Sermon delivered at Friends Memorial Church, Muncie, IN
Reading: I Corinthians 1:18-31
Recently, I have been encouraged to think about the idea of vocation — especially my own vocation. David has encouraged me to think about it, as have some of the people at Earlham School of Religion. What is my call, what have I been called out of, what does it even mean to be called? Thing is, we don’t think much about vocation, beyond learning a trade. We live in a secular culture that does not really believe that anyone is called.
In this process I’d been thinking about the call of prophets such as Isaiah, Jonah, Jeremiah, Samuel — you know, those stories many of us heard in Sunday school. I’d also been thinking about the call of the disciples, and the call of the Apostle Paul on his way to Damascus. I’ve thought about my years at church camp, with the encouragement to consider a call to foreign missions.
Remembering those stories, they were always exciting. It was always wonderful how the boy Samuel heard God’s voice. It was truly amazing how Isaiah was in the presence of God. Jonah may not have spent time in the belly of the great fish if he listened and obeyed. Of course, I’ve read everything again since my childhood — and the thing is, none of the stories sound the same anymore.
It is interesting that, of all those who were called, the one who had it easiest was Jonah. The disciples lived transient lives, and died under the cruel hand of Rome. Isaiah call was to preach to a people who would never listen. Samuel prophetic message was one of the death and destruction of his foster-family who he loved. Jonah was the only one of these who saw remarkable success — and the irony is that he wanted to fail. Reading the call of the prophets, vocation becomes a terrifying thing. Vocation is one of those things where obedience is much more important than success — and, as someone who wants to claim a calling — this truth scares me.
At this point, I think I should thank David, and all of you for encouraging me as I explored the idea of vocation, and tried to arrive at some clarity about my future. I remember having a strong sense of clarity about my vocation, years ago before experience forced me to explore my own faith more deeply — back then, I thought vocation meant God would produce success — I did not yet realize that God asks for obedience, not results. As I did not get the results I thought I should, I decided I was mistaken about calling. I’ve cautiously re-explored this more recently, and you have done much to redeem the idea of vocation for me. I am grateful for this opportunity and your encouragement.
Friends, Paul told the Corinthians to think about the circumstances of their call. Now the Corinthians was not written to the leaders of the church, but to the Christian community in Corinth. If we read the whole of the epistle, we see a church that has problems. There is a split, and people are lining up to take sides. There is apparently a major sexual scandal in the community, and there are some significant disagreements on what kind of behavior is appropriate. When Paul is telling this Christian community to consider their calling, Paul is speaking to a community that is torn by all kinds of bad behavior, all the way up to the leaders in the church. Though the community and the individuals are in a destructive cycle of sin, Paul tells them to remember the circumstances of their call. What is the call to the community, and to the ordinary Christian? What is the call to the church at Corinth, and dare I ask — what is God’s call to Muncie Friends Memorial?
Paul tells the Corinthians to consider where they were when they were called. It was a community that was made out of few who were known as wise, powerful, or privileged. God called a bunch of ordinary people to form a community that lived and related to one another in the name of Christ. We as Christians — even though, here in America, many of us are in a different place now, are the spiritual decedents of a desperately poor and oppressed people. We must remember that once, those of our faith were beaten, imprisoned, and killed for their faith — and, it still happens today.
We should also consider where we were when we were called to Christ and community. Each of us has our own story, and each of us has our own struggle in trying to live it out. Our community also has a story — we can see part of it in the corner of the foyer, we can read another part of it in the “meeting history” pamphlets. This community was once just a couple families — it found a place in the community and grew into something more. Consider where we were when we were first called together as a community.
But — just like the early church is gone, there is no one alive who remembers the last half of the 19th century. We are a heirs to that community, but in a very real sense — that community has gone on. Where were we when we were called together as a community? From what were we called, and to what are we called?
Paul seemed pretty clear that the Corinthians were not called to divisiveness, and rallying around factions. We can be certain that they were not called to scandalous behavior. Just like it is easy to see the negative, we can look at ourselves and see what we are not called to — and indeed, what keeps us from being what we are called to be. What I am not sure of, is whether Paul pointed this out because there is a call to unity and holiness, or because this disunity came from neglecting the call — either way, it was not good.
What is our calling, as a community in this time and place? There are some things that we can say for sure — Paul mentions such things in later passages, such as 1 Corinthians 13. All of Christ’s followers are called to live a life of love. The mark of a Christian is supposed to be “see how they love one another.” Paul tells many Christian communities that called to to be saints — or a general call to holiness. What we know, is that we are called to a faith that changes us.
Whatever our calling is — we belong to a community that believes in vocation. We wait in silence, leaving space open for people to be obedient to hear God’s voice, and answer a call to speak to the community. We write traveling minutes for those called to a ministry trip, knowing that these people will go home, the calling will run its course. We record ministers who are called to spend their life in special service of the community. We do all these things, because we believe anyone can be called, whether it is a call of a single moment in time, or a call to a longer period, and a wider audience, or a call to life long service.
We believe that communities have a calling, so we practice the same listening in context of the business meeting — it is difficult, but, because we believe we struggle to discover what our calling is for today. We struggle to know our place in the wider community, believing that God has given us good to do. We believe that God calls people, and that it is possible to hear, discern and obey. We make mistakes — but we try to answer that hard question and obey. Friends, consider your calling as both as individuals and as a community.