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Hearing Our Call

Sermon - 6/07/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 6:1-8

The text for this Sunday is the call of Isaiah which is found in the 6th chapter of the book of Isaiah:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’

4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

 

Last Sunday, for the first time in over 25 years of this congregation, we called an Associate Pastor to the church, the Reverend April Oristano.  It was Pentecost, of course, and the spirit was moving in the church in many ways.  We had 11 people join the church last Sunday, we had 6 the previous Sunday, we had another this morning.  It's the first time in I don't know how long that on three successive Sundays we've had someone join the church.  It prompted John Moore, at the church planning meeting yesterday, to quip:  "All we need to reach our goal of 500 members is to hire 5 Associates" J.

That service lasted an hour and 40 minutes, and nobody complained.  So, sit tight J.

I hear the preacher at a mega church in the Midwest somewhere, a young, hip guy, preaches for 80 minutes!  So when the spirit moves, watch out.

We had all kinds of music in that service last Sunday, our combo with guitar, drums, and joining together with the organ, and no one complained.  The biggest miracle of all, thought, is in that meeting afterwards 101 votes were cast for the calling of April, and we received 101 "yes" votes.  It doesn't get any clearer than that [applause from the congregation].  Indeed.  Amen.

We have ordained a number of women in the history of this church.  There's some indication in the records that perhaps as early as 1910-1911 a woman was ordained here (records are a little vague).  Certainly 50-60 years ago we had an ordained woman.  Most recently, just a few years ago, Elaine was ordained on our staff, youth ministry at the time.  But this is the first time in the history of the church that we have called an ordained woman to be a pastor of the congregation.  I truly believe it's a wonderful thing.

And so it was a powerful day last week.  And like many of you, I was touched by the story that April shared with us in that meeting, of how she felt called to the Christian Church Disciples of Christ not once, but twice.  First as a child when she felt this desire to be part of the church.  She was the one who looked around and found the church with her friends and then brought her family to church.  And so she and her mother were baptized together on Easter.  And then, typical of young adults, in her college years, she began exploring other traditions, other faiths, traveled around the world, and came back home to the Christian Church and said 'this is where I want to be, this is home, this is where I want to serve as a minister'.

Here I am Lord, send me.

The Lord sent her to us, probably thinking 'Those folks in Eugene need a lot of help' J.

April feels called not just to the ministry of the Christian Church, she indeed feels called to the ministry here, at this church.  She shared with us that when she knew she was going to need a cheaper place to live looking around for a church home, she found us on the web, and she and her husband considered moving to Eugene because they liked what they read about this church.  And so now she will coming here as our Associate on July 1st.

After listening to April in that meeting, my question was not 'Will she live up to our expectations?', but 'Will we live up to her expectations?'.  And so that's a challenge for all of us.

It is an exciting time in the life of this church, not just because we're expanding our staff and doing a few things, it's because we're finding true that vision that God has placed in our hearts and expressed through that future story and the Visioning process not just what we want to be when we grow up as a church, but what God is calling us to be now.  A true community of God's people, transforming lives, transforming Christianity, and transforming our world.

Yesterday in the planning retreat, our new Young Adults group share with us that they have chosen the name for themselves "Transformers" J.  Which of course works generationally if you know how they grew up with those transformers in their lives (toys), and now fit so well with the mission of this church.  Six couples that are active in that group, and looking to expand.

There's no experience more powerful than to receive the transforming call of God.  To know without a doubt that this is what God calls me to do, and to be.  And I think that's why this story in Isaiah is written in this way.  Using metaphors and symbols from worship in the temple -- seraphs that were statues in the temple, overlooking the sanctuary.  Incense that would have filled the temple.  The coals used on the altar for sacrifice and the like.

Now, if you take the story literally of this experience of Isaiah, you might have the impression that he's breathing in smoke alright, but it's not smoke from incense J.  But if you understand it spiritually, this is a visionary experience.  It's a powerful expression of what it is like to feel that call from God.  An overwhelming sense of the presence of the divine.  And sometimes, as in Isaiah's experience, it is beyond any experience of this world.  We may not see winged creatures flying above us or hear voices chanting in that way.  But I have known many people who have heard 'a' voice -- not voices -- it's usually not a good omen if you're hearing voices -- but have heard a voice at a critical time in their life.  A word of assurance, or even instruction, that made all the difference at that point in their life.  God has all kinds of ways of speaking to us.

I love the story of a wheat farmer in the Midwest who was having difficulty growing wheat.  Year after year he planted his wheat, and year after year the crops would fail.  He was going deeper and deeper into debt, struggling with whether or not he was called to be a farmer.  He saw in the clouds shapes taking place, and he could make out letters, and he could read:  G, P, C.  And he said "That's it, God wants me to Go Preach Christ!".  And so he left the tractor and went and got his belongings and went off to school to study to become a minister and founded a church.  And he failed, miserably.  He was worse at preaching than he was at farming.  The time came, and he died, and he met the Lord, and he said "Lord, I don't get it, I followed your call to go preach Christ, and I failed".

And the Lord said:  "I was trying to tell you to Go Plant Corn" J.

We all know preachers like that, right, who should have planted corn.  Why are you looking at me that way? . . . . . .

So how do we find that call when we don't have a clue?  How do we know that the call really is God's call?  How do we know that we are doing what God is wanting us to do?

The spiritual gifts booklet that our Elders prepared last Fall is a wonderful resource.  I've lifted it up before, I'm going to lift it up again.  Specifically, one thing on page 14 you will find a 5-step process for discerning the call of God.  Using the acronym START:

S stands for Study -- study the Bible and other resources that are suggested there in the booklet.  And if you do nothing else but to read the scriptures and the passages and the suggestions there in that booklet, reflect on them, write on them, you will go a long way toward discerning that call of God for yourself.

T stands for Trial and Error -- tryout different things to see what fits your particular gifts and personality.  I love the example of Kyoko in our church, who, when she came to us said 'What is God calling me to do?'.  And she tried a number of different things.  She tried teaching Sunday school, and that wasn't it.  She tried our Good Samaritan ministry, but that wasn't it.  And then she connected with Roberta to work in the Library (Roberta is 96 years old now), she seemed to think maybe we should have someone else, I don't know why J.  At any rate, they connected and now Kyoko is finding a new ministry in our Library, and has connected with two other Librarians to bring new life into that Library.  We have a couple thousand books from the estate of Ronald Osborne sitting in a closet because we don't space to display them, and she wants to bring those out and put those into circulation.  So that's a great example, she kept trying until she found that place to contribute where she is called.

A stands for Analyze -- really not the word I would have chosen, really means 'prayer', but STPRT doesn't pronounce too well, so I needed a "A" word there.  But the idea is to reflect prayerfully on what your call might be.  And the secret to using prayer is to spend more than half of your time in prayer listening in silence, not speaking, not talking to God, but listening for the response from God.  So in that sense, to analyze, to prayerfully reflect.

R stands for Request input from others -- how do they see you?  What gifts do they say you have?  I have a conviction that there is no call that comes from God without a confirmation from someone else.  When someone says "I'd like to do XYZ in the church", we often ask 'who else is called to do that with you?'  Earl Koenig said I want to do something to help people find jobs, use some of my skills and experience to help improve resumes or job interview skills.  It seemed like a very timely offering, and I said sure.  I forgot to ask the question (who else?), but God sometimes has a funny way of speaking to us, because I discovered after we said "sure, let's do it" that the survey Phyllis Weare was encouraging us all to fill out had on there an item about job search.  And we had 2 or 3 others who said "Yeah, I'd like to help with that".  So now Earl is connecting up with them to help with this class that is going to start in a couple weeks to help people in their job seeking skills.

Sometimes there are setbacks.  Experience that makes you question whether you are called to do this.  Getting fired from your job, maybe.  But remember that even Jesus had one bad experience.  Crucifixion is pretty tough, by comparison getting fired wouldn't be so bad.  So one bad, or even two bad experiences, don't let that deter you.  Three, or four, or five, well, then maybe it's time to rethink what you're called to do.

We have two excellent resources in the congregation to help anyone who wants to go deeper and to explore with a second person what that call may be.  First of all, our Elders have been trained to do a discovery session for anyone who has completed the booklet and is ready to sit down and reflect with someone what your gifts are, what your call might be.  They are ready to do that, I think 20 or so people have chosen to do that already and had a discovery session with an Elder.

A second opportunity to go even deeper, Elaine, you may recall, before she was ordained, completed three years in graduate study of spiritual direction.  And she left her staff so she could devote her energies to that, and is now a resource available to us, has an office that she is renting in the basement of the church.  That is part of her livelihood, there is a cost involved with that, but if you stop and think what it is worth to discover the call of God for my life, you might want to have a conversation with Elaine of what she has to offer.

T stands for training -- in whatever area you feel called to serve.  We offer on-the-job training for our children and youth programs, our teachers, the Good Samaritan ministry, etc.  One of the new things we're offering this fall is a leadership training program for prospective leaders, a select group of 12 or so who will be chosen to engage in a 15-20 week study, very intensive, to discover their gifts and find their abilities and what God is calling them to do in the church.  It's going to be one of the things that April is going to be leading (she doesn't know it yet J, but it's part of her job description).

So that's the START process -- study (the Bible and other resources), trial and error (to see what fits), analyze (through prayerful reflection) your experience, request input from others, training in whatever you decide to hone your skills and gifts.

And if you don't have one of those booklets, we set a pile in the back, help yourself to them.

Now, does it make any difference?  Let me share with you a few quick stories, not of the people who found their call, but the experience of those touched by the people in this congregation who are following their call, and the difference they've made in the lives of others.

Yesterday, Dan Lauer shared the experience of a neighbor, they were talking about church, she asked what church he goes to, and he said First Christian Church downtown.  Immediately, tears welled up in her eyes.  She said "I love that church".  Dan had never seen her here.  Why?  Fifteen years ago, I was at a very difficult time in my life, I was about to become homeless, and through the Helping Hand ministry, received clothing to help me get back on my feet again.  She said now she donates to that whenever she can, bringing things to give back.  What's incredible about that story is if you remember the Future Story we told in the video we made, Sarah Lauer, Dan's wife, portrays a character who tells that exact same story in that video, in the year 2015, and looking back at how her life was changed through that ministry, and now she's giving back.  And here it is being lived out.

[Note:  you can visit First Christian's YouTube Channel to view a video of our Future Story, in 3 separate acts]

Patty Weller shared with us a person who was helped by our Good Samaritan ministry, who now sends up a check every 2 months -- it's not big, $5 or $10 -- just as a way of giving back.

I remember several years ago a prominent lawyer in town who sent us a check, who doesn't attend church anywhere, who said he wants to make a donation because he appreciates all the things we do in this community.  Sent us a check for $1,000.

Our mail carrier walked into the office this week, delivering the mail, and said "I want you folks to know how much I appreciate all the good that you do in this community".

There's a message on our answering machine that we're saving for one of our Good Samaritan volunteers, because this gentlemen came in and said he needed a bicycle so he could do his job search, get around town.  She thought maybe BRING could help him get a bicycle, so she sent him to BRING (where my wife happens to work), and they set him up with a bicycle.  And he called and said I want to thank you because I now have my bike and I'm out and doing my job search and I really appreciate the help.  A little thing like that.

The best testimony, I think, came last year when I was away on sabbatical at our church in the park where we had a town-hall style meeting afterwards, and this gentlemen who has been a big part of our interfaith shelter (helping out the past couple weeks), shared this testimony:

"Hello, my name is Art.  This is the largest group of people from this church that I’ve ever spoken to – some of you know me, some may not.  I have lived in a green van in your parking lot for 8 years, the last 5 without a working engine. I’m a gay man, and an atheist – I won’t bore you with the gory details, but that is based on what I’ve seen of Christianity in my lifetime.  The sign in front of your church says you want to be a ‘Light to the world in the heart of Eugene’.  I’ve experienced that light – that love of God, or maybe just love.  You’ve made me think about Christians differently.  I want to thank you for saving my life."

 

These are things that happen because of people in this church responding positively to the call of God.  People who make a difference in the lives of our children and our youth.  People on the street, members confined to their homes.  Families who received a new home in Mexico or Los Angeles or now in Yakima.  Children in Darfur.  Children in the interfaith shelter. 

All these and so many more are lives that have been touched because someone here said "Here I am Lord, send me".

Praise to God.

 


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