THE HOPE IN OUR CALLING
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
June 25, 2016; Non-Lectionary Sermon
Jeremiah 29:8-14; Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called
to the one hope of your calling…”
Ephesians 4:4

Once a day — except for Sunday — I go through a little ritual. Sometimes it’s first thing in the morning. Other times, it’s in the middle of the day. Every once in a while, it’s around suppertime. The ritual involves standing on the front porch of the Manse, opening the mailbox and taking out whatever’s in there. Then, I step inside and take my position beside a large basket we keep in the front hall.

The basket is for recycling: and my task, in this brief daily ritual, is to feed it. I riffle through the pieces of mail, one by one, and place as many as I possibly can in the recycling basket. I’ve learned that practicing this ritual daily makes my life a whole lot simpler.

I can generally tell, without even opening the envelope, if it belongs in the recycling basket. If the envelope says “0% interest for the first six months,” into the recycling bin it goes. The same is true of “Save on your car insurance,” or “Important survey inside.” If the envelope has a little window, through which I see a stack of return-address labels with my name on it, into the recycling bin it goes (I’ve already got way more address labels than I could ever use.)

I have to admit that, if through the little window I see the face of Thomas Jefferson on a shiny new nickel, I do cut it open, take the nickel out and put it in my pocket. My Scottish ancestry compels me to do no other. But I’m very disciplined about never even glancing at the rest of the stuff inside.

*****

I wonder if Paul’s letters arrived in envelopes? I kind of doubt it, though I couldn’t say for sure. Far more important for his readers were the words of the letter.

This section we read this morning introduces a new section of the letter. It contains within it a hint about where it originated: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord…”

That’s some return address! Imagine that you got a letter in your mailbox that had, as a return address, “Inmate number 27607, Rahway State Prison.” Would you be inclined to open it?

The writer of this letter seems unconcerned about his return address. He splashes his prisoner status right up front. It’s almost a badge of honor. Paul, of course, is in prison on account of his faith — which makes him different from most other people who write letters from behind bars.

For the members of this church who are being ordained or installed to church office today, we’re going to turn to the advice of this inmate. We’ll see what he has to say to those who are taking up new responsibilities as deacons or ruling elders.

We’re going to look especially at verse 4 — which also happens to be the theme of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, that just finished meeting in Portland, Oregon. I was there. I got home yesterday.

The verse is this: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling…” The theme of the Assembly was “The Hope of Our Calling.” It’s not a bad motto for those taking up leadership positions in the church.

We do believe, in the Presbyterian Church, that leadership is a calling. It’s more than a job. It’s more that a task you volunteer for. It’s something to which God calls you.

Yes, I know those who serve the church as deacons or ruling elders got to be where they are because someone from the Congregational Nominating Committee asked them — and the congregation confirmed the invitation by electing them. But it’s a good deal more complicated than that. Along with the invitation to serve is a call to discern God’s will: because this is more than just seeing your name in print on the back of the church bulletin. If you said yes to that invitation, we expect you have searched your heart to determine if God is calling you to be a spiritual leader.

*****

Well, what is this spiritual leadership all about? It’s about a lot of things, but here in verse 4, it’s about just one thing: hope. The hope of our calling.

There are lots of qualities I like to see in the men and women who serve as church officers, but truly one of the most important is this thing called hope. I think we need it more and more, these days, as the church on every level — from congregation right on up to the General Assembly — struggles to understand how its role in American society is changing.

We used to be a favored institution in society. We got a lot of help and support, without ever having to ask for it. Everybody knew, in the 1950s and early 1960s, that if you listed membership in a house of worship — and especially a title of church officer — on your resume, you had a better chance of being hired. People in business looked on the church as a place for networking. The fine, upstanding citizens you met here could be potential customers, or partners in one way or another.

Nearly all parents looked on their house of worship as an indispensable ally in their work of child-rearing. They truly believed Sunday School would help them raise their kids to become adults with high moral principles. And so they came in droves. All churches had to do, in the fifties and sixties, was build an education annex — as ours did — and the families just poured in. Couldn’t be easier.

I don’t need to tell you, today, we’re living in a very different time. Christian churches are widely ignored by a large swath of the population, and actively distrusted by a great many others. All those years of believing, “If you build it, they will come” have left us mainline Protestants lackadaisical and soft — poorly equipped for the work of evangelism that’s such a vital need today.

We, as a church, need our deacons and ruling elders to lead us in that work. We need them to demonstrate a quality of life that’s winsome and engaging — eager to share the joy of knowing Jesus Christ, and following as his disciple.

Perhaps most of all, though, in these days of uncertainty and rapid change, we need our leaders to be people of contagious hope. We all hear the voices out there, doing their level best to shut hope down — to practice “ain’t it awful”-ism and perpetuate a culture of complaint.

It’s so easy to look backwards: to glorify and romanticize the past. “Remember when our sanctuary was filled every Sunday — both services?” “Remember when there were no kids’ soccer games on Sunday mornings?” “Remember when there was prayer in schools?” “Remember when the high-school mixed chorus could sing hymns in their concerts and no one would dream of complaining?”

Most all of us — whether we remember such times ourselves or if we’re younger and have just heard tell of them — can gin up complaints like these without hardly trying. Yet, that ability to generate complaints is not what we need in our church leaders. We need something more. We need our leaders to be people of hope.

*****

Let me give you and example of what I mean. It’s a story someone told at the General Assembly, in one of the many organizational luncheons that take place throughout the week. It’s a story of something that happened in an Episcopal church in the town of Randolph, New York.

One day, someone noticed an anonymous person had spray-painted something on the wall of their church building. It was a question: a theological question, as a matter of fact: “Can I still get to heaven if I kill myself ?”

Well, what to do? How to respond? It seemed a serious question: a cry for help from a troubled soul. But who wrote it? How could you get back to that person with an answer?

Do you know what the leaders of that church decided to do? After some soul-searching, they went out and bought a can of spray paint. Below that anguished question, they spray-painted a reply: “God loves you with no exceptions!”

Somebody took a picture of both pieces of graffiti, and the photo went viral on the Internet, being seen by millions — but that’s not why they did it. They couldn’t have known it would take off like that. The point is that the leaders of that congregation took the question seriously. They answered it the only way they could have: in the very medium in which the question had first been asked. They answered it, in Christian hope, trusting that the troubled soul who’d anonymously asked the question would somehow see it, and find strength to persevere.

They gave no thought to the appearance of their lovely building. They could have come back with a can of regular paint and just painted over the graffito. They could have restored the building to its usual pristine condition. But they didn’t do that (at least not right away). They didn’t do it because they were people of hope, and they knew that communicating the hope we have in Jesus Christ was the single most important thing they could be doing.

*****

One of the things this General Assembly did was elect a new Stated Clerk, a man who’s rather different from anyone who’s held that senior office in the past. Our new Stated Clerk is J. Herbert Nelson, an African-American minister who’s been the director of our church’s Washington office. Look for great things from him in the years to come: he’s a great orator in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a man who truly lives out the hope of his calling.

J. Herbert said, in the question-and-answer time before his election, that the Presbyterian Church “is not dying, but I believe we are reforming. Only through the eyes of faith can we
see beyond death.”

We shouldn’t focus only on the survival of the church, he went on. If we do that, it “means our aim is too low.”

Jesus never said a word, you know, about survival. He didn’t commission his disciples to go out into the world and survive. No, our Lord’s Great Commission, from the end of the Gospel of Matthew, is to go out into all the world, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching others to obey everything he has commanded.

J. Herbert Nelson also shared something of his thought process as he decided to seek the office of Stated Clerk. He asked his daughter, Alycia, whether he should put his name forward, and she told him he should. The reason, she explained, is “because you are a fixer.”

Those fixes, he went on, weren’t “done simply by me, but by a God who held my hand at every turn, a God who promises even now to take all that has been done, put a comma there, and then shift gears to build a powerful future for the PC(USA). Thanks be to God.” That really brought the house down.

Friends, we need men and women in the leadership of this church who are not complainers, but fixers. We need leaders who are not paralyzed by nostalgia for the past, but who demonstrate the hope of their calling, who can glimpse God’s vision for a great church in the future.

Knowing these people who will soon be ordained and installed, as I do — and knowing the several others who will be ordained and installed later this summer — I’m confident that the Lord is doing a great thing in our midst. The greatest days for this congregation are not in the past. They are in the future: and the future begins right now, in this very moment: when brothers and sisters in the faith will soon say publicly, “Here I am, send me.”

Let us pray:
Lord, we read in the scriptures how your Holy Spirit
was constantly adding to the number of the faithful
those who were being saved.
What more can your Spirit do in these days
but that very same thing?
Perform that great work among us, we pray.
Remind us all — ministers, ruling elders, deacons, baptized Christians —
of the hope of our calling.
May that hope not only multiply in our individual hearts,
but may it burst forth in this community in powerful ways.
In the name of the risen Christ we ask it. Amen.

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.