Sermon : SI Stefan Schröckenfuchs
Dear sisters and brothers,
I am very happy to be back here in Graz with you after quite a long time.
Today, after the worship service, we are holding our annual Charge Meeting.
And this year – like every 4 years – there will be elections.
It is part of the democratic understanding of our church that tasks are not just distributed or taken on at will, but rather that people – according to their talents and abilities – are elected for certain tasks.
This is also an expression of trust in them.
And this is a crucial prerequisite for being able to assume responsibility in the interest of the community.
Frank and I have agreed that today we will depart from the usual lectionary and instead focus on two texts that deal with people who have become important leaders in Judeo-Christian history.
The story of the calling of Moses from Exodus 3, and the story of the first disciples after John 1.
So both stories are the story of a calling.
And through these stories we can reflect on what – from God’s perspective – are essential criteria for him to take people into his service.
At first, the two stories begin in a very different way.
The story of Moses begins with his childhood.
I assume you know this story.
It begins with the fact that the Israelites lived as strangers in Egypt.
And since the Israelites were multiplying rapidly, the Egyptian pharaoh was worried that they could become so many that they might challenge his rule over the land.
Therefore, he puts increasingly difficult burdens on them – and as the most cruel action, one day he orders all newborn boys to be killed.
Only Moses was miraculously saved and eventually even grew up at the pharaoh’s court.
But he was well aware of his descent from a Hebrew family.
And when one day he saw an Egyptian foreman beating an Israelite, he killed this Egyptian in anger.
And consequently fled into the desert – where he eventually had that encounter with God, which we have heard about today.
God chose and selected Moses when he was still a child – that is the tenor of this story.
And his decision to make Moses the leader of the Israelites remains the same when Moses slayed the Egyptian.
Yes, it even seems as if God used this situation as well, to get Moses to where he wants him to be: into the desert, where Moses was torn out and thrown back on himself – and with that apparently open to the encounter with God.
For God wanted to use Moses to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom.
At first, the story of the calling of the first disciples, Andrew and Simon Peter, is quite different.
We learn almost nothing about them from John.
The only thing we learn about them is that initially they become active on their own account.
In the Gospel of John, the story follows immediately after the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
John the Baptist recognises in this context who Jesus is; and when he meets Jesus again the next day, he says about him: “Behold, the lamb of God.”
We could probably fill a whole sermon with the question of what this short statement means.
For now, I translate it with: “Look, here is the one whom God sends to restore the relationship between God and people.”
And this brief hint of John’s – according to the account of our Gospel – is enough to set the disciples in motion.
Their interest is aroused and they begin to follow Jesus.
For us this sounds a bit strange – but what is hinted at here is the concept of the rabbinic schools of discipleship.
A good rabbi always had his students with him. And their task was initially nothing other than to follow and observe what the rabbi was doing – in order to learn from him and to do what he did.
Learning by observing and imitating others.
What is astonishing about this account is actually only the fact that the initiative comes from the disciples themselves.
A good rabbi paid strict attention to whom he would accept into his following – and whom he would not accept. We do not just accept anyone as a student. That is not good for the reputation.
In this story of following, however, things are different.
The first initiative comes from the disciples – and Jesus does not ask for a letter of recommendation – but he just asks what is motivating them: what are you looking for?
So the backgrounds of these two stories of a calling are very different – one time it is told in such a way that the initiative comes entirely from God (Moses), the other time that it comes from people (Sermon of John and the search of Andrew, or Simon).
Still, from this point on there are a few things that are quite similar in both stories.
1) Both stories deal with the fact that the future leaders must first get to know God themselves.
With Moses this is presented very briefly and condensed in this dialogue between God and Moses at the burning bush.
God introduces himself to Moses as “God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
And he also introduces himself as the God who hears and sees the misery of his people and recognises the hardship (that means he lets himself be affected by it). This is why he wants to lead his people to freedom.
A very brief, directive encounter with God, in which Moses is rapidly confronted with God’s mission to him.
It is much longer with Andrew, Simon and all the other disciples.
Their “learning process” takes much longer, because Jesus takes them on a learning path of several years.
But that here the focus is also on “getting to know” becomes clear in the first conversation between Jesus and the disciples.
When Jesus sees that they are following him, he asks them: what are you looking for?
And their answer is first of all the title “rabbi” (in other words: we acknowledge you as a teacher), where do you live / where is your abode?
This is interesting, because elsewhere it says that Jesus said:
Foxes have dens and birds have nests; but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.
For Jesus home is not in this world – but it is with God, it is in the Kingdom of God, whose arrival Jesus has heralded.
The invitation: “come and see” does not mean: come to my house for a coffee and see how I live.
Rather, it means: come and get to know my Heavenly Home – learn what it means to have your home with God.
And what follows is a learning community for several years, in which the disciples get to know this heavenly home – this being rooted in God – and practice it.
So the first insight for the question of what constitutes good, Christian leadership is, in my view:
First of all, it is about getting to know God ourselves.
And that may sound like common knowledge.
But from my point of view it is not.
Rather, I observe very often – and I know it is a risk in my own life – that Christian leaders and bearers of responsibility often think they have to have time for all sorts of things.
But what falls short in the process is finding time for our own relationship with God.
In the course of his journey, a Moses is again and again thrown back on his “being dependent on God”.
And the path of Jesus begins with the invitation to stay with him – and to get to know his heavenly abode.
Without times and places for experiencing the presence of God, Christian leadership will not work.
I think it is very important to keep remembering that.
My second observation is then that neither Moses nor the disciples chose their own mission.
With Moses, as mentioned before, it happens in quite a directive and fast manner.
And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.
Clear message, clear mission.
And quite clearly probably not what Moses had in mind for his life.
It is probably a little different with the disciples – and here I will stay with Simon Peter as an example.
For he was obviously someone who liked to see himself in the role of a leader. There are many examples related to this in the gospels.
And in the end he was also assigned this role by Jesus.
At the very end of the Gospel of John, at the last encounter of the disciples with the risen Jesus.
Then Jesus instructed Simon Peter: Feed my sheep. So: take responsibility for the community of my disciples.
But before that, Peter was asked three times, whether he really loved Jesus.
So Peter received from Jesus the role that he had always liked.
But he can only fulfil it on the basis of love for Jesus – and not on the basis of love for himself.
Christian leadership involves not choosing your own mission, but letting God send you.
For this it is not only relevant whether we can identify more (Moses) or less (Peter) with this role.
But what is crucial is our relationship of trust with God, or our love for our Lord.
3) This leads to a third thought.
Those who let themselves be sent for Christian service are not immune to situations in which they feel overwhelmed at first.
This is experienced by Peter – who is usually the enthusiastic and keen one – as well as by the rather hesitant and fearful Moses.
Moses completely understandable reaction to God’s call is:
Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?
And the enthusiastic Peter, who promises just a few days before Jesus’ death on the cross that he would die for Jesus if necessary, gets cold feet over a few harmless questions and denies Jesus.
All Christian leaders are probably quite familiar with this sense of feeling overwhelmed.
But both Peter and Moses were each promised something.
God’s answer to the overburdened Moses is simple:
“I will be with you”
I will not leave you alone with this.
And when Jesus sees Simon for the first time, he says to him:
“You are Simon son of John.
You will be called Cephas”
– that means rock.
So Jesus does not just see who Simon is right now.
He also sees who he can be and will be one day.
And he does not tell him that in such a way that it is a burden: “You shall be like a rock – so pull yourself together!”
But he tells him that as a promise: “this is what you will be called one day”. This is what people will one day see in you.
This is also an encouragement: I do not yet have to be the person that God already sees in me.
However, on my journey with God – and with his help – I can and will become what God has in mind for me and who God wants me to be.
Not because it comes from me. But because it comes from God.
And on top of all this: God does not ask any of us to serve on our own.
Moses is very quickly joined by Aron, with whom he serves together.
And there are even 12 disciples. Peter is not alone with his task.
None of us is expected to take on a Christian leadership role alone.
God always sends us people with whom we share our calling.
So let me summarise my thoughts again:
How people find their way to God – and therefore their way to their mission from God – can be quite different.
Some feel rather surprised by God (like a Moses), others are more driven by their own search (like Peter).
However, crucial is this: those who take on a leadership role in a Christian community are not choosing their own mission, but are given it by God.
Therefore, it is essential – and I emphasise this again – that our own piety (that means time for our own encounter and relationship with God) comes first and is at the center. Otherwise it will not work out.
Even a deep connection, however, does not protect us from feeling overwhelmed.
But God promises us: I am with you and I will not leave you alone.
I already see in you who you will be one day, even if you are not yet that person. And you are not alone “as my ground staff” either, but we all share our mission with others, and we have people who support us in our service.
And now please let me add one last point, because I only really became aware of it myself while writing this sermon.
One week ago the lay delegates and pastors of our church met for a study day.
Based on the theme “What to teach”, the question of the core tasks and the profile of our church in Austria were discussed.
We exchanged our thoughts about the center/the heart of our faith and linked them to core elements of Methodist theology.
And there were three central themes:
Our relationship with God – because what we long for is the experience of God’s love.
Our relationship with others – because what we feel we are called to do is a faith that turns towards people – a faith that is active in love.
And our Christian community: our congregations, in which we practice both: opening ourselves for God, in order to experience God’s closeness.
And letting ourselves be sent for our service in the world.
And it was interesting for me to see how important the aspect of Christian community or congregations was to all of us:
Because they are places of learning; communities, in which we support each other in our faith.
And in some way also protected spaces, in which we can learn to take on responsibility, to approach others, and to turn towards our neighbours.
Places, where we can learn to become the people we might not yet see in ourselves.
But those that Jesus already sees in us.
When we elect people for certain ministries today, we are not just placing the burden on them to perform certain tasks.
We also entrust them to the guidance of God.
And whoever agrees to serve and be sent can do this with the promise: you are not alone.
God will be with you.
God will let that grow in you, which he has already planted long ago.
And we are a community, in which we strengthen, accompany and support each other.
Because ultimately we are all blessed and sent by God.