Sermon preached January 15, 2012
Texts: I Samuel 3:1-20
One of the fascinating characters in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath is Jim Casy, a sort of washed-up itinerant preacher. Just Jim Casy now. Ain't got the call no more…. I ain't preachin' no more much. The sperit ain't in the people much no more; and worse'n that, the sperit ain't in me no more. 'Course now an' again the sperit gets movin' an' I rip out a meetin', or when folks sets out food, I give 'em a grace, but my heart ain't in it. I on'y do it 'cause they expect it. (4. 15-16)
The call – short hand for the call of God to ordained ministry or to preaching. Next month I will again attend the Minnesota Conference Board of Ordained Ministry retreat where we will be interviewing women and men who believe God is calling them into ordained ministry. We will ask about their call stories. This will be my 16th and final retreat as a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry, and in that time I have heard a lot of call stories, each fascinating and moving in their unique way. And if a person cannot articulate their sense of call, it is not likely that they will be ordained.
Yet it is unfortunate that we have taken that term – “the call” and reserved it only for persons looking to be ordained for ministry. Yes, there is such a call in people’s lives, a call that they run from sometimes, but if we take the Bible seriously we also need to understand that we are all called as God’s people. You may not be called to ordained ministry, but God calls each and every one of us to live life in such a way that we reflect God’s love for us and for the world.
We are all called by God – called as we are and where we are. That is an audacious statement. Right here, right now, as you are, God is calling you to be God’s person in the world. The thought may take us up short – ME? Called by God? As I am? Yes. God does not seem in the business of waiting until our lives are just so to call us to live God’s love. The Bible is full of surprising call stories. We read one today. Samuel is just a boy, working with Eli, the priest at Shiloh. Yet God calls him. David was the smallest of Jesse’s sons, yet God called him, and God continued to call him even after his reprehensible behavior toward Uriah. Moses could not speak well when God called him to be God’s spokesperson to Pharoah, King of Egypt. Abraham and Sarah were old when God told them they were going to be the beginning of a great multitude, starting with a child Sarah herself would conceive. Sarah’s response was to laugh.
We are all called by God, called as we are, where we are, to live life in such a way that we reflect God’s love for us and for the world. Part of the function of worship in our lives is to hone our listening skills, to sensitize us to the call of God, to the whispers of the Spirit. Prayer, too, hones our spiritual listening skills. We are called, as Samuel was. As Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday is today (January 15, 1929) was, and I want to use their stories to say more about the nature of our calling as God’s people.
We are each called to discover, develop and use our gifts. Samuel was still a boy when called by God to leadership. Samuel had gifts for discernment, for speaking and for truthfulness, and he developed those gifts so he could be a leader more trustworthy than Eli. Martin Luther King, Jr. had gifts for leadership. He was bright, with a Ph.D. from United Methodist-related Boston University. He could speak wonderfully. He could organize well.
Part of the call of Martin Luther King was his call to leadership in the civil rights movement. At age 26, he was the new minister in town when asked to lead a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. He was considered the compromise candidate to lead the boycott. As soon as he was given such leadership the threats began. People were out to get him. King was arrested for going 30 in a 25 mph zone and spent a night in jail. Returning home he received a phone call threatening him. “If you are not out of town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.” After the phone call, King sat alone at his kitchen table, his wife and young daughter asleep. He prayed: Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. King then says he heard a voice, the voice of Jesus. Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world. (Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor, 20). We are called to discover, develop and use our gifts.
We are called to care. Samuel was called to care for the Israelites, who were not being well served by Eli, and particularly by Eli’s sons. Martin Luther King was called to care about the plight of African-Americans, and in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” King eloquently expressed the plight of his people. Responding to moderate white clergy who were asking King to slow down, he observed: When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television and see tears well up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” (A Testament of Hope, 292-293) The 1963 letter extends on from there. Called to care.
We are called to see the world as it is and care. We are called to dream of something different. Martin Luther King is justly famous for articulating a dream - a dream of justice, equality, caring and freedom. And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants – will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.” (Testament, 220)
We are called to dream. Without dreams and imagination, our lives are less energetic, less vibrant, less colorful. But dreams are not sufficient. Dreams are intended to provide energy for action. We are called to work for a better world. Samuel had to work to move the Israelites beyond Eli. In the same speech in which Dr. King articulated his dream, he went on to say: With this faith we will be able to hue out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. (Testament, 219). We are called to act.
We called to tend to our relationship with God. “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him.” In a 1967 sermon entitled “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” Martin Luther King, Jr. preached this: We were made for God, and we will be restless until we find rest in [God]. And I say to you this morning that this is the personal faith that has kept me going. (A Knock at Midnight, 135)
We are all called by God to live life in such a way that we reflect God’s love for us and for the world. We are all called to discover, develop and use our gifts. We are all called to see the world and care for its hurts. We are all called to dream of a better world, to dream God’s dream for the world. We are all called to work for that newer world, to let our dreams fuel our actions. We are all called to attend to our relationship with God.
And we are called individually and uniquely. We are not Samuel, trying to live his calling. We are not Martin Luther King, Jr. trying to live his call. You are you and I am me, and still God calls us to be the best we can be in living in a way that reflects God’s love for us and for the world.
Two quick stories. In his sermon on the three dimensions of a complete life, Martin Luther King preached about the unique call of each person. A Ford car trying to be a Cadillac is absurd, but if a Ford will accept itself as a Ford it can do many things a Cadillac could never do: It can get in parking spaces that a Cadillac can never get in (Knock At Midnight, 124-125).
The Monday night men’s group is reading through a book called Traits of a Healthy Spirituality. There is a story in there that goes like this. An old rabbi prayed to God, “O Lord, make me holy! Make me like Moses!” God replies, “What need have I of another Moses? I already have one. But what I really could use is you.” (13)
God called Samuel. God called Martin. God calls you, because what God could really use is you! Amen.