Renewed in the Belly of the Whale (Sermon)

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany. The text I had in mind while preparing it was the Second Reading, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12. It was the final Sunday of our annual Stewardship Campaign.

If you’d like to see a video of this sermon, click here.

When I was in seminary twenty-five years ago, there was something uncommon about me. I had no intention, expectation, or desire of being a pastor. People used to ask me all the time, “Why are you in seminary?” After all, Lutheran seminaries like the one I attended in Philadelphia are primarily there to train people to be pastors and other church professionals. That’s not why I was there. There was no way I was going to be a pastor. I was there to learn.

I’d been learning my whole life at that point. Let me back up a bit. Right out of high school, I enrolled at Muhlenberg College, where I majored in math and physics. My intention then was to get my bachelor’s degree at Muhlenberg, and then go to grad school to continue my math studies, get a doctorate, and end up teaching at a college somewhere. I was always good at math – it always came easily to me. I suppose you could say, especially if you’ve been paying attention to our stewardship campaign, that by God’s great mercy, I had received spiritual gifts. And I thought I knew how I would use them. But sometime during my junior year, I blinked. I realized how much of a commitment it would be to go to grad school, and I just couldn’t imagine committing to studying only math for that long, committing to writing a dissertation, committing to another four or six years of study.

But I found something I did want to study. I was taking a lot of elective courses in the religion department, and I found so much meaning and depth in them – this was something I wanted to keep studying. So I figured, seminary would be a good place to do that. I would get myself a Master of Divinity degree, which is the degree pastors get, and then go straight onto doctoral work from there. Then I’d end up teaching religion at a college or seminary. That sounded like a plan. I was excited about that. I suppose you could say that by God’s great mercy, I had been refreshed by the power of God.

So I applied to seminary. When I explained to them that I had no desire whatsoever to be a pastor, they looked at me a little funny, but they accepted me. Why would I want to be a pastor? I grew up in a parsonage. My Dad was a pastor. I knew what a pastor’s life was like. And it was not for me. There was no way I could commit to a life like that. So for three years I studied theology. I kept learning more and more about God.

As graduation approached, I talked to one of my professors about how to go about entering a doctoral program, and one of the things he told me was that I had to be really passionate about my topic, or I wouldn’t make it. I blinked again. I couldn’t commit to that. What if I found out I wasn’t as passionate as I thought? What if I changed my mind again, like I’d done in college?

So I graduated. And I discovered that if you’re not going to be a pastor, and I was certainly not going to be a pastor, a Master of Divinity degree doesn’t really open too many doors! A church in Perkasie was willing to hire me as their Director of Christian Education and Pastoral Assistant, and I started working there just a month after graduating. I really enjoyed the job, at least at first.

After five years though, I found that I was getting burned out. Now, I loved that congregation. I loved the people. But I didn’t love the work, at least not all of it. The weird thing was this: I found I really liked the parts of my job that were the most pastoral; visiting and some occasional preaching. But the primary part of my job, which involved things like organizing youth group ski trips and leading overnight lock-ins, was really draining me. And I couldn’t see any way out. I wasn’t qualified to do anything else. And I certainly wasn’t going to look into becoming a pastor, even if I did enjoy pastoral things. Nope. No way, no how.

But then the retreat happened.

It was a four-day retreat for Lutheran church staff, held at a Catholic retreat center in New Jersey. It was mainly designed for newly ordained pastors, who were in their first three years out of seminary. It’s another story to explain why this retreat was mandatory for me, but it was. Even though I was five years out of seminary, and even though I was not ordained. Suffice to say, I went to the retreat with a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t need this. And between my annoyance about being there, and how burnt out I was feeling, I was not happy, and I did not expect to get anything out of it.

But that’s not at all how it turned out.

Shortly after checking in at the Retreat Center, I felt the urge to walk around outside, and I found a small cemetery on the center grounds. There were a few inches of snow on the grass, but the paved path that led around and through the cemetery had been cleared. It was a five-minute walk to make a loop around it, and it felt special. The snow was covering the lower portion of the tombstones, so I could not read any of the names, but dozens of white crosses poked through the snow. I didn’t know who these people were, but something about this little cemetery was holy. I felt in the presence of greatness here. I walked about five or six loops, and then went back in the building. I found myself coming back to that cemetery over and over again, every afternoon and evening, throughout the retreat.

Between my walks, I had some very surprising experiences at the retreat. First, the keynote speaker was talking about clericalism, which is the belief that pastors are somehow better people than others, how that is damaging to the church, and how we can and must fight it. I felt intrigued by that.

Second, during free time, I reconnected with some old friends and colleagues. And no fewer than six of them told me that they always thought I should have been a pastor. I felt confused by that.

Third, I had an encounter with a former classmate of mine whom I had hurt seven years before. I finally apologized, and she accepted my apology. I felt deeply forgiven by that.

Intrigued, confused, and forgiven, my heart was ready to hear something new.

Intrigued, confused, and forgiven, I walked through that snowy cemetery. As the days passed, the snow melted, and I was able to read the names on the tombstones more clearly. They were nuns. They were all nuns. Of course they were…this retreat center had originally been a convent. So this cemetery was a tribute to hundreds of nuns. I was walking in the footsteps of generations of women who answered God’s call. Who heard God’s voice, and who responded. I started to hear God’s voice telling me something I’d been ignoring for years, something I’d been fighting against for years. I started to hear God’s voice calling me to be a pastor. As the snow melted, so did my resistance. I saw that I’d never accepted hearing that call because I never thought I was good enough. I realized that I’d been saying “no” to being a pastor for so long, as though I’d built a wall around myself. But now that wall was melting along with the snow, and I could hear God’s voice. I suppose you could say, By God’s great mercy, I was reminded that I’d been given a calling. And I was finally ready to commit to it.

The following week, I contacted my bishop, and before long, I was in the process toward ordination. I was committed. I gritted my teeth as I prepared for an arduous, difficult process. But it wasn’t difficult or arduous. On the contrary, it was inspiring and exciting. It took a little over two years. And while there were some difficult moments and some tears, I felt God with me through the whole process, and I felt renewed, over and over again. By God’s great mercy, I was renewed by the Holy Spirit, and the commitment was a joy.

I had been so afraid of the commitment of being a pastor, so afraid of what it would mean, so afraid that I could never do it. But I can. And I have, for over fifteen years now. And it’s all thanks to God. Thanks to the Spirit of God that still dwells around me and inside me, renewing me from without and within, I am able to do anything God calls me to do.

We’ve been showing images from the Saint Johns Bible on the screen each week during the sermon. This image symbolizes to me my own faith journey. To me, this pictures appears to be chaotic, yet beautiful. The greys, the blues, the butterflies, the words – all there, all swirling around. But do you see what else is there, confident and firm? That bird. That black bird that we’ve seen before in these images. The bird that represents the Spirit of God that swept over the face of the deep at creation.

I see my own journey of faith much like this. Chaotic, yet beautiful. Yet through all of it, through all of it, the Holy Spirit is there, hovering next to me, soaring within me, renewing me and enabling me to do what God calls me to do. The only reason I’m able to fulfill my commitment to God is because of what God’s Spirit gives me every day. And let me tell you, what the Holy Spirit gives me is more than enough, way more. It renews me every day.

So, what does all this have to do with you? Well, I don’t know. But I wonder if any of you have been resisting a commitment that God’s calling you to, not necessarily to be a pastor, but any kind of commitment. I wonder if any of you are scared that you can’t do it. And I wonder if maybe my story can inspire you to not wait as long as I did.

Because the Holy Spirit is with you. May you feel that renewal. May you fulfill your commitment. May you have the faith to move mountains.

Image by Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay

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