“Alan, would you mind coming by my house today? And if you can, you might want to bring Morgan. This is important.” Those were the words I heard on a late March Saturday morning from Larry Davies, my District Superintendent. Morgan was at work. I texted her to tell her Larry had asked me to come over, but he hadn’t told me what it was about. Larry didn’t say why he wanted to talk to me, but every United Methodist pastor knows what a call like this between the months of February and April means. It means a potential move. I texted Morgan to let her know what was going on, and I got into the car. As I drove over to Larry’s house, a million things were running through my head. “Where in the world is Larry going to try to send me?” “Morgan is 8 weeks pregnant, and no one knows but us. How is this going to affect whatever I’m about to hear?” And, one other question loomed large in my mind, “What is this going to mean about going back to school?”

All along, even when I was attending seminary having admitted that I was called to ordained ministry, I have always felt a tension. When I was working in the local church, I felt the tug of the academy, and when I was in school I felt the tug of the local church. I lived in that tension, thinking I would eventually end up back in school. When Morgan and I found out we were headed to Heritage in Lynchburg, I told God and myself, I’ll serve in the local church, get some experience to ground the academic work I might do later, get ordained, and THEN perhaps I will be able to go back to school. That was the plan. It seemed to be going well. By the time Larry was talking to me I knew I was going to be ordained. So, I had been at Heritage for three years, and in the next year I could start applying to programs. Then it would be time to go back to school.

Larry offered me a soda, and we sat down in his living room. I’ve shared this part of the story with some of you before, but it bears repeating. I didn’t know where Larry was going to say or where he was going to send me, except I knew where he wasn’t going to send me. I KNEW he wasn’t going to say Lane Memorial United Methodist Church. I knew he wasn’t going to. I knew this because I had already talked to some people about it, and I had explained to them why this wasn’t possible. (I guess it’s not so impossible). Just three weeks earlier, I had been having dinner with a colleague of mine named Dori Baker. And she said, “Alan, I think you’d be great at Lane, I wish we could get you there.” I explained to her all the reasons why that was impossible. I didn’t have experience. The Sr. Pastor at Heritage was retiring. I was planning being there for another year or two and then going back to school. These were all the reasons I knew it was impossible that I would be sent to Lane Memorial United Methodist Church.

Further, I just knew Larry wasn’t going to say Lane Memorial United Methodist Church because several times over the previous three years I had told my friend Shawn Kiger that it was impossible when he told me that he thought my gifts would match up well with Lane. I told him it wasn’t going to happen. You know how these things work. The appointment process, like it or not, is often treated like a ladder that one climbs. In my mind (and in the mind of many other folks), to come to Lane wouldn’t make sense because it would feel like skipping a couple of rungs. I knew for a fact that Larry Davies was not going to send me to Lane Memorial United Methodist Church!

And so after Larry offered me that soda, he said, “How would you feel about going to Lane Memorial?” And then he gave me about 18 hours for Morgan and me to think about it. Needless to say, neither of us slept much that night. We were wrestling with all those things I had been thinking about on the way to Larry’s house: I hold told Larry about the pregnancy and made him swear not to put it in an email or post it on Facebook. How would this move affect the new member of our family? What would the folks at Heritage say when they found out both of their pastors would be changing? And, what about going back to school? In my mind, I knew that to move churches would be to put that dream on hold for a long time. While there are no guarantees in the appointment process, in my mind, a new appointment would mean at least five, if not more, years of serving the local church. It meant indefinitely, the dream of going back to school would be deferred.

Last week, when we looked at Samuel, we asked the question, “How do we know when it is God speaking, and how to do we know it is just ourselves?” We answered that question with the baptized community’s reflection and discernment. So, when Morgan looked back on those conversations with friends, and the words Larry and I exchanged in his living room, it was clear that God was present in this. God had been present in what Shawn was saying to me. God had been present in my conversation with Dor. It was clear that God was calling me to continue in the local church, specifically Lane Memorial United Methodist Church. God was preparing the way and making it possible for me to stand here before you today. My appointment here to be in ministry with you is not some haphazard accident of the appointment system, but it is a calling. I am called to be here.

A couple of months later I was at the ordinands retreat where we go to reflect on our call to ministry before we are ordained at Annual Conference. At that retreat they get you to sit down and tell each other your call story over again. It’s a really excellent thing to do because we get so used to telling that story, that sometimes we forget how powerful it is to experience God’s calling, and to see the way that God has led us into our vocations. As I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is a professor at Candler School of Theology, he was telling me about how he always knew he was called into the local church. Except that God kept opening up all these doors for him to be in the academy. So he said that as long as God kept opening the doors, he would keep stepping through them.

As I listened to what he said, I realized that I was experiencing something of the opposite. I had convinced myself that I needed to be back in school, but God was opening these doors, one after another, for me to remain in the local church. What I realized I had been doing all along, what many of us do throughout our lives, is that I was constantly trying to renegotiate the terms of my calling. I was trying to say to God, “Yes, that sounds good, but I have a better idea.” Except that it wasn’t a better idea because God was calling to right where I am. God calls us where God wants us.

And so, as I read Jonah, I realized I could identify with him. The thing about Jonah is, is that he isn’t unfaithful. Jonah is not an unfaithful prophet. He’s a good prophet. He hears what God says; he knows what God wants him to do. He just doesn’t like it very much. Even as he flees to Tarshish, he probably has a good idea that he’s not going to be able to get away. Jonah’s resistance can even be construed as heroism. Jonah likes the idea of what God is going to do to Nineveh. Nineveh is this huge city in the Assyrian empires, the great enemy and oppressor of the Israelites. In Jonah’s mind, the Ninevites could use some smiting. Jonah wanted to be one of those old school prophets who prophesy some fire raining down on some evil people.[1] He doesn’t want to be one of those prophets who speak about God’s love, God’s mercy, and God’s forgiveness. He wants the Ninevites taken out. He has a better idea than what God is suggesting. And so he runs. He runs because he would rather sacrifice himself rather than see the Ninevites survive. Nineveh was famous for their unholiness.[2] They did horrible things to people when they conquered them. Unspeakable acts. So Jonah, sort of has a point.

We know how the story goes. Jonah runs away, he’s on the boat, the storm begins, they cast lots to find out whose fault it is, they throw him overboard, and as he is in the sea, the Scripture says that God “provided” a fish to eat him. That’s what the fish did, by the way. It ate him. It’s not like Pinocchio hanging in the belly of a whale. The fish ate him. He’s being eaten, and all the things that come along with eating and being eaten. Yet, even inside this fish Jonah is faithful. He cries out. And he thanks God for delivering him from death. The implication of Jonah and this big fish is that the fish has eaten him, and he is dying. When the fish spits Jonah back up on a land, the Hebrew indicates that it literally vomits him back on to land. Jonah’s delivery from death in the fish is an image of resurrection. Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah. This is what he means.

Finally, after all this time of trying to renegotiate the terms of his call, Jonah finally does what God asks. Jonah listens to God, but one can imagine that as he walked through Nineveh proclaiming the word of the Lord, that Nineveh would be overthrown in 40 days, he probably wasn’t going out of his way to make sure people heard him. One can imagine him grumbling through the streets, hopeful that that he would be ignored, so that destruction might fall upon these enemies of Israel. But something happens. The Ninevites not only hear him, but they go crazy with repentance. Not only does every person, great and small in Nineveh put on sackcloth and begin fasting, but also the king goes so far as to declare that animals are included in this act of repentance. Make them fast as well, and make them put on sackcloth. A bunch of animals were repenting along with the people in the face of the coming destruction.

Jonah of course, is furious. He goes and he pouts his way out of town, and he makes a booth for himself. And he sits by himself. God makes a little tree for him, and the Scripture says Jonah was very happy about that. But then, of course, God sends a worm to destroy the tree. This makes Jonah very angry. God says, “Jonah, are you angry about that tree getting destroyed?” And Jonah replies, “YES! Angry enough to die!” And says, “You didn’t have anything to do with that tree getting created. You didn’t make. You didn’t grow it. Yet you’re furious about it being destroyed. How am I supposed to feel? I created all those people in Nineveh, Israelite or not, I created them. Am I not supposed to care about them?” I love what God says last. “This is a city of over one hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants, and also many animals.” God remembered the repentance of the animals, which I love. I don’t know what to do with it, but I love it. God remembers that the animals joined in the repentance along with all the people.

And Jonah is furious about all of it! He hates the Ninevites. But the reality is that God wanted to used Jonah to be an instrument, a voice, a vessel of God’s love, and forgiveness, and mercy in the world, but Jonah didn’t want to have anything to do with it because Jonah had a better idea. Jonah wanted to renegotiate the terms of his calling. I wanted to renegotiate the terms of my calling. I thought I had a better idea. I’m a nerd. I like to read. Big deal. It doesn’t mean I need to be in school for the rest of my life. It also doesn’t mean that it won’t happen one day, but what I did learn is that we cannot renegotiate the terms of our contract because we are always acting in response to God’s promptings. I don’t want to talk in simple terms of a “plan” in which you’re headed in one direction, and if you deviate from it you’ll fall off a cliff. It is more like we’re walking on that line, making choices that God is able to work with our choices, but also able to put up gentle dividers to direct us towards God’s calling for us. Almost like a maze perhaps.

The reality is that we can be very faithful people. We can be in church every week, worshiping and serving God, and we can still be trying to wiggle our way, squirm our way, talk our way, worm our way, renegotiate our way out of what God would have us do. But we know that at the font, we receive God’s calling. And often our vocation is various, including both those things we do for our jobs as well as perhaps being part of a family. What it comes down to is God is intent on using us, and God is faithful in that calling. God pursues us, so that we might be vessels of God’s love, vessels of God’s mercy, and vessels of God’s forgiveness in the world. We can try to renegotiate this, but if we are attentive, we will begin to see that God is preparing the way for these things. God is present in them. That no matter how good our ideas are for ourselves, that God’s ideas are bigger. God’s ideas are better. God’s ideas match up with exactly what we need and what the world needs.

We are called, each and every one of us to be vessels of mercy. Each and every one of us, we are called to receive mercy. To receive forgiveness. To receive love. And to take it and to pour it out wherever we may find ourselves. We are called to pour that mercy out. To pour that healing out. That is who we are called to be. We can try as hard as we want to suggest otherwise. But God knows us. God knew Jonah, and Jonah knew God. Jonah never pretends that he doesn’t know God. When the storm begins, and the lots falls on him, they ask him who he is, and he rightly confesses that he worships “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t try to avoid the truth. He knows who God is, and he knows that God, who made both the sea and the dry land has a hand in what is happening to this boat. He knew who God is, and he knew he wasn’t getting away, even though he tried. But God used him to be a vessel of mercy. Even though Jonah had good reason not to want to. Even though I might enjoy going back to school, God had a better idea.

I share that story about me today for two reasons. One, I think it illustrates some ways to identify with the Scripture for today. Two, I tell it as a reminder to me, and as a reminder to you, that I believe that we are called to be right where we are right in this moment. WE are called to be here together. The stories we are following in the lectionary during these weeks are about calling. Last week we heard about Samuel. The week we heard about Jonah. The Gospel lessons for the last two weeks have been about Jesus calling disciples. We are being called. This is a time to reflect on our calling. How? Where? In what ways is God going to use us here at Lane Memorial United Methodist Church, the church to which I had decided it would be impossible for me to be appoint to, how is God going to us? It is abundantly clear that nothing is impossible with God because God will send us where God wants us to be. Thanks be to God.

[1] Russel Rathbun, “Prophet or Loss,” on The Hardest Question, Online: http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/epiphany3ot/, cited January 22, 2012.

[2] Rathbun, “Prophet or Loss,” The Hardest Question.