Sunday, January 15, 2017
This morning’s scripture readings are all about how God calls ordinary people to do extraordinary things. In Isaiah, God calls the prophet to be God’s servant, to bring the people of Israel back to God. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that he has been called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus and reminds the church in Corinth that they also are called by God to be saints. In the gospel, we hear John’s call to baptize Jesus and testify that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the son of God, who takes away the sin of the world, and then Jesus’ call to Andrew and Simon Peter to follow him, to “come and see.” God calls all kinds of people to do his work – the “ministry professionals” like Isaiah and John the Baptist, and lay people: fishermen, like Peter and Andrew, tentmakers, like Paul.
Pastors try to refer to our “job” or “profession” not just as a job, but as a calling. Congregations have “call committees” when discerning who might be their new pastor, instead of a hiring team. I can say personally that I believe that being a pastor is more than a job – it’s a way of life and for me a way that I can use the gifts that God has given me in particular ways. But God calls all of us, not just pastors, to follow Jesus and use our gifts in whatever we do, whoever we are. If we speak only of full-time ministry as a “calling,”we send the message that only certain people like pastors are called to do God’s work. Our scriptures, over and over again, show us this isn’t true!
How is God calling you at the beginning of this new year, 2017? While we were on vacation in New Jersey, we had the opportunity to attend a special Luther exhibit of items on loan from Wittenburg, Germany in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year. We often lift up Luther as the founder of our Lutheran tradition and the instigator of the Protestant Reformation, but in this exhibit, a layperson’s work was featured that we often don’t mention: Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach was an artist: a painter, woodcutter, and engraver. You could argue that without Cranach’s contributions to the Reformation, we would not be where we are today in reforming the Christian church in important ways. Cranach put into visual form what Luther was writing about. You may remember from history class that the invention of the printing press and Luther’s writings in German rather than the Latin of the educated class got his ideas out to more people. Still, only about 10% of the population could read. Cranach’s illustrations helped many more people who could not read understand what the Protestant Reformation and Luther’s ideas were all about – he used his God-given artistic abilities to serve God in a powerful way. The truth is, while Luther is the notable name of the Reformation, many unknown and forgotten people, lay and clergy, helped reform the church. As we also celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, the same is true of the Civil Rights Movement and the countless nameless advocates for racial justice that continue their work today. We should never minimize what God can do with the gifts we have to offer – no matter what those gifts and talents are.
Today, we gather for our annual congregational meeting where we take care of the necessary business of our church, which often is not too exciting, admittedly. Today, though, is also a time to celebrate all that God has done through us in the past year. You will see as you read through the reports that we have a lot of gifts in our congregation, and we are blessed by what so many of you do to share your gifts for the sake of our larger mission together. I found our first reading from Isaiah to be especially powerful words for us to hear today as reminder that we are all called to serve God. The passage is not just about God’s particular call to one person – to Isaiah – but to all of Israel. The people are discouraged. They are in exile in Babylon, and many of their own people have abandoned following God to following the idols of Babylon. They feel like they’ve failed in their efforts to bring people back to following the one true God. The people of Israel, including Isaiah, are ready to give up. Perhaps they’re thinking, “Maybe I’m not really called to this work. Maybe God can find someone else who’s better at this than we are.” And here’s God’s response: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” People of God, Bethel Lutheran Church, whatever your individual calling and station in life, whether you’re a full-time professional, student, or retired – God is calling us all to be a light to the nations. God has gifted us with what we need to do this work. And together, we are in prayer with God and in conversation with each other about how God wants us to do this for our particular time and place, with the gifts God has given us.
I’ve prepared a shorter sermon for this morning so we can take some time as a congregation to reflect on where we are and what God might be calling us to in 2017. As a part of my work with the Nebraska Synod, I developed this Quick Check resource using the ELCA’s research and evaluation office’s 15 marks of congregational vitality. Last year, just our council took this survey – this year, we thought it would be helpful to have everyone’s input. Let’s take some time now to individually mark where you feel our congregation is on a scale of 1-5 for each of these 15 vitality questions. We’ll average these scores to give our council and committees direction for the coming year on what’s going well, and what we can improve on. So I will give you a few minutes to silently fill this out, and then please put them in the offering plate during our offering time so we can collate those results and report back to you.