by Ellen Sims
texts: I Samuel 3:1-11, 19; Mark 1:4-11
One year ago we were reading Matthew’s version of Jesus’s baptism in which a voice from heaven declares to the crowd, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). This year as we focus on Mark’s Gospel we hear another version of that story in which God declares: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Do you hear the difference? Do see the implications? In Matthew, God addresses the entire crowd on the banks of the Jordan River to name Jesus as the Beloved Son. In Mark, only Jesus hears God’s call, perhaps an inaudible call. Mark’s Jesus, whose birth was not announced by angels nor attended by Magi, steps out of obscurity into his great mission after being one of many who’d been following John the Baptizer. Perhaps Jesus’s prior experience as one of John’s disciples confirmed his calling and equipped him to launch his own ministry. Just a few verses later, Jesus begins calling his own disciples.
The Jesus in Matthew, compared to the Jesus in Mark, would have had an easier start to his ministry since God announced to other witnesses that Jesus was a/the Beloved Son! But scholars consider Mark’s tighter and less dramatic account, written earlier than Matthew’s, to be more authentic. Probably Mark’s Jesus, like you and me, had to begin his life’s endeavors without any public endorsement by God, maybe with just a hunch about a direction for his life. So it’s easier for me to identify with Mark’s Jesus. I mean, God has not yet officially supported female pastors in an interview on CNN. Too bad. That would give female clergy a smoother start to their ministries. But clergy, like most folks, have to discern their life-long vocations and short-term projects and day-to-day decisions without any divine confirmation. At best, we all start our faith journeys with the ancient baptismal liturgy that names us in terms of our truest essence: God’s beloved children. And from time to time we continue to hear an inner voice commending or correcting but always blessing us. But most of the time we simply struggle to do our best, and make course corrections as needed, and learn even from—no, ESPECIALLY from our mistakes. From baptism to the grave, the details of God’s call upon our lives will change, but our essential call is to follow Jesus faithfully in the daunting way of the Beloved.
The church of my youth made much of young people discovering their vocations. The preacher boys who reported they had been “called” to “fulltime Christian ministry” seemed to be the ones whose calling counted most. But someone in my youth group occasionally shared that he’d been called to be a doctor, for instance. Think how strange this modern, Western, affluent notion of one’s “calling” would have seemed in biblical days. Can you imagine the average person in the early centuries of Christianity being able to CHOOSE a way to make a living much less having the opportunity to educate himself or herself for what we now call a career? Can you imagine even today a girl living somewhere without access to a basic education choosing a vocation that requires an educational level not attainable in her context? The cultural Christianity of my youth wasn’t wrong to help us connect the way we would make our livelihood with the way we’d follow Jesus. But that notion of vocation was ignorant of its cultural privileges—to say nothing of the current reality that across the economic spectrum very few people today continue in a career path throughout their working lives. The church’s definition of “vocation” taught a generation ago has little to do with the biblical idea of God’s call upon our lives and not much to do with our current reality of vocation.
It now seems to me that God calls us not to careers but to a way of living, not to professions but to paths of service. The boy Samuel said “here I am” to God without even knowing what that would require. Jesus responded to God without counting the cost. Soon after Jesus “enlisted,” he was calling others to follow him, as we’ll read about next Sun. And he called his disciples with this simple phrase: “Follow me.” In fact, his first followers were told to leave their fishing business behind. “Follow me” sounds simple but requires the utmost commitment. It’s those open ended commitments that require the most of us. And commitment is in short supply these days.
I was reminded of that at my nephew’s wedding last Saturday. In a very fine wedding sermon based on the story of Ruth and Naomi’s devotion to one another, the minister avoided the usual clichés and misapplications of that text to charge not only the bride and groom but all of us in attendance to develop relationships of deep commitment in a culture that doesn’t value commitment. She observed the way Facebook allows us to declare if we are in a relationship with one of three responses: “yes,” “no,” or “it’s complicated.” Lots of relationships are “complicated.” I appreciate “complicated.” And I know we have grown skittish about making commitments for some good reasons. But with some sad consequences. Without commitment, our relationships lack depth and longevity. But commitment requires risk. Ruth risked much to accompany her mother-in-law back to Naomi’s ancestral town of Bethlehem. Marriage is fraught with risks. There are no guarantees for wedded bless. There are no guarantees that other relationships within families or among friends will flourish. And heartache abounds when they disappoint us.
One evening this past week George and I talked about the wedding sermon we’d heard and reflected on our own almost 40 years of being married. As much as we’ve both changed over four decades, I think I’ve undergone more change than George, so it’s entirely to his credit to have given me space to change and grow. That took a genuine sense of commitment. It’s understandable that on the front end of a relationship that commitment might sound onerous, scary, constraining, burdensome, a challenge too difficult to live up to, an endurance test you might not be able to pass. But forty years after we spoke our wedding vows, it seems to us that commimtment to one another and the sheer accumulation of years can deepen and sweeten a relationship beyond what we’d expected.
I’m not venerating traditional marriage and, especially since same-sex marriage is so new, I quickly acknowledge that same-gender loving couples deserve so much praise for maintaining relationships in a culture hostile to them. I also acknowledge there are relationships that don’t endure for decades but have still been worthy and healthy and loving. Let’s also be very clear that some relationships are toxic and should end. The Church encouraged women to remain in abusive marriages for too long. And I’m certainly not saying that George and I are the poster children for good marriages. I’m not even talking about marriage. Instead, I’m using healthy marriage as a metaphor to talk about the value of commitment in general and commitment to follow Jesus in particular and more specifically within a faith community—with all its imperfections.
In touting the value of commitment, I have to admit that I’ve sometimes soft pedaled the call to a commitment to Christ’s church. Like marriage, the church has lost its luster for many. A good percentage of us have come through these doors with suspicion and fear because the Church has harmed many. No wonder we don’t trust the Church. No wonder we have more “active participants” at Open Table than we have church members. I assure you right now as I have in the past: you may participate in Open Table in every sense—even by serving on the church council—without formally becoming a member.
But I want to say to you clearly what I may not have said so explicitly before: I think becoming a church member could deepen your relationship here with us. Making an explicit commitment to this church can be powerful. Pledging fidelity to the way of Jesus and hearing your church promise their affirmation and support for you is powerful—especially in a culture that is phobic about commitment.
Community, like marriage, is risky. You can get hurt in such relationships. You are going to have to work really hard to make it work. You’ll be frustrated and disappointed. But over time you will know a sweetness, a richness, a purpose, that you won’t experience otherwise. Church is not a club to join for socializing. It’s a community of faith that has promised to LOVE each other and be the body of Christ in the world. An audacious claim!
Knowing that many of us were just “done” with church before coming here, I carefully avoided seeming to pressure anyone into joining our church. Some early Open Table members actually had made being anti-church such a part of their identity that they didn’t want friends and family knowing they were attending church. If I ran into them in public, I was introduced as a friend, not as their pastor, and with an arched eyebrow that implied, “Please don’t out me as a church member to these folks.” I understood. But if we hold our faith community at arm’s length, we can’t be fully embraced. If I’ve never said this to you explicitly, let me do so now: I affirm relationships of devotion and durability and especially I affirm investing your life in this faith community. I’m calling you to join us, serve with us, give with and through us—trusting that you know me well enough now to know there are no strings attached to my love for you or to your welcome and participation here.
Earlier in this service we covenanted with church leaders who committed to us for a year. They are taking that role seriously. We need them to take it seriously. They need to take it seriously. And they need your commitment, too. We thank God for these occasions for commitment to one another. Amen