Good morning. This is my first sermon of 2018, and as I start my first full calendar year with you at Good Shepherd, I’m reminded of what an honor it is to be here with you. Thank you for letting me share your journey with you – both individually and as a group. I look forward to all of the places that journey will take us together in 2018.
Our readings today are about call. I’m willing to bet that you’re here, at least in part, because you believe there’s more to life than just what we experience on the surface. That we’re called to lives that somehow reflect this deeper level of existence.
These call stories can seem pretty foreign, pretty far away. Samuel hears God’s voice while he’s sleeping and then he tells Eli, and Eli says it must be God. I can tell you that this kind of episode would have gone down differently for me. And in our Gospel, the call comes as a simple “Follow me” from Jesus to Phillip.
Candidates for ordination take a variety of psychological tests – when I was ordained in Tennessee one of those tests was the MMPI, this huge list of 600 true/false questions, several of which ask, in a variety of different ways: true or false, sometimes I hear voices and they tell me to do things. And I can tell you that I had the distinct impression that “false” was the right answer to this question.
So what does hearing God’s call mean for us? What does living lives that reflect a deeper level of existence mean for those of us gathered this morning on the corner of Windsor Road and Exposition Boulevard?
I want to start by suggesting that we treat these sacred stories from the Bible differently that we might otherwise. Often I look at stories from the Bible or religion in general as revealing an external framework into which I’m supposed to fit my life, like a set of rules and expectations that I’m supposed to adopt; something outside of my experience that I’m supposed to impose from the outside on my life. I want to suggest this morning that these stories of call reveal a truth that we already know. They reveal a truth that we already experience in our lives. And these stories help us to see it and name it so that we can live into it most fully. To put this in the words of the Bible, God reveals a truth that’s already written on our hearts.
This experience of call – the one that I’ve experienced in my life and I bet you’ve experienced in yours – was most convincingly described for me in a book by Catholic priest Richard Rohr.
Rohr describes two phases of life. The first he calls building the container. It’s about building identity. Establishing and furthering a career; finding people to be with you: both establishing and maintaining a social network and maybe a relationship with a spouse. This container is about building security for ourselves, whether that’s financial security or the security that comes from a personal sense of identity. Everybody does these things, one way or another – you can be on what might seem to some as an alternative path to life and you’re still doing all of these things. Building and maintaining identity, finding security.
These are good things to do. And we’ll all continue to do these things all our lives.
And this project holds a certain allure. It’s tempting for me to think that this project is what life is all about. But Rohr suggests that there is a second phase – what he describes as finding “the contents that the container was meant to hold.”
It’s moving from survival as Rohr puts it – even successful survival – and into the sacred.
Moving into the sacred means that our intentions matter more, our intentions drive our actions – an intention to love someone else, an intention to be generous, even when none of this is creating a return for us. If we’re building the container, then we strategize so that our generosity or maybe even our love creates a return for us. But moving into the sacred means there’s no design for a return.
It’s a change from being driven mainly by an external voice to being driven by an internal voice. You know that external voice that tells you what success looks like, it tells you what your career should be like, it tells you what is acceptable and what is not. That external voice is great at keeping us safe, at building structure, it’s great at telling us how to survive. But then there’s what Rohr calls the task within the task, the job of finding the holy.
My own experience is that the external voices are strong. In particular, they tell me how to spend time, money, how to spend my energy to create the best outcome for me. And they work so well – until they don’t.
Rohr writes that it’s a nearly universal pattern that this container building will eventually let us down. A lost job, lost relationship, lost money…And then we know that there’s something more than just external outcomes. Maybe you’ve heard this before: blessed are the poor, blessed are those who sorrow, blessed are those who suffer; the last shall be first; the sick shall be healed – maybe you’ve heard these before – blessed are those whose careers haven’t turned out like they hoped; blessed are those whose finances aren’t what they planned, blessed are those whose relationships haven’t worked out, blessed are all of those people who know that there’s something deeper than just those external voices, for they shall see God.
This is a truth that I believe you already know, a deep truth revealed in your experience, a truth written on your heart. When someone you love dies, that container is instantly relativized; and when you hold your brand new baby, in that moment, that container doesn’t matter at all.
Except for those moments, we can’t just turn the external voices off, and we wouldn’t want to. “The human art form,” Rohr writes, is to do “both at the same time.” To keep doing all of those first half of life things and to know that there’s a deeper call too. To hold those first half of life tasks more loosely, they’ll no longer define all that we are; and perhaps we’ll even see how they fit into a larger call for us. It’s part of the paradox of humanity and the divine; and at our best, we can live in both places at once.
Religious experiences, real religious experiences, are typically like the burning bush of Exodus, Rohr writes. The bush that Moses saw – the one that burns but is not destroyed. Religious experiences burn something of us away but they do not destroy us. And I mean to suggest this morning that what religious experiences burn away for us is our project of building identity and finding security. Experiences of the holy make us see that these projects for us are on the surface but there is something much deeper. A call that unifies us with seekers right here, and – to borrow language from one of our Eucharistic prayers – it’s a call that unifies us with seekers from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Tomorrow, we’ll celebrate perhaps the finest American example of following such a call. Of loosening the external voices that say act in your own interest, avoid risk, build security. And by dialing down the volume of those external voices – those external voices that always say don’t rock the boat – by dialing down those external voices and following a deeper call, Dr. King brought us all closer to God’s kingdom.
And that’s ultimately what this is all about. As Rohr says it, we can build our own small kingdoms or we can join the big kingdom, the kingdom of God.