This is the text from Sunday January 22 in which my retirement from the ministry was announced:
I know that this is just supposed to be an introduction to the word but I think this week we better call it ‘sermon number one’.
Last week after reading John’s story of Jesus gathering his first disciples I promised you that this week you would hear another such story from a different gospel. We are going to be in the gospel of Matthew and his account is the one you love. The disciples are out fishing and Jesus calls them to leave their boats, leave their nets, leave their families and follow. This is the one that inspired the Christian classic, “I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers of men if you follow me.” Do you remember that one? They don’t write songs like that anymore.
From the days in which I learned that song to this day I have been taught that the great miracle of the story is that the disciples responded instantly. They showed perfect obedience, they knew the Son of God when they saw him; Jesus was that awesome and they were that devout. Douglas Hare, professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary puts it this way, “the call story is here reduced to its barest essentials: Jesus summons with irresistible authority, and the men respond with radical obedience.” Troy Miller, associate professor of Bible and Theology at Crichton College, Memphis, Tennessee adds, “they (the disciples) leave their profession, a likely lucrative business of fishing, to walk after Jesus.” Professor Miller adds, “There are no suggestions as to how they will be provided for, and there is no promise of ‘upward mobility.’” So again we are to stand in awe of a Messiah who could so inspire and of disciples who were so devout.
Umm. You just know I’m not going to leave it there don’t you? With the greatest humility and with all due respect may I disagree with Drs Hare and Miller and with my Sunday School Teacher, Art Christmas, and my childhood minister the Rev. Pickell and argue that the disciples were not walking away from lucrative businesses, they were not abandoning an otherwise happy and good life. They were not perfectly content guys who shocked the neighbours by choosing to follow an itinerant preacher. I would even argue that the father of James and John, Mr Zebedee himself, did not feel abandoned when his sons left him mending nets by the sea. I would suggest that he felt relieved, that he shed tears of joy that his boys were throwing off the shackles of their existence and pursuing life.
I base all of this on the Old Testament quote Matthew offers just before this story. Matthew quotes Isaiah, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” That is a reference to the great exile Israel endured 500 years earlier, the time when they were homeless, when they were forced north to Babylon, a defeated people. Matthew is saying that they are once again homeless, once again defeated. They are living under a new Pharaoh, a new Nebuchadnezzar. They are living under Roman occupation. Caesar and Herod are now the faces of oppression. And so their land is not their own, their lives are not their own. They are in darkness and the shadow of death. Jesus is not calling them from a stable, good life to one in which as Dr. Miller says, ‘there is no promise of upward mobility’. He is calling them out of death and into life, he is offering them citizenship in the kingdom of heaven instead of the Roman empire, he is bringing them back from exile, back home where they belong with God. Hear the word:
Matthew 4: 12-23
Now for sermon number two.
When I was fifteen years old, as I sat in a pew at High Park United Church, listening to the Rev. Parkins (who succeeded the Rev. Pickell), listening to him preach, the spirit of the Lord came upon me and said, “this is where you belong, this is what you should do with your life. Proclaim the word.” A short time later I met with the Rev. Parkins and talked to him about entering the ministry. When I was seventeen I was interviewed by the session of High Park United Church, then by Lambton Presbytery and then by London Conference and I became, what we called back then, ‘an intended candidate for the ministry.’ Three years later, after completing a BA, I entered theological college, and following a fresh set of interviews was designated a candidate for the ministry, and then three years after that, following another set of interviews, at the tender age of twenty four, was ordained a minister of the United Church.
This is the call story I have told, when asked, for the past 30 years, but it is not really a story of call, at least not when compared to that of the disciples. They were called from darkness into light, from the region and shadow of death to the kingdom of heaven. They were called from exile home. I never left home. In responding to the call of the Spirit I was able to continue living in the shelter of God’s love, continue immersing myself in the word, continue surrounding myself with people of faith… like you.
I never left home. Jesus did not ask that of me. And it has been great to interpret, translate, proclaim; to be pushed by, challenged by, indicted by; to be sustained, empowered, and defined by the word these past thirty plus years. But that time is coming to an end.
After much prayer and contemplation I have decided that I shall retire from the ordained ministry of the United Church of Canada this year; on November 30, 2017 to be exact. And Susan will be retiring from the ministry at that time as well.
This call to leave the church has not been as clear as the one I experienced when I was seventeen. It has been hard to find language to describe it. Oddly enough there’s a word in Hinduism that has helped me, “vanaprastha” which means ‘forest dweller’. It’s a stage of life Hindus mark when they reach their mid fifties, when they have fulfilled their obligations of work and family. They become seekers and go off to the forest to reflect and sort out what it’s all meant.
Within the Christian tradition we have the desert fathers, the ascetics who went into the wilderness to wrestle with Satan and be with God. All of that imagery is feeling right for me now. It is where God is leading.
I’ve gotta admit that the first call was easier. At the age of twenty four I was guaranteed a job, benefits, a month’s paid vacation. It was easy to believe that God knew what he was doing, “way to go God.” But as God now calls me out of the church things are less clear. It seems like this is a call into the wilderness to be reformed and to become a new person. It is a call to leave home with hope that there will be a new promised land in the distant far off future.
One of my hopes is that the church can be for me what Mr. Zebedee was for his boys, John and James. That it will continue mending the nets and fishing and be glad that I have gone off to find life. But I recognize that it is just as likely that ‘dad’ will be angry that I left him with all the work. If you’re not tracking this you are the parent in this little analogy, the one stuck with the work. The church council will be meeting Tuesday night to figure all that out.
One last image I would offer, many of you have heard me use it lately. Life is divided into two halves, one acquisition and one of relinquishment. In the first half we acquire, we gain experience and knowledge, relationships and wealth. In the second half we give it all away, we relinquish and acknowledge that none of it was ever really ours. As I am now in my second half of life it is time to let go.
Over the next many months leading up to November 30 I am counting on being gifted by your call stories, how you discerned where the spirit was leading. How did you know what career or life to lead and how did you discern when it was time to stop? What ways have you found to be faithful to God in the wilderness and what has home or the promised land looked like for you? We have many conversations yet to enjoy.