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Our Call to Ministry - A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

O Jesus, you have looked into my eyes: kindly smiling, you’ve called out my name.

It was four decades ago. After years of an “undisciplined” life, as one translation puts it in a story Jesus tells, this prodigal son made his way back home - to church, that is. My wife, toddler son and I had landeda well, at an Episcopal Church called St. Mark’s.

It was Sunday, a day much like this one. I’d recently completed an Inquirers’ Class. When the bishop came, I reaffirmed my faith. Soon after, I was elected to serve on the Vestry. To borrow a old, familiar image, I was drinking from a spiritual fire hose.

It actually happened after worship, at coffee hour. I was talking with my priest, and I must have been going on and on and on, about all the good things God had been doing in my life. I must have been wondering what God had in mind for me. Next.

I say “I must have been” going on and on and wondering, because I really don’t remember what I actually said. What I do remember is what my priest said in response: “Tom, if you want to change your life, just do it!” Ala Nike. Soon, I was off to seminary.

Actually, there was and there still is a whole lot more to becoming a priest than just that. Just like there’s a whole lot more to becoming a doctor or a nurse, a banker or a bricklayer, a pilot or a parent. A call, as it’s called, often begins in this way:

O Jesus, you have looked into my eyes: kindly smiling, you’ve called out my name.

Now, that’s from a hymn we’ll sing during the offertory, when we get ready to bless, break, and become the body of Christ for the world. That’s the first half of the refrain. We’ll sing it several times. It’s kind of sweet. Here’s the refrain’s second half:

On the / sand I…have a / bandoned my small boat; now with you, I will seek other seas.

Last Sunday I quoted what Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote about America near the end of his life, using the image of a seashore: (We) contemplated comfortably hugging the shoreline but now (we) fear that the winds of change are blowing (us) out to sea. My response last Sunday was this: “Who here does not want to hug the shoreline? If you and I are ruthlessly, painfully honest, who here is not afraid of being blown out to sea? Or at least the Mississippi River?!” Let alone abandoning our small boat!

Remember what our Collect said: “Give us grace…to answer readily the call” of Jesus. But do I really have to seek other seas? And just what is a “call” all about?

There are many ways to describe your “call” or “vocation.” It might include being ordained. Probably not. There is one way to know your “call,” a way lots of people, including me, find helpful. This definition of “call” comes from a Presbyterian minister named Frederick Buechner. He was the author of 39 books, but there’s one sentence, one way to think about call that sticks out - and then, sticks to you, like spiritual glue:

Your vocation (call) in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.

Jesus needed his fisherfolk - Peter and Andrew, James and John - to love people enough to fish for them. That was the world’s greatest need, as Jesus saw it. It still is.

As long as humanity exists, there will be people who need to be loved. That means there will always be people to be fished for, people who need to be caught. Who are those people? Well, let’s start with us. How might you have been fished for and caught - right here, today? You could have been elsewhere. But you - and I - are here.

We can’t fish for people, unless…until we realize that we, like Peter and the rest, are fish first. They say you can’t sell what you haven’t bought. Well, we can’t catch someone for Jesus, we can’t fish for people if we haven’t let ourselves get caught by Jesus. Or by Jesus’ fisherfolk. Like the priest who caught me, way, way back in the 80s.

But if Frederick Buechner is right, there’s also…the joy part. To answer the call of Jesus, to fish for other people means that, sooner or later, there must be some kind of joy for us fish-who-become-fisherfolk. Without joy, there’s no call, there’s no vocation. Without joy, there’s just…duty and obligation. You know, like: “I said yes to the priest, when he asked me to serve on the Altar Guild, so I guess I just have to keep doing it, no matter how much I hate working with Gertrude.” We need to ask: “Where’s my joy?”

Yes, there are all kinds of ways to get caught by Jesus and his fisherfolk. It can happen when someone invites us to serve - on the Mission Council, say, or the Chorale, or something else. There are also ministries grounded here at home but extend beyond our local church - like the Haiti Partnership, which we’ll hear more about later today.

And there are communities of people who promise to live under a religious rule of life. In fact, the Episcopal Church has dedicated this day - the third Sunday after the Epiphany - as “Religious Life Sunday.” Today we lift up and pray for all who have been called to follow Jesus by living and working in a residential monastic community, like the Sisters of St. Mary’s in Sewanee, as well as those called to dispersed communities, living in their own homes, like the Daughters of the King or those serving at Constance Abbey. We give thanks today for all who offer to serve anywhere, from all walks of life.

Remember: Our joy in serving others cannot be separated from the sorrow and suffering of those in need. That’s what the third stanza of the hymn I’ve been singing is all about. It begins with admitting just how hard the work of ministry can be: “(God,) You need my hands, my exhaustion, working (in) love for the rest of the weary; A love that’s willing to go on loving.” We will get weary when we answer God’s call to ministry.

Let us pray. God, give us grace and faith to go on loving, to abandon our small boats, to seek other seas, even when we’re weary. Help us to answer your call. AMEN.

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