Why doesn’t it seem like God typically guides our lives and careers in a smooth, linear path? How do we navigate?
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
We were making our way through the desert, traveling from Idaho to Southern California. Some of you have made the journey through the strange land between California and Idaho–it’s called Nevada. While there are many majestic parts of Nevada and the desert presents its own beauty, they aren’t as easy to appreciate when you have been driving all day in a car that smells like feet and beef jerky. After stopping for a bite to eat something other than jerky, I mumbled to Colleen we were going to take a cutoff that would save us at least an hour. Now Colleen knew what many of you already know—a “cutoff” is rarely a good idea. I assured her that I had been driving these roads since I was 16, and was quite certain that I knew the way. I did discretely enter the hotel address into my phone GPS, but made a right turn in Ely, Nevada, and set the cruise control. I cruised right past a turn we should have taken that Colleen noticed. I cruised into the desert under the full moon, not noticing that we were in one of those areas AT&T doesn’t exactly brag about on their cell phone coverage map. After about an hour, I started to get that uneasy feeling. I pulled over and got out my backup GPS–don’t judge. The backup GPS not only told us that our estimated arrival time was 1:30 a.m., instead of 11:00 p.m. as I had boldly predicted, the voice kept telling us to make a left turn into a sea of sage brush and rocks that were most certainly not roads.
By this time, it had also started to rain. A light drizzle under the full moon can be beautiful. The drizzle quickly intensified into a full-blown torrential downpour. There was spectacular lightening of biblical proportions everywhere, illuminating the clouds and the cacti and the sagebrush. Even with the windshield wipers running at warp speed, the storm made it nearly impossible to see the road. I had visions of flash floods and of Clark W. Griswald wandering through the desert after crashing his car in the movie Vacation. I started to panic. Then I started to pray and make deals. I prayed that the rain would stop, and promised that if it stopped, I would always ask for directions and get an old paper map and most importantly, always listen to my wife. As we reached the top of a summit of more than 6,000 feet in elevation, something unexpected appeared.
A pedestrian was walking along the side of the highway at least 50 miles from any town. This was not just some hitchhiker. In fact, the man was not trying to get a ride. He was walking against traffic at a brisk pace. The man was dressed in a white robe and carrying a long wooden staff, looking a lot like I imagine Moses when he led the people from Egypt. Lightening continued to strike all around, and time seemed to slow as our car passed him. Though only for a second, it felt like he peered into my soul. Thinking perhaps I had hallucinated from the jerky fumes, I looked to Colleen. She had seen the same figure.
Moments later, the rain stopped. I breathed a sigh of relief. We finally arrived at our hotel closer to 2:00 a.m. I really don’t know what to make of this encounter with Moses of Nevada, but I frequently think about it when considering the turns we make on life’s journey. Sometimes we plot a perfect course and don’t seem to need much guidance. At other times, well . . .
This is not a new struggle. In our Scripture lesson today, the Apostle Paul is writing to the church he founded at Corinth, located outside of Athens. As he came to Corinth approximately 50 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul encountered a city that was comparable in many ways to San Francisco. It was ideally located with ports for commerce and was known for entertainment options other than going to church or temple. People were certain that they knew the best route to success. Paul points to the counter-cultural reality of faith.
Paul wants the Corinthians to remember that Christ is the great equalizer, regardless of what status we are born into or achieve through hard work. The final verse of the passage from today, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” is drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures in Jeremiah 9. Respected German biblical scholar Jürgen Becker explains that Paul quotes Jeremiah 9:24 as, “It guarantees that the election that comes from God is and remains his work alone.” In this way, Christ, of the same God as the Israelites, is the only true basis for redemption, superseding all worldly boasting.
So in our modern society, in which we are constantly reminded of our status and encouraged to boast, how are we supposed to focus first on God’s will in following Christ as the True North for our lives?
For us, Paul is lifting up Christ as the lens through which we see and measure success. Our wisdom, power, and nobility come through him. As we use our intellect and our emotion in faithful ways, we are most alive. This vibrancy does not typically arrive in isolation. Discernment is something that happens in prayerful partnership through community. Since I have received numerous inquires, I’d like to share a little more about my own discernment and spend the remainder of the time focused on you as individuals and as a community with more than 160 years of history.
Since announcing my resignation in June, several dozen of you have reached out to offer prayers, process, and ask questions, including:
I’ll do my best to address these questions. Especially if you are new here, I hope to put your mind at ease. There is no scandal that sometimes accompanies clergy resignations. I don’t owe a bookie in Vegas money for failed wagers on the Giants or 49ers. I haven’t bought a red convertible—and I don’t judge you if you have—and haven’t booked a skydiving adventure. I am grateful to have only one romantic love interest in my life. Colleen, my wife of 21 years, thankfully tolerates my occasional navigation challenges in the desert. No one at Calvary pressured me or suggested that I should leave. Financial considerations as my sons approach college and other family members need assistance are real, but Colleen and I have never made our decisions primarily based upon money. We wouldn’t have invested 15 years of our lives into seminary and church service if we did. And Calvary was and is very generous with us.
The question about feeling “called” is the major one I have wrestled with for years. When I enthusiastically accepted the offer to serve, I envisioned at least a decade here. Many of my colleagues said, “Dude. You scored!” (I apparently know many pastors who are surfers) The majority of Calvary senior pastors have served here until they retired, and I am grateful for the consistent support of Dr. Laird Stuart and Dr. Jim Emerson. I fully expected to serve here until I had many additional gray hairs or no hair at all.
I am thankful for the impact we have had together—from the dark moments crying in hospitals and candlelight vigils in the community, to the baptism parades and many powerful worship services.
My sense of call to serve beyond sanctuary walls in the business community emerged prior to meeting any of you. In fact, today’s 1 Corinthians passage was the assignment for my ordination exam. Pastors typically endure several days of what is essentially a Christianity bar exam. While spending the majority of five days dissecting this passage in Greek and reading every available resource about it, “Consider your call” became a centering prayer. My hypotheses was that with at least 90 percent of San Franciscans not active in any house of worship, there could be an opportunity to develop something that nurtured those looking for meaning beyond the office or cubicle. More than 10 years later, I feel even more passion to develop a ministry bridging faith and work.
Though it would have been helpful—and terrifying—to receive a clear call via stone tablet or burning bush, my next step came through the telephone from a Jewish man in his seventies who has served as a mentor and friend to me for more than 20 years. He reached out one day to say he had been meeting with the CEO of an accounting and consulting firm he works with. As the CEO described his plan to help the firm grow, my friend said he thought of me. I agreed to have breakfast with the CEO without any expectation. We did talk about his needs to grow the firm and ways I could help with business development, but most of our conversation was about topics like integrity and passion and serving the community. Jim Wallace of the firm BPM (Burr, Pilger & Mayer)–with the motto “Because People Matter”–shared nugget after nugget from his father and other leaders that guide his life. Jim also shared one more key point. He had hired a former priest at his previous firm, and it worked out really well.
I try to avoid making major life decisions without considering a range of possibilities. I had conversations with three different companies, including one I was really sure was a calling. All signs continued to point to BPM. Of even greater importance to me was that in talking with Colleen and her dad, my sons, my parents and grandma, they said they had been sensing that some kind of change was coming and felt it was of God. When my prayer warrior Grandma Patti—who loves telling people that I am a pastor and wants me to serve the Lord—says she supports this decision, it tends to bring peace.
For the past two weeks, I have had the blessing of simultaneously serving as a pastor at Calvary and a business developer for BPM. People from the firm know of my background as a pastor and I have already had numerous people approach me to talk about community involvement, racial justice and to process challenges in their personal lives. They are considering their call, and I am honored to do that with them in cubicles and offices and conference rooms.
What about you? What about this congregation?
For years, I have had conversations in which many of you said, “You’re so lucky to have a calling, to know what God wants you to do.” I would always reply with, “And so do you.” God doesn’t only call people to serve in churches.
I recently reconnected with Dr. Stephanie Gripne, my high school classmate who founded and runs the Impact Finance Center, a Denver based organization “dedicated to catalyzing investments that produce enduring value for the investor, society, and our environment.” She has already helped connect investors with opportunities to help elderly people avoid eviction and launched numerous environmental impact initiatives. Stephanie knows she’ll need to bridge conservatives and liberals and everyone in between. Though her PhD and experience was in wildlife preservation, she felt called to take a major risk after her parents each passed away before the age of 60. She went deep into debt and used every available personal resource to pursue her passion. Forbes magazine wrote an article last year posing the question of whether she is the “Steve Jobs of Impact Investing.” Stephanie considered her call and answered in a major way.
What about you?
Maybe you don’t have a call to mobilize billions of dollars. Or maybe you do.
Maybe you don’t love your job. Maybe you have a long list of challenges in your life. Maybe you are called to do something different or go deeper with what you already have.
Consider your call.
On the very first Sunday I preached here at Calvary in January of 2013, I said, “Calling a pastor is more than a call to a particular person. A call comes to us as a body. A call is an acknowledgment that we will listen to each other and above all listen for God. It is also a commitment to listen and respond to people outside of the church who are in material and spiritual need.”
Today, on my final Sunday in this particular community, those words still ring true. A call in the Body of Christ does not arrive in isolation. Calvary has had many pastors before me, will have many after, and today has two of the most gifted pastors I have ever known in Rev. Joann H. Lee and Rev. Victor H. Floyd. One of the strengths of the Presbyterian Church, with the word derived from the Greek for elder, is that the church is never supposed to revolve around any particular human. We believe that Christ alone is head of the church, with a combination of pastors, elders, deacons, trustees and other leaders prayerfully working together to reflect the light of Jesus in the world.
Reflecting that light often means taking risks in Christ’s name that many in the world would consider too bold are part of your individual DNA and the heritage of this congregation. This congregation has answered a call to advocate for education over vigilante justice and stand up for Chinese immigrants in the Gold Rush days. Calvary supported those living and dying with HIV and AIDS and continues to advocate for a fully inclusive church. More recently, we have stood against systemic racism and sexism and Islamophobia and Transphobia and I know will continue to answer challenging calls as a beacon of light when it seems that darkness will prevail.
After I had been at Calvary a few months, I had the honor of presiding at the memorial service for John Wilson. His wife, Kay, is a friend to many of you who has since moved to Florida to be closer to family. Just hours before he passed away, I spent some time in the hospital with John and Kay. He had been in and out of consciousness with all of the medication, but he sat up and took my hand.
Even in pain and in his last hours, John gave a very clear charge:
“We have to fix the world.”
As the Body of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have a clear call.
The particular details of that call may change over time, but the call does not change.
Through the Holy Spirit, may God order our steps to pursue it.