Faith United Methodist Church

January 21, 2018

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20

Prayer of Illumination:

God of new realities close at hand, open our ears to hear your call. Give us the insight to know that it is you who calls us. Grant us the courage to go where you send us as we journey with the risen Christ. Amen

Sermon: Are You Calling Me??

I like my old-fashioned phone. It reminds me of my childhood when we had a party-line. There were five houses on our rural street sharing one phone-line. I remember picking up the handset to eavesdrop on our neighbors on our party-line. Maybe my grandmother next-door would be on long-distance to my aunt or our elderly neighbor would be scheduling a dentist appointment. As a five or six year old, it was thrilling to feel like a spy, listening-in, undetected. That is until my mother walked in the room and caught me red-handed.

Another thing about the party-line was that it was difficult to call the people with whom you shared a line. As I remember it, when we wanted to call my grandmother we would dial the number, but then have to hang up the phone. We would then have to guess how long it would take for her to answer. When we thought enough time had passed for her to get to the phone we would pick up the handset and hope she was there. This led to a lot of frustration – either waiting to long or not long enough. On more than one occasion I remember my grandmother showing up at our front door asking, “Are you calling me?”

Our Scripture lessons today are examples of calls. When we talk about calls in the spiritual sense we are speaking of times when God tries to get our attention. In the example of Jonah, our reading picks up at the end of the story. If we’d read from the beginning we would have heard God’s call to Jonah telling him to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh. Jonah, though, thought God had the wrong number. So convinced was Jonah that he could not do what God had called him to do, he volunteered to be thrown off a ship mid-storm to certain death. Much to Jonah’s chagrin he was rescued by a large fish and called by God ~ again! Today’s lesson picked up with Jonah, finally, doing what God had initially asked.

The fishermen in our Gospel lesson also received a call. Simon Peter and Andrew didn’t carry cellphones with them while fishing the Sea of Galilee, but Jesus called them anyway, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Now, after receiving such a call we might expect some….. deliberation. The Scripture, however, doesn’t suggest anything like that. Unlike Jonah, they didn’t question their call. We are told, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

And then, just a few moments later, Jesus does the same thing with two more fishermen. Perhaps they shared the same party-line. James and John were in their boat with their father Zebedee and when Jesus called them they didn’t hesitate either. They left their poor father mending the nets and followed Jesus. I can imagine old Zebedee shouting after them, “Hey guys! Where are you going?” And trying to explain it to his wife later that night when she asked, “What do you mean they’re not coming home? Are you saying the boys won’t be home for supper?”

The response of these four fishermen is unexpected and can be difficult for us to understand. The Gospel gives no indication that they had known Jesus before this encounter. Within a split second, it seems, these men answered the call and made a decision to change their whole life. As our Seasons of the Spirit describes it, “Following in the way of Jesus means leaving behind past ways of life and moving into a new future.”   This is the repentance that Jesus speaks of earlier in the passage. “…the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Peter, Andrew, James and John give us a pretty dramatic example of how this can happen.

Invitations to discipleship often come at unexpected times and in unexpected places. Jonah probably didn’t expect to be called by God again after he bailed out the first time. But God did call and Jonah did go and Nineveh did repent and God saved them.   And the disciples, they were simply going about their ordinary lives, fishing and mending nets, when they received the most unexpected of calls ~ to become fishers of people. Not fishers of lake trout, but fishers of people! Whether we are ready or not, God acts.

You may have noticed that I am back from my family leave…. And I wish to thank you for your support, care and flexibility over these past two months. I know Barb took good care of you and you, in turn, cared well for her. My leave was a time of healing, renewed joy and discernment. Gary, Ben and I are stronger as a family and, hopefully, stronger as individuals after this family-focused time.

In addition to focusing on family needs, my time away allowed me the chance to slow down and listen to God’s voice, which is still, and always, speaking. As I listened I came to the deep realization that God is calling me to a new direction, a new calling, and a new adventure ~ away from pastoral ministry. I first recognized God’s nudge in this direction in 2014 when I took my Renewal Leave. The nudge has grown stronger over the years and now I can no longer push it aside. So today I return from my leave happy to be back, but with the knowledge that my journey with Faith UMC is nearing its end.

This is in no way an easy decision. I recognize ~ and will always treasure ~ the blessing of serving this congregation. The deep love that I have for the people of this church has sustained me in pastoral ministry during our 9 years together.   In leaving, I am not seeking to serve another church. I have applied to the District Superintendent, Bishop and Board of Ordained Ministry for an extended leave of absence from itinerant ministry to explore other ministry and career opportunities.

It is scary to face the uncertainty of a new adventure, yet having made this decision I feel a sense of peace. I understand that this news may come as a surprise to many of you and you may have a variety of reactions ~ from sadness and confusion to anger and even excitement and expectation as you anticipate welcoming a new pastor.

I will remain with you for the next five months. My last Sunday with you will be June 10th. It is United Methodist tradition to welcome new pastors in July. This week your Staff Parish Relations Team will begin working with our District Superintendent, Rev. Jill, to help Bishop Devadhar in the appointment making process. I trust that the Spirit will work through the Bishop and the Cabinet in bringing you a pastor with gifts and graces that compliment your own. Yet, we must always remember that the church is not the pastor. You are the church. Pastors come and go, while you remain the gathered people of God placed here in South Burlington to serve God’s world.

So we journey on, knowing that God is with us. We listen for the call and pray for the strength to follow. We step into the uncertainty with hope, trusting that God has laid the path before us even if we don’t yet know where it will lead. Amen.