Amos 7:7-15 Ephesians 1:3-14 Mark 6:14-29
The Rev. W. W. (Tad) Meyer
July 18, 2018
(Jesus) called the twelve and began to send then out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.
The lessons this morning speak about callings, about being called by God and sent out to minister in the Lord’s name. In the lesson from Hebrew Scriptures, we are given the story of the calling of Amos. The Lord set Amos as a yardstick, a plumb line, in the midst of the people of Israel to show them how far they had deviated from the standard of faith. In the letter to the church in Epheseus, the author placed such callings in a spiritual and theological context, noting that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the earth to be holy and blameless before him in love. And finally, in the passage from the Gospel of Mark, we are given an example of Christian calling as Jesus sends out his disciples, two by two, to proclaim repentance and to minister to those in need. These lessons invite us to consider our own callings and to ponder how we are to respond to that call through faithful ministry, considerations that are very timely for a parish on the brink of calling a new rector and embarking on a new chapter in ministry. In the words of this morning's collect, we are being asked to consider prayerfully what things we ought to do be doing so that we can search our hearts and minds for the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. If we use these lessons as a way to guide our deliberations, we will find that we are led down some very interesting pathways.
The first thing we notice about the calling of Amos was that it was totally unexpected and remarkably ordinary. Like Jesus, Amos was, until the beginning of his prophetic ministry, a layman with no professional training for a religious or a prophetic office. Amos was a shepherd and a dresser or pincher of sycamore trees. The fruit of the sycamore tree, which was the food of the poor, had to be pinched so that it would ripen to a state where it was edible. At the time of his calling, Amos was not involved in any religious task or spiritual training but was simply carrying on with his rather unremarkable secular occupation. At that time, there were men who were professional prophets, members of prophetic guilds where the office was passed down from father to son. These professional prophets, however, had been silent in the face of Israel’s apostasy, influenced by social and economic pressures which had curbed their tongues. Their failure to speak to the critical issues which consumed the nation forced the layman Amos to accept a prophetic role, abandoning his very ordinary and prosaic profession to accept the calling of God, the challenge of embodying and articulating the word of the Lord.
Like our brother Amos, all Christians are called by God to embody and articulate the word of the Lord, to witness to God’s love and his mercy. Such callings most often come to us not in supernatural splendor, but within the ordinary occupations of life, while we are doing the mundane tasks that form the ebb and flow of our everyday lives. The distinction between the secular and the sacred is a creation of the human imagination that has no reality in the realm of spiritual experience. All creation, all time, every moment in the span of a human life, is sacred, capable of conveying the will of God. There is no moment or situation when we are not surrounded by the reality of God's love, when we are not capable of experiencing its redemptive and graceful power if only we can open the eyes of our faith. Even more importantly, there is no professional training that is required to engage such an experience. Far too often, I'm afraid, people feel like the clergy are the ones who are called, those who have responded to God's calling with careful preparation and devout dedication. The story of Amos clearly warns us about such assumptions. Professionals are often silent, influenced by social and economic pressures, and their training can easily become a hindrance rather than a help, blinding them to the graceful presence of God in the midst of the community. How many times over the course of my ministry, have I been led by members of the congregation who have lovingly shared with me their callings and insights, leading us in new ministerial directions. Embodying and articulating the word of God is far too important a task to be left up to the professionals.
In the letter to the Ephesians, we are given more information about the nature of our calling. There the author tells us that God has lavishly bestowed upon us the riches of his grace and has made known to us the mystery of his will which is that all is to be gathered up in Christ. Before we can be sent out to minister in Christ's name, we must first be sent in, into the depths of our own souls to encounter the mystery of God's will. We can not embark on a ministry of embodying and articulating God's love and mercy until we have experienced the graceful mystery of that love and mercy for ourselves. We must know, truly know, that we have indeed been chosen by God, marked by the seal of the Holy Spirit and redeemed by the riches of grace according to the good pleasure of God's will. We must seek, with every fiber of our spirit, to gather up all of our disheveled humanity, even those parts marred by sin and suffering, offering them to God in Christ so that he might envelop them with loving forgiveness. God's call is first and foremost a call to be sent in, to learn to accept his graceful love, opening out hearts and minds to the transforming power of unconditional acceptance. We can not share or give away anything that we have not first accepted. We can not love unconditionally until we know that we are unconditionally loved and we can not carry our sins to the foot of the cross until we have recognized them for what they are and bent down to pick them up. Responding to the call of God, that call which comes to us in the midst of our ordinary, common lives, demands that we go within to discover the mystery of what it means to be a redeemed sinner.
Once we have responded to our calling by being sent in, we are then told that we must go out, go out to call others to the mystery of repentance and redemption. Christ sent his disciples out in pairs because he knew that salvation is a communal enterprise not an individual quest. A few years ago, I was taking the train into Boston and I was reading an article by a journalist who was writing about his religious sensibilities:
My most religious moments, he wrote, usually occur when I'm alone amid the magnificence of nature, the most inspiring cathedral of all. Some of my least religious moments occur in church. There I'm constantly distracted by other people and thoughts such as: Where did that minister pick up that Main Line Lockjaw? And why must he say “The Lord be with you” in such affected, pretentious, stained-glass tones?
I can't tell you how often I've encountered folk who think along such sophomoric and pantheistic lines, believing that religion is about being awed and inspired and that all churches are filled with the pretentiously pious and the relentlessly hypocritical. God redeems us, however, through our humanity not in spite of it and our humanity is not some all-natural product, pristine, pure and pine-scented. Those who worship in the cathedral of the forest tend to create gods who are tailored to their own wishes and fantasies, who speak with the voice of the waterfall and stand with the majesty of mountains. The Christian God, however, is one who willingly entered into the brokenness of humanity, seeking out the sinful and the dejected as well as the righteous and the joyful. The Christian God certainly is present in the grandeur of the natural world, but she is also is also present in the twisted alleys of the slums and the dark paths of the human heart. Most importantly, we are taught that we learn about the Christian God by experiencing and exploring our common humanity and that we learn the most profound lessons about that humanity in relationship with each other. We worship a God who often calls us through the voice of others and who is often seen most clearly reflected in the eyes of those around us. Our relationship with others often may prove to be a source of frustration and confusion as we encounter people who think and feel, hear and speak in ways that are radically different from us, perhaps even ways that we find repugnant and distasteful. Many, I am sure, thought that the voice of Amos was pretentious and affected. Our Lord, however, knew that we needed such relationships to challenge our prejudices and to keep us from creating idols rooted in our own fantasies of who God should be. It is only through our experience of others that we can truly learn about the common humanity which God redeemed through Christ and it is only in the midst of community that we can learn to share the riches of God's grace, reaching out to others with the same forgiveness and unconditional love that we have found within the folds of our own all too human hearts. God calls us within the ordinary patterns of our mundane lives, bids us to embrace the mystery of his redeeming love and sends us out in communion with one another to embody and articulate his word as the Body of Christ: this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory