Second Sunday after the Epiphany

January 15, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

What does it mean to be called by God?

On the one hand, it’s something we all want. We all want to hear God speak to us in some definitive, life-changing, “I-am-totally-for-real-people” kind of way. We want that experience to convince us, to encourage us, to remind us that our faith is real and rightly placed.

On the other hand, we want “God’s call” to be for someone else. Sure, we want the call from God that says, “I love you,” but we want someone else to get the call that says, “sell your BMW and buy a used Honda and give the remaining money to Harbor Hope.” Let some other “above average” Christian handle the costly calls, while I keep waiting for the Valentine from Jesus.

So I ask again, What does it mean to be called by God?

And truly, I believe there are many levels of how we hear that call.

At the most basic level, everyone is called and everyone is responding in some elemental way. All of creation is made and called by God. Each raindrop that falls and gives life on this planet is living out God’s call to the water. Each breath we take, each beat of our heart, is obeying the summons of God to live and have life.  And the more I think on these things, the more important they become – the more grounded I become in the absoluteness and goodness of God permeating this world.

Related to that is another layer of God’s call to us, and our universal response. It’s found in those tasks we pursue each day in order simply to live: going to work, making meals, waking and sleeping, taking care of our children. God made us to need these things. So when we pursue them you can rightly say that we are responding to God’s call. And again, there’s something profoundly settling to consider this world and all its inhabitants living out God’s call, day after day, season after season. Cultures we don’t understand, religions we disagree with, are nonetheless filled with people doing just what we are doing, living each day to the best of our ability. To consider these things as God’s call and our faith, as it were, does not belittle God or the expectation of God. To the contrary, it makes me perceive that the outworking of God’s will is far more substantial than those disruptions to it that absorb so much of our attention.

But there is another layer to God’s call. And that, of course, is the conscientious decisions we make to align ourselves – our principles and our values and our lifestyle – to a higher, altruistic calling. As we choose to love our neighbor, as we choose a compassionate posture towards one another (certainly to other people, but also towards all of creation), I would say that we are hearing the call of God and we are responding in a way that is appropriate and true. Certainly our Christianity encourages us in this path. But one need not claim the Christian faith – or any religion for that matter – to be rightly perceived as responding to the call of God. Someone can be “Christ-like” without ever claiming the name of Christ. For surely God is more to be found where there is love, than where there is merely “right dogma.”

But the call of God goes further. And this, I would say, is the burgeoning conviction that the voice behind all creation and our own intuitive, ethical sensibility is indeed the voice of God. Some of you will remember Lukas who played the organ and directed the choir for us ten years ago. Now, Lukas wasn’t even a Christian. He was an undergraduate music major at UPS who took the job, frankly, because he needed the money and he needed experience. Fair enough. We needed someone who could bang out the hymns for us on the organ. I really liked Lukas. When he was getting ready to move away for grad school we went out for coffee together. We were talking about religion and faith and he told me, “Eric, I’m at a point now where I believe that music needs a destination, and that destination is God.” I don’t think he would have called himself a Christian at that point. But that which was life to him – namely, music – was finding its truer identity by its relationship to the God who sang the first melody in birthing this world.

And then God’s call goes deeper still. It is the call that says, “Come, and follow me.”  For many people, I would say, this call is actually heard after many years of going to church and being a Christian. Being willing to “follow Christ” is that stage of faith that is finally ready to believe that, although the way of Christ is costly, it is indeed the better way; it is God’s way, for which we were made.

To follow Christ is to make the serious commitment to love God and to love your neighbor – that these grounding principles would become for you the basis of how you are living your life: your private life, your public life; your financial life, your political life; your work life, your leisure life. Everything is rooted in this these two priorities.

And it was in this spirit, and a commitment to these values, that the Daughters of the King was formed in 1885. It’s an organization for women and girls, largely rooted in the Episcopal Church, but extends to other denominations as well. Their commitment is to extend Christ’s kingdom through prayer, service, and evangelism.

And I really how wise and dignifying their motto is:

For His Sake…
I am but one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
What I can do, I ought to do.
What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do.
Lord, what will you have me do?

St. John’s has had a small DOK chapter for a long time. It began with just four women in 1966, meeting in one of their homes. And amongst other acts of service and evangelism, for all these years, whenever any of you have called the church to ask for prayers, it is the daughters who receive those names and pray – every day, for all of them – so long as those needs remain on their list.

And today, two new members [at the 10 o’clock service] are being admitted: Lisa Paquin and Kathi Jones. For them, joining the DOK is very much a response to Jesus’ call to come and follow him. So we will join them in their Service of Admission – with gratitude and support – as they make their commitment.

For it is no small thing to follow Jesus. It is, in fact, a dangerous and a costly thing.

And so, to end, I’d like to share a story I heard on the radio that brought this all home for me:

Well, it all began at Christmas two years ago (the story teller shared), when my daughter was four years old. And it was the first time that she had ever asked about what … this holiday [meant]. And so, I explained to her that this was celebrating the birth of Jesus. And she wanted to know more about that. And we went out and bought a kid’s Bible and had these readings at night. She loved them, wanted to know everything about Jesus.

So we read a lot about his birth and about his teaching, and she would ask constantly what that phrase was. And I would explain to her that it was, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And we would talk about those old words and what that all meant, you know?

And then one day, we were driving past a big church, and out front was an enormous crucifix. She said, “Who is that?” And I guess I’d never really told that part of the story. So I had this sort of “Yeah, oh, well, that’s Jesus. And I forgot to tell you the ending. Yeah, well, he ran afoul of the Roman government. This message that he had was so radical and unnerving to the prevailing authorities of the time that they had to kill him. They came to the conclusion that he would have to die. That message was too troublesome.”

It was about a month later after that Christmas. We’d gone through the whole story of what Christmas meant, and it was mid-January. And her preschool celebrates the same holidays as the local schools. So Martin Luther King Day was off. So I knocked off work that day, and I decided we’d play and I’d take her out to lunch. And we were sitting in there, and right on the table where we happened to plop down was the art section of the local newspaper. And there, big as life, was a huge drawing by a 10-year-old kid in the local schools of Martin Luther King.

And she said, “Who’s that?” And I said, “Well, as it happens, that’s Martin Luther King. And he’s why you’re not in school today. So we’re celebrating his birthday. This is the day we celebrate his life.” And she said, “So who was he?” And I said, “Well, he was a preacher.” And she looks up at me and goes, “For Jesus?” And I said, “Yeah. Yeah, actually, he was. But there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message.”

And you’re trying to say this to a four-year-old. This is the first time they ever hear anything, so you’re just very careful about how you phrase everything. So I said, “Well, yeah, he was a preacher and he had a message.” She said, “What was his message?” And I said, “Well, he said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.”

And she thought about that for a minute. And she said, “Well, that’s what Jesus said.” And I said, “Yeah, I guess it is. I never thought of it that way, but yeah.  And that is sort of like, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’” And she thought for a minute and looked up at me and said, “Did they kill him too?”[1]

It defies the senses that love should be so costly. But time and again we have seen it to be so. And yet the summons remains – for Kathi, for Lisa, for all of us: What truer life can we live, but to “Come and follow Jesus”?

[1] “Kid Logic 2016, episode 605.” This American Life.  WBEZ.