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Call Waiting

Series I, Cycle A
Chaim Potok was an intensely religious man; a Jew who explored the dimensions of faith in our lives. From an early age, Potok knew he wanted to be a writer. But his mother wasn't so sure. When he went away to college she said, "Son, now I know you want to be a writer. But I want you to think about brain surgery. You'll keep a lot of people from dying. And you'll make a lot of money." To which Potok responded, "No, Mama, I want to be a writer."

But, "No," is not what Mama wanted to hear. So, every vacation break for four years she would repeat her comments about his becoming a brain surgeon and keeping people from dying and making a lot of money, and always his response was the same. Finally the son had enough, and, when the same mantra began, he cut off his mother with exasperation, and with great passion he told his mother, "Mama, I don't want to keep people from dying, I want to show them how to live."1

This morning's Gospel Lesson from John is a "call" story, but unlike so many call stories in scripture this one is not crisp, dramatic, or decisive. Today there is no flashing light, no booming voice, no clear instructions as to what the disciples are to do. Instead, what we hear is Jesus asking a question - a strange, penetrating question. But it is the question that forms the foundation for understanding "call" for understanding vocation. The question is: "What are you looking for?"

Now, please note what the question is not. It is not what do you want to do? What do you want to produce or achieve or prove? It is not what do others expect you to do? No, the question is: "What are you looking for? What is important? What is it that will fill your life with purpose and joy and meaning?" After struggle and discernment, the writer Chaim Potok was able to answer this very particular question. What was he looking for? He was looking for life - for abundant life for himself and others. Writing novels just happened to be the means for him to find it.

There are a couple of interesting details in today's Gospel Lesson. When the disciples are "called" by Jesus, they are already doing something else. They are already serving as disciples of John - probably invested in the pecking order, comfortable with their job description, dependent upon their compensation package, and not terribly anxious to upset the apple cart by shifting gears in mid--stream. But, there was something about Jesus and something about his question that hooked them. You see, Jesus invites them into their imaginations. Jesus invites them into their curiosity. Yes, Jesus invites them into God's world - not through a sense of duty, but through intuition and passion. And so in midlife, Andrew and Simon jump ship. They start moving in a new direction.

The second interesting detail in this story is the disciples' response. The person and the question of Jesus stops them in their tracks, and, like those disciples on the road to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke, the hearts of these disciples seem to burn within them. Yes, my friends, there is something about Jesus, something about God, something about the deep question of life that can stop us in our tracks, that turns us around, that changes us - when and if we listen.

Andrew and Simon respond to Jesus' question with a question of their own: "Where are you staying?" They feel so immediately drawn to the spiritual power of this man who asks them the most important question of their lives, they feel so connected to him, that they want to be with him, not in a geographical place, not in an architectural place, but in a spiritual place. "Where do you stay, where do you abide, where do you rest your spirit and your body?" they ask. "And can we come and stay, can we come and abide, can we come and remain with you?" To which Jesus responds immediately, "Come. Come and see. Come and be. Come and abide with me. It's not important what you do. Just come and see - and then the doing will follow. Like water from a fountain. Like waves billowing out of the depth of the sea. The doing will follow the seeing."
At the beginning of my senior year of college I didn't have a clue what I was going to do when I grew up. My goal when I started college was to be a career diplomat, serving in some exotic place in the world. But I quickly discovered that I am anything but diplomatic - and my skill with foreign languages is nil. As for getting married and having a family, well, there were no prospects on the horizon. And so I panicked. What was I going to do with my life, and more concretely, how was I going to pay off my college loans? It was at that point that the college chaplain suggested seminary - not in order to become a pastor, but as a place where I could ask the question, "What am I looking for?"

It was, serendipitously, while I was working as a seminarian with a group of junior highs in a Congregational church in Newton, Massachusetts, that I began to receive the answer to that all--important question. Those adolescents painfully reminded me of myself - with my restless energy, my peripatetic mind, my mercurial sense of self--esteem, my desire to be good and to see good and to do good in the world. What was I looking for? I was looking for a balanced life - where truth and passion could give voice to the God in me and the God in others - where justice could join hands with joy, and where grace would abound. What finally happened, among those fifteen thirteen--year--olds, was that after 24 years of hearing the story of Jesus, I finally discovered the person of Jesus. I discovered the One who models that balanced and joyful and passionate life. And then I knew that I was called to abide with Jesus, to stay with Jesus, to become like Jesus in whatever fragile and finite ways I could. For me, the way to do that was in parish ministry. And marriage. And motherhood. And writing. And just being. But abiding with Jesus can just as easily happen in the classroom or the kitchen or the boardroom or the courtroom or the laboratory or the studio. The call is not to a particular job. It is to a particular relationship - and to a particular vision - and to a particular answer to the all--important question: "What are you looking for?"

My friends, all of us as Christians are called - called through our baptism to be God's person in the world. But the call is not a digital voice from heaven giving us a printout with specific directions. Rather the call is a lifelong question, burning in our hearts, given to us by the One who encourages curiosity, and models risk, and offers commitment - given by the One who invites us to journey with him and abide with him through all the questions and curves of life. The vocation of Christians is above all a vocation to imagine - to imagine seeing what God sees when God looks at the world; to imagine abiding with God in the passionate places where God lives; and to imagine sharing that passion by being God's presence in the world.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes: "One midnight I asked God to tell me as plainly as possible what I was supposed to do. 'Anything that pleases you.' That is the answer that came into my sleepy head. 'What?' I said, waking up. 'What kind of answer is that?' 'Do anything that pleases you,' the voice said, 'and belong to me.' "2 After that things became much simpler for Taylor. She could pump gas or clean out latrines. But as long as she remembered whose she was, her "calling" was a true one. And she realized that God calls us not once, but many times.

My friends, some times the call is stunning, clear: loud, dramatic, and specific. And that makes it easier for our answer to be equally loud and clear and dramatic. But most of the time the call is much more subtle and much more vague than that. And so, we are left shy, confused, and curious - tentative and tongue--tied - pilgrims on a journey toward the unknown. But, please know that whether you are clear or whether you are confused, God is calling you - wrapping warm grace around your restlessness. God's call gives voice to that ancient prayer of the church: "Lord, we know that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee."

More than forty years ago there was a man who heard a call from God and answered it. He heard God ask him, "What are you looking for?" and he was able to answer: "I am looking for freedom and justice for all of God's people." And so, Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to give voice to the voice of God through the voice of his own passion.

"I have a dream that is deeply rooted in the American dream ... I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." And then all of us will be "free at last."

My friends, what are you looking for? What are you looking for? It is by asking and answering that question, with Jesus as your companion, that you will hear God's "call" to you. And then, you, too, will be free at last.

May it be so - for you and for me. Amen.


1. Eugene Peterson, Under The Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1992), p. 46, adapted.

2. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 23.
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