Today we have two scriptures that both show a strong call from God to follow. Unlike many of our other call stories, in both of these stories, those called also easily take on the call they’ve been given. Isaiah, we are told, readily jumps up and proclaims, “here I am, Lord! Send me!” And in the Luke passage, we are told, “As soon as they brought the boats to the shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.” Unlike with most of our prophets, like Jonah and Jeremiah, for example, in neither of these stories is there hesitation or even a moment in which those called think twice. And perhaps that is because the calls in both are so clear, so forceful, so undeniable. In the Isaiah passage, he is given a vision of deep, complete and life-changing forgiveness. And in the story in Luke, the fishermen have this amazing example of the abundance and life-giving fulfillment of fishing with complete success, after a long time of failed fishing, when they choose to follow what Jesus has asked them to do. So both most of felt like pretty safe calls to accept. One chooses to follow someone who can completely erase one’s past. The others choose to follow someone who provides abundance for them.
Have any of you ever had an experience like that? Where the call was so clear, so undeniable and so compelling that you simply could not refuse? These are not times when prayers were answered. This isn’t about asking for something and having it show up. In neither of these situations did it appear that the people approached were the initiators. They weren’t asking someone to show them the way, they weren’t asking for Jesus or God to throw their lives upside down and bring them into a new calling, a new situation. But in both cases, they were called in amazing and undeniable ways. For Isaiah, his choice to say “yes” meant a life time of confronting injustices and declaring that God cares what people do to and for those who are poorer, have less power and fewer resources, those being treated unfairly or oppressively. For Peter, James and John, we are told that they left everything they had: family, work, their homes – everything to follow Jesus.
Has there been a time when you have felt so moved, so called that you left everything in order to start something new? There probably has for a few of you. And for many more of us there have been smaller versions of this, perhaps. For example, moving to a new country or across the country in order to start something new, not completely leaving behind family, maybe, but still taking a big risk in order to start something different. It is still the case that immigrants often struggle unbelievable hardships in order to come here, risking everything in order to do so.
It is much easier to take those risks, and to jump into something new when there has been a deep sign, and when there has been a promise of abundance (especially in a time of scarcity or deep struggles and pain), like Jesus gave to the disciples or like God gave to Isaiah with his abundant forgiveness. But those just don’t come as clearly or as often for most of us, do they?
The call of most people we would consider to be heroes in some ways does happen like this. A job shows up, a situation presents itself, and our heroes are those who step up to meet the challenges set before them, who may feel they have no choice but to respond in those situations, when they show. I realize this is just a story, but when I think about people responding to a call that shows up in front of them, the Dr. Seuss story, “Horton hears a Who” often comes to mind for me first. Horton was just minding his own business when he heard the cry of distress from a tiny person on a clover flower. He could have ignored it, but he chose not to. As he says, “because a person’s a person, no matter how small.” He protects the people who are so small they can’t be seen by him, but only heard, from the elements, from other animals, from unkindness again and again. He, himself, suffers pain and humiliation but he isn’t willing to give up caring for the Whos because he knows that to do so would mean their destruction. He is the hero in the story not because that’s who he has always been, and not because he sought out being a hero, but because he wasn’t willing to allow the destruction or harm of these very small people that couldn’t even be seen. That’s what heroes do: when they stand up for injustices, they often are standing up for those whom we would see as “small” or unimportant or not valuable. That stepping up and standing up when there is an opportunity to do so: that is the difference between a hero and someone who isn’t.
But while our calls may not look heroic, still, every single person has a call. I’m sure you are all probably familiar with Frederick Buechner’s comment that call is where a person’s deepest passion and the world’s deepest need meet. I always add into this that our deepest gifts need to be part of that too. And the example I most often give is of the people on American Idol who have the passion for singing and see that the world is fed deeply by art, but who can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Our gifts must be part of any true calling. And a true call does not usually leave us alone. Most of the time God gives us more than one chance to say yes to those calls.
As I was thinking about call, I was reminded of this page in Mitch Album’s book, Have a little faith (p234. New York: Hyperion, 2009):
It is summer and we are sitting in his office. I ask him why he thinks he became a rabbi.
He counts on his finders.
“Number one, I always like people.
“Number two, I love gentleness.
“Number three, I have patience.
“Number four, I love teaching.
“Number five, I am determined in my faith.
“Number six, it connects me to my past.
“Number seven – and lastly – it allows me to fulfill the message of our tradition: to live good, to do good, and to be blessed.”
I didn’t hear God in there.
“God was there before number one.”
I believe that is true for all of us, whether we are aware of it or not. When we are really, truly, deeply fulfilling the call of our hearts, the call that God placed there before we were born, before we were made, before we knew ourselves that we had a passion or even a purpose, then it shows. It shows in the passion with which we work. It shows in the love with which we tackle any calling. It shows in our joy and in the time we commit to our work. It shows in all that we are and all that we do.
I think about certain people I’ve met who are absolutely doing the work of a calling. It doesn’t actually matter what the work is. You can see it in a person. My kids had a preschool teacher who was so incredibly gifted at her work. She loved the kids, the kids loved her, and that love and care shone from her on a daily basis. A real estate person I knew years ago absolutely loved helping people find homes that would work for them. She did her work with passion and joy.
How do you tell the difference between something you just simply love to do and a real call? I think it comes down to whether or not the particular task you are doing does, indeed, meet a need of the world. Does the task you are doing just serve you? Or does it really help people, feed people, care for people, provide for them? Even the real estate agent I mentioned: she took her work as a call: she worked hard to make sure that people found houses that they could afford but that also would serve them long term. She didn’t hesitate to tell people, even if it meant loss of a sale for her, when she thought the neighborhood was questionable or the house wouldn’t grow with a growing family. She didn’t hesitate to give realtor discounts if she thought it would help a family get into a house that would work for them. She really saw her work as a call and she lived that out fully.
That doesn’t mean that when we are following a call, we are happy all the time. It doesn’t mean that our work is easy all the time. In the movie, Keeping the Faith, there is a wonderful conversation between a young priest and an older priest. The young priest doubts his call into the priesthood after falling in love with a woman who is his friend. Nothing happened between the two, but he found that the very fact of falling in love made him doubt a call that included celibacy. He said to his older priest mentor, “If she had kissed me back, I would have given it all up. She didn’t, but I keep thinking about what you said in the seminary that the life of a priest is hard and if you can see yourself doing anything else you should do that.”
The older priest responded, “Well that’s my recruitment speech which is good when you are starting out because it makes you feel like a marine! But the truth is you can never tell yourself there is only one that you could be. If you’re a priest or if you marry a woman, it is the same challenge. You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it is a choice that you make again and again and again. I’ve been a priest over 40 years, and I fall in love at least once every decade.”
That is part of call too – those doubts, those times of struggle. The older priest in the movie went on to say that God would give the younger priest his answer. And I think that in times of doubt, God ultimately does give us answers: but often the answer comes in the form of a deeper question: what do I do, what can I do, that serves God and God’s people the most? Where do we find God the most in our work, our tasks, our lives? Where is our passion and gifts that meet the world’s deepest needs? And how do we do that work to the best of our ability?
Josie Jones was a very rich woman who felt and answered God’s call to serve the homeless population in Oakland. She felt certain that God was calling her to do so out of her own resources. So, she gave everything that she had and opened a transitional house for homeless women trying to move out and beyond their situation. She got them into job training programs, enrolled in school, she helped them to take control of their lives and to move permanently from homelessness into full and productive living. When Josie heard this call, she had everything. She had a huge mansion and very nice cars. She had a good job as a lawyer, but she was also independently wealthy and very, very comfortable. Still, she heard God’s call. And so she began by taking out her savings to being this program. But as she served and worked with these women, she ended up giving more and more to fund it. She did not want to take funds from government grants because she found that most grants came with a great deal of caveats, demanding a list of specifics that would not have given Josie the freedom she needed to really serve, empower and change these women’s lives. Josie became materially poorer and poorer, personally, giving up her cars, her large house, her beautiful clothing, everything, until she lived truly as poorly and simply as the women she was serving with her care. But in becoming like them, she was able to serve them and relate to them and care for them in a way that truly
transformed lives. Josie died just a few years ago, and until the very end she described herself as one of the richest women alive. God had not filled her life with popularity, with fame, or, in the end, with wealth. God had instead filled her life, daily, with visions of the resurrection as she saw new life beginning and transforming around her and within her: bringing her life meaning, love, life.
As I think about people like Josie Jones, I am reminded of an Amy Grant/Gary Chapman song that I have always loved entitled, “All I ever have to be”: “
When the weight of all my dreams is resting heavy on my head,
and the thoughtful words of help and hope have all been nicely said.
But I'm still hurting, wondering if I'll ever be the one I think I am…
Then you gently re-remind me that you've made me from the first,
And the more I try to be the best the more I get the worst.
And I realize the good in me, is only there because of who you are. Who you are...
And all I ever have to be is what you've made me.
Any more or less would be a step out of your plan.
As you daily recreate me, help me always keep in mind
That I only have to do what I can find.
And all I ever have to be:
All I have to be:
All I ever have to be Is what you've made me.”
Beautiful words about a life lesson to let go and let God so that God’s purpose can be made manifest in your life.
Sometimes we look too hard for the right call when if we were to relax a little and see what comes before us, we would know what it is we are being called to do in any one moment. I think about this with my own life. I would hope that being a pastor is a call: I’ve always wanted to be a pastor, I love my work, I enjoy almost all aspects of it. But there is another part of my work that I also think is a call and that’s the one I want to talk with you about today. The one job that I have never sought but that keeps coming to ME, is that of playing the piano (and organ), or, in particular, accompanying church choirs. Even when I think, again and again, that that part of my work is done, it pops up for me again. When I was serving my church in Ohio as pastor, our organist graduated and moved on to another state for graduate school. My congregation asked if I would fill in until they found someone else. Months later, they finally admitted to me that they didn’t want someone else and hoped that I would continue to play. Then, as many of you know, I was asked this last fall by one of the choir directors at St. Bonaventure if I would be willing to accompany their resurrection choir that primarily plays for memorial services. I struggled with this decision. Even after I had asked session approval and had played for them for a few weeks, I struggled with this. I’m already so busy after all… But it is an ecumenical choir and a few of our members sing with that choir. One Monday morning when I was just on the verge of deciding that this was not something I could continue to do, one of our members who sings in that choir approached me and told me that the work we were doing, of giving music and meaning to people who were grieving, was deeply important, was a true calling from God. In particular, he said, my using my piano playing in this way was what God was asking me to do. I am sure he has no idea how much those words hit me, or that it has kept me playing for this choir. Playing music is not the job I think I should have. It’s not the work I want to say that I am “called” to do, and yet it keeps presenting itself: showing up before me in ways I don’t ask for or expect.
What are you called to do? Whatever your gifts, your purposes, your life lessons, God calls you to use them, to see them, to grow with them and to work with them for the common good. So my challenge for all of us is to look this next week, is to reflect on the callings God has for you specifically. Thanks be to God for the prophets, the teachers, the nurturers, the servers, for all God’s people, since we are all called. God help us to fulfill Your purposes for us. Amen.