The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour . . .
Good morning all, and may it be a particularly good morning for those of you here to be Confirmed, Received into the Episcopal Church, or to make a public reaffirmation of faith. Speaking on behalf of my bishop colleagues, I want you to know what a privilege it is for us to pray for each one of you by name, asking that the Holy Spirit strengthen and sustain you all the days of your life, and to release in you the particular and priceless gifts that God has given you, so that you may know the joy of living from that giftedness and fulfill your unique destiny. I also would like to publicly thank your family, friends, spiritual leaders and faith communities. There’s a part in the service coming up when they will promise to do all in their power to support you in your life in Christ, and they are here today because they mean it when they say that they will. They love you and are your reminder that we’re not meant to walk the road of faith or of life alone.
I’d like to start with a story found in the accounts of Jesus’ life known as the gospels. It’s one of many of a particular genre found in the Bible known as “call” stories. We just heard an example of a call story from the prophet Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. The word “anoint” refers to an oil that is used to ceremonially set someone apart for a particular task. In all the call stories of the Bible, someone, like Isaiah, hears or experiences something, a word or a sensation that propels them to do something or go somewhere or dedicate their life to a particular work.
One of my favorite invitation call stories takes place early in Jesus’s public ministry. Jesus was teaching and healing throughout the small villages in northern Israel near a lake known as the Sea of Galilee. The people living in this area responded to Jesus with great enthusiasm, such that crowds began to follow him wherever he went.
One day, Jesus asks a fisherman named Simon Peter if he could use his boat as a speaking platform from the water, in order that he might speak to those gathered on the shore, creating a natural amphitheatre, if you can picture it, with Jesus in the boat and the crowd on land. Though Simon Peter had just returned from a long and unsuccessful night of fishing and was no doubt exhausted, he agrees to row Jesus out onto the water. It doesn’t say how long Jesus stood out there teaching the crowds, but when he finished, Jesus turns to Simon and says, “Go out into the deep now water and let down your nets for a catch.” That’s when, as readers of the story, we realize that Jesus’ primary objective probably wasn’t to teach the crowd but to spend time alone with Simon Peter. Simon Peter gently reminds Jesus that he and his partners had been out all night and caught nothing and there was no use in lowering the nets again. Nonetheless, Simon agrees: “If you say so,” he said, “I’ll let down the nets.”
Now we all know that there a number of ways that a person can say, “If you say so.” Tone of voice and body language factor hugely. The Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton has written a book about Simon Peter; in it, he describes this scene as one of “reluctant obedience,” something to which we can all relate. We’ve all been asked to do things that we don’t want to do, especially when we’re tired, or when what we’re being asked makes no sense to us”
I can also imagine Simon Peter saying “if you say so,” with the kind of exasperation my sons would use with me when they were teenagers in order to convey, “You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about, but to humor you and even prove you wrong, I’ll do what you say.” At other times, I hear Simon Peter speaking with a tone of weary hopefulness. It was a disaster in the economy of ancient Galilee for a fisherman to come home from a night of fishing with nothing. It meant that people in his family would go hungry. So perhaps he was willing to cast his net one more time on the chance that a few fish might show up to redeem his failed efforts.
With whatever meaning Simon Peter says what he says, what matters to the story is that Simon does what Jesus asks him to do. Suddenly there are more fish to catch than his nets can hold — we’re talking hundreds of fish. Simon Peter’s response isn’t what you’d expect: there in the boat he falls to knee, overwhelmed with shame, and says “Go away from me, Lord for I am a sinful man.” He’s not ashamed of the fact that he doubted Jesus’ fishing sensibilities. No, in that moment Simon sees Jesus with new eyes. He realizes that he is in the presence of someone very special, and he doesn’t feel worthy. Surely if Jesus knew what kind of man Simon Peter was, Jesus wouldn’t want anything to do with him.
But you see, Jesus did know him. He knew all about him. He didn’t ask Simon Peter for help because he wanted Simon Peter’s boat. He wanted Simon. “Follow me,” he says. “From now on, you and I will be fishing for people.” Simon decides right then to follow Jesus and his life was forever changed (Luke 5:1–11).
The reason I’m telling you this story today is because it describes two experiences that are central to the Christian life, both wrapped up in this notion of call. The first is Jesus’ genuine affection for Simon Peter. Reading the gospels, you get the sense that Jesus not only loved Simon Peter; he really liked him. He liked being in his company. And he saw in Simon things that Simon didn’t see in himself.
Now in a church service like this, it’s easy to get the impression that we need to put on a bit of show for God — we dress up, say prayers that someone else has written, make promises that others have made for thousands of years. It feels rather prescribed and formal, and it is. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s good for us to come into a building set apart for sacred purpose and place ourselves in the path of prayer and practices that can help us put our lives in perspective. It’s good for us to feel Jesus’ presence because of the fact we’ve showed up and are somewhat paying attention, and to add our voices to the overall chorus of Christians across time and space.
But that’s not the whole of a relationship with God, and with Jesus — not by a long shot. Here in this place, I want you to think about and get ready for those moments when you, like Simon Peter, get the sense that Jesus has shown up in your life, rather than you showing up in church for him. The experience of him showing up is always one of love, and not only does he love you — I mean really love you — he also likes you. He sees everything about you, all that you would work hard to hide from everyone else. He knows all the ways you struggle. He’d like to free you from some of the burdens you’re carrying that you don’t need to, and give you strength for the burdens that you must, hard as they might be. But the experience of Jesus showing up, however it comes, is always astonishingly affirming. Jesus shows up and invites you into relationship with Him because he thinks you are amazing. You may find yourself thinking, like Simon Peter, well, that’s because Jesus doesn’t really know me, but in fact, he does know you. He knows you better than you know yourself.
The second dimension of a call experience is the call itself — what you are being called to do. There can be an astonishing degree of specificity to a call experience, something as simple as a feeling that compels you to reach out to someone you haven’t spoken with for a long time, or to step up and volunteer where help is needed. It can be a call to go somewhere that you don’t want to go and do something you don’t want to do. Or conversely, it could be the answer to your heart’s desire, an invitation to lean into the things you are really good at and love to do.
In most of the call stories in the Bible, the persons being called feel particularly unsuited for the task. So their first response is some form of protest: I can’t do this, I’m too young, I’m too old, I freeze up when speaking in front of other people, I’m not worthy, this is too hard, find someone else, and so forth. So if you find yourself resisting whatever you’re feeling called to, that’s not only normal, it’s expected. Very few people say yes right away even if what we’re being invited into is something we have wanted to do.
I hope by now it’s clear that this experience call, though I’m talking about it in church, is anything but churchy, if you know what I mean. It has far more to do with our lives outside of sacred space, and how Jesus shows up alongside us as one who loves and delights in us, and in some way needs us to show up somewhere with him, and to claim the unique callings of our lives. By the way, he knows in advance that we’re going to mess things up from time to time, and as painful as that is when we do, it doesn’t seem to be a deal breaker for Jesus. I, for one, am grateful for that every day.
I’d like to close with a story from my life to illustrate a different manifestation of call, and I share it because it was one of those experiences that persuaded me, at a relatively young age, that Jesus was for real and I could trust his love and his call.
I was 17 and my family life was falling apart. A part of me knew that this was coming but I had pretty much given up on my family and found my solace and support among a tight-knit community of friends. When the final crash came, I had to make a really big decision. My father wanted me to live with him, but he was drinking a lot and I wasn’t about to go with him. My stepmother was furious with me for all sorts of reasons — some legitimate — and there was no way I could stay under her roof. The minister of the church I was attending invited me to live with his family, a lovely offer that I accepted for a time. But there was no way for me to stay with them permanently, and after a few weeks I certain that I didn’t want to, but that’s another story.
I realized that I needed to return to live with my mother, whom I had left at age 11 (devastating her, by the way) to live with my dad and stepmom. Going back would mean asking her forgiveness and leaving my beloved community of friends.
There was little external pressure for me to return to my mother. In fact, everyone in my world was working hard to ensure that I could stay, including those in the church who invoked God’s will to convince me that it would be best for me to stay with them. But I had this sense — this internal feeling — that I was to return to my mother’s home and live my life there. It was the loneliest decision I had made in my life up to that point. But here’s the thing: I felt Jesus with me. I felt his love for me. And I felt called, summoned to do this thing that I did not want to, which was to leave my life as I had known it and begin a new life. And he was with me.
I don’t know what call experiences have defined your lives thus far and will come to you in the future. I only know that they will. They come not only to Christians, of course, for this is God’s way with all human beings, no matter our faith or lack of it. But for those of us who feel called to follow Jesus, he comes to us and makes his presence known. Obviously, we won’t experience him as Simon and others did when Jesus walked the earth. Jesus comes to us now in spirit. He comes in and through other people. He speaks through our thoughts and dreams, through the events in our lives, through what we read, listen to, or watch. When we see Jesus now, we see him with our inner eye. When we hear him, we hear him in our heart. He comes in love and delights in us. He calls us to particular work, particular paths, a destiny that is uniquely ours.
My prayer today is that you will feel Jesus with you, and sense his delight in you. And that God will give you courage and strength to continue on whatever path is yours, open to respond to whatever call has or will come to you. Sometimes it may seem as if the call you’re hearing is insignificant, or the wrong one, and I urge you not to heed that critical voice. Trust the one who calls you and follow where he leads.