Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Last Sunday I preached the first in a short series of sermons inspired by the residential sessions of Auburn Seminary's Comprehensive Coaching Program. One of the first things we talked about during those sessions was the nature of vocation - ways people perceive God's call and daily opportunities to live out that call. A sermon on Vocation had seemed like a good place to start this little series. When Randy Hallman spoke about "God's Call" to mark my five-year anniversary at GPPC, that settled it.

Carpe the Call”
1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Acts 9:3-20
A sermon preached by Carla Pratt Keyes
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
June 10, 2012

I want to begin by thanking you for remembering and marking the five-year anniversary of our shared ministry. It meant a lot to me last Sunday and, even more, as I’ve had a chance to read your letters and to absorb what Randy said in the midst of our worship. I thank you.

Randy Hallman, a self-proclaimed skeptic, is also one of the most faithful people I know, and I enjoyed hearing him speak of the way his skepticism about “God’s Call” (capital “C” in his written remarks) gave way to belief, as Randy took part in the work of this church’s Pastor Nominating Committee six years ago. Randy began, he said, aiming just to recruit someone for the job (lower-case “j”). But his sense of God’s hand in things grew, as the committee became enthusiastic about a particular candidate (me) . . . as they spoke to my references (who confirmed that this church and I had key things in common) . . . as the committee members began to feel a kind of joy around that work of reference-calling . . . and as we finally spent some time together, talked together, prayed and worshipped together. It was God’s Call, Randy said; he came to believe it.

As did I! For me, too, it was a belief that grew over time. I began my own search – as many people do – just looking at the classifieds. These classifieds appeared in the Presbyterian Outlook, but they were not inherently holy, let me tell you. I began with the job descriptions of pastorates in Virginia, because I wanted to move closer to my family. Then I learned about this church and the kind of pastor you were seeking. My sense of God’s hand in things grew, as I heard your committee members speak about things that mattered to them – words that resonated in my own heart . . . as I met those committee members face-to-face and felt a connection with them . . . as I began to feel a joy and enthusiasm that mirrored their own. The beautiful, mysterious rightness of which Randy spoke – it was part of my experience, too.

In the Bible stories, so often, God’s Call seems to come in dramatic, Technicolor ways. A voice from a burning bush. An angel announcing good news. A light shining from the sky. How could you miss it? And, really, wouldn’t it be great? – to have that kind of clarity and direction? For me God’s Call has always been much harder to tease out – a mixture of things like Randy mentioned: one part hard work, another part holy providence . . . one part plan-coming-together, another part prayerful obedience. It’s been both: coincidence and holy rightness. Job and joy. And always for me other people have played pivotal roles in helping me to hear God’s Call, which I would not have heard on my own. I see now that the same was true for Samuel and for Saul.

Samuel did not know it was God’s voice calling him, until Eli realized what was happening and told Samuel what he had to do. Saul did not understand that Jesus was God’s son. He didn’t see or know much of anything, really, until Ananias came to visit him; only after Ananias came to sit with Saul, reach out to Saul, and acknowledge Saul as his brother in the faith, was Saul able to take up God’s call. Today I read these stories and remember the validating power of community – the significance of people who say to us: You may be young, and who’d have thought you’d amount to much (!), but I believe God is calling you. Or . . . You may have made a mess of things and have the worst reputation of anyone I know; nonetheless God has important work for you to do. Most of us cannot believe such things out of the blue. We come to believe them because someone else believes them first and helps us to see.

It was humbling to hear Randy speak about the sermon I preached for the Pastor Nominating Committee when I came to Richmond for my interview. I had worked so hard on that sermon, wanting to put my best foot forward, of course – also terrified my best wasn’t good enough. My whole body was shaking as I preached that morning. There are Sundays still – more often than I’d like to admit – when I fear that what I offer you is less than you want or deserve. Two things I remember from that weekend console and steady me for most things I have to do. Both were gifts from Izzy Rogers. Izzy, as many of you know, served with Randy and the others on the Pastor Nominating Committee. I had known of Izzy for years, ever since, as a teenager, I’d attended the Presbyterian General Assembly where she had finished her term as moderator the Church. I’d heard her speak there and remembered her vigor and faith. I didn’t know much, but I knew enough to admire her. After I preached that first sermon, Izzy is the one I asked: Do you think I might be able to do this? As in: Do you think I have what it takes to pastor this church? Her answer came in two parts. As we drove home from worship that day she said to me: Yes, you can do this. You have what it takes. And later, after I’d accepted “the Call” Izzy sent me a one-word letter. Alleluia, it said. (Praise God.) It was a celebratory message, but it gave me direction, too: You can do this, as you praise God . . . and you can do this, thanks to God. You have what it takes, because God is calling and equipping you.

My friend Doug King says today’s story from Acts is a potent image of God’s prevenient grace, which can transform any one of us (even the least experienced or most misguided of us) into the right stuff – people who have what it takes to bear God’s love and power into the world. Folks tend to focus on Saul when they read this story – Saul who is later called Paul, whose dramatic transformation enables him to do great things in the church. But the hero of this text, says my friend, is Ananias. And the community Ananias represents is critical. Ananias is for Saul what Izzy was for me at the start of my relationship with you. Ananias does for Saul what many others of you have done for me since. Ananias helps Saul to make sense of what happened to him on the road to Damascus. He welcomes Saul into the community of people Saul will one day help to lead. He encourages Saul to do what he was meant to do – to follow Christ. Doug King calls Ananias the Patron Saint of Sunday School teachers, ushers, and every church member who welcomes folk into the community of faith. Ananias shows us how to help others take up God’s call.[1]

And God’s call isn’t just for some of us. All of us receive it. One of my favorite parts of our tradition is the part about the priesthood of all believers. That’s the doctrine that says everyone is called – with a capital “C” – to love God and neighbor in the world. There are a zillion ways to do that, and none of them – no profession or livelihood – is dearer to the heart of God than any other. It doesn’t so much matter what we do. What matters is how we do it.[2] Whether we are preaching the word or plowing the fields, teaching children or towing cars, bagging groceries or practicing medicine, we have the chance to serve God’s purpose. We can recognize Christ in other human beings and care for him as we care for them. We are able to love each other with a love that reflects God’s love. We can work for the healing of the world. And we can help each other do this.

Someone who helped me recently is a woman named Glennon Melton. I don’t know her; she writes a blog called Momastery – often it’s what she’s learned about God from being a mom to three little kids. Glennon got me to thinking about God’s call as it comes to us not on the road to Damascus (as for Saul), but while we’re sitting at home (Ananias-style) or, as in Glennon’s case, while we’re in line at the store. This blog entry was titled, “Don’t Carpe Diem.” (Don’t Seize the Day.) It’s a funny essay; I recommend the whole thing. The point Glenna was making is that some days you are just too tired and cranky, and some moments are simply too frustrating to seize and appreciate. Some days, Glennon wrote, “I can't even carpe fifteen minutes in a row, so a whole diem is out of the question.”
This, she said, is what does work for me:

There are two different types of time. Chronos time is what we live in. It’s regular time, it’s one minute at a time . . . [for parents, it can be ten excruciating minutes in the Target line time, or four screaming minutes in time-out time . . . . For others it is five minutes ‘til quitting-time time, or a minute shaved off your running-time time, or two months until the cancer’s spread and you’re out-of-time time.]
Then there’s Kairos time. Kairos is God’s time. [It is, says Glennon,] time outside of time. It’s metaphysical time. It’s those magical moments in which time stands still. I have a few of those moments each day [Glennon says]. And I cherish them.[3]
            When we stop to notice the beauty of the world and the people around us – that is a kairos moment, according to Glennon. When we cease feeling annoyed about the slow lines at the grocery long enough to appreciate the healthy food available there, food many of us can purchase without too much worry about the cost, that is kairos time. When breath enters and leaves our bodies without difficulty, and we treasure the gift of life: that is kairos time, too. “Carpe a couple of Kairoses a day,” Glennon says. A worthy effort, it seems to me.
            And what I’m thinking is that for most of us, responding to God’s call can be a little like that – like seizing the God-work in the midst of our everyday-work. God’s call is not always something vast and important-sounding. It may more often be something small and tedious-sounding. It can come to us anyplace we live and work – at home or in the grocery or at the office or on the road. It’s a big goal with a lot of little pieces and the pieces are where we are called to faithfulness, where we’re challenged, where we most need encouragement. God’s call comes to us in those magical moments when we remember our purpose – God’s hand between us and each hand . . . Christ’s love between us and each love. It can give any job a kind of dignity, any person a kind of joy.
            So . . . carpe the call. Seize the opportunity to serve God in whatever big and small ways you can. Seize the chance to help others do the same. We all have what it takes to do what God wants us to do. Thanks be to God. Or, as Izzy said to me: Alleluia.

[1] This is from a paper Doug King wrote on this text for the Moveable Feast lectionary study group.
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor addresses these things in her book An Altar in the World (HarperOne, 2010), in the chapter on Vocation.
[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glennon-melton/dont-carpe-diem_b_1206346.html

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