At the college I attended, students were encouraged to take part in a yearly fundraising drive. We were recruited to dial lots of alumni phone numbers until we reached a real person. Then, we would try to get them to listen to a story about why we loved our school before asking for a contribution. I remember deciding to participate in the fundraising drive during my freshman year. It didn’t really sound like my idea of fun, but I got to do it with my friends, and there was free food (very valuable to college students), and I did, in fact, love my school, so it seemed like the right thing to do. Maybe I was preparing for a lifetime of non-profit fundraising. Anyway, I went, and I ended up having a pretty good time.
As the years went by, though, my favorite part of the yearly fundraising drive was not the cookies or the fellowship or the college pride, but the sign that they hung up above the student union. It was huge, and it said: Called yet? Of course, it was up there to encourage all the students to take part in the phone bank, but I loved the double meaning. I’m sure not very many people were in on this joke, but me and my dorky friends who worked at the chaplain’s office thought it was hilarious. As someone who came to faith and discovered an interest in ordained ministry at college, it just seemed perfect to have this enormous sign show up every year in our midst, asking: “Called yet?”
Every year, following Epiphany, we hear stories about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the calling of the disciples. Today we listened to a story from the gospel of Mark’s about how Jesus calls four fisherman. Jesus sees Simon and his brother, Andrew, casting a net into the sea, and says to them: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they leave their nets and follow him. As they walk down the shore, Jesus sees James and his brother John, in a boat with their father, mending their nets. And immediately he calls to them; and they follow him. This story is strong on drama, but weak on details; especially if we want to use it as a guide for our own experiences of calling. For me, it raises more questions than it answers.
First of all, like many biblical stories, this one doesn’t tell us much about the context. Have Simon and Andrew, James and John been regulars at Jesus’ outdoor preaching gigs? Are they already excited about him and his message, or do they just feel inexplicably compelled in the moment to follow a stranger? Do they have any idea of what they’re about to do, what their job description will be, or do they only know that they will “fish for people”? Does saying yes to a call from God mean having all the information, or just lots of inspiration, or a bit of both?
I also wonder about the relationship of calling to work. These men were already employed; they had skills and equipment for the family business of fishing. Honestly, it seems a little irresponsible for them to leave that work “immediately,” without any notice or preparation. Simon and Andrew appear to leave their boat and net unattended in the water; while James and John abandon their aging father. Does a calling from God mean giving up gainful employment? Can gainful employment be a calling, even if it’s not explicitly religious? Can those for whom work is not a meaningful calling still follow God’s call alongside it?
Then there’s the question of qualifications. Does Jesus have a special insight into why these particular fishermen might be great disciples, or just a hunch, or is he just asking everyone he meets and taking whoever says yes? Of the twelve disciples, all we know is that there were four fisherman and one tax collector, along with a whole bunch of folks we know even less about. And these disciples who join up certainly seem imperfect for the job. They misunderstand Jesus’ teachings, they hesitate to follow his lead, and in the end, Judas betrays him and Peter denies him. So, How much do qualifications matter? How can we know when we have the right tools to say “yes” to what feels like a calling? Or is the sense of calling enough, should we trust that we’ll learn as we go and that it’s ok to make mistakes?
Information or inspiration? Employment or avocation? All the right skills, or just willingness to do the work? Beyond this, the questions just keep multiplying. As followers of Jesus, should we be expecting one call, or many? Big or small? And if we’re not ready to say yes “immediately,” like these fishermen did, will there be more chances for us down the road? What is calling all about, and what should we be listening for?
Today, as we hold our annual meeting, we say thank you. We thank the people who have served this church community, and strengthened and extended its ministry. Some of you have done so out of a clear sense of calling; others, perhaps, just felt able and willing. But I wish you could see how amazing it all looks from my perspective, whatever your motivation.
Each year, about 30 people say “yes” to being elected leaders in the church – meeting monthly to help engage and guide this congregation. These elected leaders support an increasing number of people on teams and taskforces that are engaged in on-the-ground work: making visits to those in the hospitals or homes, coordinating receptions for grieving families, weeding and watering our garden, painting our walls, working with the renters and guests who use our building and the contractors who keep it functional, gathering donations for our neighbors, discerning our collective giving to those in need, planning for and providing classes and events. And then there is Sunday, which comes around every week: Sunday, when to make all this happen we have a Worship Coordinator, greeters, ushers, readers, musicians, teachers and classroom volunteers, communion helpers, coffee hour hosts, and at least one person without an assigned task who would have rather stayed in bed but decided to show up anyway to support their fellow church members in prayer – all this — every Sunday.
This whole enterprise, West Concord Union Church, exists only because God has been at work calling us together, and because all of you, and many others, have said “yes” in small and large ways.
What are we called to do? How do we know when a calling is real, and really meant for us?
There’s no one answer. But I wish I had that banner that used to hang over the college student union, the one that read: “Called Yet?” Because as followers of Jesus, we are never done asking ourselves that question. There will be so many more opportunities, large and small, for us to listen for God’s call and say “yes” this year. And there will be so many opportunities to deepen what we’re already doing, to bless it by recognizing how it is a fulfillment of a call.
Today, we give thanks for Jesus, who followed his own call. We give thanks for the disciples, who surprisingly and imperfectly followed their call. We give thanks for one another, and the ancestors who came before us, whose answer to God’s call has made this community and our ministry together possible.
But don’t forget that there are still many invitations waiting for us: ones we’re prepared for and ones we’re not; life-changing choices and tasks that can be done in ten minutes; opportunities here at West Concord Union Church and far beyond it.
Have you been called yet? Probably. But there’s still more to come. Thanks be to God.