"Called by your gifts"
A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on January 14, 2018
Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
January 14, 2018—Epiphany 2B
1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51
It always feels dangerous to talk about call stories, for a couple of different reasons. First, we tend to think of them like today’s bulletin cover: a light breaking through the window just so, beautiful and oh so holy. Or if not that, then a lightning bolt striking a ditch somewhere, jolting someone who has hit bottom out of the muck. Dramatic. Clear. It’s a life-changing moment with God’s John Hancock emblazoned across it.
Problem is, you can wait a lifetime for a bolt from the blue like that, and you might start to feel like that makes you “less than” somehow. That you’re missing out on the spiritual life, or worse yet: actually unwanted by God. It seems unfair: Why do some people have a singular moment, and some never get that kind of sign?
I think it’s because “that kind of sign” gives us a very limited understanding of call stories. Which is why I love Anne Lamott’s spiritual autobiography. Because her story isn’t holy and inspiring and dramatic like that. It’s more reluctant and sulky, skeptical. It’s like what a call story would look like, if it were a teenager.
Lamott speaks very candidly about her life, confessing all that was broken and sad and scared inside her, and how she felt drawn into a church in her town. How she would hang in the back and listen to the music, but sneak out before the sermon. And how it started to break something open inside her, soften it up and let it see light for the first time in so many years.
And then, after an experience of bottoming out and fearing that she would drown in the muck down there, she describes lying on her bed and becoming aware of someone there with her, “hunkering down in the corner.” At first she assumed it was her deceased father, whose presence she often felt with her, but at some point she came to a clear and certain realization that it was Jesus. And … as she describes it … she was appalled.
“I thought about my life and my brilliant progressive friends. I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, ‘I would rather die.’”
But she could still feel him there, hunkering down on his haunches and staring at her with patience and love. And though she squinched her eyes shut and tried not to see him, she felt his presence follow her all week, like a little cat dogging at her heels. The next week she went to church so hungover she could hardly stand. She stayed for the sermon this time, though it just seemed ridiculous (like trying to believe in UFOs), but the music! The music was so raw and deep and beautiful it washed over her, and held her up, and cracked her open.
When she got home, the little cat still running at her heels, she stood there a minute, then hung her head and said, “F--- it, I quit.” She took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.” (Traveling Mercies, New York: Pantheon Books, 1999. pp. 48-50)
Here I am, Lord. Wary and skeptical. Broken and sad. Arrogant and self-contained. Too uncertain or perhaps too certain to know what on earth I am doing. And yet, your voice calls me, calls to all of us. Drawing us to your presence. And whatever my background, wherever I am on my journey, however I respond (with confusion, with eagerness, with clarity, with doubt, with scorn, with abject terror), I am here. And I will trust in your voice, and in the fact that you call out to me.
God calls to all of us, longing to draw us closer. But God also calls us TO something. And that brings us to the other danger of that picture on the front of the bulletin, or the ways in which we hear the calling of Samuel: we begin to think of vocation as something that only applies to “religious” callings. And we can’t imagine that God might be calling each and every one of us to SOMETHING.
One of the problems might well be that we can’t imagine ourselves as sufficiently gifted to be called by God. I heard a discussion this week reminding us that God calls all kinds of people to do his work in the world (and lots of them are entirely incompetent, if the stories are to be believed!). It’s true: God’s story does not require perfection or suitability or extreme talent. God can work with anything, and the Kingdom seems to rejoice in fallibility and the creativity of imperfection.
But that’s a larger truth about the nature of the Kingdom of God. When it comes to vocation, to the specific work that God is calling you to, I think the story is a little different. Because you might not be called to the ordained ministry of prophet or priest, but you are still being called to a purpose in the world, a usefulness in the world, a way of adding beauty, truth, justice, order, or joy to the world. And the way God will announce this purpose to you might well be through your gifts and your talents.
We hear the story of Samuel and think that this is what a call story looks like: God speaks, his servant listens, and God tells him to become the new prophet. No wonder we think we aren’t called to anything!
But what if Samuel’s story only looks like this because these are the gifts Samuel has? He can listen. He can question. And he can willingly hear and answer the instructions of God. As it turns out, he has the very talents needed to be a prophet. You need to be attentive. You NEED to question whether this is really the voice of God you’re hearing (if only everyone who claimed to speak for God triple checked things like Samuel!). And then you have to be willing to speak the words God gives you, even when they are hard. Samuel’s first task, for instance, is to call his mentor Eli on the carpet for corruption, and basically take over his position.
Those were his gifts, and they were clues to his vocation. But what about you? God might not need to know about your listening and speaking skills, so he doesn’t need to talk to you in the middle of the night. God might be calling you through your talent for organization. Your love of music. Your compassionate heart. Your unfailing humor. Your strength and endurance. Your eye for detail. Your passion for helping other people. Your tolerance for pain, your artistic flair, your willingness to struggle, your practically saintly patience or even your stubborn argumentativeness. The gifts and passions and interests you have: what if they are messages from God? What if THEY are that bolt from the blue you’ve been waiting for all your life? What if they are the Road to Damascus moment, in which God calls your name and says, “THIS is what I placed you on the earth to do!” And if so, have you ignored it even more times than Samuel? Just asking.
The joy you feel. The satisfaction you get from a job well done, or just from doing something that you love. The knowledge that you’ve helped, that you’ve acted, that you’ve been the person God created you to be: that’s the light, slanting in just so from the window. And it is indeed beautiful and holy. It is perhaps your calling. Amen.