Call, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Curiosity, Community, Confidence

Curiosity is step one in many call stories, to all forms of discipleship. My journey to discerning a call to ministry began with a 1987 visit to a Congregational (UCC) church. It amazed me that one of the pastors leading worship that day was a woman. As soon as the service ended, I found a church brochure that included her bio. Like me, she had grown up Southern Baptist. She wasn’t the first clergywoman I had met, and this experience wasn’t the first that pointed me toward ministry, but it was the first time I had seen a women serving as a pastor in a local church. 

Was this something I could do, too? I wanted to know more, so I came back the next Sunday. 

John 1 introduces us to John the Baptist and his disciples. Imagine standing around talking with people you know well and suddenly hearing your most trusted teacher say, “Look, it’s the savior we’ve been waiting for!” This vignette feels both odd and touching to me. Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus, and he asks what they are looking for, and – maybe not knowing how to ask what they really want to know – they ask where he is staying. They’re about as suave as a group of ninth-graders standing outside the high school on the first day, not sure of the right time to go inside. They want to know more, so they follow him.

Our call into Community, which I understand to mean both context and relationships, is step two. The disciples who followed Jesus that day were the first, and we are among the latest to join that mystic sweet communion beyond time and space. The greeting from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth stresses the foundation for community laid down by God: grace, and testimony, and spiritual gifts, and strength. We can find joy in the gathered voices of a worshipping community, and comfort in the sharing of mutual burdens, and power in the collective will to serve and bring glory to God. In those seasons when the world burns and we can’t quite believe it all, there are others to carry us along. 

Although the church is flawed — it’s full of people, so of course it is! — I have confidence that the call to community comes from God.

That Confidence is step three on the path of discipleship. It’s not a belief in ourselves or our abilities. It comes with time and experience and cannot be shaken by circumstances. It opens the possibility of asking questions, and working things out, and growing through our misunderstandings, fears, and mistakes. Peter’s place in the gospel lesson reminds us that even the original disciples would get it wrong, then come back and get it right after all.

Whoever we are, wherever we are, whenever in history we live, God calls us beloved and calls us into relationship with each other and service to the world in Christ’s name. Holy Confidence is a trust in God so deep that we can say these words with the Psalmist, 

Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.

Psalm 40:7-8

If I were preaching this week, I might unfold these three steps, or I might simply focus on Curiosity. What does God call each of us to do? How are the spiritual gifts of people in our faith community compatible or complementary? What is the work God has for us in the world? Whatever it is, God invites us to “Come and see.”


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Baptism, Baptism of Christ, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Baptized Beloved

At the corner where the transept met the nave of Faith United Church of Christ sat an armchair with an embroidered pillow and an afghan draped neatly over the back. Just before my first service as their Interim pastor started on an early September Sunday, I caught a flurry of activity out of the corner of my eye. A delicate elderly woman sat there, with the afghan over her lap, while whoever had helped her get settled had quickly disappeared out a side door. I made sure to greet her during the Passing of the Peace, and over the next few months I learned her story. Maisie was 93, and her husband had died the year before. The mystery helper was a son faithful in making sure she got to worship. I learned about her childhood in Scotland and the death of a beloved daughter. I met the married son who lived in another town. She trusted me with the committal of her husband’s ashes in a country cemetery. Maisie, both fragile and strong, held her family together. 

In the New Year, I decided to mark Baptism of Christ Sunday with a remembrance of our own baptisms. It surprised me that the idea was new to the congregation, but the elders agreed we could make the ritual part of the service that week. I brought a large glass bowl from home, so we could see the water. Everyone who could came forward; their faces held a tender curiosity that moved me. Then, with an elder’s help, I carried the bowl to Maisie’s armchair. I remember the expression of surprise and delight on her kind face as I offered a blessing and laid a handful of water on her head. 

Eight days later, I spoke the words of that blessing again at her hospital bedside, as death approached: “Maisie, beloved child of God, remember your baptism.” 

Remember your baptism, we say, relying on memory beyond reason.

For the practical members of that historically German Reformed UCC congregation, the notion seemed almost funny. “I was six weeks old,” one said, “how could I remember that?” A few had stories about being baptized as older children. “My mother called the pastor, I think he was Lutheran, and he came to our house and baptized all five of us in a row,” an older lady told me, and the story sounded like one she had heard over and over from her mother, rather than a material memory of her own. 

The passage from Isaiah this week is a “servant song,” and as Susan Ackerman writes in the notes of the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, “The identity of the servant, chosen by God to bring justice to the nations, is debated.”* We can cast back to Jacob as a representation of Israel, or to Moses, or forward to Jesus, but rather than going down the road of supersessionism, I think we can make the case that all the baptized are chosen for and called to a servant identity, to work for God’s kingdom that will establish justice, bring release to prisoners, and offer a light to all nations.

Sometimes it’s hard enough to offer that light in our own small circles of influence, a congregation, a workplace, a home, and that’s why we look to the ones who do it so well. Maisie’s sons told me she was the light at the window for their family. Even in seasons of deep loss, she held onto her faith and helped them hold onto theirs. If I could go back to that Sunday and stand by her armchair, I would speak those words of blessing differently, I think, as a benediction on her faithful life. 

“Remember that you are baptized, and you are a beloved child of God.”

Baptized Beloved, chosen servants, I hope you remember it, too. 


*New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Abingdon Press, 2003), my favorite one volume go-to, p. 1012. 


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If I Were Preaching, King David, Narrative Lectionary, Psalm 51

A Little Dirt

“A little dirt never hurt anyone,” declared Mrs. Toler, our Girl Scout leader. She was a science and math teacher at St. Agnes School and had daughters of her own. She broke through the all-indoors reign of the longtime troop leader, the terrifying Miss Stebbins, and took us camping. We made donuts out of biscuit dough by boiling them in hot oil over a campfire, burning hot and joyfully sweet after we rolled them in powdered sugar. I can call up the aroma and flavor of hamburger cooked over the same fire to add to our spaghetti sauce. Mrs. Toler knew what she was doing.

She brushed off our concerns about outdoor eating and sleeping, confidently.

When I became a woman and a mother, I carried her message into parenting. “A little dirt never hurt anybody.” I imagined myself as laid back, non-neurotic (ha!) and just generally hip to the idea that roughing it can’t kill you.

By which I mean I didn’t force a lot of unnecessary bathing on my children.

Then I contracted an auto-immune disease and became much more concerned about the hygiene of everyone in my immediate surroundings.

All of which means I am a much stricter parent to my step-son than I ever was to the older three. If he goes to wash his hands and comes back too soon, I demand to inspect them. I know some moms who love the smell of “I just played outside for too long” little boy. Maybe you know what a boy’s dirty hands feel like. They have texture, seem layered, almost. When you slide your thumb across the skin, it sticks.

“Go back and use soap.”

Sometimes my heart feels like those hands, a good heart underneath it all, but layered with the smudges of little hurts inflicted by others, the silt of guilty self-knowledge and the griefs-turned-crust shielding the tender parts.

“Create in me a clean heart.”

Psalm 51 asks for God’s assistance in heart renewal. It’s ascribed to David and associated with the aftermath of his affair with Bathsheba and his plot against her husband. As kathrynzj said in her sermon today, David managed to break about 50% of the commandments in just this one series of escapades. Nathan the prophet manages to convince him of his guilt, and David repents, hoping to rebuild his relationship with God.

Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.

(Psalm 51:10-11, Common English Bible)

hand washing heartWe don’t know if King David actually wrote all the psalms, and there are plenty of scholars who think psalms came later, during and after the Babylonian exile, long after his time. But there is a strong association between David and this particular Psalm, as if even the intellectual among us can’t quite bear to part the two. This iconic figure is tender and tough, faithful and flagrant, loving and libidinous, warlike and woeful. He struggles to live up to his call, and when he fails, he comes back to God and asks for help. 

Even if a little dirt never hurt anybody permanently, letting it build up creates complications. It may seem like nothing will ever be the same, and maybe it won’t be exactly. Think of David, getting honest with himself about the ways he messed up not just his own life. A clean heart doesn’t come out of nowhere; it’s not a new heart. A renewed heart comes through the effort of being honest with God and with yourself.

Start at the sink. Lather up. Give all the things covering you to the One who always loved you, even when She dearly wished you would use the soap.