Sunday, February 9, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
When I first started discerning a call to ministry, my first instinct was to try to resist it. “No, no, no,” I said; “I’m pretty sure you’ve got the wrong person.” I thought of the people I had observed being pastors and leaders in the church, and it was really intimidating to me to think that I could be one of them. They seemed to have patience and knowledge and wisdom way beyond mine. And they seemed like people of deep and abiding faith, while my faith life, by contrast, often felt like a hot mess (and still does sometimes, if I’m being honest). I was immediately ready to reach for that bushel basket and pull it over myself.
I decided that I needed a LOT more information if I was really going to follow this path. So I started talking with pastors and reading books that pastors had written; I started visiting seminaries and talking with other people who were thinking about ministry. And, in the process, I got to hear a LOT of people’s call stories. So many call stories. I remember I was at a visit weekend at Wartburg, sitting in a room with maybe 30 or 40 other people, all taking turns telling our stories. And after at least half a dozen people compared their call story to Jonah – who you’ll remember ran away from God’s call and got eaten by a fish – after that, I realized that I was far from being the only one trying to hide under a basket.
Jesus is right, though, in telling us not to try to hide our light under a bushel basket. And that was an especially apt warning for the kinds of lamps that would have been used in his day. They didn’t have LED lights like we do, that don’t throw off any heat – they didn’t even have electricity. The lamps Jesus was talking about would have been little pottery vessels that held oil and a wick and were lit with, you know, fire. So what happens when you put a basket over that burning lamp? Things are gonna get HOT. The moral I take from that story is that you can ignore your call… but you can’t do it forever.
A few Sundays back, when we read the story of Jesus calling the fishermen, another Lutheran pastor I’m friends with on facebook wrote a really lovely reflection on call. Part of what she wrote was this:
Your call is the thing that you will gladly pour your whole heart out for, not only because you believe in it, but also because it gives you joy. It’s almost definitely hard, but you want to do it anyway. And you’re good at it.Rev. Lura N. Groen
It might be the thing you do to make money, but maybe not. It might be parenting, or some other relationship. It might be the volunteering you love, or political action, or how you care for your community. You know it makes the world a better place.
Your call likely terrifies you. That’s your body and soul telling you how important it is to do right… [Your call] may terrify you because it’s risky. Calls often are.
Each one of us has a call. We are all called, in our many and varied ways, to share our light, or our saltiness with the world. We are called to use our gifts to give life flavor. This is true of us as individuals in our lives, like what my colleague talked about in her post. I have even heard some of you talk about the deep ways you feel called to shine your light in the world: through sharing your faith, through teaching others, through crafting, through volunteering and service, through raising your kids, and through so many other ways. And as a church, we are also called into the world collectively to let our light shine – we are called to witness and serve in the name of Christ, like our mission statement says. We are called to be that city on the hill Jesus talks about that cannot be hidden – that city that shines light into the world.
And that can be a little nerve-wracking – even scary. That level of visibility opens us up to the scrutiny of others – to their judgment – and it often opens us up at a place where we are sensitive and vulnerable. I remember the mix of excitement and deep anxiety I felt when I first started sharing with other people that I was feeling called to ministry – and I actually remember feeling most nervous about sharing it with other churchy type people. The responsibility of living out our call holds us up to a higher standard of behavior, and that’s intimidating. It brings us closer to living as God would have us live.
And especially as the church, I think it can be deeply worrying to try to live out our call. Especially from a pragmatic, financial standpoint – ministry isn’t a big money-maker, and we wonder how we’ll let our light shine when we’re worried about how to afford keeping the lights on. In truth, being the salt of the earth, letting our light shine, is a very risky endeavor.
Because that’s the thing about salt and light. When you light up an oil lamp, or put salt on your food, what happens to it? It gets consumed. It gets eaten, burned up. There is a cost to following this path. I moved three times in four years, left friends and communities I cared about, and went tens of thousands of dollars into debt following my call into ministry. And I don’t need to tell you all the cost of keeping our ministry here together going. And so it’s easy to be tempted to do what we can to keep our salt in its shaker, to keep our lamps to ourselves and only light them when it’s absolutely necessary.
But in doing this, we would be missing a pretty major point. And that is that it’s not really our light or our salt. Our light and our saltiness, our call, are gifts to us from God. We are keepers, stewards, of what God has given us. And it’s really only when we allow the oil in our little lamps to burn, when we let our salt be shaken out, that we begin to discover just how truly generous God is with us. I speak from experience. God richly gives us all we need; and the more that we trust that this is so, the more we will see for ourselves that it is. The call we receive comes from God – and God will find a way to keep our lamps burning, if we have the courage to let them shine.
Because at the end of the day, letting our light shine is not about us. It’s about God. It’s about what God is up to in the world. When we are fully and truly living out our call, we point to something beyond ourselves; we shine light on God’s work in the world around us. And it makes sense if you think about how we actually use light and salt. You don’t turn on a lamp and stare directly into the light – you turn on a lamp in order to illuminate something else. And you would never just eat a meal of salt on its own – at least I hope you wouldn’t – rather, you use salt to bring out the flavors in whatever food you’re eating. We are called to light up the world around us, to bring out the flavors of God’s goodness, to illuminate to everyone around us the signs of God’s kingdom breaking in.
We don’t always do it perfectly. Sometimes our lamps get dim because the wick needs trimming or the glass gets a little dirty – sometimes we let worries and distractions cloud our light, or maybe we get too caught up in the importance of our own little lamp (guilty!). But our light still shines – because Christ is our light. Christ is the light that shines through us. Our true call is to allow ourselves to be vessels of that light – to be like little clay lamps bearing the light of Christ to the world.
And when we do this, we don’t just shed light on God’s kingdom work in the world; we actively participate in it. Lamp by lamp, we bring light into a world mired in the shadows of division and sin. I pray that we have the courage to let our lamps shine, to live into the God-given call we have each received. And I pray that the light of Christ may shine brightly in each and every one of us.