"Yes" to Stepping Out, Old First Sermon 01.18.15

"Yes" to Stepping Out, Old First Sermon 01.18.15

1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1: 45-53

When I was a young man,
my father-in-law, David,
told me about a man he knew growing up in Brooklyn.

The occasion of his sharing the story was my choosing to apply to a Ph.D. program in Religion.
And, as I retell the story today,
I smile,
thinking of all the possible, different messages David meant to share with me.

It’s a story I have since shared with my own son, Benjamin,
as he has thought about what to do with his life,
or at least how he might organize it.

David had a neighbor
who had a reputable 9 to 5 job
that was deliberately in no way an all-consuming career.
This guy wanted to make a living and support his family
but he also wanted spare time and energy,
so he could pursue his avocation,
the study of history (though I don’t remember anymore his specific area of interest).

He chose to pursue history on his own terms —
no classes to teach, or books to write.
No tenure to earn, or faculty meetings to battle.

Years later, a peer of mine completed a Ph.D. in New Testament,
only to go back his erstwhile profession,
as a practicing attorney,
EXCEPT that he took off every Thursday,
and spent the day in Burke Library at Union Seminary
doing his personal Greek word studies of Paul’s language in the New Testament.

You all, who know me well,
you know well that I didn’t take David’s advice.
Instead, I have had a demanding career that often takes up most of my life…
oddly in a way that perhaps is almost unique for clergy,
somewhat mixes or muddies the water between the personal and the professional,
the work day and the rest of one’s life.
That’s why we refer to it as a calling, I guess.

* * * * * * *

I thought of all this on Thursday, over at Mother Bethel,
like Old First,
another of Philly’s denominational Mother-churches.

Thursday’s agenda at Mother Bethel,
appropriate for Dr. King’s actual birthday,
was a POWER meeting of clergy,
POWER — as in P.hiladelphians O.rganized to W.itness, E.mpower and R.ebuild,
our Alinsky-esque, city-wide, community organization —
Protestant churches,
and Catholic parishes
and Jewish synagogues
and even a mosque or two.

Blacks and Whites,
Jews and Gentiles…
poor folk, middle class folk, maybe even some rich folks.

…figuring out how to work together to make Phllly
“a city that works for all”
especially “a city that works” for those who
our various and vastly different religious traditions
— delightfully, wonderfully —
share an equal preferential care about,

Why do our faith traditions show this preference for the least and the last?
Because the dominant and dominating systems,
— the “isms” in our world–
would rather ignore them, except when they can’t be exploited.

Many of you were part of 200 plus lay people at related meetings
on Wednesday and Thursday nights at the Friends Center.

Crucial, but not easy work.
…to make POWER
a truly and liberatingly
a multi-racial justice organization.

The exercise I need to tell you about
asked us to divide up into identity groups
to consider what we needed in order to be at the table as equals.

As you can imagine,
there were different, competing ways to group ourselves.
But we only got to be in one group.

As the days trainers began to give these instructions,
Rabbi Linda Holtzman
kept turning around, glancing back at me, with this urgent, but unclear meaning…

We ended up with 5 groups:
women clergy.
Rabbis.
White men.
African Americans.

And the group of Queer clergy Linda wanted to make sure I would be a part of.

You all know, Linda.
She was the Rabbi who read the Hebrew Scripture in Hebrew,
while Jill Walsh read it in English, at my installation.

(Linda coincidentally is now the head of the Field Education program
at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
that brings us Alex — my shadow! — today.)

Linda and I have a history. (That sounds bad, eh?)
We were part of early discussions about POWER’s founding.
When there were serious concerns from more conservative religious leaders and communities:
would progressives at the table press unacceptable issues –
that which we see as “justice” and they understand as “sin.”

Linda and I, who didn’t know each other back then,
sort of brokered the agreement,
because, not surprisingly the “dreaded gay agenda”
was apparently the most threatening.
And we happened that day, to be the only two queer clergy at the table.

We explained:
we understand broad-based organizing works on issues we all hold in common
like poverty and racism.

On other issues important to progressive faith communities
— women’s issues, abortion rights, queer equality –
we know POWER can’t touch those issues.

Still, Linda and I argued,
for us to be able to be at the table and work together on what we have in common,
we need to be recognized for who really are — out and gay and lesbian, and proud.
And our congregations need to be respected as equally faithful
in spite of commitments other communities do not share.

Beloved, there are different ways to organize and to identify,
but our hope is in a vision of a world
where each of us can do
as we see fit and need to,
even with wiggle room to be different in different settings,

Because each of us is complex and nuanced and conflicted,
even as we strive to be integrated and whole and equally members of various, larger communities.

* * * * * * *

I tell both these stories this morning
about a guy who organized his life so he could follow his beloved avocation on the side,
and about religious leaders making room at the table for queer colleagues
even when they think homosexuality is against God’s plan
because our readings are about calling.

And calling is always surprising and unsettling and asks you to go places you are not quite ready for.

Samuel hearing a still quiet voice in the middle of the night calling his name.

And Jesus calling Philipp to follow him,
and Philip in turn passing on this liberating word to Nathanael…

…and how in just a few short, somewhat convoluted verses
we move past a lot of territory (God tends to make covering this much distance possible)…
moving through the promises of Moses and the prophets
set alongside of people from the wrong side of the tracks
(“can anything good come from Nazareth or North Philly?” ,
mixed up with our necessity to move to new places
(we all need to get ourselves to some better place!),
pressed down with our need to see for ourselves
(remember, I’m from Missouri, the show-me state),
and for being seen for who we really are…
and somehow, out of all that,
by grace,
we end up
with ALL of heaven is opened before us,
and angels moving all around us???

* * * * * * * *

Here at Old First, we say that identifying God-given gifts and callings is
a primary role of the church.

I’m tempted to ask people to witness right now,
“How has your participation in this church
helped you discover gifts you didn’t know you had?
How has it called you to step out and try something new?”

In the United Church of Christ,
we lift up our various differences —
not as problems or what keeps up apart —
but as signs and reflections of
the wonder, creativity and magnitude of God.

We speak of the female image of God.
And of God as a poor child.
Or of God as Someone with different abilities, mental or physical challenges.

We know that it can be a gift to share with others to be Black. Or gay. Or Jewish.
Or a father-in-law.
Or a parent.
A neighbor.
Or if we take Jesus as seriously as I think he demands to be taken,
it can EVEN be a gift or a calling to be an enemy or despised
(hasn’t organizing challenged us to think this way sometimes?).

Just as it can be a calling to study history on the side.
Or to earn a living for one’s family.
Or to parse the meaning of NT Greek words that Paul employed.
Or to practice law.
Or be a teacher.
Or be a minister or rabbi.

We most often talk about the various callings of our religious life.

Next week is our Annual Meeting, where among other business,
we elect leaders for this congregation.
Looking toward that, I can’t help but thank people who have served.
Those who felt called to provide our children with a religious education.
And those who add music to our worship. (Thank you, Carrie, for your offering this morning!).
And those whose ministry it is to shepherd our finances (Gerrie and Adam!).
Or to handle so many administrative details (Jonathan for Admin, or Tim in the office).

Right alongside of those whose service among us is unelected,
not even always a recognized job.
Our pray-ers.
People who call and visit the homebound.
And stay in touch with those who are far off.
Or care for those who need help, particularly our elderly and those who are incarcerated.

I admit, I often wish we had a more formal office of Deacon at Old First. It is a holy calling.

But this morning, I want to finish this sermon with a challenge.
It’s about calling.
But not in the ways that we often think about it.

Too often these days,
religious people are thought of as
narrow,
bound,
parsimonious,
unforgiving.
(Not that such prejudice is completely unfounded!)

Faith is thought to spawn little,
frightened lives towing the line of strict interpretations and unbending rules.

What if instead,
religious people were known instead for the easy, confident and quick ways we say “yes.”

What if we were recognized because in our faith we were more willing to step out…
and try new things.
Do crazy things.
Worry less what we look like or what others will think.
Be spontaneous, or depend on something beyond ourselves.
Be surprising more.

Why aren’t religious communities places that engender freedom and expansion?

I’m guessing that each of us, if we look at our lives carefully,
I’m guessing… that each of us probably senses some “calling” to try something new.

It might be spiritual or religious.
Or not at all.

But what if, whatever it is, you began to think of the invitation as God’s bidding.
And thought of your faith as enabling a new kind of courage and boldness?

Let me lift up to you Norman Cousins’ insight:
“The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside of us while we live.”

For Christians, death — though often difficult and sad — is not a tragedy in itself.
All of us will die.
It is as natural as birth.

The tragedy is what we let die inside us in between the cradle and the grave, while we live.
The unrealized dreams.
The hopes.
The passion to be or do something that is calling to us from someplace deep.

The real tragedy of life is settling for less,
while something dies inside us.
When we could leave behind the safety of where we are and what we know…

Ok, casting off into the unknown is one of the scariest
– and best –
decisions a person can make.

“There is no security in following the call to adventure,” Joseph Campbell wrote.

You know what he is talking about.
We’ve all tried a time or two.

And probably failed or fallen in some of our attempts.

But you know what’s worse?
Regret.
Looking back and wishing that you had accepted the invitation.
Knowing you should have listened to that voice.
Could have followed.
Or should have tried to believe.
Missed your chance to go and see.

…Rather than studiously ignoring the desire
until it finally dried up and died for lack of attention.

Church, practice calling.

Practice believing that God’s calling you out.

Church, maybe God’s trying to tell us something?

So you, we can in faith let go what’s known and feels comfortable and secure and limiting.
And practice leaving, to follow some beckoning we can’t quite explain.

It won’t always – maybe never — end up where we expected or hoped.
Nope, we might even end up lost or failed.
It could become some spectacular mistake.
Or land us in someplace we never wanted to end up.

A dear friend of mine, a couple of years back,
went through an incredibly awful, unwanted break up of a marriage.
It was painful. And awful.
But she said to me, well into it,
“I never would have asked for this.
But you know what, I feel more alive than I have for many years.”

Practice leaving off and trying something new,
so that we can be unquestionably alive.
Church, after all,
that’s what
— all that —
God is calling us to.

Come and see. The new things God can do with us.
Come and see. Your future open up before you.

If we are of good faith,
if we have courage,
if we try something…