Reflection: Discipleship, Week Two: Call Sept 16, 2018
Genesis 12:1-9; Matt 28:19-20
“Elderly man seeks exciting new opportunities. Qualifications: descendant of Seth, third son of Adam and Eve. Married, family man, though without children. Business partner: a nephew, Lot. Only 75 years old. Please reply to Abram, c/o Tent Village, outskirts of Haran.” Would you hire this guy? I’m guessing probably not.
No-one sends a resumé to God. There’s no heavenly job-seekers’ page. Can you imagine what a resumé might look like for someone like Abram, Sarai, or any of the apostles? How about Jesus? Who would hire these people?
Well, God would. God doesn’t hire people based on their resumés. God calls them, and equips them for the ministry that they will be given. God calls stutterers to preach, uneducated people to teach, persecutors to be missionaries, and prostitutes to be life-savers. God calls thieves to share, and cheaters to head sacred families. That’s God for you. God calls the most unlikely people to do the most extraordinary things – AND God calls ordinary people to do both ordinary and extraordinary things.
One of the things people preparing for ordered ministry in the United Church of Canada get asked a lot is “Tell us about your call.” I think most of us struggle with that question, as there’s a pattern to call stories in the Bible that rarely exists in contemporary life. Usually a person hears the voice of God in some way – a quiet voice, a dream, a burning bush. God tells them what God wants them to do. Then they protest to God that they can’t do whatever it is God wants them to do (OK, that part is familiar). Then God reassures them that God will provide them with what they need. Often there’s a sign given to make that promise concrete.
I don’t think many of us in ministry experienced our call quite this way. I suspect most of us felt a gentle tugging, a persistent nudge, or an “I wonder?” that caused us to explore the path to ministry. In my case, it was the church’s idea, not mine. Not that I didn’t want to serve God, but this particular form of ministry or calling just wouldn’t have occurred to me if the congregation I was involved in hadn’t encouraged me to consider it. They believed that God might have given me the gifts I have for this specific purpose. In the United Church, we believe that a person’s call to ministry can come from within them or from outside them – from the faith community itself – and we believe that call must always be tested and affirmed by the community in order for it to be authentic. Like many of the prophets, a lot of people have doubted the call, fought it, run away from it, postponed it, only to find that it kept coming back. A mentor of mine in ministry once told me to “fight the call until you can’t fight it anymore – then you’ll know that this is what God wants you to do.” He said that because the call to ordered ministry has a lot of challenges, and he didn’t think one should even attempt to answer it without seeking out every other avenue first!
I want to remind everyone here today that though we use the word “call” most often to describe the invitation to paid-accountable ministry in the organized church, there are all kinds of calls in the world. The word “Vocation” comes from the Latin word for “call”. What we do for a living can absolutely be our call from God. A very wise man said once that the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. “ (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, A Theological ABC.) A couple of weeks ago we were joking about a recent, rather extravagant purchase someone had made. We’d been talking about the way stuff can get hold of us, and the person had said tongue-in-cheek that perhaps that purchase better go back. I said, off the top of my head: “find a way to make it serve God!”
What I might have said, is if you really love this thing, this work, this talent, this activity, then God will show you a way that it can serve God’s purposes – and here’s the tricky bit. That service may not look like anything you ever expected to find yourself doing! We tend to think of our vocation as something that flows naturally from our gifts and skills. But according to Scripture, that’s not necessarily true. God calls, and God equips – and what God has in mind for us may not be anywhere in our five year goals or our life plans at all! Have you ever met someone and thought – that is the most unlikely person to be doing that work that I’ve ever met? People revere Mother Teresa, but by all accounts she could be bad-tempered, was riddled with doubts about her faith, and was often all too certain about matters of morality and doctrine. Does that make her less worthy of reverence? Or does that make her just another oddball like us, called by God to do something no-one wanted to do?
Abram and his wife Sarai certainly weren’t perfect. Abram lied and passed his wife of as his sister and almost ended up with her in another guy’s harem. He doubted God’s promises, and nearly killed his own son, while Sarai also doubted, connived to get Abram a child through her concubine and then had Abram throw the concubine Hagar and their child out of camp when Sarai’s own son was born. These are not perfect people – far from it. I doubt that at their age they really wanted a new adventure, and as for starting a family well into their senior years…I don’t think that was in their life plan. You couldn’t find a more unlikely pair to be the start of this sacred family God intended! But God put them on this strange new path and off they went, with no idea how it would all play out.
Even if it feels like our job, our life’s path even, is terribly distant from God’s purposes and God’s intentions for the world, I believe that God can show you a way, can give your life direction as he did for Abram and Sarai. If it is not in your job, it may be in your avocation, that activity about which you are deeply passionate and that gives you great joy. Some of us have to take a McJob – a job that pays the bills but doesn’t bring depth or meaning into our lives. So our way of following God’s call may be through something outside of our work life.
A Red Seal chef starts a kitchen where ex-cons can train for the culinary arts; a retired nurse volunteers as the parish nurse for her congregation; a teacher signs up to do one-on-one literacy training, or a plumber donates skills to Habitat for Humanity. A businessman does the books for a homeless shelter, and a Wal-Mart greeter shares a genuine smile and a positive attitude with harried shoppers. A garbage collector brings the garbage cans up to the door for an elderly customer, and a passionate cyclist organizes a fundraising ride for cancer. An entertainer sings for someone else’s supper, and a local restaurant has a “buy someone else a meal” program. A copywriter creates a campaign to promote justice for immigrants and refugees; an amateur actor puts on a play to bring attention to the plight of people with dementia. A knitter makes prayer shawls and a boater takes children out onto the ocean to spot seals and orcas. Someone who’s never gone to a formal meeting in their lives ends up taking minutes at a church meeting. A person who has dozens of people working for them scoops food and cleans plates at a community dinner.
All of this is vocation. All of this is response to the Call of God. One thing I notice about the story of Abram and the associated passage from Matthew is that this call begins with a promise and a blessing. This promise and this blessing is for Abram, it’s true, but it’s also for all peoples, all nations. By this point in the Genesis story, humanity has returned to its corrupt ways after the catastrophic event of the flood, and God needs to find another way to bring humanity into the path that will preserve their lives and the lives of all creatures. This time, God starts small, with a family – a family that will come from one man and one woman who will be blessed in order that the world may be blessed.
To discover one’s vocation is a blessing, but it’s not a blessing for us alone. It’s not even a blessing just for our families or our immediate communities. It’s a blessing that goes beyond family, or tribe, or nation, to bring healing to a wider and wider circle, until it encompasses the planet. “Think big!” God seems to be telling us. Our vocation is to serve the world in Jesus’ name – to live out the Gospel through living out both the Christian call to teach and baptize but also the individual call to our unique ministries. “Think globally and act locally” is a popular phrase in development and justice work. This story tells us, “Sure, start local, but grow it, spread it around, until all nations are blessed”. It’s a tall order, isn’t it? Yet with God, nothing is impossible.
To be a disciple of Christ is to answer the call to be a blessing to all nations, all peoples. Answering that call is our life’s work. What is God doing in your life? What call do you hear? And how will you answer? . Amen.