Sermon preached January 23, 2011
Text: I Corinthians 1:1-9
If I were to say that I am going to say a few words about the appointment system, how many of you might know what I am going to speak about? The appointment system is not a new app for your smart phone that helps you keep track of meetings! In the United Methodist Church, the appointment system is how churches get their clergy, their pastors. Here is how it works.
Perpetual Peace United Methodist Church in Lake Wobegon had their pastor retire, so they need a new one. They don’t form a call committee and send out word that they are searching. The Staff-Parish Relations Committee contacts the District Superintendent, who represents the bishop. They have a conversation about the needs of the church. They share a church profile with the district superintendent. On a regular basis, the bishop and district superintendents for a conference, in this case, Minnesota, get together and they discuss churches that need pastors, like Perpetual Peace United Methodist Church in Lake Wobegon. They consider its hopes, its dreams, its needs and the needs of its community. They consider the pastors in the conference, especially those that might want a new appointment. Together they decide who the new pastor should be, based on the gifts and strengths of a pastor and the needs of the church, and the bishop has the final say on that matter. Now the pastor is brought to Perpetual Peace UMC to meet with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee and after that meeting either the pastor or the church can say, “We don’t think so.” The bishop has the final decision, but pastors and churches have a strong say in the matter. That, in brief, is the appointment system.
I know it well. For seven years I served as a district superintendent. I was a part of those conversations. I did have to leave the room when First UMC, Duluth was discussed six years ago. All this is to say that I am here because of my choosing, and your choosing, and, especially, because of the bishop’s choosing. I stay out of my choice and your willingness to have me stay and the bishop’s willingness to let me stay. Every year you have the opportunity to ask the bishop for a change of pastor and I have the opportunity to ask for consideration for another appointment. There are some choices here.
But beyond your choosing and my choosing and the bishop’s appointing, I think there is something else going on. Better, I think there is someone else involved. I feel called by God to be here. My choosing to stay is in response to the voice of Jesus in my life. I know all the ins and outs of the appointment system, how it works, how I got here – and I still believe that this is where I am supposed to be – at this church, in this community, at this time.
I share this not as a claim to perfection on my part – “because I am called to be here everything I do is just right.” I am not trying to say that at all. In saying that I believe, I trust, that I am called to be here as your pastor, I am saying that there is someone I need to pay attention to, to listen for, as I seek to be the pastor of this church.
Now this is not earth-shaking stuff. You would probably expect me to say things like this. Here is where it gets interesting, though. I would say the same thing about you – not that you are called to be the pastor of the church, but I think you are called to be here. I think God has something to do with your being here at this church.
If you think about it, you may find that a little odd or uncomfortable. You chose to be here. You might be able to tell me or someone else why you chose this church – obviously because you like tall, dark wavy-haired pastors. I don’t want to diminish your sense of yourself as an autonomous, choosing person. What I am posing for your consideration is that maybe some of your choosing is done in response to the voice of Jesus, the voice of God in your life.
And maybe we are all here together not just because of our own choices and the choices of bishops. Maybe we are here because of Jesus, because of the invitation, the lure, the call of God’s Spirit in our lives. Maybe we are not doing this church thing all by ourselves. Maybe we are not alone, shadow dancing without a partner.
God in Jesus is our partner in the dance of life – calling, luring, inviting. We don’t shadow dance, but have a partner to whom we respond. I believe that to be true for my life. I believe it is true for your lives. I believe it to be true for our life together here as this church.
If we believe this to be true, about our lives, if we believe that we are not here at this church just at our own whim, but in part, in response to God’s invitation and initiative, then maybe we want to ask how we can pay closer attention to this God who is our partner in the dance. In the question section of her book Christianity For the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass poses a doosey – “Do you believe that God has some intentions for our lives and our communities?” “Some intentions” - - - that is different from saying that there is a detailed map of what we need to do next. It is more like a dance. God initiates, we respond, God responds and so on. Certain steps will make the dance flow better. How do we figure those out?
Answering that question is to discover what we mean by “discernment.” Discernment is simply a way to speaking about listening for the voice of God, about trying to sense God’s direction or intention. Theologian Marjorie Suchocki writes,
God’s word is hidden incarnationally in the world. It is a whisper. (The Whispered Word, 6). How do we hear that whisper?
We listen. We listen to the voices we find in the Scriptures. They help us along the way. We listen to the world: facts, figures, ideas. We listen to others and to each other. Listen deeply – to words and beyond words. John Wesley called this kind of listening “holy conferencing.” Listen to our inner selves, our deepest selves. Spend some time in silence.
The end result of all of this is not a simple print out – this is God’s direction for you, for First UMC. Brazilian theologian J. B. Libanio: We are forever tempted to want to be god-like – that is, to want to know the will of God as God knows it, with that certainty and clarity that is proper only to God. We are creatures, situated in time and space, subject to all their contingencies. (Spiritual Discernment and Politics, 36). Whenever we talk about something like discernment, we need to do so with a great deal of humility. We will do our best to listen and respond, knowing that sometimes our dance with God will be awkward. But we continue to trust that we are not alone, shadow dancing.
Another theologian, Nancy Bedford, helps me again understand the complexity of our situation as we seek to listen for God’s voice. “The practice of discernment entails both following creatively in the way of Jesus Christ, and taking into account personal, social, and structural dimensions of reality.” (in Practicing Theology, 159).
We believe we are not alone, that we are not shadow dancing in this life, but have a partner in God who calls to us in Jesus. We trust that God has brought us together here to do some good, to touch some lives, to share good news. We trust that God has something in mind for us. We believe that Jesus still speaks. But unlike Peter and Andrew and James and John, we are not on the lakeshore in Galilee. There is no audible voice rising from a figure in the distance. God’s voice in Jesus is a whisper, and we are trying to pay attention in a noisy world.
Still we trust that we are not alone. We are more than shadow dancing.
***Hymnal, page 883:
We are not alone,
we live in God's world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God's presence,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.