Sermon for 1/19/14:
The Lord Called Me
“Almighty God, grant that your people may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known to the ends of the earth.” Amen.
I spent the last two weeks taking what my school refers to as an “immersion” class called “City of Refuge.” The idea of immersion classes is for students to live among people from cultures different than our own. The school offers immersion trips to India, Mexico, and Nepal, but, being as how I would miss you all too much if I went too far away – (well, that and the fact that I have a paying job) – I opted to immerse myself in a different culture here in the Bay Area. And I am very grateful that I did.
“City of Refuge” is not just the name of a class; it’s the name of a “church” as well. Founded in 1991 by a small group of individuals who could not find a place of worship that accepted them for who they were, it now has ministries in San Francisco, Oakland, Mexico, and Africa. They describe their mission as “to endeavor to integrate psychosocial and physical healing by meeting the profound social issues of our day with a liberating Gospel of Restoration without judgment.” They refer to themselves as “refugees.” City of Refuge draws people from all walks of life, but is particularly welcoming to lesbian, gay, and transgendered people who have been separated from God by the judgments imposed on them by their religious traditions. While many of these people embrace the style of worship they grew up with, they feel that they cannot belong to church communities that have told them that if they can’t change their sexual orientation or gender identities, they will go to hell.
One of the most interesting things to me about City of Refuge is the way in which they carry out their ministries. While the Episcopal Church is hierarchical in nature (and, if you want to see that demonstrated visually, watch the procession. The most important person always comes last), Refuge is based on the image of a wagon wheel, with all spokes being equal. To them, worship is important, but no more important than their food pantry, farmer’s market, HIV ministry, or Wellness Clinic. What’s more, they consider all people that are regular participants in any of their ministries to be part of their congregation – even if they never show up for Sunday worship.
One of the things they are most clear about is that they are not “helping people in need,” or “being charitable.” Their mission is to empower people to help themselves. They will tell you not to give money to someone on the street who asks for it, but to go and buy them food. They will tell you that they will not allow someone who is actively using drugs to stay in their long-term housing, although they will shelter them until they can get into a program.
And they hire people who have benefitted from their services, because they expect them to contribute. Refuge has been able to consistently expand their ministries by, “preaching a message of hope and action…through the extravagant love and grace of Jesus Christ.” It’s quite something.
But it might not be your “something.” Yvette Flunder, the founder and spiritual leader of Refuge, says that “every need is not our call.” But, she also says, we all have a calling to fulfill. Her statement echoes the words of Isaiah in today’s Old Testament lesson: the Lord calls us before we are born so that we may be a light to the nations and glorify God. We all have a call. Of course, that doesn’t mean we want to answer it.
I certainly didn’t. I grew up in the Episcopal Church. My family was always very active in my home parish – both of my parents served on the Vestry, my dad was a Lay Eucharistic Minister, and I often spent my Saturday mornings doing Altar Guild with my mom. My older sister was one of the first female acolytes in the Episcopal Church, and I was the first female Senior Sacristan at my college, where I had the privilege of serving as a LEM alongside Bishop Desmond Tutu. As an adult, I have served in liturgical and church government positions in five different dioceses. But I never wanted to believe that I was called to ordained ministry. My goal was to become one of those fabulous and revered elderly church ladies who gets an amazing turnout at her funeral. But that’s not what God wanted.
When I was 25 and working in broadcasting, I began to feel very uncomfortable – as if I was not right in my skin. I went to see my parish priest and he suggested that I might have a call to ordained ministry and perhaps I should start doing some discernment about that. So I went to Social Work school and became a social worker. Two years later, while working with chronically mentally ill homeless people, I started to get that “itchy” feeling again. This time I knew what God wanted – so I found something else to do. I figured if I could keep upping the ante on “helping people” I could get out of this whole “priest thing.” Ten years later, the inability to live in my skin came back – and this time it was so unbearable, that I cried out to God in frustration, “I give Lord, I give!” Or, as Isiah says, “Surely my cause is with the Lord.” And the discomfort in body, the fear in my heart, and the questioning in my mind, stopped. Because, although I knew I was not worthy on my own merits, I realized that God had chosen me for His own reasons, and would be my strength.
Now, I don’t think my battles with God are unique. In fact, I know they are not. Jacob is called Jacob because he wrestled with God – and that’s why discernment committees are sometimes referred to as “wrestling committees.” (Please, members of my lay committee – don’t get any weird ideas). It is so common for people who feel called to the priesthood to avoid that call for as long as possible that they have a slang term for it – they call it “doing a Jonah.” (Remember, it was because Jonah refused to follow God’s order to go to Nineveh that he ended up getting swallowed by that big fish – and he didn’t get out of there until he agreed to go). Stories about people who run away from God’s call seem familiar to us because although we each have a calling, most of us have no idea what it is, much less how to go about fulfilling it.
St. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle that the grace of God has been given to us in Christ Jesus…so that [we] are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” We have all we need to fulfill God’s call. But how do we know what our calling is? First of all, we have to slow down and listen. We cannot hear God’s word when we are constantly “multitasking” in order to fulfill the obligations of our lives. Today’s psalm tells us that we must wait “patiently” for the Lord. Now, I recognize that I may have just lost about half the congregation, who are thinking, “I don’t have time to wait patiently. I have things to do.” And, believe me, I know how that feels. But take it from someone who refused to listen to God for 25 years; God will get you in the end.
You must, says St. Paul, wait for Christ to be revealed in you. And you must pray – but remember that prayer does not have to be words read from a book while you are kneeling. Prayer is simply the word we use for communicating with God. George MacLeod, a Scottish Presbyterian minister and Celtic mystic, said that “we are in touch with God every moment that we live…for the simple reason that God is life: not religious life, nor Church life, but the whole [of] life.” That means that everything we do is prayer, and every action we take in the name of Jesus Christ is a way in which God reveals His calling to us.
Today’s gospel says that John the Baptist was already baptizing before he even knew who Jesus was. “I myself did not know him,” he says, “but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” Andrew and Simon did not know who Jesus was either, but when they overheard John the Baptist, they followed Jesus, without really knowing where he was leading them. But they went – because God called them to.
I think that sometimes, like Andrew and Simon, we have to start following before we know exactly where we are going. As Bishop Flunder says, “Sometimes God will give you the what, but not the who, when, where and how” – and that’s scary. But not knowing the whole plan doesn’t mean we can ignore what we do know. And if we need some help looking for our own “what,” we can start with the Book of Common Prayer, which tells us that “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ…The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members… [and]…The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.” I hope you heard that: the ministers of the church are not just bishops, priests and deacons, but lay persons as well. We are all ministers, and we all have a calling.
Tomorrow we will celebrate the life of a person who answered and carried out his call from God at a terrible cost. Six years before he was assassinated, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a sermon called, “Love in Action.” In it he said, “One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves…How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds?…This strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.” Or, as Mary Earle puts it, “We need to be living the Great Commandment, not just talking about it.”
These are powerful -and overwhelming – words – because it is all very well to decry the immoralities of this world, but we are small and the system is large and many of us are already struggling to manage our own lives. It doesn’t feel fair that we should be asked to do more. But I’m going to share with you something that I am just beginning to understand: answering God’s call for you will not add to your burdens – answering God’s call will lift them – because using your gifts to serve others allows you to find out who you really are – and, more importantly, to know God better.
I also don’t think Dr. King was saying that each of us must assume a calling like his. I think he was telling us that we have to live our own lives as faithful Christians. C.S. Lewis said, “The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.’” Your calling may not be that of an ordained minister. Your calling may not be as a civil rights worker. Your calling may not be building a City of Refuge. But you have a calling – a calling to do the work of God – and any work that you do to fulfill the will of God – any work that you do to love your neighbor as yourself – any work that you do that shines with the radiance of Christ’s glory – that is your calling. Wait patiently for the Lord, remember that God will be your strength and provide you with the gifts you need to fulfill your call, and know that you have been chosen – you have been given as a light to the nations that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth. Amen
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