The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
Oh Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
“Isn’t it strange that princes and kings, and clowns who caper in saw dust rings, and ordinary folk like you and me, are building for eternity. To each is given a bag of tools, the shapeless mass and a book of rules, and each must make ere life is flown, a stumbling block, or a stepping stone.”
The lessons this morning are about vocation. That has to do with the identity and work of the people of faith. Israel is being called in the first lesson to remember how God had brought them out of oppression in Egypt: the suffering of slavery, the long arduous journey through the desert, the lost ones along the way. God melded them into a people from a mixture of cultures, circumstances and climbs throughout the ancient Near East. Habirit, the understanding from which we gain Hebrew, has to do with a kind of rag-rag group of people, fugitives and refugees that God has brought together and made the beginnings of a people. It was clear in their eyes that it was not their own doing that had brought them at last to this place in their pilgrimage. As the psalmist said, “It was marvelous in their eyes.” And so, as they looked back and realized that God had brought them to this moment, the writer of Exodus said so poetically voiced the words of God, “How I bore you on wings of an eagle and brought you to this time and to myself.”
To these people God gave the Law and the Commandments. God had chosen them. But what was special about them was not simply their chosenness but that God had chosen them to be a light to enlighten the Gentiles, to offer that gift that God had to all the people that God loved. So this was not about privilege but about responsibility. I can believe that, even today, when the world abandons the Commandments of God, when the world loses the spirit of God’s Law, as has been given to the Jews, we do walk in darkness. But they were chosen for the role that it is important to remember, a world that God loved and that God loves. For God says in Exodus, God called them to the world, he says, that is mine. God says you are to be a priestly people, a symbol of sacrament, an evidence of God’s love.
The Gospel is also about vocation. The Gospel lesson tells us what it means as a Christian to be called, to be about the work of building for eternity. It is not simply to the ordained ministry but the call of all who are baptized, to every person who is committed to God as revealed in Jesus Christ. And, like our spiritual ancestors, Israel, we are called to be the light of God in the world, the light of God as revealed in that Jew of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. He has shown us the way.
Therefore, it is our highest calling to be the presence of God in the world, no matter what our professions. That is the highest calling. It may be medicine. It may be law. It may be business. It may be public service. It may be homemaking. It may even be ministry. But there is nothing that we do in our daily work that is more important than our calling to be the evidence of God’s love in the world. That is the most important.
It is true as I said, no matter what our profession may be–even ministry. My father, who was a minister for 45 years, used to say to me, “Boy,…” He didn’t call me Dean or Doctor or Father or Reverend. He called me Boy. He said, “Boy, remember that you can be so busy with God’s work that you can lose God.” So to be ordained in itself is not to live the Christian life. But it is to be reminded that with all of the people who are called to minister, we are to be the evidence of God’s love for the world where we are and in who we are.
From the beginning, God has been trying to forge the Christian church from its many diverse forms, just as God has formed and shaped the witness of Israel. From the beginning, it has been the prayer of Christ that the church might be one, despite our divisions. That Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical, moderates, liberals, every nationality, every race, every culture, every gender, might be one in the spirit and purpose of the Christian vocation. That we might have one vocation and be a people who are a sign of God’s vision of love for the world.
Jesus shows us, and especially in the Gospel lesson, what this means. The verse that comes to my attention is that of compassion. Jesus looked at the people, he looked around at the world in which he lived. And the Bible said he had compassion for those who did not share the same things that he shared. Yet, he was able to identify with them in such a way that his heart went out and joined with them.
Marcus Borg has perhaps helped us as much as anyone to understand compassion. Marcus Borg tells us that compassion is the central ethic, the central value of the Jesus tradition, as well as the central quality of God. The Hebrew root for compassion is a word that means womb, like the uterus of a woman. It reminds us that to have compassion is to understand that we are all children of God, Christian or non-Christian. We are all children of God. And God loves each one of us just as an emotionally healthy mother loves all of her children. And the consequence is that we are to love one another and others. We are to see them as people loved by God, regardless of how we may feel about them. We are to see them as those who share the privilege of the same maternal love that God has given to us.
Think about it. Think about someone right now that you are in deep conflict with. Think of a group of people who really bother you. Now think of them as someone or as a group that God passionately loves, that God grieves if they do not know that they are loved by God. I would believe you would see them quite differently. It may not take away your differences, but it will change the way in which you relate to them. It will change the spirit in which you communicate with them. It might even drive you to the point of praying for them, if not with them.
It is important for us to see the opponents of life. It is important to see those who are poor and in need. It is important to see those who maybe unreachably angry. To see them not simply as children of God but even more importantly as people loved by God.
I’ve talked about my father. Let me talk about my mother also. I am one of three boys in my family, and we were rather rambunctious boys. We had our differences and our battles. But we always knew that when we couldn’t solve it, we could go to mother. And usually I’d go because I was normally the one that was right and it was important that she help me to set things right. So we would go to her, and we would say, “Mom, he took my turn. Mom, he took my ball.” She would listen for a while and then she would say, “You boys go and solve it, but remember you’re brothers. “But Mom, you always said….” “No, no. You go and solve it, but remember you’re brothers.” “But Mom, he won’t….” “No, you go and solve it, but remember you are brothers.”
This is what God says to us. In the midst of our differences and struggles in life the Christian is the one that is called especially to understand that we are brothers and sisters, and that is the message we are live and we are to send in our vocation. That we are to act and behave. We are to reach out and to minister. We are to receive from others as though we know that we are birthed by the same divine mother. To know that we are loved with the same maternal love. For God so loved the world. That’s why he sent Jesus! Not to condemn the world, but to show the world that God loves them.
I like what Bishop Tutu says. He says, more than being my brother’s keeper, I must remember that I am my brother’s brother. Thus, knowing that we are loved is key.
It is also important because it helps us to remember what God has done already in our lives. I hear so many Christians talk about, “Boy, I had good luck on this one….” I keep wondering what ever happened to blessing? Whatever happened to the sense that somehow God is doing something in my life, something far beyond what I deserve, much less what I expect. Do we remember the blessing of God in our lives? Even in the deserts and wilderness of our life, can we remember? Can we remember we are called to share the blessing, the truth that God loves us and has blessed us? This is the good news. Just as the psalmist has shared the good news, the story of God and God’s presence in the midst of life, the psalmist struggles with God, the psalmist is angry with God, but the psalmist always emerges with hope.
I think of the spirituals. How powerful the spirituals are. Yet, they come out of hopelessness: the most abject subjugation of a people that we have known in modern history. Yet, from it comes the Negro spiritual, the message of hope. We hear it today being sung at the falling of the Berlin Wall, by the Solidarity Movement in Poland. We hear it in Tiananmen Square. Wherever there is the need of hope we hear the spirituals, just as the psalm brings hope in the lives of people.
Theologian Jim Cone tells about going to Japan, being invited by a group of Korean Christians who are at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole in Japan. They are the disenfranchised. They invited him to come and to talk about the theology of hope. He said he came. Of course, he did not know the language, but he said the prayer service. He didn’t understand a thing that was being said. Then, he said, after a while he noticed that the music to some of the songs sounded familiar. He asked his interpreter, “What are they singing?” And the interpreter told him the words. He asked, “Do you know those are Negro spirituals?” And he said, “No, but the words give us hope. They give meaning to us, and so we sing them.” In the midst of our suffering God can speak to us. As we look back and see the blessing of them we see that we have something to share that can give hope to the world.
What are your spirituals? What are your psalms? Where has God brought you? Can you look back over your life and see the journey where God has brought you? Can you see the hardships? Remember the tragedy? Remember the fear, the mountains, the valleys, the troubled seas? Can you remember them? Can you see the hand of God’s blessing? You may even be in troubled waters now. But still look back. Can you see? Can you remember what God has done for you? That is your gospel. That is the good news that you have to share by the way you live.
This gives us authority. It gives us authority over the demons of fear, over the demons of anger and doubt, over the sense of inadequacy. It empowers us to believe that God can heal the soul. God can heal societies. God can heal brokenness.
Our vocation, mine as well as yours, is to share the love of God by our presence and our attitude as much as anything else. For Micah said, we are to do justice, but we are to love mercy. We are to love compassion. It is to be the depth of our souls. It is the way that we live.
I don’t know what it is that is your vocation, the way that God would have you to share, but we all, as Christians, must be searching. I don’t know that I get it right even most of the time. You may not be certain. It may change from time to time, but it is the desire to be the witness of God. It is the desire to share your story, your song, your spirituality that pleases God. And I believe that no one has helped us to understand this better than Thomas Merton. So I close with a prayer of his that I hope will be your prayer, even as I make it mine. To know that our vocation is to please God, and to know that God’s love is even greater than our successes and our failures.
Let us pray.
“My Lord, God, I have no idea where I’m going. I do not see the road ahead of me, and I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, God. And the fact that I think that I’m following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right roads, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my peril alone. Amen.”