Sermon. May 30, 2021
Rev. John Steitz
The order for worship in a typical mainline Protestant church follows Isaiah’s experience before God. We gather to praise the almighty God. We confess our sin and seek forgiveness. We hear the Word, seek discernment, and respond to the good news. The elements of our worship – gathering, praising, confessing, accepting forgiveness, praying, hearing, and responding are all appropriate responses to the holy God who claims us.
The aspect of this passage in Isaiah that I want to lift up today is the call to vocation. Isaiah enters into an ongoing worship of God, confesses his sin, and is given forgiveness. Then God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah responds with “Here I am; send me!”
In order to respond like Isaiah, “Here I am; send me!” we need to listen to and discern God’s call in our lives. How do we discern God’s call? How do we listen to God’s personal call for our lives?
The Quaker Parker Palmer has a small and wonderful book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation. Palmer, and Quakers in general, attest that vocation is about listening for our personal call, and responding to that call. Vocation isn’t only for certain people, call and vocation is for all of us.
In this book Palmer shares an insight he had while caring for his infant granddaughter. “My granddaughter arrived in the world as this kind of person rather than that, or that, or that. She did not show up as raw material to be shaped into whatever image the world might want her to take. She arrived with her own gifted form, with the shape of her own sacred soul. Biblical faith calls it the image of God in which we are all created. Thomas Merton calls it true self. Quakers call it the inner light or “that of God” in every person.”
If we take a moment and reflect on the persons we love most deeply we will realize that each person has their own gifts and way of being. Each person we love is this kind of person and not that. Siblings, even twins, are unique and have differing gifts and “thisness.”
Listening to God’s personal call for our lives is a much deeper quest than being able to answer, “what should I do with my life? We are lead to the basic question, “who am I?” This opens us up to an understanding of our “thisness” as a person created in God’s image and gifted in certain, unique ways.
How do we know we are this kind of person and not that? Howard Thurman, the 20th century African- American mystic and theologian put it well: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Discerning our personal call doesn’t happen once, perhaps when we are young, and is then set for life. Our call and vocation can shift, or transform and emerge in differing ways as we age. Ask yourself, “what is it that makes you come alive now?
This might be very similar to what has made you come alive for years and decades. However, what makes a person come alive as a young adult or as a middle aged person, might be different than what makes that person come alive in their elder years.
When I was a teenager, what made me come alive was playing basketball. I didn’t think much about what the world needed. While in college basketball became less important, but my sense of wanting to do something that the world needed developed.
Nonviolence and social justice became what made me come alive. For a dozen years after college I was focused on organizing. Through twists and turns my call to ordained ministry emerged during these years. Nonviolence and social justice organizing is still at the core of my aliveness and “thisness.”
When I first entered local church ministry my intention was to merge a commitment to faith-based nonviolence and local church life. I’ve now spent more than a quarter century serving local churches, primarily as an intentional interim minister. I’m still working on the integration of faith-based nonviolence and local church life.
If nonviolence was only about global peace and justice, local church life could be very frustrating. Nonviolence however is much deeper than that.
Nonviolence is about loving God with our full and true selves. Nonviolence is about learning to live in the Way of Jesus. Nonviolence is about loving one another. Nonviolence is about loving our neighbors.
In other words, nonviolence is about practicing our Core Values – Spiritually Alive, Making Disciples, Loving Church Family, and Neighborhood Engagement.
When I began the journey of serving local churches my understanding of nonviolence and social justice, formed by years of organizing, was at one place. Now, after serving many congregations I have a deeper understanding of nonviolence.
As I have grown older my doing what makes me come alive has taken different forms but continues to be related to faith-based nonviolence. Nonviolence and social justice continues to be central to being my true self.
Sometimes we push away from vocation because we don’t think we are gifted or good enough. Parker Palmer shares a brief Hasidic tale that highlights being true to our authentic selves:
“Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man said, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me: Why were you not Moses? They will ask me: Why were you not Zusya?’”
God is not calling us to be Moses or Isaiah or Gandhi. God is calling us to be our true selves.
Quakers have an expression that “the Way will open.” Sometimes however it does not seem that the path forward will open or become clear. Palmer has an entire chapter in Let Your Life Speak to “When Way Closes.” Sometimes the path forward becomes clear because of what closes.
A couple of years ago I did an extensive search for a call as a Settled Pastor. Nothing opened. In fact, I wasn’t even getting interviews. I would have my profile sent and soon after get an email letting me know that I was no longer under consideration by the search committee of that church. This was very frustrating and discouraging.
I decided that I needed to broaden my search to include Interim positions as well as settled positions. After months of not getting any interviews, one week later I had an interview at the local church I ended up going to. I actually needed to turn down interviews at several other congregations seeking interim ministers.
This was the first Open and Affirming congregation I had ever served and although I was only there a brief time, this was a wonderful experience. And it led directly to my time here in Norwich.
I am here in Norwich because two years ago the way closed for me finding a settled call, at least at that time. I am not sure how the Way will open going forward, but I know I feel blessed that UCC Norwich is the congregation I journeyed through the pandemic with.
God continues to gift us and call us to be our true selves. We continue to respond as did Isaiah, “Here I am; send me!”