Star Words: Call

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8; Matthew 4:18-22

“Call” is a word I’ve used a lot since I became a pastor. In fact, if I had a way to go back and tally things up, it might be the Star Word I’ve used the most of all the Star Words on our list. I’ve used it to talk about my own entrance into ministry, and with people discerning whether that is their path too. I often use it in sermons: I pose it as a question – where is God calling us? – or as an answer: This is what God calls us to. Sometimes I use it in conversation with you all: how are you feeling called to serve?

I think that before I was a pastor, or at least before I was in the process toward becoming one, I didn’t use the word call very much. And that does make me wonder if it’s another one of those words we throw around in church without necessarily stopping to talk about what it means.

It’s not that the word or concept of call or calling is entirely absent from our secular world. It is a word we use sometimes, not just in the sense of a conversation on the phone but in the sense of fulfilling a higher purpose: so-and-so has found their calling. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Disney movie Moana – it came out about 5 years ago but I had never seen it until this fall when Moana became suddenly very popular in our house. Moana is Disney’s Polynesian princess, the daughter of a chief who sets out to help her island in a time of need. She stands at the brink of the sea and knows she is supposed to cross it, just like her ancestors once did. “See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me,” she sings in the song “How Far I’ll Go.” So we do hear and understand these things, both inside church and out.

What I don’t know is whether we mean the same thing. What does it mean to be called by God? And maybe the most important question: how do we know?

If you think about those stories in the Bible that we sometimes call “call stories,” there is seldom any room to doubt just what is happening and what’s supposed to happen next. Moses encounters a burning bush in the wilderness and hears a voice telling him to lead God’s people out of Egypt. The prophet Isaiah sees smoke filling the temple and the threshold shakes as he hears “Whom shall I send?” For Jonah it takes being swallowed up by a giant fish to convince him to go proclaim God’s grace to his enemies in Nineveh. Mary has a face-to-face conversation with an angel who tells her she is going to be the mother of Jesus. And later, when that baby boy grows up, fishermen drop their nets at the sound of his voice, and follow.

I used to think that call stories should happen like that – the proverbial flash of lightning, the one, clear answer or direction for your life, that when God made it known, you knew. And I know people now, with stories like that. But for most people, I think, that’s not how it works.

I know that for me, call was something I awakened to gradually. I read books by faith leaders who inspired me with their work and sacrifice for justice. I learned to read the Bible in a new way and fell in love with God’s story. I met people and had the growing realization that these were God’s people, in all their varying colors and backgrounds and abilities and stories.  The more I learned about the Kingdom of God, this vision of divine reality here on earth, where all are loved and all are valued and all are welcome, the more I wanted to invite other people to be part of that vision with me. And I prayed and I asked questions and I talked to people and they said things like, “Yeah, that sounds right,” and “We’ve always seen something of that in you.”

I didn’t go to college thinking that I was headed to seminary when I graduated. But somewhere along the way it was a thought that crossed my mind, and came and went for a while, until eventually it didn’t go away anymore.

Like most pastors I know, I’ve told my call story a lot of times by now, from my interviews with the Board of Ordained Ministry to the random conversation in line at 7-11, and I think one of the mistakes we make in church is assuming that call stories are only for pastors, because we’re the ones that tell them. But they’re not. God calls all sorts of people to all sorts of different things: to teaching, to science, to caregiving, to politics, to art. These are vocations that are every bit as crucial to the Kingdom of God, to God’s intended reality here on earth, as standing up to preach every Sunday (or sitting down, as the case may be) and each of those journeys, I know, has its own holy story.

And that story might even change over time, as new chapters are added. I used to think that “call” was when you knew the one thing you were meant to do with your life, even if it might have been any number of things. I don’t necessarily believe that now. I used to hear people in ministry say a lot that you shouldn’t be a pastor if you could imagine yourself doing anything else. I don’t know if that’s a thing they say in other professions, but I think it misses the mark. I could see myself doing lots of things. This one, I believe, on most days, is the best way I can use my gifts and passions and skills for the glory of God. I prefer that quote by Frederick Buechner – “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Note that “calling” is not synonymous with “career.” Not all of us will find our deep gladness meeting the world’s deep hunger doing the thing that pays us money. Some of us have to put food on the table; not everyone has the luxury of being choosy. Some of us may be unable to work at a job; others may be past that point in their life. Still, some people answer their God-given call by volunteering with kids on the weekends, or serving in church leadership; some people answer their call less by doing a certain thing and more by doing whatever it is they do in a certain way: by making sure their employees are treated fairly, by making choices with integrity, by bringing joy to their neighbors, or by always looking for a chance to help. Maybe the problem is that sometimes, we make the idea of “call” too fancy. We think we have to be the chosen one; when really, we can be called on any given day to make the hard choice, to welcome someone new, to forgive someone, to march or sit or ride a bus, or to pick up the phone and let someone know they’re loved. Sometimes, God called people, like Moses, to a lifelong position; sometimes God called people, like Jonah, to a particular task. Sometimes, when Jesus tells us to drop our nets, he means for the rest of our lives; sometimes, maybe, he means for today – and nets or no nets, we follow him.

I love the story the author Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a hard decision she once had to make.  She prayed and prayed, hoping God would reveal to her which path God wanted her to take. Eventually, she said, the answer she got was this: “Do whatever pleases you, and belong to me.”[1]

In the end, our ultimate, unchanging call is this: to be God’s people in the world. In the end, our call is this: to follow Jesus in whatever circumstances we find ourselves; to love God and our neighbor with everything God has given us. And might God sometimes have a more specific task or purpose for us? Sure. And if we are living every day with the intention of giving what we have for the God’s glory, then I suspect we won’t miss that call when it comes. And if we do? There will be other chances.

You may never see the hem of God’s robe filling the temple, or meet an angelic messenger face to face, or hear a voice booming from heaven. But we follow one who called fishermen and tax collectors, overlooked women and Pharisees, and he calls us too, to live and love as God intended, and to use our gifts for the Kingdom of God.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

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