I know that many of our minds and hearts are focused on the huge transition that is taking place in our country this weekend. What an amazing moment to be hearing words about people who sat in darkness seeing a great light. Nearly half the country seems to think that describes what they are going through. The other half or more must read it as a historical reminder and promise of what will happen someday. I dare say that most of us in this room are in the second category.
We are hearing many calls to action, and I will be reminding us of some of them during the news of the people later in the service. Some of us attended the Women’s march yesterday, and realize that that moment needs to become a movement. My own prayer time this past week has lead me to look inward to find the strength and the perspective to act well in the coming season. Today’s Gospel focuses on God’s call to each and every one of us. It is a call both to be and to do. And we need to hear both callings.
It starts out ominously with John’s imprisonment sparking Jesus to withdraw to what might be the backwaters of Capernaum in Galilee. Matthew quotes Isaiah to makes clear that Jesus’ move to Galilee is in tune with God’s redemptive activity. From that place off the beaten path, Jesus proclaims the coming reign of God and invites those listening to turn around (repent) to receive this kingdom. He then begins gathering disciples and finally manifests the nature of the kingdom he’s been proclaiming by teaching, preaching, and healing.
So a sense of call permeates the passage. The call to John the Baptist leads to imprisonment, and to Jesus’ withdrawal - an intentional time to listen and respond to God’s call. Then Jesus calls the crowds to perceive and become a part of God’s in-breaking kingdom, followed by his call to a few specific fishermen as his disciples to catch up all kinds of people in the net of God’s grace.
Most clergy understand call as an important theological concept at the center of their preaching and teaching But few lay people feel called. They don’t believe that what they do with their time matters to God and the church, or makes a particular difference in the world. That’s why it is so important to emphasize that God’s call isn’t simply to do some thing but to be something; specifically a child of God. Being comes before doing, and makes doing possible. But many have forgotten how to be. How can God’s word restore us as children of God?
Awakening love and recognition within a child’s heart is tied to the mother’s smile and her voice. Mothers cuddle and smile at their babies; and they speak to them. That is what brings a child to human awareness. We’re called out of the darkness and chaos of infancy by voices – especially the mother’s - that cajole, caress, reassure and lure us beyond ourselves. It’s no accident that the first language we learn is called “our mother tongue,” for that was the sound that caressed and ultimately lured us out of darkness and chaos - what Rainer Marie Rilke calls the surging abyss - into awareness.
Before we can use language, we’re trapped in darkness and chaos, unable to think and feel as human beings. We see this in the story of Helen Keller. Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, is the one who broke open the world for Helen. By teaching her language, Annie Sullivan took Helen Keller out of darkness and chaos and opened up for her the possibility of freedom, thought, deep feeling, self-expression and love.
Perhaps this image can help us understand the real purpose of the word of God calling us in our lives. All preaching, teaching, theology and pastoral practice is meant to let God’s voice become the smiling, beckoning, caressing, cajoling, luring mother, calling us out of fear, darkness and chaos to freedom, thought, deep feeling, self-expression and love. The purpose of God’s word is not, first of all, to challenge us to charity or social justice, or to live a certain morality or even to worship something higher and to form community in a certain way among ourselves, valid though each of these is.
Christ came to bring us life, light and love. Maybe he came as the word to do what our mother tongue does: to shape us so that we can move beyond the fear, darkness and chaos that prevent us from entering the world of love, thought and self-expression. Christ looks like Annie Sullivan helping Helen Keller break through the chaos of being trapped inside of herself, unaware of and unable to enter into true human life. Perhaps we should see Christianity more as our mother tongue than our religion.
So it is out of being that our doing emerges. That must be what made it possible for John to proclaim the coming Messiah and challenge the powers that be, even when it meant his imprisonment. John must have known that a mothering God had called him to be the forerunner. Maybe Peter, Andrew, James and John responded so quickly because they felt called to be more than they had imagined. They probably had no idea what being “fishers of people” meant at that point, but they did know that Jesus saw in them some thing of value and worth. They had no idea where they would go or what they would do but they do know that Jesus was calling them to be his disciples, and that the rest would become clear in time.
Perhaps that’s what the Gospel needs to do today: remind us that we are all called to be children of God, and that we need to hear and speak the Gospel in words that unite rather than divide. Rev. William Barber, who started Moral Mondays in North Carolina, says that after a decade of losing the battle for a fair minimum wage, they stopped using divisive langue like left and right, liberal and conservative, and started talking about what’s morally defensible; and they won. They reframed the discussion around the constitution, around morality and around what is economically just.
Even if we don’t know what being a child of God means, we must remember that God values and honors and loves us. If we are open to being God’s children, we will learn over time what it means and find all kinds of things to do in response to God’s call. Maybe the doing will come through work or volunteering. Most of it will probably come through our relationships. But however God uses us, it’s important to remember that before God calls us to do anything God first calls us to be something. And knowing we’re God’s beloved children, we can trust that the rest will follow.
And don’t let it stop there. Not only individuals are called; so are congregations. In today’s Gazette I invite us to consider what might be this congregation’s role as part of a Sanctuary Diocese. But before we figure out what we are called to do as a congregation, we can remind each other what we’re called to be. God calls our congregation to be a gathering of God’s beloved children; a place of welcome and acceptance; a sanctuary where God’s word is taught, where the good news of God’s reign is proclaimed, and where all find healing.
We live at a turbulent time in our country and world. The needs run great. I too want to get going and do something. But if we can first focus on being God’s beloved children, and let that grace-filled identify seep into the deepest parts of ourselves, I believe that those things we are called to do will become clear in time.