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THE CALL TO "DINNER"

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock

[Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20]



For Jesus, (as this morning’s gospel text tells us), it was right after John the Baptist was arrested.  The time, evidently for him, was ripe.  For Jesus, the time was now.  So, he went north to the Galilee region to begin to express publicly the purpose of his life.  


For Jesus and for all of us who have been baptized in his Name, baptism brings with it a life-purpose.  In an ordinary sense, this life-purpose is commonly referred to as a “job”; but while this baptismal “job” entails specific kinds of work, its essential significance transcends the mere doing of something.  At its core baptism’s life-purpose entails a response from us to a deep sense of being called – called by God – a summoning to become more and more of what we see in Jesus so that, in the last analysis, we may do what Jesus did.  


The traditional and formal language that describes this Godly calling lies in the term “vocation”.  Stemming from the Latin vocare, “vocation” means “to call”; and by implication, such a “call” requires a response.  In terms of “calling” and with a bit of fond  light-heartedness, I think of my mother.


Mom was a homemaker, a wife, and mother of four boys – among many other things.  In terms of experiencing a “calling”, my memory reflects on the daily ritual of coming home from school, going out to play with friends, and then settling down with my brothers to watch a television show designed for our cohort and this pre-dinner circumstance.  Watching our show, my Mom knew that we were quiet (thanks be to God!), safe, and close at hand.  This early evening lull allowed her the time and the serenity to prepare dinner.  Then, there was the transition from this state of quietude to dinner time.  It was always announced by my mother’s call from the kitchen: “Dinner, boys!”  To which “call”, all four of us would in unison chant: “OK, Mom!” – and not move.


We were mesmerized by our show and the sense of focus it provided, to the extent that it took another “call” from Mom to wake us up and put us into action.  Once more, as if in fair warning, her cry came out: “Dinner boys!”, which again brought about the liturgical chant: “OK, Mom!”  Yet, it wasn’t until we heard the rustling of kitchen utensils in the kitchen utensil drawer that we finally sprang into action.  For in that drawer lay the long handled, wooden spoon, which (in the hand of my five-foot, three inch, one hundred- and fifteen-pound, maternal figure) had been known to threaten the tanning of our hides.  So it was that with this enhancement to the “call” that all four of us ran up the stairs and angelically sat at the round kitchen table for dinner.


In terms of defining “vocation”, I have held onto what the late ordained theologian, writer, and storyteller, Frederick Buechner offered in his book of alphabetized topics, Wishful Thinking.  Buechner succinctly and sublimely identifies “vocation” as [t]he place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet.1


This insight importantly distinguishes “vocation” as a call from having a “job”.  As Buechner reasons in his reflection on “vocation”, a person may be good at selling underarm deodorant, and doing this job may bring gladness; but the vocational distinction arises as to whether that product is what the world needs most.  Contrarily, if a person is immersed in feeding the poor but is bored stiff by this work, then something is vocationally wrong, as well.


In terms of today’s gospel lesson from Mark, we have the first record of Jesus publicly beginning the expression of his vocation, that is, his response to God’s call to him.  Remembering last week’s gospel description of Jesus’ own baptism, where, in the guiding hands of John the Baptist, Jesus rose from the waters of the River Jordan to see the heavens opened, a dove lighting upon him, and a voice from heaven proclaiming him as God’s beloved Son.  “Emmanuel: God with us.”  At which point, Jesus began his vocation, his ministry, his life’s purpose by announcing the good news that God was on the move, that life on God’s terms was at hand and in the midst of the people, and that everyone needed to pay attention and respond.


“Dinner boys!”  “OK, Mom.”


“Immediately” (to use St. Mark’s favorite word to describe the most appropriate response to God’s call – a term Mark uses 42 times in his Gospel account) – immediately after the Baptizer’s imprisonment, Jesus springs into action – no rustling of a wooden spoon needed.  Arriving in the Galilee, Jesus calls a series of fishermen to follow him: Peter and his brother Andrew first; and then the Zebedee boys, James and John.  They all “immediately” left their “nets” (which I take to mean everything) to follow Jesus.


Now the immediate question as to why would no-nonsense fishermen do such an apparently irresponsible and costly thing?  This is a question that demands to be pondered both in terms of this discipleship calling story and to how this story’s example relates to you and me.


For instance, there is not a word in scripture nor in the tradition about what Peter’s wife had to say about his unplanned sabbatical excursion.2   Or what about James and John Zebedee, leaving their father, the fairly significant family business with its hired help and several boats?  What was it beyond youthful exuberance that called them to leave hearth and home, not to mention the inheritance of the family business, to follow Jesus?  And so it goes with the calling of the others, both the remaining of the Twelve and the other women and men who experienced Jesus’ presence and power?  They were called, at least by Jesus’ presence if not by his explicit invitation to a new life.


And, of course, what about us?  It must have been a profoundly stunning thing to have Jesus look these followers in the eye and call them to join him.  But we have no such advantage.  So, to what extent do we hear the Lord’s call to us?  Or is the line busy; or do we let our voicemail handle such a call?


“Immediately” is not what describes my vocational response.  Frankly, I don’t know anyone who “immediately” dropped everything and followed Jesus.  Then again, I tend to hang out with very distractible people!  Nonetheless, where is God in your life, in my life?  What is the nature of the Holy One’s call to us?  What does God’s call to us have to do with the purpose of our lives? our baptisms, and the promises we made then?  


My experience with my own calling and that of others, is that that place where our deep gladness resides has gotten covered over by all sorts of demands, expectations, and fears.  I wonder what the consequences are of allowing these distractions from God’s call to us to reside in that place of our deep gladness: Call this place of deep gladness our souls.  What happens to our souls, to our deepest lives when we ignore God’s call to us to follow?  If everyone is religious and the unavoidable issue is what we worship, then is it a surprise that we are addicted to our own agendas and the call of familiar voices?  What is the consequence for avoiding God’s call to us?  


Here's a sobering case in point.  Why are men in America so lonely – lonely enough for the Surgeon General of the United States to speak about the ravages of such isolation: a situation that is reflected in the statistic that while men are less than half the American population, yet they account for 80% of the annual suicides.  


“Dinner, boys!”  OK, Mom.”


In Mark’s gospel for this day, we encounter the story of Jesus calling some fishermen to “follow him”.  From this scene, two important things spring up for me about “vocation” that I want to note.


The first is that responding to Jesus’ call is not automatically a “done deal”.  By this I mean (and I speak from the limits of my own life experience) very few people “immediately” respond whole heartedly.  St. Paul comes to mind.  On the Christian liturgical calendar, this coming Wednesday is the festival celebration of St. Paul’s relatively “immediate” Conversion (1/25).  I heard another rather “immediate” response recently from a friend, who told me that he was a step away from self-destruction, when (for some unfathomable and completely unexpected reason) he was confronted by a great light and the sense of a hand upon his shoulder.  A “voice” emerged – one that could only be registered from within – and said, I will take my hand from you, if that is your choice.”  “Immediately” and stunningly, his self-destructive behavior and attitude evaporated.  


I do believe in this type of “immediacy”, but my own experience of “Emmanuel: God with us – God with me – is much less dramatic, much less momentous.  As with my Mother’s call to dinner, my own sense of vocation and my cautious response to God’s call have been a matter of a slow climbing the stairs to take my place at the table.  


What I mean is that it is the following, the actual and specific movement of tracking Jesus –one foot in front of the other -- that has revealed and developed my faith and the call to follow Jesus.  So it is that the life of faith and the life of being a disciple (a disciple is a student who is learning in this case to be like Jesus) is a matter of practice, practice, practice.  The following is a matter of “walking the walk” and is quite literally the way to discover new life.


The second point about vocation that I want emphatically to make is that (contrary to common usage) “vocation” is not limited to those who get ordained or who enter monasteries.  Vocation is not limited to the “religious” ones, save for the factual truth that everyone is religious.  As a crucial corrective for this narrow and dangerous perspective, think of Baptism as the ordination of all Jesus’ followers and that the baptized body of followers identifies and calls others to a second ordination: that of reminding the baptized ordinands of their calling to follow.


As one who was baptized to the fundamental and essential ordination of following Jesus, I was also called by folks like you to accept a second calling: the one that reminds you of the need and the gladness of following Jesus and doing so together.  


And so, you and I, the people who comprise St. Philip’s Church, are called to be all about following Jesus and learning in the experience of following the transforming reality of Emmanuel: God with us.


“Dinner, boys – and girls!”  OK, Mom!”  Amen.

 

1. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, p. 95

2. In Matthew 8:14-15, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law from a deadly fever.  The clear implication is that Peter was married.  According to Clement of Alexandria (second century bishop and church leader), Peter’s wife was executed by the Rome but not before Peter and his wife had three children.


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