A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
January 22, 2017
At Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota
When I was a young boy, I always knew when it was time to go home. As long as my brother and I were playing within earshot of the house, we could always hear my mother’s very unique call to us. She calls it an “eek”. But to describe it thus is to vastly understate. We could be playing on the beach in front of the neighbor’s house, deeply invested in the driftwood fort we might be making when a shrill cry would echo across the neighborhood. The eek signaled our need to drop everything and head home, quickly. So we would stop play, and take our leave, all the while our friends insisting we had only just heard a bald eagle or a gull’s cry.
Mom’s call was distinctive – it was hers and hers alone. And when we heard it we responded – promptly. In a flash we were reminded of who we were and whose we were. We were our mother’s son’s, and her call demanded our attention and care because we knew that our lives demanded her attention and care.
There is some of that kind of connection, I suspect, in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus is walking by the sea of Galilee and he comes across the two pairs of brothers – Simon Peter and Andrew as well as James and John – and he calls to them to follow him, and they drop what they’re doing and leave their nets and follow. Their peers on the shore, fellow crew members and fishermen, family and friends must have called after them – “Where are you going?” The gospel tells us none of this and so we know not how they accounted for such an abrupt departure from life and livelihood, how they so easily skipped out on responsibilities and thus the respect of their community. But, I suspect they heard in Jesus’ call the voice of a parent, the connection of one who knew who and whose they were. They were drawn, perhaps out of a trust and a hope that whatever Jesus had in store for them, it was to be far more life-giving, transforming, than anything their nets could hold.
Have you ever felt that call? Have you ever heard Jesus calling you to something deeper and greater? There is some research from Lilly that indicates that quite the opposite from many clergy who have had to articulate and define their call through years of formation and an ordination process, that a significant number of those studied in congregations could not articulate a sense of “calling” in most of their daily life. Whether it was career or home or free time, most participants in the survey did not feel called. They did not sense a connection between what they did and God’s call on their lives.
As David Lose, the pastor of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, here in the Twin Cities wonders, what if that very sentence, the connection between doing and calling is the wrong way to frame the question? Perhaps, as he writes this week “calling is less about what we do than who we are.”
I’ve been wondering about that question too, in different ways over the past two months. The nation around us has been wrestling with a new political reality and the question as always in politics is about what are we going to do? How will we utilize the tools and relationships at our disposal to accomplish the greatest amount of good, according to our understanding of the good? That is to say, in our understanding, politics is pragmatic – it is about the doing. And because of this, politics has often been about compromise and accommodation – often for the better. Compromise is what keeps us from fanaticism and zealotry. Pragmatic compromise, as Nicholas Kristof pointed out recently in the times, is what brings an end to disease, lifts real people out of poverty, and ends oppression – it is, as he says, what might make 2017 the best year in history. But, in an age of relativism, a politics of compromise has often meant that crass gains and measurable achievement are the only metric of goodness. Compromise and accommodation have also led us to causes and programs so estranged from goodness, only a tortured definition of “common good” could lend one the understanding of how these means were reached in the first place.
So, we rightly have to ask what kind of things will be do, but also, what kind of people will we be? You could feel the tension of that question in the air at the marches yesterday. Millions of people, perhaps the largest march in the history of the planet, on every continent and sub-continent, a rally that seemed to be exploring the tension of being and doing. As my children read the signs of marchers, it was clear we would have questions on our way home. What were some of these things people seemed to be against? What aims and goals and aspirations were present in the hearts of those millions who gathered here and around the world? What seemed lasting and edifying and hopeful and hope-filled for me about the day was the way in which those aspirations seemed to skew toward statements of being – that the gathered masses wanted to be a people of hope, and love, and generosity, and courage as much as they wanted to be about doing the work of resisting real policies and programs. As we walked home, we talked again with our kids about the kids of people we want to be – questions that stem from our calling by Jesus.
Fortuitously, it would appear that the apostle Paul is also wrestling with this question of being and identity this morning. The church in Corinth is experiencing disunity and Paul is trying to remind them of their fundamental identity. As he does so, he gets caught up in a sort of funny sidetrack about baptism – almost as if he is flustered – “I didn’t baptize any of you…well, except for Crispus and Gaius, so that none of you can say you were baptized in my name… Oh, and also I baptized the whole of Stephanus’ house…there was that. But you get my point.” Paul is at pains to point out that the church’s identity is found in their baptism in Jesus’ name. No matter their origin or story, as he says elsewhere – whether they are Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free – they are now all one in Christ Jesus. Which is not to say that their unique God-given differences are obliterated, but that their identity is found in the one who calls them, the one into whom their lives and stories and uniqueness have all been baptized.
We too share that same identity. We were baptized into Christ. No matter our many and varied backgrounds and interests and bloodlines or our individual stories – no matter how complex and different we are, we are invited in our baptismal calling to find some kind of unity in the person of Jesus the Christ. In so doing, the church is invited to a new kind of politics – one where our doing is shaped not first by any notion of a pragmatic or measurable goal, but by our identity as the body of Christ and messengers of his cross and passion. Ours is a politics shaped by certain traits of being – markers that we can see clearly in the story of Jesus, the cross and the resurrection. Our engagement with the powers of this world should, as Christians, spring from compassion and love and joy – from the knowledge that we are beloved children of God and heirs of the kingdom of God.
This is the unity we seek – not a compromise or accommodation – but a unifying of bodies and hearts because of a relationship with one another and all of creation. I find this to be quite hopeful – it gives me the kind of steam I need to be about the work of resisting oppression. Such a knowledge gives me, and I hope you as well, the fire I need to know that the body of Christ serves only one ruler – and he is a humble rabbi from Galilee.
When rulers call us to a false unity – when greatness is held up as an idol for us to worship – the church must locate its being and its doing somewhere else – in someone else! We will feed the hungry, house the homeless, repudiate hatred, stand with the oppressed, and as our baptismal covenant calls us, respect the dignity of every human being – because we were called by Jesus, and our fundamental being and identity is found in him!