Saturday, January 20, 2018

All in a Day's Work



Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.
—Mark 1:17

What did you want to be when you grew up? That answer changed as we got older, and for a lot of people, even the answer we gave at age 18 wasn’t what we became. Indeed, a lot of people change careers several times even as adults.

But what are you called to do?

Being called by God to do something is really a far cry from simply wanting to be something when you grow up. Look at today’s two scripture readings. In the first, we have the prophet Jonah. We don’t know whether Jonah wanted to be a prophet or not, but we do know that when God called on him to go to Nineveh, he tried his best to say No. God’s call had to be reïnforced by the belly of a whale before Jonah would accept his new vocation. And in the other reading, we see four fishermen who encounter Jesus. Jesus calls on them to leave their jobs and follow him. And they do. A biblical call is often quite spectacular, as we see in both of today’s scripture readings. Five individuals all know they have been called.
One tried to resist, hoping that God would either forget or give up. Nevertheless, God persisted until he finally does what God intended. The other four willingly leave their livelihood behind in order to follow Messiah. There are other even more phenomenal cases of divine calling in the Bible—such as when the apostle Paul is struck blind on the road to Damascus, or when Moses encounters a burning bush, or when Mary is greeted by an archangel. It seems that in biblical times, when God called a person, they knew they’d been called.

There’s sort of a trick ministers play on each other which I’ll share with you now. In order to be ordained as a minister, one of the many requirements we have to meet is to express to a committee on ministry somewhere that we have received a call to ordained ministry. If we can’t appropriately articulate our call, then it’s very likely that the committee won’t allow us to go forward in the ordination process. But if we express our calling to vividly, they might question our mental health.

I know one person who had trouble making it through the process because he described his call this way: “I was at a swim meet in college, and I relay needed to win this particular race. And so I told God that if he would let me win the race, I would become a minister. I won, and so here I am.” This isn’t to say that his calling wasn’t genuine. He just needed to think more deeply about how to express it, and what it really meant.

The other side of the coin is the person who describes a calling more akin to Paul being struck blind on the Road to Damascus. I’ve seen people who talked about hearing the voice of God call them have a very difficult time of it in their ecclesiastical councils—a meeting in our UCC that requires a candidate for ordination to submit to questioning by ministers and laypeople from all across the region.

I used to think I needed to have a Road to Damascus experience before I could feel called to be a minister, but I was helped to see that the call may not be sudden and sensational. It may be gradual—a growing conviction that this is what God wants me to do, accompanied by experiences that the call is affirmed through the Spirit and through God’s people.

There have been many times in my life when I wish that God had called me to something else, but I feel strongly that I’m doing what I was called to do. The same can be said of just about any other vocation, and all vocations can come about as a result of God’s call. Anybody can truly love their job, do it to the best of their ability, continue to improve their skills, and use their work to make a difference in the life of the world around them. All people can find God in their work and help convey that presence to others. It might mean that they stick to what they’re currently doing; or it might mean that they take what they’re doing in a different direction, or do it in a different setting.

Such is the case, I think, with the fishermen in today’s Gospel lesson. The story as we have received it is compelling, and perhaps a big reason for that is because of how little detail it provides. We have to fill them in ourselves, and so I think that’s one of the things that makes it easier to place ourselves in the story… or maybe one of the things that makes it easier for us to remove ourselves from the story. None of the evangelists who tell this story tells us what Andrew and Peter and James and John were thinking. None of them tell us if they’d ever seen Jesus before, or—if they had—what they thought of him. All we know is that Jesus called, and they answered Yes. Not with words only, but by literally leaving their nets and following.

But one of the things that’s obvious is that Jesus’ call to them wasn’t so much a call to change careers, but to revise their career goals. “Follow me,” Jesus told them, “and I’ll empower you to fish for people.”

These fishermen weren’t forced to do something foreign to them or something they didn’t want to do. They responded willingly and enthusiastically, probably hoping to make a difference in the world by working with a man they obviously viewed as an agent of change. Hymns can sometimes express what happened in ways that prose cannot.

    Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
    Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
    Will you love the ‘you’ you hide if I but call your name?
    Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
    Will you use the faith you’ve found to re-shape the world around?
—John Bell

An older expression of this call was written by William Alexander Percy in the early part of the 20th century:

    They cast their nets in Galilee just off the hills of brown;
    such happy, simple fisherfolk, before the Lord came down.
    Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew
    the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful, and broke them too.

    Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died;
    Peter, who hauled the teeming net, head-down was crucified.
    The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod,
    yet let us pray for but one thing—the marvelous peace of God.
—Wm. Alexander Percy

The story of the fishermen has messages on many levels. But I think the message I’d like for us to hear in it today is that God is at work, lovingly and profoundly, in all people as they go about their calling. My calling as an ordained minister is no more a divine calling that that of anybody else who labors in love. What sends a firefighter into a burning building to save a complete stranger? What causes a soldier to volunteer to play herself in harm’s way for people whose language she doesn’t even understand? What sends a man into the bowels of the earth to mine coal so that people hundreds of miles away can without a thought flip a switch and light up a room? Why does a teacher teach, a scientist do research, a homemaker cook, or a carpenter build? More often than not, it’s because that’s what they’re called to do. They love their work and find fulfillment in it. They use their work to improve the lives of others. It’s possible to imagine that at some point in their lives, God invited them to do what they do—not just for themselves, not just for their own families, but to make the world around them a better place. From the most respected and well-paid of professionals to the most menial of jobs, God is present in what we do. No one of us possesses God’s call more deeply than anyone else, and each of us can act as a priest for a brother or sister in need—for what is a priest, but a person who represents God or acts on God’s behalf for someone else?

That’s something we need to remember when we’re out and about, no matter who we are or what we do: If we follow Jesus, then we should remember that we’re priests—we bring God into whatever we do, and sometimes that means bringing God to another person who might need to meet God that day, or feel like they’re in God’s presence. We’re often talking about people who not only have difficult jobs, but who are underpaid and underappreciated. In Jesus’ day, such people might have been fishermen or shepherds—people whose work was disrespected, people who were looked down on by others. But fishermen and shepherds were not only loved by God, but also used to spread God’s love to the world: It was the shepherds of Bethlehem who first spread the news of Jesus birth, and it was the fishermen of Galilee who were called to be Jesus’ first disciples.

How often do we think about how our calling—no matter what our job is—is to spread God’s love, to serve others? Remember when I mentioned earlier about how I used to think a calling to the ordained ministry had to come in a Paul-on-the-Road-to-Damascus-type package? Some people really do have callings that they feel come suddenly and directly from God. Those of us who follow James Mason on Facebook were treated to such a story this week. As a young man, James felt he might be called into the ministry, but wondered how he’d know what his calling was. Here’s how he found out:

One night at Lackland Air Force Base after I had gone down to the barracks and read letters from home to [draftees who couldn’t read or write] and had written many letters in reply to those, on my way back to my barracks before lights out, I was looking at the night sky with a gazillion bright stars and singing The Stars at Night are Big and Bright Deep in the Heart of Texas. I blinked and the sky was green and a voice inside my head said, “I want you to teach.” As I opened my eyes again, the sky was the blackest black I had ever seen and there were a gazillion more of the brightest stars I had ever seen.

And from that day to this, God, it seems, has spent a lifetime showing James that God meant what God said. This is important, because early in James’s career, school desegregation began. And God—and the little mill town where James was principal of two different schools—needed somebody who would guide them through change, even though it would mean standing up to the grand wizard of the Alabama KKK.

Our true calling isn’t always what we’re paid to do. Debbie Fitzer also felt she heard the voice of God confirming that she and John were going in the right direction during a prayer at the church they were attending as they started down the road of adoption that ended up bringing Jeremy, Beth, and Alecia into their family.

That’s just two stories—the two I heard this week. Everybody in this church has a calling. So during our prayer time today, let’s all think about our calling. What experiences have we had in life that we can share with others to make them know that God loves them, too? What gifts have we been given that shouldn’t be hoarded for ourselves? What pain is part of us that others need to hear about—because there are a lot of people out there who are using their pain to wall themselves off from both God and their neighbors.

And let’s not forget to thank God for the people we don’t know and who we may never meet who have nonetheless answered God’s call, who are giving of themselves so that our lives might be better. And finally, let’s thank God for today’s four fishermen who put down their nets, followed Jesus, and learned how to fish other seas.
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

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