Scriptures: 1 Samuel 3:1-20, John 1:43-51
Let us pray:
In the divine silence of our souls, help us, O Lord to discern the calling of your voice, that we may be obedient to your will for us in this place and time, now, in the midst of your reign. Amen.
I am convinced that everyone has a calling. These two scripture stories for today share the dramatic kind of callings. Samuel in the temple hearing the Lord call him by name at his young age. Nathaniel, or one of the other Gospel lists would call him, Bartholomew, being singled out by Christ who, in one of those rare moments in scripture really does seem as if he is the all–knowing, all-wise God en-fleshed among us.
But that doesn’t happen today, right? I mean, these are stories from Bible times when God was really there with God’s people in ways they understood. God isn’t here, really, today, in ways that we hear like they did, right? I mean, God doesn’t really speak anymore, that was only long ago…
Or, is God still speaking and calling to us even in this day and age where the Church is in transition, our society is in transition, and our culture is attempting to remake itself? I submit to you the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Let me share with you a few contemporary stories about how God is still at work today, and how God is still speaking among us.
Three years and two weeks ago, the moderator of our denomination at the time, Cindy Bolbach, called together 6 elders from across the wide spectrum of the PC(USA) to discuss the future of our denomination. In the midst of congregations leaving the PCUSA left and right for more conservative expressions of the faith, this was the question she put to the group: “So who are we Presbyterians today, and is God calling and moving in us still?” The six Elders reflected on Ephesians 4:1-16 and discussed their hopes and dreams for the church, both our denomination and the individual churches they served, and an answer came: a resounding “YES!”
As they discussed and reflected together, even though they came from very diverse backgrounds and from a wide spectrum of beliefs within the PC(USA), they all agreed that God is calling us to unity, that something is in the air…the Holy Spirit is still moving and active amongst all of us as we seek to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. The whole of their dialog and subsequent letter can be found on the website hopeforthepcusa.blogspot.com. My own conclusion after reviewing their work is that the PC(USA) is far from dead and dying, as some have feared. We are alive and well in the midst of a very exciting time in the history of Christianity. We are still being called, even though numerically we have been one of declining mainline reformed denominations. That really doesn’t matter because we are being formed and reformed as God calls us to deeper ministries of profound transformation. Remember John Calvin’s proclamation? we are the church reformed, always reforming.
Here is a more personal story: about receiving a calling but running away from it in fear; almost as if being so intimate with the Holy is to be avoided at all costs. An ancestor of mine by the name of Robert Booth was working for his father in Missouri when he went into a Methodist meeting one evening to listen to a guest speaker. This was at the tail end of the Second Great Awakening, in the early 1840s. In his diary, he writes of being “strangely moved” during the preaching, after which he felt compelled to speak about his experience and the grace of God that had been extended to him. When the district superintendent heard him speak, he offered him a preaching license, but Robert declined, considering himself not sufficiently trained.
In fact, he soon married a nice fellow Methodist and started a family; after which he then followed his brother to California for the gold rush; which for him was utterly unsuccessful. He barely returned intact to home and family. Soon after this, he and his growing family chose to hit the Oregon Trail and find work in the Oregon Country. On the way, he fell gravely ill and his wife nursed him back to health, with a bit of a divine bargain in place: “Lord, if only you help me get him through this alive, I promise he will take up the cloth like he is supposed to and preach for you in Oregon.” In a rare moment of his lucidity during the illness she told him of her bargain with God. While he did not write of his thoughts about that pronouncement, he did in fact recover. In addition to that, they didn’t lose a single child on the way and in fact had another one on the trail. When they finally reached Portland, he once again ran away from God’s calling on his life (and his wife’s bargain with God) by working timber and wood cutting; until he nearly cut off his foot. He decided to finally answer the call and do good by his wife’s bargain with God and the early promise he showed in Missouri, as un-schooled as he was in a preacher’s life and training. When he finally embraced this calling, he went on to become one of the best well-known and well-loved Methodist Circuit Riders from the era that some have begun to call the Third Great Awakening, roughly 1850s to 1900s. Robert actively preached in western Oregon from about 1856 to 1907. His statue still stands on the grounds of the Capitol building in Salem today.
God, when calling, is if anything, persistent, no? Even despite our own thoughts on the matter. Let me tell you one more story of calling. I was a summer staff member at Suttle Lake United Methodist Camp in 1999. The last camp of the summer before I was scheduled to leave and head back to graduate school, I was asked to go assist a guest group leading campfire. The group was called Strength for the Journey, an adult camp for people living the remainder of their lives with HIV positive conditions…some of them attending this camp make it their last wish before their disease finally claims them. I have to confess that I was most uncomfortable with this group of campers-they were, after all, people that had contracted AIDS, were much more worldly and all much older than me at the time. I was young, naïve, and in my immature perception, they were all people with questionable characters-they were “others.”
I wonder, sometimes, if I grew more that night in wisdom than I did in the following three years of graduate work in seminary put together. This is the way of it:
The night sky had begun to darken into that deep rose sometimes seen in the mountains when bright tiny twinkling stars begin to show. As we gathered around the campfire one of the campers and I tuned our guitars together so they would at least match as the night began. Then the campers began to request songs out of the 60s, mostly secular and none of which I knew; I watched the other guitarist’s fingerings carefully so I could play the chords and follow along as they sang. Then came a request for a song that I actually knew, one that I had used earlier in camp for other groups; one still out of the 60s but familiar to many: Pass it On. As we all lifted our voices in song together and the two of us accompanied them on guitars with our fumbling fingers, I caught the eye of my fellow guitarist, briefly looking deep into his eyes. At that moment I was deeply moved by our commonality despite our differing life experiences and conditions…which then helped me realize all of us, no matter who we are or what our life circumstances, are children of God, seeking to be loved, seeking community and belonging, seeking an experience of God in some tangible way. I was convicted. Who am I to sit in judgment on anyone? That is for God alone to do.
In that moment, I understood in a small way what it means to be a member of the priesthood of all believers. As such, each of us, you and me, are one of God’s instruments, placed in a certain place and time to bring the love of God to those around us – a person or group – that needs it. In that moment, the sense of calling to ministry was very strong for me. It was a life changing experience, one that kept me going through seminary and the academics of religion long after I might have given up on it altogether. God’s ongoing ripple effect for me from that experience is a sense of calling to continue being involved in life-changing, transformative ministry.
And isn’t that what all of us are called to do as Christians? God calls us from the diverse corners of this community and beyond through the waters of Baptism, in the bread and cup, in the music of hymns and in the fellowship of our lives. God calls to us in the voices of parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, at coffee fellowship, in the preschool, from down the road at the school, to the Pacific Crest Trail. God calls us in the midst of our every day, not just on the proverbial mountain tops. I wonder, are we listening? Are you?
We are, all of us, pilgrims on a journey, whether as members of a “Strength for the Journey” camp, a children’s camp, a faith community such as this congregation, or as individuals engaged in our own personal labyrinthine journeys where we pilgrimage through the inner landscape of our own lives, seeking to find ourselves in the center of God’s will.
Why do I share these stories with you? Because I am convinced that within each of us, you and me, is a calling implanted by God to be God’s witnesses. Our life is a gift from God, and were we to really listen to that divine silence within the depths of our souls, we would hear God’s voice calling, guiding us in what God would wish us to do and be.
What will the next chapter of your journey be? What will the next chapter of this church look like in the Book of Life? That we have an opportunity to discover and live out together for the next year and perhaps beyond. I am convinced that God is speaking still, and that you do have a calling, and that you have the energy and resources needed to give your calling flesh, enliven it, and live it out in this time and place. I, too, have a calling; and for a time our paths and callings are meeting in this place and time. Let us all be God’s witnesses.
May it be so.