Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday January 18, 2009 2nd after Epiphany
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text: I Samuel 3: 1-10 (11-20)
John 1: 43-51
It is night, near dawn and both Eli and Samuel are wrapped in their dreams. In the Temple the silence of the night is broken for Samuel by a voice calling out to him. “Samuel, Samuel.” Roused from his slumber he answers, “Here I am.” And runs to Eli, his father in God. Puzzled and sleepy, Eli sends Samuel back to bed, “I did not call; lie down again.
Once again it happens that Samuel is called out of sleep by the voice of the Lord, “Samuel.” Baffled now himself and a little testy about being woken again the gentle Eli sends Samuel back to bed. “Kids and their dreams, “ he mutters, “what did he eat for dinner?”
We are told that Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” Yet again a voice wakes Samuel and he runs faithfully to his mentor, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli is awake now, and insight breaks in. This is a teachable moment for the boy Samuel, and Eli gives him the words to start a conversation with the Lord. “Go lie down and if you hear the voice calling you again say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
I wonder what it was like for Samuel to lie down again, knowing that the next words he would hear might be from God. I’m not sure he fell asleep again, could you?
This ancient Hebrew text tells us that “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” I wonder how those words resonate for you. When I here them I think to myself, “I’m not a mystic, I’m not a person who hears voices and sees signs” with any frequency. But my own call was as mystical and uncanny as anything I’ve ever experienced. Alone in a my room, reading the psalms one night I felt a compulsion to pick-up a reproduction of a painting by the Italian Master Duccio of Jesus calling Simon and Andrew. From the shore, Jesus calls to the two disciples who are fishing in a boat, holding their nets in the Galilee. Staring into the scene I felt myself being drawn into it as if Jesus himself were on the shore speaking to me. What I heard, and I still have to describe it that way, was clear, “Christopher, I want you to be my priest.” The voice was gentle but firm and had a kind of invitation in it. It was one of the clearest messages I’ve ever received and one of the few mystical experiences of my life. I understood it immediately to be an answer to a question I had been asking for quite some time about discerning my life’s direction.
The next day by strange coincidence, a man I knew but a little mistakenly sat down with me at lunch and after talking about various things and catching up, he said to me, “Christopher I think that you should pursue the Episcopal priesthood, and it is strange thing say that since I’m not one to give anyone that kind of direct advice, but somehow I feel strongly about it which is also kind of weird especially since I’m not an Episcopalian.”
A few days later, a beloved member of our congregation Johanna, shared a dream with me. She described a scene that mirrored the painting that I had been drawn to and placed me in the boat with Peter holding the nets and a told me than in her dream Jesus played by a friend of ours was telling me, “Christopher come follow me.” It was too much for me, too much to ignore. I will never forget the brightness of her face the power of her smile as she said, “Christopher, I think that you are being called, does that make any sense to you.” I could hardly speak.
From that moment on I did not doubt Christ’s claim on my life, there was something irresistible about the Love of Christ, and service to the Body of Christ that was compelling and kept me centered through the seven years it took to navigate the discernment process. I have realized over time that a call is something much deeper than the external form it has takes. The call is quite simply to God, grounded in a deep desire for God. That is the one constant. That is what holds me, wherever I find myself, whatever amazing changes take place in my life, in the midst of disaster and failures, the desire for God has been the golden thread, the continuity of the call. It is always this that pulls me back, the desire for God, the God I know and continue to discover in the person of Jesus Christ, that has been the solid ground beneath my feet, the place of renewal, the energy of purpose, the reason to continue.
The call has a mystery all its own. There are, in all honesty, times of waxing and waning beyond my control. But the call remains. Even in times of great discouragement deep doubts, there is the sure knowledge of God’s love for me, and my desire to know that love more deeply. What seems true about the call is that while it is an undeniable and strong claim on my life, it is at the same time a source of freedom. This is of course a kind of paradox, that accepting God’s call with its inherent sacrifice and overt limits and demands, is at the same time a place of freedom. Over time I have begun to learn what that beautiful phrase from the prayer book, “in serving you there is perfect freedom,” actually means.
So my call was a kind of mystical experience that shook my world three times in one week just as Samuel found himself shaking Eli awake three times before he knew it was God calling. There is, in my experience, however, no “typical call.” Others, less stubborn and more discerning than I, experience the calling process in more gentle ways. It may be a gradual coming to terms with what one is called to do. Many make ordered decisions, step-by-step choices that lead them to a clear understanding of who they are and what they are called to. Often the process requires deep learning from our experiences, careful listening to the advice and council of mentors and of discerning spiritual friends. In all of this there is an ongoing need to be attentive to the guiding of the Holy Spirit over time, without pressure or the need to decide on a schedule. The truth is that we also need others who share a similar call, who can encourage us in the shaping of our lives along similar lines. At the very least we need others committed to listening and interpreting the call with us, helping us shape our lives around the call.
The focus of one’s call can be as different and unique as the person. Your call may be articulated in terms of healing, of justice, of mentoring youth, of deep concern for the poor, or as an educator shaping the souls and intellects. Calls come in all shapes and sizes. Your call may require all of one’s life energies and commitment, or it might be of a more limited duration, a call to serve in a particular time and place for a season that is magnetic for you. That a call may be temporary does not make it any less of a call.
For most of us that call has a particular container – a marriage or life-partner, a church community, a ministry or mission, a vocation enlivened by your faith, an office from which to serve. No matter the container, embracing the call enables and frees us to see what really matters, to focus our love, to spend ourselves for something or Someone larger than ourselves. This in tern is the dynamic that leads to growth, for in giving ourselves to something larger, we discover the mysterious process of losing ourselves over and over again only to once again by God’s grace to rediscover who God has created us to be anew. In all of this, God is the consummate coach, shaping our calls to the very fiber of who we are and what we most need to become whole and holy.
No matter what the call, if it came with force like a violent storm or gently like a breeze, the truth of the matter is that all callings must be worked out in daily life, in the mundane routines, the endless stream of small choices, the countless gestures of kindness and compassion, the dogged pursuit and surrender to God’s love that drew you into this calling in the first place.
When it comes to one’s calling the one essential is being honest and faithful to the truth of one’s own life. The Hasidic tale about Rabbi Zusya is instructive. When he was an old man, he said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: “Why were you not Moses? They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusya.’” But this is harder than it seems in a society punch drunk on options and sure that a myriad of choices means freedom. It is difficult to know when change is truly a response to the Spirit’s promptings and when it is quite simply running from growth. It requires great effort and emerging maturity to keep our choices grounded in true freedom and continued willingness to love.
There are a whole host of skills needed to discern and follow your call. There are disciplines like journaling, spiritual direction, and dream work all tools for paying attention to our experience and the learnings that are present making us more aware of the path opening in front of us. We need to study the scriptures as guidance from the old ones who have followed God’s call. We will need to settle deep into prayer, or deep enough to confront the real demands that the Jesus of the Gospels makes on each of our lives.
But we will also need a community – a church or group of committed friends of Christ who are willing to ground themselves in the values of the Gospels, in the ways of Jesus even if it makes them eccentrics to the world around them. To talk about a community willing to help each other discern their gifts, pay attention to the urgings of the Spirit, is dangerous and intimate business.
However, I believe that these biblical stories of calling are meant to challenge us to become a community of calling. We are here to help each other to discover that – who you are - is for something, that your life has a unique contribution to make in God’s economy of love and redemption in the world. Each of us need spiritual friends willing to ask us hard questions, willing to help us name our gifts and walk with us as we discern a place of passionate service to God.
We need each other, as spiritual friends to keep us honest about our life, to help steady us in a culture that is addicted to change and novelty. We need support to claim the gifts that we have from God and put them to use. The pull toward individualism in our culture is so strong we dare not travel this path alone. However, creating, finding, shaping communities – churches, faith sharing groups, spiritual direction groups, discernment groups able to do this work is no easy task. The challenges are obvious but the rewards of such communities are great. Who is not hungry for a place of thoughtful discernment, of wise engagement about how to live out one’s Love for God, about how to listen to your life for the ways that will lead to deep freedom, about being faithful to the truth of your life?
Perhaps we are all a bit like Samuel, who awakened by God’s call repeatedly keeps running to a baffled Eli. Fortunately Eli was a spiritual friend to Samuel, and could say, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, `Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'" Perhaps it is time to realize that God is calling us right where we are, if we will only stay put long enough to listen, long enough to discern the voice of love whispering into our lives, and long enough to help each other to follow the call as if our joy and our very lives depended on it.
<em>I wish to acknowledge my debt to the wonderful writing of Elaine M. Prevallet, S.L. on the calling process which informed and enlivened this sermon, as well as, the work of Parker Palmer from which I learned of Zusya’s Hasidic tale. </em>