24 January 2012

Course Correction

Jonah 3: 1-5 & Mark 1: 14-20

Third Sunday after Epiphany/ 22nd January 2012

 The Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday intentionally links these two texts, primarily because each has something to say about what happens when God calls us.  God’s call to Jonah in chapter three is actually the second call.  You’ll recall that after the first time God called him, to go to Nineveh and preach against the city, he fled.  The text reads, “But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD” (Jonah 1:3).  He fled.  He ran away.  He sailed away – or tried to.  God hurled a “great wind storm upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4) and then he was eventually hurled into the sea and into the belly of “a large fish” (not a whale, Jonah 1:17). In Mark, we find Jesus preaching, announcing the kingdom of God, inviting people to repent and then follow him along the way into the kingdom.  Two call stories.

            Now when we hear the word "called,” it’s often assumed that it refers to a "religious" calling, to be a minister or priest or rabbi.  In order to be clergy one has to have a call, we know; clergy therefore are the only ones called, it’s believed.  I often hear my Roman Catholic friends, especially priests, refer to the priestly life as having a vocation, a calling, suggesting that the word is used only for religious work. 

            But why do we assume that God is only concerned with so-called “religious” tasks or professions?  Are we saying that God only extends a call to people to do a religious task? As if God is only concerned with religious or holy professions.  Psalm 24:1, however, offers a different take on the matter; it’s very clear: “The earth and all it contains belongs to the LORD.”  God’s sovereign care and concern is not for only a portion of the world, the religious bit, but for all of creation.  God doesn’t divide up the world into that which is sacred and that which is secular.  These are our ways of dividing up reality, especially since the eighteenth century Enlightenment.  Our own separation of church and state doesn’t help matters and only adds to the confusion.  I’m not criticizing this – let me be clear; our own Presbyterian forbears were instrumental in making sure that there was a strong wall separating church and state.  However, we shouldn’t assume that that’s how God views the situation.  Reality is one.  Sacred and secular – it’s all one and God has concerned for all of it and all of us.  In God’s sovereign care for the world, God is concerned about people and how people live, and cares for us by calling people to do God’s work and God’s work means working for things that ultimately matter, things that provide the care and welfare of all people, things that call us to life. 

            We won't find such a dualistic view in the Bible; not in these stories.  Yes, it’s God calling, calling to a particular task, to do the work of God in the world.  But this is not the call for just some, for the “religious professionals,” its God’s call to all of us.

            Since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Reformed tradition – the Calvinist-Presbyterian tradition – has strongly affirmed that everyone who is baptized also has a vocation.  To be baptized is to have a vocation, from the Latin vocatus, meaning, “called.”  We remember and honor our baptism by answering that call.  Everyone baptized has a particular calling (and callings) from God.  This doesn’t mean everyone is called to be a minister or a preacher – it might be for some – but it does mean that to be set apart in the waters of our baptism means that we have been set apart by God to love and serve God, which is what it means to be called.

            And it’s important to lift up that from a Reformed perspective, we do not have a hierarchy of callings.  One call is not higher or better than another – and being clergy is not the highest calling.  In fact, if pressed to privilege one profession over another, John Calvin (1509-1564) said, at the end of his Institutes (1559), that perhaps the most important profession is not the minister, but the public servant – a king or queen or magistrate, an elected official, those who are entrusted with the support and care for the common good.  Why?   Because it’s the civil servant’s responsibility to seek and maintain the welfare of the people in the community.  Just imagine what the world would be like if more public servants – including politicians – saw their professions as a calling from God, instead of a job, or a game of party politics or personal aggrandizement. Many of our public servants are serving the public because they do feel it’s a call, but not everyone, as we know.  Calvin also said, more than two hundred years before our own Declaration of Independence, that if the monarch or the public magistrate is not caring for the needs of all the people, then he or she should be removed from office.[1]

            The perennial question, though, is how do we discern what God is calling us to do with our lives?  Discernment is a skill, even an art.  It requires considerable prayer and listening – listening to the community around us, listening to our hearts, paying attention to our passions. 

            And there isn’t one calling for a lifetime. We should probably talk about callings, because the content and the direction of God’s call changes.  What matters most is that we acknowledge that we are called and are being called. Yes, it could be called to parish ministry (when was the last time someone from this church was called to preach and teach or go to seminary?), or it could be a call to social work or engineering or teaching or science or economics or to be a stay-at-home mother or father.  Every profession has the potential of being viewed as a calling if it is done to the glory of God – and the work of God is not limited to the church, as Jesus himself showed us; it’s both here, in the church, but “out there” in the wider world.

            You see God never ceases in calling, inviting us to live lives worthy of the God who created and continues to recreate us; God never ceases enticing and imploring us to give our lives to something bigger than our egos or self-interests.  We were not created and endowed with the image of God to make lots of money.  We were not created for the pursuit of our own happiness, despite what our Declaration of Independence might say. This universe was not created simply to satisfy our own selfish, egocentric needs.  Teenagers and college students are often asked the question, “What do you plan to do with your life?”  On the surface the question appears innocent enough. It’s a question that assumes, however, that our lives belong to us, which from a theological perspective we know is seriously misguided and wrong. 

            Our lives do not belong to ourselves.  At some level that’s what baptism means, that we don’t belong to ourselves, or to our parents, or to our families, or to our community, but that we belong ultimately to God.  Perhaps we should ask, of teenagers and young adults, any adult, including ourselves: “What do you sense God calling you to do with your life or in your life?”  or “Where is God leading you, calling you?  What is God calling you to do?” 

            The Presbyterian minister and writer, Eugene Peterson, who once served in Baltimore Presbytery for many years at in Bel Air, MD, remembers the day his life was changed, when he realized the purpose of his life as a minister, when he was called, as it were, within his call.  One day he went to hear the novelist Chaim Potok (1929-2002) – author of The Chosen, The Gift of Asher Lev, and The Promise – give a lecture downtown at Johns Hopkins University in the Shriver Hall. 

            Potok shared “that when he went to college his mother took him aside and said, ‘Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but I have a better idea.  Why don’t you be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.’  Chaim replied, ‘No, mama.  I want to be a writer.
            He returned home from vacation, and his mother got him off alone.  ‘Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but listen to your mamma.  Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.’  Chaim replied, ‘No, mama.  I want to be a writer.’ 

            This conversation was repeated every vacation break, every summer, every meeting:  ‘Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but listen to your mama.  Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.’ Each time Chaim replied, ‘No, mama. I want to be a writer.’  The exchanged accumulated.  The pressure intensified.  Finally there was an explosion.  ‘Chaim, you’re wasting your time. Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.’  The explosion detonated a counter-explosion:  ‘Mama, I don’t want to keep people from dying; I want to show them how to live!’”[2]

            We were created to participate in something larger than our egos and self-interests. We were created to experience something more profound than the meeting of our narcissistic needs or obtaining financial security. Our lives are precious and short.  They are precious because we are endowed with God’s own image.  We were created to give our lives, called to place our lives in service to something larger than ourselves, a higher purpose than personal satisfaction.

            Jesus' word for that larger life was kingdom, the kingdom or realm of God is that larger life, the vast realm of God and life in such a world fosters life and growth and healing and justice and love, it seeks the welfare of all God’s people and is not afraid to fight for it.  That’s what Jesus discovered about his own calling – after he was baptized, after he went into the wilderness to discern his call, he arrives on the scene in the Galilee proclaiming the “good news of God,” inviting people to repent – that is, change the direction of their lives away from other lesser, competing concerns – and give their lives to God’s work in the world.  And note the order here, it’s very important.  Jesus didn’t say, “Repent. Then receive the good news of the kingdom of God.” Jesus said the kingdom of God has come near, therefore repent, change direction, and follow.   Embrace the good news and follow, live!  Jonah discovered the same thing, although reluctantly, after his own baptism of sorts.  Baptism – or spending three days in the belly of a fish – has a way of wrenching us from the orbit of our egos and then re-aligns us within the orbital pull of a larger planet, as it were, a larger body that has pull and sway over us, a larger world, a larger reality, the kingdom, the life, the vast realm of God, which continually beckons all of us. 

            The kingdom of God is always calling out and inviting us to enter it.  That was what Jesus was called to do in his life.  That’s what a life is for.  And by God’s grace, Jesus calls us to join him, as he shows us how to live with compassion and mercy, with love and with justice. 

[1] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), IV.xx.1-32.
[2] Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant:  An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 46-47.  Emphasis mine.

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