This past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching the Installation Sermon for Rev. Shanna Steitz at Community Christian Church in Kansas City. I’m happy to report that it was a wonderful morning, and that Ryan, Shanna and the kids are doing great. Ryan is working now in public education and doing very well. Shanna is up to her neck in church and loving it. And the kids are as sweet as ever. It was a great weekend of family and fun and celebration. I thought you might enjoy reading my sermon. Take a Breath. Blessings to all of you.
Calling (God, I Hate that Word!)
So, let me just say that I know the word calling is an important word in the Christian vocabulary, and I know, as my mother used to tell me, that I really shouldn’t use the word hate, and I know that my sermon title gets close to using the Lord’s name in vain. But other than that . . . how am I doing so far?
Well, despite the rocky start with my sermon title, I do want you to know what an honor it is for me to be with you this morning, to celebrate the ministry of Rev. Shanna Steitz, my dear friend and colleague, and also to celebrate her husband Ryan, also my friend and colleague, and their two wonderful children, Jacob and Audrey.
I feel a little bit like that minister who probably revealed more about the sermon than what he realized when he said one Sunday morning, “Before I begin preaching, I would like to say something.” (You have to think about that for a minute.) Well, I want to say something now and also something in my sermon, and what I want to say now is this: I love this family. They were and are so loved and respected at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, and you are blessed to have them and they are blessed to have you, too. And if you don’t love them yet, trust me, you will, and for those of you who might be a little slow on the love side of things, you’ll always respect them, and sometimes respect is even better than love. Your new minister may make a few mistakes. I used to tease Shanna and told her that her motto for life was this: “Often wrong but never in doubt!” But trust me, even her mistakes will come from a good place inside her heart, and because that’s who she is. She cares. She loves. She tries. And she’ll put the church first. You cannot ask for anything more than that. And so this is truly a great day of celebration.
Now, back to this ridiculous sermon title. I suppose one reason why I dislike the word calling is because it sounds so solitary. Over and over again people ask ministers, “When were you called into ministry?” As if it happened once. Like getting vaccinated for the chicken pox. And even though not many clergy like to talk about it, the truth is, it’s a baffling question, because being called by God is an activity that has an ongoing life. I’ve been a minister of many years now, but I’m still trying to understand this sense of calling. I wasn’t called into ministry. I’m still being called into ministry. Calling is a present tense journey with yourself and God, and it’s also true for a congregation.
Several years ago I was on a flight to North Carolina, heading to a Methodist Church for a speaking opportunity, but seated right across the aisle from me was a young African American. He looked young. Maybe high school age. Perhaps college. I was minding my business, trying to get a little work done, but then I noticed something about him. On his right wrist, on the underside of his wrist, he had a word tattooed to his skin. Four letters. The word was SOLO. S.O.L.O. Solo.
I still think about that young man. Why would a teenager tattoo that word onto his wrist? Solo. Was it an act of defiance? A sign of strength? Was it his way of saying that I have to stand up and take responsibility for my life? Or was it a word of resignation? Despair. Was it his way of saying that I have no one who cares about me or believes in, and like thousands of other black men, I’ve been forgotten by society and my life is expendable in America? Solo. I’m not sure what he was feeling.
But what I do know is that calling is never solo. Ministry is never solo. Church is never solo. Just as the idea of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity points us to the communal nature of God, and I would say even the communal nature of the universe, so we know that at the heart of calling is this interplay of my journey, your journey, God’s journey, our journey, and the journey of a new minister.
I’m out of town today, so I think I’ll make a little confession. Good for the soul, right? For too many years I wore the tattoo of solo on the skin of my ministerial life. I didn’t think I needed any colleagues. I thought I was strong enough, smart enough and talented enough to do it all by myself. And more than that, I had this misguided idea that it was my job. That’s what they pay me to do. To figure it out. Solve problems. Lead the way. I was flying solo!
And it’s a terrible way of doing ministry.
First of all, you burn out like a piece of toast. Secondly, you lose touch with that divine presence that works in you and around you and through you. And third, you miss connecting with all kinds of wonderful people who love you and who want to help. Today, we’re shining the spotlight on Shanna. (And it’s delicious, isn’t it kid?) But I’m saying to all of you, including this immensely talented young woman, don’t tattoo the word solo on her ministry. God’s calling all of us today.
But I want to say one more thing, and I think it relates to this idea of calling, and it’s that I believe human beings are hard-wired for a spiritual journey. To be human is a calling. In this sense, I believe every human being is religious. We might not acknowledge it. We might turn away from it. We might use different language to describe it. But embedded inside every human being is a capacity for spiritual awareness. As Bill Coffin used to say, “We might argue over our preference of bread, but we can’t argue that we’re all hungry!”
There is something within every human being that wants to transcend our biological structure. We want to know that what we feel, what we think, and what we do has some kind of significance in this world. And we want to live. Not just survive but live. Life is more than an empty existential experience between two oblivions of before birth and after death.
On top of that, most of us have had experiences that reinforce the presence of our spiritual capacity. It might be unspeakable joy. Remember the first time you saw the Grand Canyon? It could be wonderful grace. Remember the time someone reached out to you with kindness and brought a green bean casserole by the house because you just had a death in your family? And perhaps it’s nothing less than an interaction with the mystical dimensions of the universe, otherwise known as God. Remember when you fell in love? That’s God. These thoughts and experiences are real, and they point us to that depth-reality within every person.
This means that one of the most important things we can ever do as a church is to understand that everyone who comes through our doors on a Sunday morning is on a spiritual journey. The people you know. The people you don’t know. And the people you have yet to meet. And they will come here because they are trying to make sense of their calling as human beings.
They come here because of the art, and because of the architecture, and because of the music, and because of the community, and because the Christian faith supplies language and ritual and history to help people understand their human calling. They come here because they are interested in Jesus. In the historical Jesus, some of his ideas and insights, but they’re also interested in the resurrected Christ, that is to say, the presence of Jesus that lives inside human consciousness like a spiritual companion. That’s why people come to a church.
And so part of the calling of a congregation is to embrace this human calling pulsating within the lives of others, and to do it in a way that is authentic, real and transformative. I want to say this as clearly as I know how this morning: The goal of a church is not to get more people to support the church. In fact, let me tell you how to kill a church. You kill a church anytime you make the mission of the church to get more people, so you can get more money, so the church can pay its bills. If that’s the mission of the church, then God help us, because nothing will kill a church faster than that.
Let me say it a different way: The purpose of the church is not to perpetuate the church. The object of the Christian faith is not the church itself. The object of faith is the living God / the living Christ / the mystery of the Spirit that moves in us and through us and above us, that divine presence that animates our living and moves us toward our neighbor and our calling as human beings. That’s faith.
Now, do I hope you will support the church? Of course. And before she gets too nervous, Rev. Shanna Steitz, do you want people to support the church? Of course you do. There is no church without financial generosity, without personal participation, without love and commitment and hope that we bring to our church. But this church, Community Christian Church, is here to help people on their spiritual journey, and you do it because you believe that every human being is grappling with his or her calling.
That means the church is in the spiritual transformation business. That means the church is in the learning-how-to-be-a-better-human being business. That means the church is in the trying to humanize-the-world-with-love-compassion-and-justice-one-person-at-a-time business. And the minute we lose sight of that, whether in Los Angeles or Kansas City, we’re no longer a church. I mean, honestly, I don’t know what that would make us, but I know enough to know that we’re certainly no longer a church, because the calling of a church is always a calling to move more deeply into the transformation of the human family.
I heard a joke not long ago that might be helpful at this point. There was an elderly gentleman walking down a sidewalk one day and he sees a talking frog. He picks the frog up and the frog says to him: “If you just give me a kiss, I’ll turn into a beautiful woman and will love you forever.” The man put the frog in his pocket and just kept walking. Pretty soon the frog piped up again and said: “Hey, aren’t you going to turn me into a beautiful woman?” The old man looked the frog and said, “I think at this point in my life . . . a talking frog is more valuable.” Pretty bad, right? I know, I almost croaked when I heard it, too.
Let me be clear: There’s nothing more valuable than calling, a calling every human being longs to engage, and a calling shared between minister and congregation. There’s no solo to it. There’s no she’s up there and we’re out here. Calling is that mystical double helix of your work and her work, of God’s work and my work, of caring for people in the church and opening doors for people outside the church. That’s really what this day is about. It’s about embracing calling. And it belongs to all of us. And to be honest with you, the more I’ve thought about that word calling, the more I’ve come to like it. I hope you’ll come to like it, too. Amen.