by Ellen Sims
texts: Exodus 3:1-10, Romans 12:9-18, Matthew 16:21-25
Throughout seminary or divinity school, in classes and at retreats and during spiritual direction settings and worship experiences, seminarians are often asked to tell their “call stories,” their personal stories about when and how they understood they were being called of God into ministry. I had an anti-call story, which was really a story about why I didn’t have a call story. It seemed to me that so many of the emotional narratives some of my peers recounted sincerely and movingly felt a little, excuse my cynicism, formulaic, strained. Or let me be more generous, just not my experience of paying attention to the Spirit of God at work in the world.
A typical call story, like the one told by my friend Andrea (not her real name) featured many examples of hearing God’s call and resisting it. Which is consistent with the Hebrew Bible stories of God calling the reluctant prophets. Today’s Hebrew Bible reading offers the prototype for call stories. Moses, not many verses after today’s lection, is going to protest to God that he can’t tell Pharoah to free the Israelites because he isn’t a good speaker. And God’s going to answer back, “Well, your brother Aaron can speak for you.” So Moses, out of excuses, goes to seminary, I mean, assumes that prophetic role and demands freedom for his people.
Back to Andrea, who would reflect on her fairly recent experience of God’s call by describing her lack of a sense of vocation during her last year of college. She said God was planting in her mind and heart the idea of going to seminary. But that’s not what she really wanted to do. Although she didn’t know what she DID want to do after college. So for months Andrea felt an internal battle: should she go to seminary and become a pastor or figure out another path? One day she boldly said to God, “If you want me to go to seminary, give me a sign.” Which is another motif common in the biblical stories. For some random reason Andrea then walked into a friend’s room in the residence hall. And on that wall was a poster—literally a sign—containing a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, her favorite figure in history. It said, “You must do the things you think you cannot.” Andrea applied to seminary and never looked back. She is a wonderful pastor.
But interpreting signs isn’t for me. In response to the Eleanor Roosevelt sign, I’d have thought that becoming a pastor was just one of a whole list of things I thought I couldn’t do. I’d have never assumed in those circumstances that Eleanor or God meant I should go to seminary. Maybe, I’d have thought, the sign meant I needed to walk solo across the Gobi Desert because that certainly would have been a thing I thought I could not do. If I had gone in alphabetical order through all the things I thought I couldn’t do, I might have started with : A, accelerating gradually when the traffic light turns green; then B, balancing my checkbook; C, communicating telepathically with dolphins; D, dancing the tango with Al Pacino. I don’t know if I’d ever have gotten to S, for “seminary.” But for Andrea, Eleanor Roosevelt was her burning bush that told her to become a minister of the Gospel.
Some people think that hearing and heeding God’s call upon their lives is a one-time-only grandiose assignment. Today’s Hebrew Bible story is Moses’s response to God’s dramatic call to become the great liberator on whom the fate of a whole people rests. If the story of Moses is our model for how you and I understand our life’s work, then we have a lot to live up to. That special-effects burning bush practically promised Moses that Cecil B. DeMille would one day capture his glorious deeds in technicolor. That’s some calling: to convince Pharaoh to release all of Egypt’s slaves and then lead them all to a land flowing with milk and honey.
But if I read further into this story it becomes more relatable to me. Moses was not only a poor public speaker but also had a temper and sometimes looked like he was herding cats. And what’s important in his story is the theme of liberation more than the liberator. Moses’s story introduces the theme of freedom and justice that flows like the Nile throughout the Bible all the way to Jesus the liberator.
Let’s not forget that the Moses story started two chapters earlier at the beginning of Exodus with the quietly subversive women we read about last week. So the solitary hero called to an epic assignment is not the full story of Moses and not the way I think of life.
In addition, being responsive to God’s call happens over and over again in one’s life, sometimes moment by moment, in everyday choices, for example, and (to pull from Paul’s exhortation) as we “outdo one another in showing honor,” and “persevere in prayer,” and “weep with those who weep” and “associate with the lowly” and so forth (Romans 12: 9-21). How we relate to one another is our vocation as much as the career path we follow.
I don’t even think of my current pastoral vocation, though terribly important to me, as the entirety or essence of my calling. I think that how I’m living my life should be a coherent response to God’s call. The call stories of most of the older seminarians like me often featured a disavowal of their previous professions: “Well, I finally gave in to God’s call upon my life, left my law practice, and here I am preparing for pastoral ministry.” I’ve never felt that my previous teaching career was at odds with or any less sacred than my preaching career.
Instead, I simply started to realize how much I enjoyed the study of theology and loved planning worship services and writing prayers and leading classes at our church in Nashville. It felt as if I was becoming more of me. And, if you’ll forgive me for sounding sappy, I just fell more deeply in love with God. It was that simple. It was all about what I wanted to do and couldn’t help doing. So I didn’t care that the odds of a woman being called to pastor a church were stacked against me. Mine was not a struggle but an unfolding, which I say simply to balance out stories of spiritual discernment that are often told dramatically and individualistically–while most of us figure out paths we take without burning bushes. And we do so in the company of others.
The theme of vocation as collaboration and cooperation was part of last week’s sermon. It honored the five women in Exodus 1-2 who, together, paved the way for Moses, three of whom were not even named. It was they who worked together to save that baby. They didn’t lead the people through the Red Sea. But they saved the baby who would. And later Miriam would lead the people in a song of victory afterward. They had no burning bush to nominate them as official leaders. They had no public position. But they listened to their own lives at moments when it counted and together supported the way of compassion, justice, and liberation.
Parker Palmer says in his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, “Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. Today I understand vocation quite differently –not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Vocation does not come from a voice out there calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be” (4).
Palmer then goes on to tell this story: “There is a Hasidic tale that reveals, with amazing brevity, both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the ultimate importance of becoming one’s self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” (11).
Although Matthew’s Gospel compares Jesus to Moses—which is the reason in the liturgical cycle the Gospel of Matthew is paired with readings from Exodus and the story of Moses—Jesus the liberator is in his way also very different from Moses. While Moses leads the people to cross the Red Sea to safety, Jesus leads his people to a cross and to death. The only way death releases it power over us is when we face it and are willing to lose our lives for Jesus’s sake.
Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Of course Jesus never courted or wanted death, but he saw clearly that the kin*dom of God he preached would be opposed just as the company he kept would be disdained. To be fully who he was and to follow sincerely the God he understood, he would journey in harm’s way. Jesus’s way is self-giving, not self-vaunting. Jesus is the humble anti-hero who answers the call to be who he is: the one who wins by losing even his own life for others. As we listen to our own lives but in conversation with others, we need no confirmation from Eleanor Roosevelt or priest or parent to be who we are and follow Jesus’s call.
Palmer, Parker J.Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.