Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sermon for Sunday, January 18, 2009

How Do You Know Me?
Psalm 139; John 1:43-51

In times like these, when unemployment is high and many people are financially stretched, many people think about matters of job and career. Finding a job, “making ends meet”, these things seem receive more attention than usual in times of economic downturn. Even when the economy is less troubled, we tend to be preoccupied with matters of career and job. A job, we think, involves paid employment -- or maybe any significant responsibility we take on. A career, we reason, is what happens as a person undertakes a series of jobs over time. Career carries with it a sense of increasing experience, and often-greater responsibility and reward.

This morning we reflect on a third term – a third reality, really. That third term is “calling”. A job might describe paid employment. A career might be described as a series of jobs or experiences in one job that lead to greater responsibility and greater reward. A calling can be a job, and it can be a career. But it is also more than a job and more than a career. The sociologist Robert Bellah sees it this way: A calling links what we do to a larger community where we contribute to the common good. A calling links the person to the world. In his book Economics And The Theology Of Work he writes: “The notion of calling is an effort to make real the reign of God in the realm of work.” When we have a calling, we realize “that we all need each other, and that our real reward is our sense of contribution to the common good.” We can have a job. We can even have a career. When we can make the reign of God real in the realm of work – then we have a calling.

Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner makes a similar point. He writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” A calling is found in the intersection between your need for fulfillment and the world’s need for what you have to offer -- where the gifts God gives you and the world’s need for those gifts meet -- where what you can do and what God and the world need you to do meet. That’s more than a job. That’s more than a career. That’s a calling. A job is temporary. A career won’t last all your life. Our question for today is this; How can we hear our calling? How can each of us find that place where deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet?

You’re all familiar with the Verizon Wireless television commercials where the Verizon man walks around speaking into his cell phone, asking, “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” When it comes to hearing our calling, I think God does the same thing. God calls us and asks, “Can you hear me now?” The problem is never with God being silent. The problem is with our being able to receive God’s call.

Think about Nathanael in our Gospel passage for today. One day Philip shows up, waving his arms and exclaiming that he’s just met the one long promised in the law and the prophets. Nathanael’s answer is a sneer. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But his own encounter with Jesus redirects Nathanael. He moves from a place of skepticism to a place where he is willing to getup, leave behind life as he knows it, and follow Jesus. Nathanael becomes a disciple. Jesus invites him to follow, and that is what he does. It is not easy, but Nathanael recognizes his calling. The purpose of his life comes to light.

I love Nathanael’s astonishment. When Jesus flatters him, Nathanael says, “How do you know me?” Today’s texts remind us that God really knows us – even better than we know ourselves. The Psalmist expresses it this way, "…it was you, [God] who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." Our calling comes from God’s special and intimate knowledge of who we are.

God knit you. God knows every stitch of your being. My daughter Zoe recently challenged me to a knit-off. She has taken up knitting. She has made some nice pieces. When she knits meticulously, taking her time with each individual stitch, adjusting the tension and counting the loops. One night I was poking fun at how slow and exacting she was. So she challenged me to a knit off. I don’t know how to knit. So I asked my sister-in-law to give me a five-minute lesson. My practice piece looked like a bushy purple caterpillar with 25 little looped legs. On the day of the knit-off, Zoe measured two pieces of yarn, about 25 feet in length. She put them on the knitting sticks (I later found out they are called needles), had us sit back to back on the floor, and knit until the yarn was gone. Zoe quickly finished – an evenly stitched patch of yarn that could easily turn into a hat or scarf. She worked with ease. My finished project looked like a bushy pink caterpillar with 25 little looped legs. My tense arms and hunched shoulders showed in my work. Zoe glided through. She knew what she was doing (I must say, I came in a close second at the knit off). I think of how God knows us and knits us, creating us with painstaking care and gracious ease. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. Our calling and our discipleship come from God’s knowledge of who we are and what God made each of us to be.

When I read Nathanael’s story, I’m encouraged. There’s hope for the rest of us. Jesus knows Nathanael. He calls this intolerant, sarcastic man to be a disciple. God knows the real Nathanael. And if he gets to be a disciple, then there’s hope that the rest of us can discover that place where “our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” There’s hope that we can discover the intersection between our need for fulfillment and the world’s need for what we have to offer -- where the gifts God gives us and the world’s need for those gifts meet -- where what we can do and what God and the world need us to do meet.

This weekend I am especially conscious of Dr. Martin Luther King’s special calling, which he described as being a “drum major for the cause of justice.” There are many highlights in Dr. King’s life, such as the march on Selma, the march on Washington, and the passage of the voting rights act. But in his later life he was facing more defeats than victories. Some thought that his opposition to the war in Vietnam would jeopardize government support for programs to end poverty. He struggled to mediate between more radical figures like Stokely Carmichael and more conservative ones like Roy Wilkins. His call for a march to end poverty was not getting much response. He was hounded by the F.B.I. In the weeks and months before his death, he was depressed and discouraged. Yet, he still heard God’s call urging him to be a drum major for justice. In his last speech on the eve of his assassination, he put aside his own doubts and fatigue, cast off the threats against his own life, and rallied the crowd for the cause he had taken up so many years before -- a cause that would see the end of segregation in the South, secure the vote for black citizens, and goad the country as a whole, both North and South, to overcome its prejudices and its past.

He said. “I don’t know what will happen now . . .We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

In April of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and placed in jail in Birmingham, Alabama for his non-violent resistance to segregation. After King’s incarceration eight leading Christian and Jewish religious leaders in that city, released a statement criticizing King’s work and ideas, saying that his activities to end segregation in the South were, “unwise and untimely.” In response to that statement, King wrote these eight men, what has come to be known as his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Listen to some sound bytes of what King wrote: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.. . Just as the prophets carried ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond their villages, and just like the apostle Paul carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom. . . we must see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” 1

Martin Luther King was a black man in a white culture that was unable to hear God’s call because of it’s immoral behavior of racism - an immorality that had even corrupted the religious leadership. But King struggled to rise above that deadening culture where people did only what was right in their own eyes. Martin Luther King chose not give in. He chose not to serve the immoral culture and to become separated from God in the process. King chose to follow God’s ways of justice, freedom and love. He chose to move out of the dead zone of racial hatred where God’s call could not be heard, to the life giving zone of justice and love. And because of this, when God said, “Martin, can you hear me now?” King responded to the call.

We can profit from the stories of Nathanael and MLK. We can take courage from how they responded to God’s voice speaking to each of them. Today, we must hear and heed our own call.

Listen because God speaks to us. It might be through a still, small voice. You may hear it in the turmoil of daily events. It’s there if you listen. To hear it is always a moment of grace. You have gifts that God has given you. God calls on you to use them. There are needs in this Church where God may be inviting you to use your gifts and abilities to make a difference. At the very least, God calls us to evaluate our commitment to justice, freedom and love.

I invite you to consider how God might be calling you to respond to the needs in the world around you. There are needs in the community where God may be calling you to use your gifts and abilities to make a difference. The poverty level is high – organizations like the The Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, St. Luke’s and Operation Hope, need volunteers and donations. Or you can just look around and see those in need around you. Listen for God’s call. There are needs in the world where God may be calling on you to use your gifts and abilities to make a difference. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” There is a place like that for you. God knows you. God has a calling for you whether you realize it or not. Listen. And when you hear God’s call, respond.


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