There’s a lot of talk in the air these days about the revival of spirituality, a whole spiritual quest. Newsmagazines and television programs everywhere describe a new hunger for connection to God, to a mysterious universe, and to one another. Just a few months ago this Cathedral hosted a women’s spirituality conference that packed this vast space with people pursuing this search.
People these days are often freely shifting from one faith tradition to another as they seek a more profound spiritual life. They are going on retreats for contemplative prayer, workshops to learn yoga, conferences on healing. In surprising numbers they are coming back to church searching for something that has been missing in their lives.
The baby boomer generation, the group of Americans who came of age in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, has been named “a generation of seekers.” The generation a decade or so younger, the Gen Xers, and their younger siblings, have each carved out their distinctive quests for God.
For many, that comes with distrust of the church, which they have found too authoritarian, too concerned with guilt, or just too boring. But that hasn’t stopped them from asking the perennial questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where is God? How can I experience being fully alive?
Our Christian scriptures know a great deal about searching and seeking. In fact, they tell a great story of seeking from beginning to end, only for the most part the seeking they describe is of a different kind. You see, in the Biblical vision it isn’t primarily a matter of our seeking God, but of God’s seeking us.
Take Abraham in the Old Testament story for today. Abraham is an old man, 75 or so, when we first encounter him. We don’t know anything about him or his wife Sarah. But out of the blue, with no warning from anywhere, God says to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
You don’t see a lot of searching for God there at all. We know nothing about Abraham’s spiritual life before this happened. All we know is that God calls him to go in a new direction, and he packs up his family and goes. And as it turns out, he becomes the founder, the father-figure, of the people of Israel and the foundational figure for Christians and Muslims too as well as the Jews. And it all begins with a call.
Then there’s the story in our gospel. Matthew was a seedy tax collector, who made his money by overcharging people for their Roman taxes and pocketing the profits. He is sitting in the tax booth plying his trade when Jesus appears, looks at him, and simply says, “Follow me.” And Matthew gets up and follows.
It’s that simple. No reports of a lengthy search for God. Matthew, as best we can tell, hasn’t had the slightest interest in God. But in that riveting moment he discovers that God is calling him and he drops everything.
This is not so much a God we have to find, but a God who is committed to finding us. You remember how Jesus recruited his other disciples by calling them and how they drop their nets and follow? Not a hint of seeking, only a story of being sought. Time and again, in the scriptures the energy, the first movement comes from God. That’s true of Abraham and Moses, Samuel and Jeremiah, Elizabeth and Mary, Jesus and Paul.
In fact, most of the accounts of people coming to the Christian faith describe it as something that began with their searching and ended up with their discovering that actually they were being sought. For the English scholar C.S. Lewis the lines of his own thought and experience inevitably kept pushing him closer to Christian faith, something he had been determined to avoid at all costs. But eventually he felt that he was like a fox being chased by all the intellectual heroes of the West—Plato, Milton, Dante—and by all the mentors and friends he most admired.
In his autobiography he describes what was happening this way: “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.” Ultimately he gave in, describing himself as ‘the most reluctant convert in Christendom.’”
Our service today is full of commemoration and celebration. It’s graduation weekend here in the Cathedral community as two of our fine schools say good-bye to their seniors and launch them off into college and beyond. And as you have seen, we are commissioning new acolytes and choristers and saying good-bye to the graduating seniors who have served us so well. And finally, we are giving thanks for the contributions of James Litton as the Cathedral’s Director of Music.
In one way or another all these reflect events pointing to the question of vocation, which is a word for calling from the Latin, “vocare”, “to call”. What is it that God is calling us to be and to do? Acolytes and choristers are accepting a call to serve God through our worship. We honor James Litton who responded to God’s call to serve through a lifelong ministry of music. And we pray today especially for the new graduates of our two schools here at the Cathedral, as they take their next step in listening to God’s call to them.
There’s a line in a William Stafford poem that goes, “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” That’s a haunting question for most of us to have to answer. For some of us those words will sound ridiculous, the kind of empty words you’d expect from a poet. Obviously my life has been my life!
But for others, those can be penetrating words, because they ask the question of whether the life I’m living is the life I was made for, the life I have it in me to lead, the deepest, most creative, best life I could offer. And the stories we heard today are about moments when two people discovered there was a whole new set of possibilities in life they had never imagined.
We don’t know what questions Abraham might have been asking about his own life. What we do know is that God, the creator of the universe, intruded into his life and said, “I have an adventure for you. I won’t tell you how it will go or where it will take you. All I can promise you is that you will never be the same, you will be stretched and opened and see things you never dreamed, and I will bless the world through you.”
And imagine that riveting moment for Matthew. Do you know the Italian painter Caravaggio’s great painting “The Calling of Matthew”? I have a friend, a high-powered, driven businessman, who says seeing that painting in a dimly lit side chapel in a church in Rome, changed his life. A group of rough looking contemporary Italian merchants are hunched over a counting table when all of a sudden the door opens and in shines a piercing ray of light. And across the whole painting you see the hand of Jesus pointing at Matthew. “That hand,” my friend, “was pointing at me.” And you see one of the money-counters having lifted his head, stunned by the light. And you know the words are about to be spoken, “Follow me.”
Now those are riveting stories, because the call happens in an instant and then everything is different. But more often than not, my guess is that no matter how often or how intensely God may be trying to get through to us, it can take some time to hear and respond – sometimes months, years, decades.
A few years ago, in the midst of the booming 1990’s, the Boston Globe ran a remarkable feature story about a call. It was the story of Morris Smith, a brilliant 36 year old who was probably the most famous investment manager in the world. He had replaced Peter Lynch in running Fidelity’s hugely successful Magellan Fund, but then after two years of earning hundreds of millions, he left it to begin full-time study of his own Jewish tradition. “I’m giving up Magellan for a great reason–” he said, “there is more to life than money and management.”
And it describes the joy that Smith found in plunging into his own Jewish tradition. “It is really hard work, this…study,” he says. “But God’s given us this wonderful blessing, the Torah, which is a blueprint for life, and I feel that’s how I want to live my life.” And so he walked away from the immense wealth he was earning, for a new life in Israel that begins with a scripture study group at 5:30 am, more study through the morning, and then working to develop businesses related to his own faith convictions.
His life is still very full, and not the least bit easy. But, he says, “I feel that what I’m learning is how to walk in God’s pathway.” He has followed in the paths of Abraham.
God intrudes with us Christians too. Do you know about Dr. Paul Farmer, who visited Haiti on a college trip and found God calling him to spend the rest of his life fighting miserable disease and poverty? But I can tell you many more modest stories of a God who calls someone to be a teacher, or a lawyer with a firm core of ethical and Christian convictions, or a businesswoman working for a corporation and committed to making sure she gives money and time to non-profits that are making a difference, a mother raising children to know God’s love for them, or a taxi driver who puts in long hard days so that his family can get a start in a new country, or a couple who decide that the rat race of the big city is eating away at what they most want—time to raise their children with the values they most care about—and move to a place where they can make it on one salary instead of two.
Ask them “whether what they have done has been their life,” and you will get a firm, clear yes. Their lives aren’t the least bit easy. But they sense deeply that they are doing what God has called them to do.
But you might say, Well, I’ve never had God call me. Don’t believe that for a minute. God is calling us all the time, speaking to us through the words of others, in the books we read, the movies we see, the dreams we have, the mentors we admire. Through them all, God is stirring us to become the one of a kind creature only we can be. And then to use what we’ve been given to make a better world.
The challenge for us is to listen, to watch, for where and when God is calling. One of my heroes, Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, said that the trick is to spend a few minutes every day reviewing the last 24 hours, taking stock of the moments of joy and gratitude, moments of frustration or anger or sadness. Hold onto these, because they are where God is calling you. What are they saying to you here and now? What is God’s word to you on this particular day? What will your response be?
Do you remember what we sang?
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my Name be known?
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
That’s the kind of God we’re dealing with. This is a God who wants us to have real life, deep and challenging and full of adventure. This is a God who called Abraham and Matthew while they were doing nothing but their daily tasks when God called them. And God is seeking us out to be agents of a new world of love. The question is whether we will stop what we are doing, pay attention, and follow.