Called in, Part I | May 27

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-10, John 3:8

I first heard the phrase “Called in” about two years ago.  It was right here, so hopefully some of you heard it too.  It was during our year-long focus on antiracism and racial justice.  Several of those sermons were in the format of an interview.  I would sit down with someone engaged in this work and do my best Terry Gross or Krista Tippet impression.  This particular Sunday our guest interviewee was Rev. Lane Campbell, one of the pastors at First Unitarian Universalist, just up High Street.  She has been a leader of a group called Showing Up for Racial Justice, SURJ.  Early on in the conversation she mentioned one of the core values of SURJ: “Calling people in, not out.”

It’s a value that acknowledges the difficulty of the work – the courage it takes to confront racism and the many ways our lives have been consciously and unconsciously racialized.  There are opportunities at just about every turn to call people out for their failures and blindness, historical and present day.  For our failures and blindness.

But calling people in.  That’s a different approach.  That’s a different kind of call.  The very phrase feels like it offers a fresh space.  The work is no less difficult and courageous, but now we’re able to enter it in a new way.

Called in.

Sometimes you come across a phrase that won’t quite leave you alone, and this has been one of those for me.

About a year after we first heard it, a year ago, I was pondering what might serve as a good theme for an upcoming Sabbatical – or, to be more specific and honest, what might serve as a good theme for a Sabbatical grant.  This was the phrase that pulled it together: Called In, followed by four concentric circles about where that calling takes place: World, City, Congregation, Self.

As that Sabbatical now rapidly approaches, that idea of being Called In, is back at the forefront, and not just for me.  The worship theme throughout the summer, and into September, will track this theme.  Guest speakers and different voices and artists from CMC will add their own thoughts into the mix.  And it’s a good thing Mark decided to come back once his Sabbatical ended.  He’ll give pastoral leadership throughout the summer.  One of the dangers of letting a pastor go on Sabbatical is they discover how nice it is to have flexible weekends, and suddenly realize why most people aren’t pastors.

So for this Sunday and next, before our family enters the world of flexible weekends, I want to talk about being called in.  Today in more a general way, and next week by doing some reflecting on the past five years of CMC life.  It’s nice that today’s lectionary reading from Isaiah is a call story.

As we do this, let’s cast as wide a net as we can for this notion of “Calling.”  Because it can be a tricky word.  Depending on one’s understanding of God and one’s church background, it can pretty easily evoke an image of God as this being who has this clear and singular plan for your life, and it’s up to you to figure out what that plan is, except that you can’t figure it out because there’s this spiritual deficiency in you that is preventing you from reading the blueprint, and it’s your fault.

This is not what we mean by calling.

Although it does very much have to do with paying attention and a posture of listening.

One of the clearest distillations of calling in the last half century comes from Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and an author.  It’s quoted quite frequently, maybe you’ve come across it.  Buechner says:

“The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

“The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

This is a lovely, and actually quite practical way of thinking about calling.  You can map it.  It’s a two circle venn diagram.  School is about to let out for summer, but here the pastor is trying to get you to think about venn diagrams, thus the bulletin cover.  In one circle is everything the world needs: thriving children, healthy water and forests and cities, beauty and the arts, good institutions, less pollution, cross-cultural understanding, transportation, health care…  This can end up being a very large circle.

In the other circle is what gives you personal deep gladness: Making music, developing technologies, creating wealth and meaningful work for others, research, writing, designing, teaching, connecting people.

Where those circles overlap is where your deep gladness and world’s deep hunger meet.  This is the place you’re called to be.  This is the place where you will feel most fulfilled.  It’s not a specific blue print.  It’s a moving target, a range of possibilities.  This is the place into which you are Called In.

Got it?  OK, because now I’m going to contradict that, or at least add another layer.

As lovely a picture this is, it’s quite different than many of the call stories we hear in scripture.  In both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, the experience of call, rather than being practical, map-able, and glad-making, appears to be anything but.

The call of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 6 of that book is a case in point.

We don’t get a lot of context for this story, except that it happened in the year King Uzziah of Judah died.  This statement might be intended to get us thinking about transitional time, in-between times.  These unique spaces in the unfolding of life and history that are both unstable, and so fruitful for seeing the world in new ways and gaining new direction.  Or, saying “the year King Uzziah died” may just be a way of telling time.  Pegging events to the reign of rulers was common in the ancient world.

Either way, we’re soon plunged into a grand vision, seen by Isaiah and apparently no one else around him.  In this vision Yahweh is sitting on the temple throne, holding court, attended by heavenly creatures who repeat a proclamation of awe and wonder: “Qadosh, Qadosh, Qadosh.  Holy, Holy, Holy, is Yahweh of hosts, the whole earth is full of Yahweh’s glory.”  The scene is complete with smoke and rattling.

Isaiah’s reaction is markedly not one of deep gladness.  Confronted with the overwhelming enormity of Divine presence, he is simultaneously confronted with his own smallness.  “Woe is me,” he says.  “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  Isaiah’s calling will soon be revealed as using those very lips to speak to his people.  But like Sarai and Moses and Jeremiah and even Mary the mother of Jesus, Isaiah’s initial response is an immediate recognition of his own inadequacy for the task at hand.

Only after one of the heavenly beings takes a hot coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, is Isaiah able to utter his famous response: “Here am I, send me.”

His mistake is that he agrees to the calling before finding out what he’s actually going to be doing.  After getting a firm Yes, Yahweh reveals the task: “Go and say to this people: Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.”  Yahweh lets Isaiah know that the mind of the people will be made even more dull by his words.  They will stop up their ears and shut their eyes, shut down all their senses to what he’s saying.

It’s as if Isaiah says, “I’m completely unprepared and unable to do this task.”  And Yahweh says, “That’s not a problem at all because you’re going to fail miserably.  Now hop to it.”

In the Bible, calling is never quite something you want to do.

And that’s what qualifies you to do it.  It’s a larger thing that is recruiting you, way larger than personal ego, which is one of the reasons ego reacts so strongly against it.  Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was putting up some resistance, yet ultimately yielding.

Frederick Buechner says: “The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

And if we could modify Buechner and apply it to Isaiah, we might get something like: “The place you’re called to be is where what most terrifies you and what seems least likely to succeed meet.”

Try that venn diagram on for size.

Two weeks ago I had lunch with Jessica Shimberg, now Rabbi Shimberg, recently ordained, leader of the Little Minyan Kehila which celebrates their high holy days in this sanctuary.  It was a different topic, but one thing Jessica said was that she felt like one of the key roles of spiritual leaders is to point toward the both/and rather than the either/or.  That sounds right to me.

So I will pass along that piece of rabbinical wisdom to you and suggest that being “Called in” is not a matter of either/or, but is a matter of both/and.

So maybe now we have a four circle venn diagram in which the place you are called to be is where your deep gladness and what most terrifies you and the world’s deep hunger and what is least likely to succeed…meet.  That certainly narrows it down.  Maybe just about everyone is called to be a pastor after all.

I’m not sure who first made the observation, but one of the great risks of the evolutionary advance of consciousness, is that it has produced creatures who have been freed from the confines of instinct.  And we are those creatures.  We have instinctual parts of our brains that can serve us very well for basic survival, but we also have the neurological apparatus to transcend instinct.  We ponder possibilities and alternative futures.  We contemplate the Divine and wonder what holds all this together and what our place might be in it all.

So while other creatures are largely guided by deeply ingrained patterns and genomic programming, we humans quite literally don’t know what we’re doing.  We don’t know what we’re doing.

We live with a freedom that can just as easily produce anxiety as it produces liberation, especially in our contemporary society which places so much emphasis on the self-made individual and less emphasis on inherited wisdom and the guide of tradition.

And so we have this notion of calling.  Healthy individuals, and healthy institutions, including congregations, pay attention to this.  This sense of being beckoned toward something which makes us and those around us more fully alive, more in tune with the larger work of this enormous reality we call God, whose glory fills the whole earth, even when we shut our eyes and ears to it.  Even if our initial reaction is one of fear.  Perhaps especially if our initial reaction is one of fear.

Calling is tricky because it’s always happening.  It’s a never finished project.  Jesus keeps saying “Follow me,” and doesn’t seem interested in standing still.  Like Jesus said to Nicodemus – those attuned to the Spirit are like the wind.  We’re never quite sure it’s going.

And speaking of an unfinished project, I want to continue this next week and look more at the calling of this congregation and what it has looked like over the last while to be part of a collective with a very clear calling to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  A calling that is clear, yet wide open, with many overlapping circles.