The following is my final sermon to my congregation in Iowa. Indiana here we come! Thanks to everyone who has journeyed with this through this transition.
Sometimes I think I have one of the strangest occupations around. For one thing, it is an occupation that is driven by a vocation. Many professions are driven by a vocation, an inner pull that calls people to do a type of work. It would have to be a calling or they wouldn’t do it. Being a minister is unique in that our professions begin with the question how do you feel God is calling you? Ministers love the church, but aren’t a member of any one church. Ministers are called by the church, but are received and dismissed by the Presbytery. Ministers are privileged to hold the trust of a congregation, to pray with them and to love them and yet they cannot share that they are being called elsewhere until the end of the call experience and the relationship comes to an end.
I think about other professionals who get job transfers, promotions, and I wonder if they struggled as I did about asking God, “is this what you want me to do?” Discerning God’s call takes some significant effort . Especially in a society that doesn’t really consider call as a skill set. Beginning with the question “what is God is calling you to be or do” is not a question asked in our modern-day society. Yet I believe that we all have a calling. We all have gifts that were given to us that are to be used for the will of God. Clergy don’t hold the cards on callings. Each of us here today has a calling.
“Calling” derives from the Latin vocare, “to call,” and is sometimes interchangeable with the word “vocation.” Before the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church used ‘vocation’ specifically to refer to a special calling to the religious life, as a priest, monk, or nun. Martin Luther expanded “vocation” to apply to secular work that serves others.
Other people define calling as what you are meant to do in the world. Frederich Buechner defines calling as “one in which your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet — something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done.”
Ever since I was a little kid I remember thinking I was supposed to make a difference in people’s lives. I believed I was supposed to help people. To make the world a better place. I believed I was supposed to make a positive difference in my community, maybe even the world. I had posters in my room that quoted Margaret Mead “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” And Mahatma Ghandi, “be the change you want to see in the world.” And Eleanor Roosevelt, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”
It took, what felt like to me, a long time to decide what it was I was supposed to do with my life. Those of you who are 14, 15, 16 years old, take heart and take your time. You are not supposed to know your calling, you are only supposed to know you have one.
Calling is never static. It is always changing and always challenging. Calling is something that happens over and over again. It’s a wrestling, a tugging, a pulling and keeps you awake at night. Call is never easy. It is usually born out of a sense need. You see a need for better health care, or better education, or clean water or poverty, or tolerance or justice or hope and something stirs in you like a container of fire flies and you cannot help but respond to the needs of the world as daunting and overwhelming as the challenge is, you have to be one to who is part of the solution. It is the people who hesitate who are lost. Our calls compel us to live while we are alive.
Things were really bad in Israel. Nobody had heard from God in a while. In fact the Bible says that God had been silent for a long time. Israel’s government was led by priests and in this case, a priest name Eli who had delegated much of his responsibilities to his sons. His sons were unethical leaders and things were looking bad for the future Israel. God had been silent for a while. I wonder if you can relate to that. Maybe you look at the state of the world, or the state of the church or the state of your family, or the state of your life and you ask, “where is God in this mess?” All you hear is silence.
There was a boy named Samuel, who has been under the tutelage of Eli. He was asleep one night in the temple and he kept be awakened by a voice that was calling his name. Upon hearing his name, he went to his mentor, Eli and assumes it is he that his calling him. Three times Samuel is called. Three times, he jumps out of bed and asks what Eli needs from him. Eli does not hear the voice, but eventually understands who it is that is calling. Eli says to Samuel, “it is the Lord. The next time you hear him go and say here am I, I servant of the Lord.”
When Samuel gets his wake up call, that God is calling him, he doesn’t know it’s his wake up call until his teacher points it out. It wasn’t until Eli nudged him that Samuel even entertained the notion that he was being called by God. So maybe the voice of God is not always immediately identifiable. Maybe the voice of God sounds like a human voice. Maybe God employs human voices to communicate.
Discerning your call is never done in isolation. It is always done in community. There is usually someone who sees your calling before you do. We need people, mentors in our lives, people in our balconies who identify our gifts and help us to see that we are being called. Every time Fred Rogers received an Emmy or another television award, he used his microphone time to ask people to sit in silence for 10 seconds and just think about the people who believed in them, who helped them get where they were today. And then he encouraged them to contact them and thank them and then to go be that mentor for someone else.
Who is an Eli in your life? Who is the person that you run to when you are trying to figure things out? Who is the person that always sees more in you than you see in yourself? Maybe you should listen carefully to the voices that speak to you; listen carefully to the voices of your friends, your spouse, your partner, your mentor, your colleagues, your child. “Listen to your life.” Buechner writes. “See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
In our New Testament reading Jesus is walking along the shore and sees four men in a boat and he shouts out, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” And, of all things, that is what they do: leave their nets and follow. Just like that. They just hear Jesus call and they drop everything. If only it was that easy. – Didn’t they need to follow their 401k or transfer their home owners insurance? Didn’t they need to take exams or learn Greek? Not that we know of. We do know that by the looks of it they did not hesitate. They learned as the followed. And we know they made a lot of mistakes along the way. They don’t quite know what they are supposed to do, or how they should act, or what they should say, and they blunder every step of the way. Jesus is constantly correcting them and teaching them as they are following him. And so it is for you. Your call is not to be perfect or in control. It is to follow him as best you can, where you are.
I think the church has failed in many ways in that it has required a measure of belief, before a measure of faith. Have faith first. Have faith that you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Have faith that in His book were written all they days of your life. Have faith that you are hemmed in. Start with feeling compelled to follow Jesus, what you believe about him you will come to learn along the way. Be careful not to hesitate. For it is in our hesitating to respond to our call, that we become lost. On the other hand, if you can respond to the voice in the night, and begin the process of following, you begin to know. On the journey you begin to understand. On the journey you begin to believe.
Make no mistake, the journey is not for the faint of heart. It will take moments when you will alone, when it will seem that you are alone, and it is in those moments when you are out on a limb and ready to take a leap of faith, without a net that you will come to the realization that someone is calling you and you are never, nor have you ever been alone.
Poetry By Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Listen, God is speaking, say to him,“Here I am. Then get up and Follow Him.