Sunday, January 15, 2012

“Called Within Community”

1 Samuel 3: 1-20
January 15, 2012
Ordinary Time - Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

I know we’ve got some other folks out there in the pews who were raised United Methodist. You all are allowed to tune out here at the beginning of the sermon because I’m going to tell a couple of stories that I bet you’ve already heard a billion times.

John Wesley is credited as the founder of thea Methodist movement. He was the fifteeth of nineteen children. Too bad they didn’t have reality TV back then.

When John was about five years old, there was a fire in the parsonage where the family lived. Although the others made it out quickly, John was trapped in his room. His mother, Susannah, risked her life walking directly into the flames to rescue him. Aided by some neighbors, they were able to pull him out a window and save his life. The near-death experience made a big impact on the young child. For the rest of his life he saw himself as a “brand plucked from the fire” and Susannah, was especially careful to instruct him in virtuous ways, sensing that God had big plans for her little boy.

You could say this was John Wesley’s first “call experience” – a sense of being set apart to do some kind of special work for God. His second call came much later, after he was a minister in the Church of England. One evening, when he was 35, he met with some friends in a house on Aldersgate Street in London for a religious meeting. During a reading from Romans, Wesley suddenly felt his heart “strangely warmed” and felt that he was converted to a deeper and more powerful faith. He left that evening newly energized to continue his ministry. A second calling of sorts.

These are the stories of call I heard as a child. I came to associate the concept of call as being supernatural in some way – a miraculous event, something scarcely understood, a direct lightning-zap from God. Little wonder that I struggled with my own call for about a decade…sometimes feeling the tug of God to move towards ordained ministry, but, more often, waiting for a more definitive sign. I was waiting for an audible voice in the night like little Samuel heard in the temple.

Does call happen this way? Sure, I think it does. I love the story of Samuel hearing a voice in the dark and responding wholeheartedly. And, really? Honestly? I do think we sometimes experience God in supernatural ways – ways we can’t fully comprehend – ways that just exist outside our regular realm of understanding.

But more often, I think, call happens in more mundane ways. A tugging at our heart that never really goes away. A simple comment from a friend who sees something in us that we never saw before. A literal call on the phone from someone who wants something from us – needs something from us – thinks we can do it.

Even Samuel’s call has aspects that are totally boring.

Samuel’s call did not just happen in a vacuum. He was the child of faithful parents – Elkanah and Hannah made the trip of about 15 miles to the temple at Shiloh each year to make offering. Hannah prayed and prayed to be given a son – and when she finally conceived and gave birth to Samuel, she promptly offered him up to the Lord by dropping him off at Shiloh with the priest Eli.

So Samuel stood on the shoulders of faithful people. He didn’t exist in a vacuum. Just as Susannah Wesley raised her son with the hope of him doing something special for God, Hannah gave her son over to God – placing a call upon him long before he ever heard that strange voice in the night.

And once that strange voice came, Samuel didn’t even recognize it, did he? Nope.

He ran to Eli, confused, and Eli pointed him in the right direction. Eli must have seen something within the child that led him to believe he had a calling. Not only did Eli tell him to go back and listen closely for the Word of God, but Eli went a step further, allowing this young child to speak to him as a prophet….and the news wasn’t even good news.

Eli believed so deeply in young Samuel’s call that this old man who had been a priest for years humbled himself to hear a message from God come out of the mouth of this young child.

Called within a community. That’s what Samuel was.

Dedicated by parents who set the stage for his later profession, nurtured in the temple by an old man who saw something special in him…Samuel certainly had his a-ha moment with God, but he never would have been there to have it, nor would he have known what to do with it had he not been called within a community.

This is the weekend where we celebrate the of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King would have been celebrating his 83rd birthday today. Like Samuel, Dr. King was not called in a vacuum, but within a community.

Many of you probably know that both his father and his maternal grandfather were ministers. He grew up in the church he later went on to serve. In his application for seminary, he wrote, “My call to the ministry was not a miraculous of supernatural something; on the contrary, it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity. I guess the influence of my father also had a great deal to do with my going into the ministry…he set forth a noble example that I didn’t mind following.”[1]

When those who know a little about Dr. King think about his “call story” they probably think first of his midnight kitchen table conversion which happened just a few months after the Montgomery Bus Boycott began.

King, who had just turned 27, received a phone call around midnight. The caller said he was going to bomb King’s house. King sat at his kitchen table and thought about his wife and his three-month-old daughter, Yoki. He felt utterly alone for the first time in his life and knew that his Daddy and Mama couldn’t help him. He knew he had to call on a higher power to give him the strength to go on. He later said that “religion became real to me that night” as he prayed for God to give him strength. And strength came in a voice from the heavens telling him to “Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth.”[2]

That’s the fancy, supernatural call story so many of us know about Dr. King. It’s a good one and I don’t doubt that it happened.

But the young Rev. King got where he was in some simpler ways, too.

Did you ever wonder how a 26-year-old baby of a pastor got put in charge of a bus boycott that basically kick started the civil rights movement in this country? Well, it pretty much happened like this:

After King graduated from Boston University, he took his first pastorate down in Montgomery. Just over a year later, the civil rights organizers of the community finally caught the break they had been waiting for when local NAACP secretary Rosa Parks was arrested. Organizers had been waiting for a perfect test case to push the issue, and Ms. Parks was it.

They began organizing quickly, planning an organizational meeting that evening. When King received a phone call at home inviting him to attend, he stalled, saying he wasn’t sure if he had time to be involved since he had a newborn. King’s friend Rev. Ralph Abernathy had to convince him to attend the meeting and just listen.

The next week, the group gathered again to make more permanent plans for the ongoing boycott. Unbeknownst to King – the leaders had already spoken ahead of time about putting King in the role of president of their new organization. Though young and new to the community, the other leaders saw something in King. When his name was put forward, King was surprised but finally answered, “Well, if you think I can render some service, I will.”[3]

King rushed home to change clothes and hurriedly put together some comments for the big prayer meeting being held that night – he only had an hour to prepare. He arrived to a church packed with about a thousand people and about 4,000 more crowding the building outside. King stepped up to the pulpit and spoke powerfully. It was his first moment in the national spotlight.

And how did it happen? Well, it all happened because he made time to go to a boring organizational meeting because his good friend said he needed to just come and sit there.

It happened because some sneaky planners got together before the meeting and decided they’d ambush him with the nomination at the meeting.

It happened because – in spite of this being how people often get roped into doing things in the Church – Dr. King was willing to say yes. He saw that these other leaders saw something in him and he took a chance that maybe – just maybe – this was God’s way of calling him to some new and important task.

These are good stories, yes, but what do they mean for us today?

What I noticed as I pondered these stories is that God works within community to call out servants for various tasks.

Sure, there are moments of being strangely warmed and hearing voices in the temple or at the kitchen table at midnight. But it’s often more boring than that.

Sometimes it looks like what happened to Sara Frommer who was ambushed by Jack on a Sunday morning when he opened the door for her and asked her if she would be the new volunteer coordinator for the winter shelter. She says he seemed to have his arguments all ready, but she surprised him by saying yes immediately.  

And one of our newest members, Jenni, shared with me that sometimes being called in a community looks like this: Jenni is a graduate of Bob Jones University and has become very involved with a group of alumni who are organizing to pressure their alma mater to stop their hateful speech and actions towards LGBT people. Through online connections via facebook groups, blogs, YouTube videos, online petitions and more these alumni are inspiring each other to take action.

Jenni says, “So this group has helped me understand my calling, not just to the LGBT community in general, but also to those LGBT persons who are still trapped in Fundamentalism.  And I can no longer sit idly by and let my alma mater believe what they believe and preach what they preach when it leads to people feeling ostracized from God.
You asked what this calling felt like.  Scary.  Exciting. Unbelievable.  God worked through these friends of mine to help me have the courage to do the right thing, even when the right thing wasn't the easy thing.  And together we are making a difference.”

Who knew you could find your calling on facebook? Or on a blog?

Wise Christians know this.

Wise people of faith know that, just as God cannot be kept in a box, neither does God always move in mysterious ways or speak with a booming voice from the heavens.

Sometimes the call of God comes when someone from the church nominating committee calls you and says, “You know what? We have this committee you should serve on.” Sometimes the call of God comes when you’re sitting in your pew and a friend across the way says, “I’ve been thinking, we should volunteer together at the shelter together sometime.”

What this means, of course, is that we are all being called, but we are all also responsible for doing the calling.

Some of us have a natural gift for getting to know the strengths of others and matching them up with just the perfect job. Pat Martin is one of those people. Every month she carefully looks around the congregation and invites people to serve Communion. Every time she makes an invitation, I can guarantee you she has thought and prayed about it carefully and is asking for a reason.

Others of us find this work of calling more difficult. We have to really work on being more aware of others’ gifts and it takes us a while to get up the courage to say to someone, “I think you really should consider working on this particular project,” or “I’ve noticed you seem to really make an impact when you’re doing this kind of work.”

Regardless of whether it comes with ease or is something we have to work at, I believe calling on our sisters and brothers in the faith is something God needs all of us to do.

Call happens within community and it is up to each of us to call and keep calling so that God’s work can be done.

[1] Quoted in Bearing the Cross by David J. Garrow, 39.
[2] Garrow, 57-58.
[3] Garrow, 21-22.