric, steadying my insides by the calm of its surface. This was no grand inquisition. It was only a meeting of church people from both that congregation and from the district, to talk about my perceived call to ministry.

Seated around me were four people, three of whom I knew and respected - looking up to them almost to the point of being intimidated by them. They were all quite kind, not trying to come on strong. And I, within weeks of receiving my college diploma, I knew all the answers to their questions, betraying the grand (but illusory) sense of intelligence one has in his senior year.

It was far from a formality, but we all knew that I would be serving a church for the summer, and such a function is an appropriate reason for being licensed to the ministry, the first step (in our denomination) toward ordination. The discussion went well until we reached the clincher question: "How would you describe your call to ministry?"

Suddenly the room didnít seem so bright anymore. I became aware of the shadows I had not earlier noticed. I had known this question would come up, and had wrestled with it more than any other. I was aware of the many gray areas, shadows, if you will, that such a question implies. The words of uncertainty came out. After all, I had received no great vision or sign from God. Then, again, such signs can be confusing. Perhaps youíve heard this story.

A Dunker farmer was out in his field, working away one day, when he happened to look up in the sky. There he noticed that the clouds formed, as plain as day, the letters "P C." Sensing an epiphany, he heard God calling him to "Preach Christ." After much preparation, he finally found himself in a pulpit. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he tried, as a preacher he was terrible. With his tail between his legs, he went back to the farm, and out to his field, praying his heart out to God. "Why did you call me to preach Christ and not give me the ability to do so?" he lamented. And God replied, "My child, I didn't tell you to ĎPreach Christ,í but to ĎPlant Corn.í"

How do you describe a "call" to ministry? This is not a significant question only for persons like myself, whose ministry fits into that broad category titled "Pastor." No, we each are called to some kind of ministry, those of us who have said our "yes" to Jesus Christ, and stepped into the waters of baptism. But how does one get a handle on such a "call" from God, even if the calling is given the title: "deacon," or "administrator" (as in serving on the church board), or "teacher," or "healer," or "miracle worker" (which is sometimes mistakenly confused with "pastor"), or... well, you name it?

To receive a call to ministry is to be aware of something that gives authenticity to a way of life, that gives authority to who we are and what we do, that gives value to a direction we have chosen to follow. Such a call - authentic, authoritative, valid as it may be - needs to be tested, doesnít it? In order for it to be valid, any hypothesis needs to be tested, the factors need to be weighed, both pros and cons - credits and debits, if you will.

When the credits outnumber the debits, then there is a higher degree of certainty that the hypothesis is correct, that the sense of calling is on target, that ministry is valid. Just look at the results when the balance sheet is tabulated. Thatís what my college training as a social scientist told me, not that much different from what someone in business would say. Pros or cons, credits or debits - what is it that validates what we think we are called to do by Christ?

Can I use myself as an example - my "calling" to pastoral ministry in the Church of the Brethren? After all, the apostle Paul did the same thing in this morningís scripture lesson. He was trying to help those folks in Corinth to see the bigger picture, a panorama which included them, and not just him. Me, too!

Does our "calling" from God have to do with the circumstances of our birth? If that is the case, at least for myself and being a pastor among the Brethren - I was raised a Baptist...a debit. Iím not of German background...a debit? I wasnít a preacherís kid (is that a credit or a debit?). I wasnít born in the Brethren heartland (Lancaster Co. etc.)...a debit, but I have lived there some...a credit. Iím a male... still very much a credit, whether we like it or not. Insert your own credits or debits. For instance, someone may feel it a debit that they arenít related to anyone in this congregation. Then, again, that may be more of a credit than a debit - depends on how you look at it.

If birthright is what validates our "call" from God, our ministry, can I (or you) say our calling is valid? To glibly reply, "of course not," may be to ignore that for many people these factors are important. But, in the larger sense, they really arenít, are they?

Does validation have something to do with our abilities? In seminary, I didnít think I was a very good preacher. I envisioned myself out in that field beside the Dunker farmer, hearing God correct my spelling. "Son, it was ĎPlant Corní not ĎPreach Christ.í" That was a somewhat frightening debit for me as I read profiles from churches which said that preaching was the number one thing they wanted in a Pastor.

Of course, there are many other tasks in pastoral (or any other) ministry that require a certain degree of ability. But can we say that our abilities, whatever form our ministry may take, are what validates our "call" from God? Certainly a congregation looks very carefully at abilities when "calling" a pastor - as well as, hopefully, when they call someone to serve as a deacon or a teacher or a board member or... However, ability is ultimately not the deciding factor when it comes to the authenticity of our call, whatever our ministry. Iíve known some very gifted individuals, who turned out to be spiritual fakes. How about you?

Is there something about experience that makes it a better guide in the validation process? Since that day when I first met to talk about being licensed to the ministry I have pastored in seven congregations. Do I then add seven credits to my tally sheet? Would you tally up the ways in which you have served in or beyond this congregation, and then say that this is what validates your "calling" by God?

There is a flip side to this. I confess that I originally preached this message (in a very different form, believe me) as my "senior sermon" in seminary. It grew out of a conversation with another student, as we talked about our recent losses. After my father died, some folks there told me that now I would know how others feel, and that persons who were undergoing similar loss would seek me out because of it. Indeed, as a pastor, I often simply sit with people during the marginal times of their lives. It does help to have experienced your own darkness.

But is such an experience a credit that helps to validate ministry? If so, then divorced persons could score that experience as a credit rather than a debit. And what about those other experiences that seem so important for our personal life of faith? You know - the mountaintop times, when things fit into place, when we can see life in a whole different way - a transforming moment, a rebirth, an experience of deep conviction, of being "caught up to the third heaven ... into paradise" as the apostle Paul described his own revelation (2 Corinthians 11:2, 4).

Do such experiences validate our calling by God? Do you find it more difficult to say "no?" Certainly, such experiences help to form who we are. They are part of our ongoing conversion as disciples of Jesus Christ. But, ultimately, these do not validate our "calling," they donít authenticate our ministry, no matter what that ministry is.

Experience, ability, birthright... all are creditable factors. They open a door to ministry, perhaps, or help shape the form such a ministry takes. But they do not validate it, authenticate it, they do not give it power in a world that thrives on power, yet is at the same time starved for it.

This is indeed a foolish account of credits and debits. Itís a mean trick, I know, to pose a question and later reveal that the question itself is misleading, which is precisely what Iím going to do. I think itís appropriate to do so, though, for the question itself really sticks to us at a gut level. Think about the bread and the cup of Christ, which we soon will share together. Before coming to the Lordís table, we are asked to examine ourselves and see if we are worthy to come. Whatís the honest answer, folks? No. But for the grace and the gracious hospitality of God, none of us is worthy. Not one! But still, Jesus - who died to make a place for us at the table - says "come!"

The world lives by credits and debits but, as the apostle Paul wrote, that is sheer foolishness! If anything, the power of Godís call upon each one of us, the power of ministry (no matter what form it takes), Godís power in Jesus Christ often operates out of the debit side of the question. Itís not so much that we reverse the tally sheet and say that in actuality the debits are really credits, and the credits are really debits, and that therefore debits give value and power to a life of ministry. This is also foolish. It is not weakness that gives value and power.

In weakness, however, there is an opening up that can occur, if we allow ourselves to release our need to control, to have power, to be validated, to have authority. Can we admit that there really is absolutely nothing that validates our calling? It is, really, a matter of faith and, as it says in the book of Hebrews, "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (11:1) Only in releasing that which we hold tightly, can we perceive and receive the power of Christ for whatever we believe God is calling us to do or be. "My grace is sufficient for you," says the Lord, "for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9a)

©2000 Peter L. Haynes

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