23 January 2011

Call and Response:

A Sermon for Proper 2A

Five or six years ago my niece and nephew-in-law and their family emigrated to Canada from the States. They've recently embarked on the next, and hopefully nearly the last, step on the road to becoming Canadian citizens: earlier this month they appeared at the citizenship court to take the test. So the whole family spent the holiday season busily studying and liable to burst out with 'fun facts' about Canada in the middle of conversations. Especially interesting to them were the differences between the Canadian story and its themes, as presented by the study guide, and the American story and its themes that they learned growing up and in civics classes. They were especially struck by the willingness to identify mistakes that Canada had made, to name them and draw lessons from them. I suppose every nation, every group, seeks to define itself by its unique story and by the themes and lessons that it draws from that story.

As Christians we are no different -- we share our story through the scriptures that we read and hear in the liturgy. And in Bible Studies and sermons we wrestle with decisions and mistakes, hard sayings and doings, as we try to understand the story and what it means, how it can guide our lives now. This is never more true than in this season of Epiphany -- now that the lights are put away, along with all the Christmas decorations, and all the balls and stars and angels are packed up for next year, now comes the hard part. Epiphany is the time for making things clear, for revealing what is hidden behind the comfortable story of a baby and his mother, shepherds, angels, and wise men. And it's a time to begin studying for our test, not a multiple-choice exam like the citizenship test, but the testing season of Lent, in which we have the chance to show how well we can live out the story in our own lives.

What do our readings today show about our Christian story? As a belated Christmas gift to the preacher, they are more than usually connected by a common theme linking prophet, apostle, and gospel to one another and to that seasonal theme of revealing -- that theme is calling, calling into relationship, with one another and with God. So much of what is in our shared story as God's people is about relationships -- how they get broken, how they get mended, how they change, and indeed change us. It makes sense that it would be in relationship with God and with one another that we would be able to understand and see what it is all about, what the birth of that particular child means for us and for the world.

In the first lesson, we hear God's call to a prophet, in this case the man we only know as Second Isaiah. He relies upon his call both to give his words the authenticity that his hearers demand and also, and most importantly to reveal to him God's plan and how he must further it. In the epistle, Paul speaks of almost nothing but calling and its results in the prayer of thanksgiving that opens 1 Corinthians, that highly charged and rhetorical letter to a church in crisis, as its members wait, with the apostle, for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in the gospel we hear how John the Baptist's revealing of his experience at Jesus's baptism results in not one, but two calls -- of God to human beings and also of human beings to God.

I'd like to spend some time looking at the three kinds of call that are represented in these passages and what they reveal to us about God, about ourselves, and about our story. The first of these is the call of vocation. If you spend long enough in 'church land' you'll become accustomed to the story of vocation that recurs in our readings cycle by cycle as we hear about prophets, disciples, and others, those that respond to the call and those that refuse. Today's readings focus our attention on those that responded to God's call: the unnamed prophet, Paul, John the Baptist, Andrew, and another, unnamed disciple. They don't minimise the difficulties that arise from assent, however reluctant, to the call to God's service. Listen to the words that God spoke to a prophet who already all but despaired of his ability to fulfil his calling: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." Hey, no pressure! No pressure at all. Fortunately the prophet has faith that his cause is with the Lord and that his reward is with God, or I am sure this double task might have seemed too much to undertake. And even that can't have made it easy for him -- cut off in the midst of his work, Second Isaiah could not see how the words he spoke for God brought comfort to God's people, new and old, or how spectacularly his prophecies would be fulfilled. Paul also had a great challenge before him as an apostle, another person sent, like the prophets before him, as a messenger for God. Although he had the satisfaction of seeing many of the faith communities that he had founded grow and flourish, there were always the problem groups, like the Corinthians he is addressing here.

If there is one common element here, it is that of challenge. The call to God's service is not a call to an easy life, or a safe one. Second Isaiah and John the Baptist particularly show that. Nor is it easy to know whether or not you are succeeding; you just have to have faith in God's future. So perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that not everyone is called to be a prophet or an apostle, to be a messenger for God ....

But that is not exactly an escape hatch! In the first reading, the focus is all on the prophet and his task, rather than on those to whom he was sent to speak. But in the epistle, Paul makes it clear that the people of Corinth, the ones he was writing to, are also called just as he was. And in the Gospel reading, we hear of an unnamed disciple that heard John's words and followed them to Jesus side by side with Andrew who became one of the Twelve. So calling is not just for those with a special vocation to speak God's word to God's people, for prophets and apostles. There is also a second calling, the calling to faith, to discipleship.

Paul describes the Christian community of Corinth as sanctified in Jesus, called to be saints. They were also called by the Father into the fellowship of God's Son, Jesus. So all of us, not just the special few, have received a call from God. Although we each respond to that call in different and unique ways and are all at different places on a unique journey, the very fact of being here together shows the reality both of call and reponse for each of us. What does it mean to be called into holiness and into fellowship? Holiness has acquired some negative press nowadays -- no-one wants to be 'holier than thou' or a fun-killing or judgemental 'Holy Joe'. We need to 'rebrand' holiness and recapture its positive associations -- holiness is a quality that comes not so much from ourselves as it does from God. It's about being God's, part of God's world, and living into the wholeness that comes from a life with God. But because we can't live into wholeness as human beings in isolation, we are also called by God into the fellowship, the community, of Jesus Christ -- so we live out lives as people of God with others that are called to the same holiness and the same fellowship. And of course we make mistakes and fall short of both holiness and community -- unfortunately that is nothing new. You have to read only a short distance further in the letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth to see it happening as early as New Testament times. But being called is a process, not a single, once-for-all achievement, and we will spend all our lives living into the relationship with God and with our brothers and sisters to which we've been called. It's all part of the journey.

The Gospel reading shows this call to discipleship too, of course. John the Baptist, by describing his own mission and his own experiences, directs his followers toward Jesus and in their encounter with Jesus they too experience that call. But both it and the epistle also demonstate the importance of the third kind of call that I want to talk about. That is our calling back to God. It's important that our role here is not one of silence, however we respond. Instead God's call inspires us to answer back. We begin a conversation with God.

Paul spoke of this when he told the Corinthian community that they were called along with all those who in every place call on the name of Jesus. So part of our response to God's call to us is to call on God. The conversation between Jesus and John's disciples in the Gospel also shows that the interaction initiated by God's call to us is not one-sided, as does the reading from Isaiah. Our response to God is to be part of a conversation that, like living into our relationship with God and one another, is going to go on. And there is room in that conversation for disappointment and complaint and even anger (as we can see from the prophets and from Job) -- the important thing is not to stop talking, not to stop engaging with the God that calls.

So what is the "Epiphany message" here? How does this theme of God's call and our response reveal God in Christ to us? The God we see in these three vignettes from our story is one who reaches out in love both directly and through those God has called to be prophets, apostles, and other messengers to call men and women into relationship, both with one another and with God. Our God is also a God that invites us into conversation, a conversation that at times can be intimate and at times can grow to include others in fellowship. When Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, and his unnamed companion seek out Jesus and ask where he is staying, Jesus replies with what I think are some of the most beautiful words in Scripture -- 'Come and see'. There are no preconditions here and no 'gatekeepers' to pass, just an invitation to closer relationship, to learn more and more about Jesus and his Father. This Epiphany season, indeed in every season, God's word to us in Christ is the same -- 'Come and see'. May we always be eager to do so.