AT A CELEBRATION OF HOLY BAPTISM
An encouraging study was published recently by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The study showed that overall, 77.4 million Americans volunteered 6.9 billion hours of their time in 2017, which is the most recent year when these figures are available. Those volunteer hours are estimated to value $167 billion. The study shows the more than 30% of adult Americans volunteer at least once a year, which is a whopping 6 percent increase over the previous year. More importantly, of this total 32% (the largest group within the overall group of people who volunteered) did so because of their work with religious organizations.
There’s an important distinction, though, that needs to be made here. Because in the church, we don’t call it “volunteering.” In the church, we call it “ministry.” And today’s readings are all about ministry. Whether it’s Elijah calling Elisha to follow as a prophet in his place, or Paul telling the faithful in Galatia to “live by the Spirit” and to go and “love their neighbors as themselves,” or Jesus sending out messengers ahead of him and calling people to follow him as he went along in his life. It’s all about the call to ministry.
And, there’s an interesting thing about calls to ministry. We tend to be more interested in God’s calls to ordained ministries. Whether it’s an Old Testament prophet or a person today called to be a deacon, priest, or bishop, we tend, more often than not, to think first of God’s calls to religious leaders. We expect people called to ordained ministry to have some kind of a supernatural “call” by God to do the work they do.
But calls to ministry are not confined to religious leaders. God calls each of us. God calls doctors and lawyers and teachers. God calls plumbers and homemakers and street cleaners. God even calls parents who feel the movement of the Spirit to have their children baptized into the body of Christ. God calls all of us to ministry in our own way. So, today, I’d like to look at the call to ministry. But in doing so, I specifically do NOT want to focus on the call to ordained ministry. I want to focus on God’s call for each of us to our ministries in the world.
Hearing God’s call to ministry is not something that always comes naturally and easily. But there are things we can do to either heighten our awareness of our call or to help facilitate God’s work in our lives so that we can come to know our call. And these things are equally important for what we do as we raise our children to help them have an awareness of God’s presence so that when God’s call comes to them, they will hear it.
The first thing you can do is work toward truly believing that you can make a difference. Imagine the difference that could be made in this world if we all believed enough in our own importance to make a difference. Interestingly, I find the genesis for this kind of thinking in many eastern religions. The ability to look within one’s self and find God is a practice that many eastern traditions teach as a life-long process and one that is, in fact, the goal of life. The amazing thing is that when people do recognize the God within them, when they recognize that they can make a difference, their lives are changed forever. And with our children, we can bring to their attention the times when THEY make a difference. Nothing is more powerful for a child to hear than the words, “You made a real difference in that moment or in that effort. You!”
There’s a wonderful story from the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul” about the difference we can make in children’s lives this way.
It seems there was a teacher in New York who tried an experiment with her students to see what effect recognition would have on their lives. One by one she recognized each student in her class. She gave each of them 3 blue ribbons that read “Who I Am Makes A Difference.” Their assignment was to give one of those ribbons to someone they admired and to ask that person to then pass on the other two. One of her students took his ribbon to an Executive in a nearby company to honor him for helping the student with his career planning. That Executive then took the two other ribbons to his boss. He gave one of them to his boss, who he wanted to honor for his creative genius. He then asked his boss to pass on the final ribbon. That evening, that Executive arrived home and asked his son to sit down for a minute. He said “Son, the most incredible thing happened to me today. I was in my office and one of my co-workers came in and told me he admired me. Then he gave me this blue ribbon that says “Who I Am Makes A Difference” and gave me an extra ribbon to give to someone I wanted to honor. Well, I want to honor you. My days are hectic and when I come home, I don’t pay a lot of attention to you. Sometimes I scream at you for not getting good enough grades or for your bedroom being a mess, but somehow, tonight, I just wanted to let you know that you do make a difference to me. Besides your mother, you are the most important person in my life. You’re a great kid and I love you.” And with that, the Executive gave the ribbon to his son. The startled boy started to sob. He looked up at his father and told him that for years he had thought of himself as a failure. Afraid that he could never live up to his father’s expectations, he had resigned himself to just being a failure. Those words from his father, however, changed his life.
God calls each of us to make a difference with our lives. We may not be called to stand in the pulpit and preach or to cross an ocean to do missionary work, but we are called to look within ourselves to find the essence of God and then to realize that we can make a difference in our own corner of the world.
The second point then leads from the first. The call to ministry is a call to reach out in love and concern for others.
Once we have discovered the God within, the western Christian tradition then directs us to look outside of ourselves. And this, too, is something that we must teach our children, and which can begin at their baptism. To turn that godliness that we find within, out to the world around us. That’s how we come to an awareness that God cares for us, by experiencing the caring of another person who has been touched by God’s work in their life. This is where the call to ministry as we know it takes shape. It does so when we learn to care for and about others. God calls us to show our care by being kind and loving. God calls you and me to show our care for others in unselfish ways. A call to care is not simplistic. It is simply putting love into action.
You may remember a number of years ago there was a plane crash in Washington D.C.? The plane sat on the runway so long during a snowstorm that ice formed on its wings. When the plane tried to take off, it couldn’t climb or gain any altitude.
It hit one of the twin spans on the 14th Street bridge and crashed through the ice into the freezing waters of the Potomac River.
Well, there is an amazing story from that night that has always stuck with me. Most of the 78 passengers lost their lives in that crash. But, a handful of survivors struggled to the surface and held on to an ice floe. A rescue helicopter was on the scene in a matter of minutes and the pilot and paramedics began trying to rescue survivors. They dropped a rope right into the arms of a middle-aged, baldheaded man. But, instead of tying the rope around himself, he passed it to a woman near him. The chopper lifted her to safety.
Then the chopper flew back to the middle of the freezing river and dropped the rope again. Again, the man passed the rope to his companions and four of them hung on as they were dragged to safety.
When the chopper headed back a third time to rescue the man, who had twice passed the rope to others, he was gone. He had drowned. A paramedic on the helicopter that night said, “I’ll never forget his face as he watched us moving away with the others. He knew that he probably would not be there when we got back and all I could think of were the words of Jesus: ‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends…’ ”
You and I are called to a ministry of caring. We may not find ourselves in a situation like what happened that tragic afternoon in Washington, but we can care about what happens to other people. Individually, we can’t feed all the hungry people in our world, but we can care about those who are hungry in our midst.
Individually, we cannot provide a job for everybody who needs a job, but we can care about those who need one and we can let them know we care. Individually, we can’t support and care for all the children in the world, but we can care about what happens to these two beautiful little children, and we can be there for them, not only today at their baptism, but in the years to come. The call to ministry is not just a call to come to a better awareness of yourself or God’s presence within you, it is also a call to care for others in God’s name.
And finally, there is an aspect to the call to ministry that I think we all should be aware of. And that is that the call to ministry is personal. It is unique for each of us.
A drunk young man had been out one night in the neighborhood bars. When he finally came home, he could hardly stand up. His wife helped him up to bed and he said to her, “Helen, I’m sorry! Would you pray for me?” She bowed her head and prayed, “Dear Lord, I pray for my husband, John, who lies before you drunk.”
“Hey,” John interrupted, “don’t get so personal. You don’t have to tell him I’m drunk. Just tell him I’m sick.”
As much as we’d like to hide some things, God sees us and knows us personally. Just as God sent Elijah to Elisha and called him to be a prophet, just as Jesus called out to some fishermen and invited them to, “Follow me” I believe that God calls you and me in a personal way.
You hear with your own name.
You hear with your own experience.
You hear personally.
This doesn’t mean God stops the whole universe and speaks directly to you. It means the presence of God in Jesus Christ is always calling, and that that call is meant for you. And today, it’s particularly true for the parents of these 2 beautiful children. Because I believe that if you take the time to listen . . . listen in prayer . . . listen in your experiences of service . . . listen when others see it in you and reflect that back. . . if you listen, you will hear it.