Sermon 1/14/24: What is a Calling? Finding Our Unique Selves!

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2 Epiphany

Psalm 139:1– 5, 12–17; 1 Samuel 3:1–10; 1 Corinthian 6:12–20; John 1:43–51

On Friday, 6 January, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany.  By today’s standards of the 24-hour news cycle, that is now old news.  Indeed, today, on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, we have begun our pivot toward the Forty Days of Lentwhich begins on Ash Wednesday, 14 February, but only a month hence.  If the Baptism of Jesus by his cousin John provided Jesus with the credentials for his adult ministry of Jesus, today’s liturgical readings address vocation.  

When we hear the term “vocation,” or that someone has been “called,” immediately we think of the ordained ministry. To non-church related “calls,” we are more apt to apply the term “elected” or “appointed.”  On this second Sundayafter Epiphany, I lay before you severalnoteworthy items which, so I believe, deepen or broaden our understanding of the word “vocation,”or “calling.”

​I turn first to several items of recent history: thecommemoration tomorrow, 15 January, of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the miracle on Thursday, 15 January 2009, 15 years ago on the Hudson River, which occurred under the able hands of USAirways’ Captain Chesley Sullenberger; and, on Tuesday, 20 January 2009, the first inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States, a man with a funny/strange sounding, non-Anglo, non-Germanic sounding name.  

How far did the call to MLK reach?  The year was 1963, while I was studying and living in Germany, a man emerged in our Southland, in Birmingham, Alabama, who joined the cause to which others had been called, since the period of Reconstruction following our country’s Civil War.  The Germans with whom I worked at the time in the Federal Bureau of Statistics on Stresemannring in Wiesbaden, Germany, and who were themselves struggling still to recover from the nightmare of a dictatorship, when they heard of my concern, advised me in 1963 to remain in Germany.  “Stayhere, where you are safe,” they advised me.  

I listened attentively and learned that they had already picked a wife out for me, young woman who had shown an interest in me, which I had not recognized, being focused, as I was, on furthering my career.  But then eventually, I wrote to my bishop, George Leslie Cadigan of Missouri, seeking permission to enter the priesthood, for Ibelieved, like Martin Luther King, Jr., that if I could but call people back to God, educate them, tell them of the Good News of Christ, we could fulfill the promise that God made to us at the creation.  

Returning to the USA, I, like my fellow seminarians, joined the cause, which had coalescedaround Dr. King.  However, my presence was not at demonstrations, but at the negotiation table, where I met with those working behind the televised events, to uphold the premise and promise of our Constitution. 

As happened perhaps to many of you, the first thought that came to mind when, on the evening of 15 January 2009, I turned on my television and saw an airplane, not a single engine or amphibious airplane, but a full-grown airplane floating in the Hudson River in New York City—the first expression to cross my lips was, “what in the world!”  On so many levels, what was not supposed to happen, had indeed occurred.  News reporters called it a miracle, because we were witnesses to the unimaginable.  A non-amphibious plane, a regular airline machine, had landed on the river that flows alongside NYC’s West Side Highway.  And as I listened to the commentators, I realized that a modern-day miracle had taken place, because an individual had responded in his earlier years to a call, to a vocation, to a profession that would have consequences.

It was an act of serendipity that I found myself again in Germany, attending an academic conference, when Barack Hussein Obama made his first appearance on the national stage to deliver his history-making address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston.  Not yet the president, what I heard was a young man responding to a call, not to a vocation of ordained ministry, but a call, nevertheless.  His inauguration in 2009 was, in my mind, the sure and visible sign that now President Obama had responded to a call, not to ordained ministry, but to leadership of a related nature.

Lest you begin to conclude from my examples thus far that calls from God are reserved solely for men, I ask you to consider the candidate pool, from which God may choose and did choose, to issue a call.  In the Book of the Judges (4:1 – 24 and 5:1 –35), God set before ancient Israel Deborah as the fourth Judge of the fledgling nation, from 1237 –1198 B.C.  She held court under a palm tree and was acknowledged as a prophetess respected and loved by all Israel.  Her location is clearly recorded: on the plain between Ramah and Bethel, in the hill country of Ephriam.  In more modern times, Madame Marie Curie became the first woman to receive not one, but two Nobel Prize appointments due to her answering a call to scientific investigation.  And in our own era, I laybefore you the name of Pauli Murray, a Howard and Yale Universaries trained Black woman in law, ignored by the very men who were leading the struggle for equal rights.  Her legal and academic works were central to Thurgood Marshall’s argument before the Supreme Court.   Pauli Murray was also the first Black woman to be ordained 1977 as priest in the Episcopal Church.  

We like to think of miracles as things that happen,for which there is no explanation, perhaps even no preparation.  We call it luck, we call it fortune, we call it divine intervention.  I believe, however, that the divine call, that divine intervention is never absent, but present at all times and in all places:Through the intellect that God has given us, and the empathy that comes with seeing in each other our very own selves, as we strive constantly to return to a oneness with God.  

We discover cures for diseases, we develop new modes of communication and transportation, new means of agriculture.  Admittedly, because we are human, there will be disappointments, mistakes, friction, words harshly exchanged in the process.  But there are also, far outnumbering the discomforts that we cause each other and ourselves, those times when miracles take place before our very eyes.  Times when, unexpectedly, the divine breaks through to remind, to encourage.

So it was with young Samuel, who had to learn to be still, so that God could speak.  So it was with Nathanael in today’s Gospel.  The negativity, the stereotyping, the cynicism—they are all just dripping from his lips.  When Philip came to Nathanael to say that he and others had found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, according to John, Nathanael said: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  In today’s jargon, Nathanael dissed Jesus.

We have all wished for a direct spiritual encounter with the divine, as happened to Nathanael.  We have all wished that God would beckon us out from the ordinary with as unambiguous a touch, such as that of Jesus summoning Phillip: “follow me,” “come and see.”  We have all wished, privately and devoutly wished, that we could just as simply and immediately respond with complete surety: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!”

For most of us, usually what we have experienced, we cannot quite put words on until much later.  I suggest, it is possible to have considerably more mystery in our lives than you might think likely.  We can become attuned to the spiritual light or the spiritual energy that is at the center of our being.  It is possible to begin to recognize the divine in the most mundane, the most common of circumstances.  

The reality of the world will begin to change as you open yourself to another viewpoint.  The next time you travel for business or pleasure, ask God to show you what it is that you have been brought to this place to learn.  Open yourself to a perspective of life from the outside in, rather than simply from the inside out.  As you have conversations with new acquaintances, think for a moment about what the two of you are supposed to glean from your encounter.  When you do, when we do, we get a glimpse of the world from the outside in, and we can be filled with a haunting wonder, what the Bible means when it speaks of the awe of the Lord, unfortunately translated as the “fear of the Lord.”  

It is an awesome thing to be in the presence of a wonderful mystery.  Our recognition of God may not be as dramatic as that of Nathanael.  Just as our prophetic voice may not be as strong as Dr. King’s, or our actions as newsworthy as Sullenberger’s miracle, or as historic as an Obama.  Yet, my sisters and brothers, as people of faith, our belief calls us to find our unique selves.  And if I were ask one thing of you today, it would be to remember this: Jesus did not call Nathaniel, and nor us, to a static or stationary life.  On the contrary, a call to serve God under the banner of Christ presumes or anticipates a journey.  And as we know, we can experience wonderful, exciting, life-changing things on journeys.  Miracles, even.  Amen