There’s a wonderful little book that came out a few years ago called, “This Odd and Wondrous Calling.” It’s about life in the ministry, written by Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver, two pastors who are relatively well known, at least in clergy circles. In alternating chapters, they share their thoughts about some of the joys and tribulations, some of the strange quirkiness, of professional ministry. Things like: What do you say to people at cocktail parties when they ask what you do for a living? How do you learn to pray in public at the drop of a hat? How do you manage the practice of shaking hands after worship? What is life like for clergy spouses? What makes for effective hospital visitation, or administration, or preaching? The book is full of practical wisdom and humor from two people who have spent years in the trenches of ministry.
In one chapter, Daniel talks about what it means to be a “Calling Church.” That’s not a term I’ve heard anywhere else, but I know what she means. A calling church is a place that has a tendency to raise up people for professional ministry; more so than your average congregation. I grew up in that kind of church. Out of the youth groups I was part of, I think we had about a dozen people who went into ministry. Here at First Congregational, you’ve been a calling church as well. The other day I was talking with Dick Jarvis about how many people from FCC have become clergy. A couple of days later, I found a list in my mailbox that he had written up for me. These are not in chronological order, and it may not be a complete list, but let me just read this to you.
• Frank Graichen
• Frances Duffley
• Carol Meredith
• Cassie Emmanuel
• Cynthia Bagley
• Patricia Adams
• David Irving
• Catherine Allard
• Kathy Alger
• Barbara Brawley
• Patricia Long
This afternoon we will be adding another name to that list –– Emelia Attridge –– and in the not too distant future, we hope to be adding Barbara Papagian as well.
That’s quite a legacy. When you think about all the churches served, the sermons preached, the hospital bedsides visited by this group of people … you have every right to feel good about the role you’ve played in strengthening the church. According to Daniel, calling churches are places where members, not just the staff, make a point of recognizing and encouraging one another’s gifts. They keep their eyes open for potential candidates. Calling churches are places where professional ministry is respected and seen as meaningful and important, not so much for the sake of the candidates themselves, but for the sake of the church.
This lines up beautifully with Paul’s grand vision for the church in his letter to the Ephesians. He invites us to be worthy of the calling to which we have all been called; treating one another with “humility and gentleness, bearing with one another in love, maintaining the unity of the spirit.” Paul talks about how, for the sake of this high calling, we have all been given gifts that the church needs: prophesy, evangelism, pastoring, teaching, what have you. And the whole purpose of all this gift giving is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry … to build up the church, until all of us together come “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
This is Paul’s vision for all of us in the church. We all have gifts. We all have contributions to make. And no one person’s contribution is any more important that anyone else’s. I remember a church I used to pass by regularly that had a sign on the front lawn. On the sign it read: “Ministers: All the Members of the Church.” Underneath that it said, “Pastor: Reverend so and so.” It’s a good reminder that ministry is not just something people like me do for people like you. Ministry is all of us working together for the good of the faith.
That being said, there has always been a recognition that some are called to make ministry a full-time profession. Some are called into the teaching and preaching and worship leading functions that help congregations to stay centered in God. Ordination is something that has always felt very powerful to me, and I well remember where that feeling came from.
As I’ve told you, I grew up as a Methodist in Southern California. I was part of a large church in my hometown of Riverside. It was something of a flagship church for our local diocese. We were blessed with a wonderful music program, and every year our choir was invited to sing at the Annual Conference meeting in nearby Redlands. The meeting was always held in this enormous, auditorium-like sanctuary that must have seated about two thousand people. We were often the featured choir for the worship service in which the ministers of our Conference were ordained.
The heart of this service was what they called the Procession of Ordination. The bishop would station himself in the center of this huge alter area, and all the candidates for ordination would form a line. One year I remember the line ran to about 75 people. This was not a short service. As the candidates would file slowly across the chancel, one after another they would kneel in front of the bishop, who would place both of his hands on their heads. And then, in a booming voice that filled the whole sanctuary, he would call out, “Take Thou Authority, to administer the sacraments and to preach the Word.” And we would all say, “Amen.” Then the next candidate would kneel. And again we would hear, “Take Thou Authority…” Over and over again with each candidate for the better part of half an hour. Some people found it boring. I remember a couple of our choir members nodding off to sleep. But to me it was just awe-inspiring. That service seemed to capture the whole power of the faith. I knew I was witnessing the church being given into the care of the next generation of clergy. And in a more intimate way, with Emelia, that is exactly what we will be doing here this afternoon.
Ministry is so precious to me. I’ve been serving churches now long enough to have seen most of the joys and celebrations, as well as the frustrations and heartbreaks ministry has to offer. But through it all, God is right there is the midst of it with us, using all of our gifts for the sake of God’s mission. Truly, it is an Odd and Wonderous Calling.
In the last chapter of their book, Martin Copenhaver wrote a passage that sort of brings it all together for me. Let me read it to you.
On a number of occasions, I have hiked in the interior reaches of the Grand Canyon. To me it is a holy place, the most vaulted of natural Gothic cathedrals. It’s not hard to feel close to God there, not only because of what is present, but also due to what is largely absent –– the demands of living in community. The buttes don’t quarrel with each other. The California condors make no demands of the living. The rollicking streams offer only comforting words. There is no need to raise money for a sanctuary roof because the blue sky has already supplied it.
But to me, the affirmation that God can be found outside the church has never seemed like much of a claim. The true wonder is that God can be found inside the church, among quirky, flawed, and broken people who may have little in common and yet are bound to one another. What an unlikely setting in which to encounter God! But the Christian God seems to like to surprise us by showing up in the most unpromising places, like a man from Nazareth and in a motley gathering of people known as church.
God throws us together in the church and says, in essence, “Here is where you get a chance to learn how to live with other people, to forgive, and even come to see God in one another. After all, if you can find God here, you can find God anywhere.”
After all my years in ministry, I think that is a wonderful statement of what it means to be the church of God. We are a family of faith, gathered together from all different places, all coming to serve God and the purposes of God’s ministries, working together to sort out the issues that we stumble over with each other. All this, for the sake of faith and the church. Let us, all together, know how precious this calling is. Even if it may be odd, it is also wondrous.