Epiphany 3/January 21, 2018
Installation of Pr. Terry Hagensen
New Salem Lutheran Church, Turtle River, MN
John 3:1-5, 10
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
God, our God, is a God who calls.
Let me say that again: our God is a calling God
That short sentence speaks volumes about this God whom we trust.
It says to us, first of all, that we have a God who yearns to be in relationship with us, ardently desires to converse with us.
Our God, wants to engage us, affect us, “have words” with us….in such a way that we can respond, from our hearts, in our own unique voice.
God calls us with the expectation that we’ll respond—while knowing that how we’ll respond is never a foregone conclusion.
God is a God who calls us--meaning that God chooses not to coerce us, but speaks to us in ways that free us to speak back to God and have an effect on God, thus being responsive to God.
And the range of our possible answers to this calling God runs all the way from the most resounding of YESes to the most stubborn of NOs.
The Bible--which might well be described as a treasury of call stories--the Bible constantly demonstrates how risk-taking it is for God to choose calling over coercing…because the Bible never tires of reminding us that people like us might well decide to ignore or sidestep or even outright reject God’s call.
Our cell phone rings. The display identifies the caller as God. And we hit the DECLINE CALL button.
That can happen. In fact, that does happen—all the time. If there’s anything predictable in this whole long narrative of call stories we call the Bible—if there’s a recurring pattern we can’t help but notice, it’s that human beings usually resist God’s call, at least when it first comes to them.
In our First Lesson we meet one of the Bible’s most spectacular “resisters” of God’s call in his life.
When God first calls Jonah, God asks him to head east, to wicked Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s vicious enemies, the Assyrians.
“Go east young man,” God calls to Jonah, and Jonah responds by heading as far west as he can, far away from where God wants him to go.
God says “Nineveh” in the east, and Jonah replies “No, I prefer Tarshish” in the west.
And amazingly, rather than immediately vetoing Jonah’s rebellious response, God lets Jonah go where he wants to go. God opens up space and time to allow Jonah to head off in his own contrary direction—how surprising!
So Jonah books passage on a boat bound for Tarshish…and we all know how that went.
The boat did not have smooth sailing, a horrible storm descended upon it, leaving the sailors no choice but to lighten the load—to toss out all the unneeded baggage, which soon included Jonah himself—thrown overboard to become fishfood.
But (as so often happens in the Bible) what appears to be the end of Jonah’s call story—being swallowed by a great fish!—turns out to be instead a “time out”-- three days to think it over in the belly of the fish, three days for Jonah to consider his situation, to remember God, pray to God, turn from his resistance…and then to find himself vomited out on a beach, where God calls him once again: “Jonah, go to Nineveh...”
…and this time Jonah obeys God’s call.
God is a calling God, not a coercing God. God calls us, and even though we usually resist that call, God doesn’t give up, because God calls tenaciously, God has all the time in the world and is thus willing to outwait us, God keeps coming after us, wooing and winning us over and setting our feet in the direction we need to go.
As I like to say, especially to persons trying to discern God’s call in their lives: don’t get all hot and bothered. God will get you wherever God needs you—but it just might happen, not on your timetable, but in God’s good time.
So Pastor Terry, what these folks may not realize is that you and I have known each other for a long time--over 25 years by my count, from the day we first met when the ink on your diploma from Wartburg Seminary was barely dry, when you were assigned for your first call to the SW MN Synod on whose staff I was then serving.
We’ve known each other for a long time, and I’m pretty familiar with the twists and turns in your long, unfolding call story—a call story that starts a new chapter, right here, right now, today at New Salem.
Your long call story is similar to but also different from the call stories of so many pastors.
Early on, during your high school years, you pondered what God wanted you to do with your life. You’ve described that this way: “my prayer was for God to direct me towards what was best suited for me, from running the family [dairy] farm, to working in the local factory to preaching the gospel. I believed at that time I would hear and had full intentions of obeying, but I will say I hoped it wouldn’t be one of the first two.”
You discerned a call into public ministry, first as a rostered lay minister, eventually as a pastor…and ever since you have heard God calling you deeper and deeper into the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
At the same time, though, your call was challenged by circumstances in your own life but also by a big, long, lumbering discernment process your church was engaged in…a church-wide wrestling match over whether and if and how it might receive, welcome, and call forth the ministries of gifted persons who happen to be in loving relationships with persons of the same gender.
All of us have times in our lives when our sense of call is challenged….but you, Pastor Terry, have had your call challenged in one of the longest, most painful and protracted of ways. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that your struggle to follow your calling has dragged you through a kind of hell (or: through the belly of the beast?)…and yet here we are today, together, to celebrate this new chapter—a chapter that you and many others have wondered whether it would ever happen.
Thanks be to God, and thanks to the daring and heartfelt discernment of call that happened here at New Salem, today we are welcoming and installing you as pastor of this congregation. That’s a tribute both to your tenacity--with the support of your family, your spouse Kevin and these good folks of New Salem--and it’s also a tribute to God’s tenacity in calling you.
So now, inasmuch as you’ve been coughed up on the shore of the Turtle River Lake, how will this new chapter in your call story unfold?
I’m pretty sure, Terry, that you will do far, far better than Jonah did here in our text for today.
Coughed up by the great fish, given a reprieve by God, setting off finally for Nineveh, Jonah—it would seem—obeyed God’s call, but in a way that was carefully calculated to fail.
Jonah concocts a scheme to be the most lackluster, unsuccessful preacher he could be. He ventures only a third of the way into the huge, sprawling city of Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t bother to find an interpreter, but he utters a single one-sentence sermon (in Hebrew, not Assyrian): "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
One line, in a foreign tongue, uttered just once on the edge of a huge city, filled with nothing but a threat of doom and gloom, calculated to drive the Ninevites to utter despair…
But astonishingly, amazingly…“the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth….[And] when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and [God] did not do it.”
God got Jonah where God needed Jonah to be—and through Jonah’s brief, inarticulate, awful “sermon”—God accomplished precisely what God always wants most to do: to have mercy on people who did not deserve it.
Pastor Terry, you have been called here to New Salem because you’re a fine, gifted pastor. Since high school you’ve been trying to follow God’s call: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, for us and for our salvation.
If I know you, you will not preach sermons calculated to fail or to thwart God’s great sinner-seeking, mercy-shedding rescue mission.
Not that you’ll always get it right—no pastor does. But I’m sure you will try harder and bring more gifts to bear on your sharing of Christ—especially for the sake of those who are forgotten, marginalized, and seemingly on the outside looking in…
And you have God’s word on this—and you people of New Salem also have God’s word on this: that the barrier-breaking, future-opening Word of God will always be the last Word: you are forgiven, you are free, and you are sent into the world for the sake of Jesus Christ to bear God’s creative and redeeming Word wherever God calls you.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.