The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 26, 2014
Preacher – The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
I read recently about the southern elephant seals of Argentina. Scientists report for about three weeks after a mother elephant seal gives birth she nurses the pup giving it attention around the clock. At the end of this period she is famished, so she abandons the pup on the shore and goes into the surf to find food.
When she returns to the beach, gorged and happy (along with hundreds of other mother seals who have taken similar action) she begins to call for her baby. Even among a seemingly infinite number of other moms and pups, all searching for one another, she is undeterred – she calls and listens for a response, and using both her hearing and her sense of smell, she finds her pup.
Apparently from only that short time together, the sound and scent of the pup is imprinted on the mother, and the sound of the scent of the mother is imprinted on the pup.
They recognize each other in a huge crowd of seals even when it might seem impossible. They know they belong together.[i]
In today’s gospel we read of an equally remarkable recognition of belonging.
Here at the onset of his public ministry, Jesus starts to gain notoriety—he begins to be recognized. But, more importantly for us, he begins to recognize those who will be vital to his ministry. He sees Simon Peter and Andrew and he call them to a new identity. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus gives them a new way to understand who they are.
And as if that change of identity weren’t enough, Simon even gets a new name – Peter –a nickname really –in Greek, Petrus is the word for Rock, and in the 16th chapter of Matthew Jesus says, “You are Peter, and upon this petrus (or rock) I will build my church.” He and the others – Andrew, James, and John – all receive a call from Jesus, a call that leads to a new identity.
What does it mean to be called by God? And how do we know that that call is from God, and not from our own egos?
In the Church we are perhaps most familiar with God’s call to ordained ministry. Certainly that is the lens through which I begin my approach to this subject. And my own call was clearly a gift of grace, that is, a blessing beyond any that I could ever earn or deserve. And it was also a call to a new identity.
But I am certain that God’s call is not just about ordained ministry. I believe God calls each of us to new identities.
This weekend I had the privilege of joining our vestry on retreat at the Little Portion Friary on Long Island. Our subject, coincidentally enough, was the discernment of God’s call.
We talked about what it means to listen, and especially what it means to listen for God’s voice. As I am sure you know, your vestry, the governing board of our congregation, is made up of some smart people.
But this weekend I was reminded again of their passion for this church, and of their dedication to helping St. Michael’s flourish.
We are blessed beyond measure by their having responded faithfully to God’s call to lead this congregation. And, I might add, they’re fun to hang out with! We had a great time together this weekend.
In a few minutes we will commission them as our leaders. Please be assured that they are listening not only to God, but also to you—it matters deeply to them that all your voices are heard.
If you have a concern, or an exciting idea for ministry, please don’t hesitate to seek them out and have a conversation.
In our retreat we discussed the idea that deciphering God’s call is about understanding who God longs for us to be. And this is not just about God’s call to a place in a faith community—it is about all of who we are and might become, in all parts of our lives. It is about God’s dreams for each of us—the ways God would have us affect the world. Theologian Frederick Buechner has said that, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[ii]
Another way to think about that call is to understand it as vocation—the Latin term from which vocation derives is vocatio, defined as a call or summons. I am sure that some of you have heard and understood God’s call to become your best self.
Perhaps some of you were fortunate enough to hear that call early in life. But for many, that true vocation is something only discovered later in life. Parker Palmer, perhaps my favorite contemporary Christian writer on this subject, says in his remarkable book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, “We arrive in this world with birthright gifts—then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them…. If we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss, we spend the second half [of our lives] trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.”[iii]
This action of becoming awake and aware of God’s call is often called discernment—for many it may lead, as it did for me, to a second career; or perhaps to an avocation—that is, work in addition to what you do to pay the bills—an avocation that brings meaning; or perhaps to assuming a place in one’s family or community that brings more meaning and fulfillment to life.
When one begins to live into that call, most people feel a real inner affirmation of the rightness of their newfound vocation, and they experience a deep satisfaction in answering that call.
As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, [O God.]”[iv] Hearing and acting on God’s call is not only fulfilling; it brings us closer to God.
God has a dream for each of us; and an important part of the Church’s work is to help each other hear God’s call. It is our task as a community to see each other’s true identities and support each other on the road to that discovery.
This work is accomplished through sacred listening—being still and hearing God’s voice for and in ourselves, and in each other. Part of our vocation as a church community is to actively take part in this kind of sacred listening. But when we do, we must always remember that God is the agent of that call – the first active one, and the one moving us to act.
When Jesus sees Peter and Andrew, he immediately knows their identity – there is no hesitation, no wavering. Jesus knows their identity, even when they are unaware of it. And when Jesus calls them, they seem to know this call is real.
They immediately leave their nets and follow. Perhaps like St. Augustine says, they have felt restless until this moment; and so they leave everything to follow Christ.
Or maybe it is more like those elephant seals. Perhaps the first disciples were simply responding to what was imprinted on their souls—the knowledge of the voice of God—so that when they heard the voice, all they could do was leave everything else behind and follow.[v]
God’s voice is within us – God has already acted in our lives. Our collective prayer is that we will recognize it, and follow God’s call.
George Herbert, the wonderful British mystic poet of the early 17th century, puts words to our prayer in his simple poem, The Call. Let us pray:
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way as gives us breath;
Such a truth as ends all strife,
Such a life as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a light as shows a feast,
Such a feast as mends in length,
Such a strength as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a joy as none can move,
Such a love as none can part,
Such a heart as joys in love.[vi]
[i] Nishioka, Rodger Y. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. pp. 284, 286.
[iii] Palmer, Parker J. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Kindle Locations 142-143). Kindle Edition.
[iv] Augustine. http://www.leaderu.com/cyber/books/augconfessions/bk1.html, accessed 01/25/2014. (Quote slightly paraphrased for context.)
[v] Nishioka, Op Cit., p. 286.