October 15, 2017: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
The poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[i] Your one wild and precious life!
Let me tell you about Cathy. She grew up in the church. As a child her family was in worship nearly every Sunday and they made sure she was in Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, children’s choirs, you name it. When she was old enough she received a Bible like our children did this morning. Cathy was a bright kid who did well in school, and her favorite subject was science. She loved to learn all about birds and insects, plants and soil. Then one day, when she was ten years old she was in church with her family. They stood to sing the opening hymn that morning “This is My Father’s World.” At the end of the first verse she sang these words,
This is my Father’s world; I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, his hand the wonders wrought.
For some reason, her young mind latched on to the beauty of those phrases: “rocks and trees,” “skies and seas.” These were the things that fascinated her curiosity in school, and now she was singing about them as “wonders wrought” by the hand of God. Right then, deep deep down in her gut she felt something. A sense of connection, something calling her compelling her to connect the dots, to weave together what she loved with her mind and what God wanted her to do with her life. For the rest of the day she wrestled with these thoughts and by the time she went to bed that night she knew it. She knew, clear as day, what she was going to do with her life, her one wild and precious life. When she grew up she was going to be a park ranger. She was going to study the rocks and trees, the birds and insects, so that she could take care of them and share them with others. She knew then what she wanted to do, but it was more than that. It was more than just what she wanted…it was what God was calling her to do. She followed that calling through, and for over thirty years she has served as a park ranger.
The Apostle Paul writes to a group of his friends, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters.” Consider your own call! This church he’s writing to in Corinth is one that Paul had started just a few years before sending the letter. But it seems that he had been gone just long enough for some issues to develop in the Church. The folks in Corinth have reached out to Paul, asking him question about theology, about worship practices, about ethical issues. And our biblical book of 1 Corinthians is Paul’s long reply back to them.
There was a lot going on in that church, too much to cover in one sermon. But most of their conflicts and questions were flavored by the fact that they were a very diverse church in a very diverse port city. Some of them were Jews who had begun worshiping Jesus; some of them were Gentiles. A few of them were rich, upper class patrons; many others were poor and even destitute. Some had long linages of privilege, families that had been in Corinth for generations; some were the children of former slaves who had come to town as immigrants to start over. Some of them were Republicans, some were Democrats. As one biblical commentator puts it, that church family was characterized by “status inconsistency.”[ii] Status inconsistency. That is, they weren’t all alike, and in those days of patriarchal hierarchy society in the Roman empire, to be gathered together as a group of equals with people who the world didn’t see as equals was a very odd and unusual thing. And it was quite hard for this young church to navigate.
So in the beginning of his letter, Paul says to them “Consider your call, brothers and sisters.” Consider your calling. Think about why you are in this community. Remember how you got here in the first place.
Then he paints a pretty unflattering picture of them. Most of you weren’t wise. Most of you weren’t born into the best families in town. But God called you anyway. God chose what is foolish, and week, and low and despised, God chose you. God called you into this life together, so that your identity would be shaped by a shared life in Christ, not by all those trappings of status that the world thinks are so important.
This passage isn’t just written to that church in Corinth, but to us as well. We’re invited to read over their shoulders and listen in, because we are a part of their story and their struggle. This text invites us to consider our calling. “Consider your call, brothers and sisters.” In the New Testament, to be called by God means (most of the time) to become a member of the church. To be a Christian is to be called by God. How we experience that calling to the community of faith may be different for each of us, but we are all called to the same place, to the waters of baptism. And from those waters we are all called out to a new way of life lived together in ways that celebrate the good news of God’s grace and that seek to show Christ’s love to the word.
But over time, as the centuries passed, the Christian Church transformed from a small insignificant group of nobodies to the most powerful religious and political force on the face of the known world. Wars were fought, peoples were slaughtered and conquered all in the name of making the world Christian. In the Middle Ages the church changed how it spoke and taught about calling and vocation. Now it was only priests, monks, religious leaders who were thought to have been called by God. Everyone else were just ordinary, unimportant. But those who had been called were better, more important than everyone else.
It was into this context that the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin burst onto the scene. They looked at the way the Medieval Church spoke about vocation or calling and saw a conflict with the truth that they read about in scripture. They turned back to the writings of Paul and other biblical sources to open things up and remind all people that they had all been called by God. This teaching became known as the “priesthood of all believers.” The priesthood of all believers. It is all of us, not just a select few, who are called to live in ways that show God’s love and grace. All of life, therefore, becomes an opportunity for following God’s call. And jobs or occupations that had previously been viewed as unimportant or lowly in society were given a new sense of purpose as part of God’s calling.
Luther famously said that if God had called you to be the person who makes barrels that will be used to transport beer, then by all means glorify God by making the best beer barrels you can. And know that “God with all his angels and creatures, is smiling’” down on you.[iii]
Unfortunately, still today, even 500 years after the Reformation, we still fall into those old traps. We still elevate on pedestal some folks in our society who serve in certain jobs and occupations as more important than others. We talk in our world today as if the only point of education is to get a job, and the only point of a job is to get as much money as you can, and the only point of money is to buy things that show how important we are. We boast, all the time, but not in the Lord. We boast in the all the wrong ways for all the wrong reasons. And we look down on those who don’t have what we have, who don’t work were and how we work, who can’t afford the things that we can, who didn’t go to the same school. But remember, Paul says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
And we miss the mark within the church just as much. Most of the time, we only use the word “calling” to talk about our pastors. In the years of training to be ordained as a minister, Anna and myself and Sarah Jordan (who is being ordained today) had to tell our story of call over and over again. Now, there’s nothing wrong with doing that, but there is something missing if we only ask that of a very few people. What about all of those who have stories to tell?
What about teachers, what about nurses or doctors? What is their story of call? How have they felt God moving them toward this vocation? What about computer programmers or truck drivers, what about parents or grandparents, what about scientists or engineers, what about life guards, what about lawyers or paralegals, or judges or janitors, what about accountants or managers, what about sales people or musicians, what about fundraisers or financial analysts, what about volunteers or advocates for important causes, what about spouses or caregivers for those who are sick, what about artists or authors, what about park rangers, what about you? What about you? Yes, you! What is your story of call? How have you heard God at work in your life calling you, guiding you into the community of faith and sending you out to serve in the world with your particular gifts?
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters.” Take time to remember it and meditate on it, and celebrate it as a gift. Consider your own call! Did you run away from that calling at first, like the prophet Jonah, because you were afraid of what God wanted you to do? Are you still running away from it? Or did you drop everything like those fishermen in the boat and follow your calling immediately? Did you feel your calling early in life like Samuel, or late in life like Abraham and Sarah? Are you called to start something new, like Paul or to mentor the next generation, like Barnabas? Are you in the midst of a crisis of calling, wondering what on earth God wants you to do now? Do you have particular gifts, skills, passions, resources that God is calling you to use now in a new way? That’s what Christian stewardship is all about! Consider your own call, brothers and sisters.
The question is not if you are called, but how you are called. Not if you are called, but how! And remember the good news that is God who has called you in the first place, God who has claimed you as belonging to this family of faith, hope, and love. And God has sent you out with the promised gift of grace—God’s grace made real for us in Jesus Christ, is all that we need to follow our calling.
To God alone be the glory. Now and forever more.
[i] “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver.
[ii] Wayne Meek, The First Urban Christians, quoted by Richard B. Hays in First Corinthians, Interpretation, 7.
[iii] Quoted in “Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation,” William C. Placher, ed., 206.