It’s a Local Call

(sermon 1/22/17)

telephone-operators-circa-1965

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. – Matthew 4:12-23 (NRSV)

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There was a time just after my architectural firm folded, in the midst of the Great Recession, when my only source of income was what I was making as a part-time, night-shift hospital chaplain, which I promise you, wasn’t much. During that time, I scurried to find some kind of work; *any* kind of work. There just weren’t any jobs available at all in what I was professionally trained to do. There weren’t any jobs doing *anything.* I couldn’t get a job behind the counter at Panera, or as a delivery driver, or even working in a telemarketer’s phone bank. I think that the second worst day of my life was when I’d sunk so low, when things had gotten so desperate, that with six years of pastoral experience at that point, I actually applied for a position to conduct animal funerals at a local pet cemetery. I say that was probably the second worst day, because surely the worst day was when that company called to tell me I hadn’t gotten the job because I wasn’t qualified.

The only job I was able to land during that time was passing out samples of food in grocery stores, trying to catch people’s eye and getting them to sample whatever the item of the day was, telling them all its virtues, and that they could get this wonderful product right over there in aisle 3, and that there was even an amazing sale on them right now.

It was hard on my feet and back to stand there for hours on end. But I made the most of it by chatting up the shoppers, trying to coax them to come over and try this incredible crab dip, this delicious baked-in-store apple pie, this to-die-for dark chocolate and sea salt candy bar. It wasn’t always easy. Some people just stayed away and wouldn’t come over to hear me, even with the temptation of free food, but I could usually get most of them, even the most reluctant ones, to eventually come over.

And I’d go off-script. I’d be over-the-top and theatrical with them. I’d ham it up, try to draw them into a little conversation, and joke with them, and get them to laugh, or at least smile, and to give them, no matter what else might have been going on in their day, just a little zen moment of silliness, and warmth, and happiness, all served up with a little pimiento cheese spread on the side.

I have to admit then when I first started doing that, I was mostly doing it for myself. It was just a way to break the boredom, and to keep my mind off how sore my legs were, and how big a failure I must be, a 45-year old man reduced to doing this just to make ends almost meet. But gradually, it became less and less about me, and more and more about them. Thinking that maybe the silliness, and the smile and warmth and acceptance that I shared with them would be the one thing that stuck with them that day. Maybe it would be the one thing that they’d smile about and tell the others about as they sat around the dinner table that evening. In other words, I came to realize that, notwithstanding the really crappy circumstances of the job, what I was being, the way I was doing what I was doing, was actually an important part of my ministry. It was literally something sacred. It was an important part of my call.

Today’s gospel text touches on this idea of being called. John the Baptist, who makes a kind of offstage appearance in this passage, had been called to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God. And we heard about these first disciples, being called to follow Jesus. The idea of a call, or a calling, from God, is an interesting one. I think that a lot of times, when people consider this idea of receiving a call from God, they only think of ministers or other people who make their living by being a part of the institutional church.

But our tradition has something very different to say about this idea. It runs deep in Presbyterian thought, all the way back to the writings of John Calvin, that every one of us has been called, is being called, by God in some way or another. And that somehow, what we do as an occupation is an important part of that call. That whatever we do for a living, God is calling us to engage in it in some way that advances the Kingdom of God in the world. Sure, I know that we could all think of some illegal or immoral ways of making a living where the way to please God is to just *not* do it, but I think you understand what I mean here.

And we need to make another distinction here, too. For a lot of people, God’s call may not be something specific about precisely *what* you do for a living. We can’t fall into the trap of thinking that if we’re caught in some unbearable, low-paying, dead-end job, it’s because God wants us to be poor and miserable, that that’s just our lot in life – or even worse, that maybe God is punishing us for something, and it’s our job to just shut up and accept our fate. No. That isn’t how our occupations our professions, key into God’s call to us. To be blunt, as much good as I might have done while passing out food samples, I still got out of that job as quickly as I could.

I think that maybe the way we can understand God’s specific call to each of us is this: Whatever you do for a living – or, if you’re younger and in school, whatever you’re doing in school; or if you’re older and retired, whatever you’re doing to fill your days – whatever it is, God has called you to do it in ways that are pleasing to God. And I believe the most concrete way to please God in this world is to live in ways of compassion and care for others, in all of the hundreds of interactions we have with people throughout our week.

Just as an example, if you’re a server in a restaurant, treat the people you serve with kindness and compassion, no matter how lousy they are to you. Because you just never know – maybe that person is on a tightly fixed income, and can only afford to treat themselves out to a meal in a restaurant once a month, and this is their night. Or maybe they just got some terrible news about their health. Or maybe they’re wrestling with some inner struggle that not even their closest relatives even know, and they just need a friendly face and a kind word. Be kind. Be compassionate. That’s part of your call. And of course, the flip side of that scenario is true, too, even though it doesn’t have anything specific to do with an occupation – if you’re in a restaurant, be kind and compassionate to your server, too, even if it took them a little longer than you’d like to bring out the bread sticks or top off your iced tea. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe they’re running a little behind because they’re dog-tired, working two or even three jobs, or they’re near the end of a double shift that they’d had to work just in order to pay the rent that’s already a week past due. Be kind. Be compassionate. That’s part of your call.

Well, that’s just one hypothetical example; no doubt you can imagine a parallel scenario based on your own life situation. The point here is that it isn’t just people like me who receives a call from God. Every single one of you have, too. It’s a different call from mine, but it’s no less important. It’s no less sacred. It’s no less a form of ministry. Each one of you is being called, and drawn, by God, to do something, and to *be* something, specific in this world – to help other people, to be kind and compassionate to them, to show them mercy, and justice, and human dignity, and most importantly, to do it all out of love and gratitude for the God who created and loves us all.

The truth is, everyone’s dealing with something. The truth is, God is calling each of us to help them get through it.

Some people in this world are  called by God to do some big thing, something that makes it on the national or world stage. For most of us, that isn’t the case. Most of us are called to do a whole lot of little things, local things, things that maybe no one will ever know about. But they all add up to a great thing. Just as an example, look at what happened yesterday in this country, and around the world. it was something truly amazing. Millions of individuals did just one simple thing: they just showed up. They just showed up, to be counted, to make it clear where they stood and what they believed and why, and to make it clear that they would work to advance those beliefs. Each one of them just did this one simple thing – but together, they did something record-breaking. Something truly momentous. Something heroic. Something historic.

Those first disciples that Jesus called didn’t set the world on fire on day one. Christianity didn’t circle the globe in its first week. Those disciples started out pretty simple, one day at a time, one little thing at a time, sometimes getting it right and sometimes getting it wrong, as they tried to hear and follow Jesus’ call to them. And it’s the same with us. So today, I just ask you to think about your own, personal, local call from God. What does it look like? It’s probably a series of those little things. A smile, a shoulder to lean on, a few dollars shoved in a pocket, a ride to the doctor. And maybe it comes with a surprise gift of fresh-baked corn bread. Or a casserole delivered on the afternoon after the funeral. Or maybe even a sample of cheese dip in aisle 3.

Thanks be to God.

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