Note: if you attended Lectio worship at Custer Road last weekend, some of this material was shared in the sermon so it will be familiar.
I spent last week at the annual North Texas Conference clergy retreat at Lake Texoma. We focused on building a sustainable ministry for the long haul. Our presenters challenged and inspired us to combat burnout, be leaders in a biblical, as opposed to a worldly, way, and remember that we are called of God to this work. It was very good stuff for clergy, but I also think there were helpful tips for layfolk.
George Mason, senior pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, shared some ministry lessons he has learned in his nearly 30 years in that church. He started by remembering his calling to the ministry. He was a quarterback at the University of Miami—as he said, back when they were no good—he was the last poor quarterback to play there. While he was in school he was very active in his church, and his pastor often wondered if George was called to ministry. When it was obvious that he was not an NFL prospect, the transition to seminary was an easy one. Speaking about calling, as opposed to a job, he made this distinction:
A job occupies your time. A calling preoccupies your life. A job is something you can do. A calling is something you must do.
When I have had the privilege of mentoring candidates for ordained ministry, I always encourage them to remember their calling. Whatever challenges they face, whatever criticism they hear, every pastor must remember they are called of God. This idea was especially helpful following my return from the retreat. The very first day back at church, a call came directly to my office phone. This rarely happens-- maybe once a month. I took the call, not knowing anything about the caller.
Me: "This is Frank."
Caller: "Hey Frank, it's ________. How's your day going?"
Me: (no idea who __________ is. A church member? Someone selling the latest, greatest Sunday school curriculum?). "Great."
(I'll admit small talk over the phone, particularly with strangers, is not my strong suit.)
We bounced back and forth a little bit, until he identified himself as a veteran with profound physical needs. His eyesight is poor, he is in need of treatment but he cannot fight the VA bureaucracy any more. He has called all over the place trying to find assistance but no one can help. He needs $$ for his hotel room for one more night. A few more questions and I figure his story does not make sense. He's either scamming us, he has mental needs as well as physical, whatever. But he asks: Can the church help?
I took his name and number and promised I would get back to him after I have had time to do some investigating. I asked around, found out the answer would be no, that our emergency needs were stretched to their limits right now. So I called him back.
And it was horrible.
He started shouting at me. He rejected my response about our emergency funds and sharply asked, "I'm not asking what the church can do, but what you can do." I am feeling all this guilt and shame, and trying to tell him we receive a hundred calls just like this everyday. Again: "I'm not asking what the church can do, but what you can do." And then: "It's always families. What about single veterans? As far as I am concerned those families can go straight to hell." That was when I said, "I'm sorry but I am hanging up now." He replied, "Me too."
After hearing for three days about sustainability in ministry, of being affirmed again in my calling for another year, returning to church with an optimistic, refreshed mindset, I receive the worst phone call ever. I felt terrible, not only for myself but for this person. Then I found out he called up here a few days earlier, offered the same story to someone else, did not receive the response he wanted, and dropped an epithet on the woman who took his call.
Same guy, same story, same response. Ministry-- just being a Christian-- is very, very difficult sometimes.
Between Chapters 8-10 of the Gospel of Mark Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times. The disciples are varied in their responses to these pronouncements. The first time Peter accuses Jesus of losing his mind. The second time they argue about who is the greatest disciple. The third time James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes to glory.
Then Jesus walked through Jericho with the disciples on his way to Jerusalem at the end of Chapter 10 of Mark. When Bartimaeus, a blind man, hears that Jesus is in town, he begins to shout, “Jesus! Over here! Come and help me!” Some in the crowd try to shut him up, but he only cries louder, “Son of Man! Have mercy on me!” So Jesus calls for him and asks him this question: “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:51). These are the exact same words Jesus asked James and John earlier in the gospel after they tell him to give them whatever they ask. “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:36).
Bartimaeus says, “Teacher, I want to see.” He does not ask for glory or power. He does not seek wealth or position or anything beyond the ordinary. He simply wants what has been missing in his life—his eyesight. Jesus says, “Go, your faith has healed you.” Then Mark the narrator adds this note: “At once he was able to see, and he began to follow Jesus on the way.” Bartimaeus did not run home to his parents or friends to show off his new ability. He became a disciple of Jesus. His calling to life with Jesus began with his humble request, but continued with joining Jesus on the walk to Jerusalem. Remember what Jesus said to the disciples when he first predicted his death: “Those who would follow me must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow.” Bartimaeus did that.
And we must also. Even when the journey of discipleship takes us places where we do not want to go. We cannot help every person, but we can love every person. Not every one will appreciate our efforts to help, but our calling to serve Christ is affirmed in our offer. Jesus asks the same question to every potential disciple, including the man on the other end of my terrible phone call last Thursday: "What do you want me to do for you?", and then waits for a response: "Teacher, I want ___________________." I pray this man is able to find the wholeness that is missing from his life, and that being made whole he can respond to Christ's love by becoming a disciple and spreading Christ's love to others. And that all of us who have said 'yes' to Christ may set our eyes on him, as his eyes were set on Jerusalem when he entered Jericho, and continue to follow wherever we are led.