In the 11th century, King Henry III of Bavaria grew tired of court life and the pressures of being a monarch. He made application to the Prior at a local monastery, asking to be accepted as a postulant, deciding that he should spend the rest of his life in the monastery as a contemplative monk. The Prior asked him if he really understood that one of the vows needed was that of obedience, warning the King that obedience would be a difficult task after having been King. King Henry promised to be obedient from that moment forward to the Prior. The Prior thought about this for a moment, then ordered the King to return to his throne and serve faithfully in the place where God had placed him, which he did. Years later, when King Henry died, it was said that the King learned to rule through obedience.
God’s call for his life did not look the way he initially imagined it, but it was authentic and Henry followed it anyway.
In today’s readings we hear about God calling people to come forward and do something they might otherwise not have thought to do. Both passages are about the “call of God” – Samuel – as a youth – called in the night from the midst of his sleep to hear a message; – and Peter and Andrew – called in broad daylight to stop their ordinary lives and follow Jesus. There are dramatic differences in the ways these people are called by God.
In the story of Samuel, a boy lying in his bed is awakened to the sound of God’s voice calling his name. God explains to Samuel that he is to go and speak to Israel with the authority of God to back him up. It is the calling of a prophet with all the attendant drama we read so often in the Hebrew Scriptures. There is direct contact with God and the divine will is made known with absolute clarity: there is left no room for doubt.
I myself used to think that this was the way to determine if one’s calling was authentic. I suspect that if you ask a typical churchgoing Christian why he or she doesn’t do any volunteer work or strive on behalf of the needy right here in their own town, one of the most popular answers would be that they don’t feel “called” to do it. Although they admire the few who actually do the volunteering and work for the less fortunate, the divine imperative seems lacking to them.
The Gospel reading from John today tells about Jesus calling Peter and Andrew. The men find Jesus and Jesus even gives Peter his new symbolic nickname, indicating the sort of faith Peter would come to possess. Andrew and Peter decide to follow Jesus, and this decision on their part would influence some other men in their acquaintance, namely Philip and Nathaniel. So here is the question that lies unspoken behind these readings: Whose call is more real? Which call is more truly from God?
Samuel’s call from God in the middle of the night? Or is it the call of Peter and Andrew, whose call is simply a “Come and see.”? No burning bush, no voices in the night, no drama, Just, “Come and see.”
William Muehl, a professor of Yale Divinity School, has spent many years teaching people who are about to become ordained ministers and those who are already ordained. He has a complaint about us, which really isn’t unique since most people are quick to point out that we are hardly doing our job. What bothers him most is that there is a widespread tendency among ministers to do some romanticizing of what it means to have a vocation. To hear most of us talk, claims Muehl, God calls people only in moments of theatrical intensity. Someone, for example, is reading a theological book when, suddenly, a shaft of light falls upon a penetrating passage and scales fall from the reader’s eyes.
Or a hillside communion service at a summer church camp begins to glow with all the luminosity and power of the Upper Room. The ministerial version of Christian calling almost always involves a moment of high drama.
This is what we find in Samuel’s calling: God moves with intensity and purpose and there are no doubts about anything. Yet, nothing is left to faith, either.
Muehl accuses many of us ordained folk of being guilty of dressing up these events in “Damascus Road” attire, which is unfortunate since most people come to faith in ways that are far more down-to-earth. Some people have faith because at some point their parents forced them to go to church. Others because they took on the religion of their spouse, because it seemed like a good way to begin their marriage.
If we limit ourselves to literal reading of the Bible, we might be led to believe that God’s calling is a onetime extraordinary event that leaves no doubt about what God wants from us. Burning bushes, God’s voice in the night, a dove descending from heaven.
In today’s story from John, however, that is not the experience of calling that we find. What we have is the call that most of us experience…and inner intuition that seems to suggest that we just “give it a try”. No voices, no burning bushes, no doves. Just “come and see.”
This past summer we had an extraordinary series of discussions and sharing centered on what it meant to have faith. I learned a great deal over those 7 weeks, and I know others did as well. Most of us had questioned our faith at one point or another, some did not. Some always felt certain about how they would answer God’s call for their lives, most were not that certain. Each of these participants was someone I considered very spiritual, but not one of them ever spoke of voices in the night, burning bushes or giant lighted billboards on I-69. When they spoke of feeling “called” or “chosen” from a young age, the focus of that call became clearer as they matured. For many, the call is still not completely in focus….and that’s okay.
Sometimes we wonder if we are answering our call to the fullest extent, so here are a few extraordinarily ordinary ways that God calls us. When our job literally eats us up inside, driving us to consider alternatives, isn’t that a call from God? When we are suddenly single after spending years in a dedicated relationship and are now compelled to find another path, isn’t that a calling? When we take courses in college with a specific degree or goal in mind and then, suddenly, an elective class changes the way we view the world and opens up something deep within us, isn’t that, too, a calling from God?
The reality is that we tend to see a lot of God’s calls to us as losses and we grieve them. That is fine and healthy, but at some point we need to accept the unknown path offered to us. God is always on our side; God never wills us harm or hurt; God is always tugging at us, bugging us, inviting us to do more. If we don’t feel “called”, perhaps it’s because we’re not paying attention to the ordinary events of our lives.
The call from God many times comes in the ordinary rythms of everyday life. Farmers, waitresses, fishermen, hunters, carpenters, housewives: none of us is outside God’s calling circle. If we are not watching for it, and open to it, we can miss it completely. As always, God isn’t going to force us to believe in our mission through miracles and dramatic light shows in the heavens. Those kinds of things have nothing to do with faith since empirical evidence leaves no choice but to believe. God wants us to have faith in God’s love, not just knowledge about God.
If we look around us right now, taking a look at all those who surround us in this church, we see people who are on the same journey as we are on, people who are called to do something beautiful for God, people who are just like you and me. There are other people, however, who are not here tonight because they don’t know that God loves them, they don’t know that there is nothing wrong with them, they don’t know that we exist for them. They are just beyond those doors and I assure you, if we are all following our call—myself included—they will eventually come to Holy Redeemer. They will feel the call. They will, in the words of Jesus, “come and see”.