Sermon Preached by the Rev. Colin H. Williams
Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh
The Third Sunday After the Epiphany, 23 January 2000
"However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you."-I Corinthians 7:17:23
Who am I? What am I to be up to? These are not just the questions of young students struggling to figure out where they fit in in that vast area of epic personality conflicts, commonly known as High School. These are the questions that visit all religious people-at school, at home, at church, and at work-every single day. Who am I? What am I to be up to? Questions about identity. Identity and mission. Paul reminded the Christians in Corinth as he reminds us this morning, that we are people with a unique calling; called to be faithful in everyday life, and called to serve the world in Christ's name. Yet as a called people, we are people who are somewhat set apart from the world; distant from it, at the same time that it is right here that we "live and move and have our being." How does one live in this terrible tension between identifying with your surroundings and being different from them. In other words, what is the balance between utter conformity to the ways of the world as one extreme, and living the lonely life of a monk in the desert, doing his own thing-faithfully-but all by himself? How is each of us called to a life of holiness and devotion?
"However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you." Who am I? What am I to be up to? In seminary I used to spend selected weekends in New York City with my friends who moved to the Big Apple after graduation. Seminary life and life in the city that never sleeps were a little different from one another! My friends working in finance, advertising, and publishing were "livin' la vida loca," as Ricky Martin would say; but I always had this sense of being on an alternative track. I understood that the Lord calls each of us to a special life that he has in mind for us, however difficult this may sometimes be to discern. I felt called.
As true as this is for me, calling is not just about priesthood. Mark's gospel tells the story of Simon, Andrew, James and John's call to be Jesus' disciples. "Drop your fishing nets and follow me," Jesus says; and immediately they went. Powerful story, but it contributes to one of the biggest misconceptions about being a Christian: that to be called is to be called to full time ordained ministry. It is this wrong idea that detracts from the ministry of all baptized Christians. You know, my dad doesn't quite know what I'm up to as a minister. (Maybe dads are never supposed to really understand their sons.) Once, as we were concluding a phone conversation, he said, "Son, I'm glad you're doing the Lord's work." I said, "The Lord's work. Thanks, dad, but I hope you are too!" Delivering hot meals to the homebound, teaching someone to read, mentoring women just released from prison-this is real ministry, and it is not ordained ministry. You don't always have to drop your fishing nets like Simon and Andrew, or leave the family business like James and John, to do ministry. Because if ministry is left up to clergy and church staffs only, the Kingdom of God will draw near to us no time soon.
Being called does not mean being called to be a priest. I know a woman who loves to tell the story of how she knew two things when she was a young girl: that Colin was her favorite name for boys and that she wanted to deliver babies. Here I am, and there my mom is, an OB-GYN in San Antonio. Called people. She is very clear about the fact that she is called to be a doctor, ministering to people. And I know teachers and writers and all kinds people who describe what they do as a calling. All of these: vocations to do the Lord's work.
"However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you." So we are all called to Christian ministry, and set apart to do so. But Christians have always lived with the uncomfortable tension between conformity to the world and standing apart from it. The experience of the 1st century Christians in Corinth is perhaps not too terribly different from ours today, in the 21st century. Corinth was one of the largest cities in the ancient world during its heyday. In reading the Paul's letters to Corinth, one might imagine it as a combination of Las Vegas, Disney World, and New York City. Like Vegas, Corinth boasted every vice. Like Disney World, Corinth was all about food, folks, and fun. And like New York, Corinth was a crossroads for every religion, ethnicity, and all manner of life known in the world. The society's moral system ranged from Animal House to convent house. So in the midst of this environment, these first Christians must have had an extremely difficult time in discerning their special identity as people called by God. At the time Christianity was not part of the prevailing culture: there were no creches in front of the Roman governor's office; florists didn't have lily specials at Easter; and not everyone had heard of the Ten Commandments. Christianity was one belief system among many, many others. You could even describe Corinthian society the way we describe ours today: a cafeteria society where we can pick and choose what you do, wear, eat, buy, and believe. Whatever you can fit on your tray, that's who you are-your identity.
Earlier I told you about seminary life and trips to New York City. As I ran around with my friends back then, I went back and forth between identifying with this crowd and needing to stand apart from them. At the same time I wanted them to affirm, "Wow, you're just like us!" there was also the danger that they would lament, "Wow, you're just like us" if I ignored my particular calling. This struggle to "lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you" does not belong to future priests only, but to all faithful people trying to find their way in New York City, or in Corinth. This is where the rubber hits the road for Christians. This is where Sunday morning and Monday morning are connected. One of the participants in the Wednesday morning Men's Bible Study recounted the time recently when a young man in the office said about another co-worker, "Man, this job sure has aged that woman. She looks terrible." The Calvaryite admitted that there was once a time in the past when he was a "Master of the Universe" living the life of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities when he would have joined right in with such undignified conversation. Guy talk. But this time he responded to the young man's comments with a strong silence, and like the rich young ruler, this young man "went away sorrowful."
Not conforming too much to the ways of the world; resisting the temptations to identify too much with our surroundings. Standing apart, because we are Christian. We do this when we don't laugh at mean-spirited jokes about women and gay people, and when we treat secretaries, bosses, co-workers, and janitors with equal respect. This is how we are called to live and act, as difficult as it is to stand apart and be different. And sometimes it can be very painful when our calling as Christians interferes with relationships with colleagues, family, friends, and anyone we care about. But still, we persevere in the life the Lord has in mind for us.
"Lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you," says Paul. "Drop your fishing nets and follow me," says Jesus. Finally, how are we called? Unlike the disciples, we are not always called instantly, and not always called so clearly. This story of the disciples' call to up and walk away from everything and everyone they ever knew to follow Jesus is not the only way it happens. I believe that our call as individuals, and as a faith community like Calvary, unfolds over time, through reading the Bible daily, praying, and worship-and praying some more. To not do this is like plugging your ears with your fingers and wondering why a sense of mission and purpose never emerges, and no call is heard. The Corinthians certainly wrestled and wrestled with who they were and what they were supposed to be up to as a community of faith. The answers didn't come quickly and clearly; Paul's attention proves this. Like the Christians in Corinth who were called to apply their faith in daily life, we too will always live with the tension between the secular and the spiritual. But as we are about the business of better discerning and more faithfully pursuing the lives to which the Lord calls us, we offer up a prayer in the words of this hymn. Let us pray.
Teach me thy patience;
Still with thee
In closer, dearer company,
In work that keeps faith sweet and strong,
In trust that triumphs over wrong,
In hope that sends a shining ray
Far down the future's broadening way,
In peace that only thou canst give,
With thee, O Master, let me live.
Please feel free to contact Fr. Williams if you have questions or comments about this or any sermon.
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