We’re talking about “call” this summer. Go back to some of the introductory notes if you want to know more about the whys and wherefores. If you’ve gotten this far, then we’ll assume you’re on board at least in the short term. But we still need to spend some time talking about the what. What is a call? What does it mean to be called? What does it feel like or sound like? And is it really something we want?
A call isn’t always easy to carry. It sometimes sends us to places where we might not want to go—or at least to places we aren’t too sure about. There are too many unanswered questions in responding to a call—even a call that comes from the one we call Lord. The difficult thing is that those questions never quite go away. We might be years into following this call, and suddenly the questions come back. “What am I doing?” “What have I gotten myself into?” “If this really is a call from God, why isn’t it working out better?” These are only some of the questions that come to us. You might have your own that you want to share. Or not share. Just wrestle.
The other thing that is important to keep reminding folks is that hearing a call from God is not something reserved for the clergy. It comes to us all—to all who want to follow this path; to all who want to become disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It might be a call to a place, to a task, or to a way of living. But in all of it, there is a call to a relationship. What you’re doing, preacher, is premarital (for those just starting out) or marriage counseling (for those who’ve been at this for a while). To consider our call is to consider life—a new life, a new start, a destination unknown to a degree.
During the sessions before the wedding, as pastor and couple, we try and figure it out. We sit and talk about what married life might be like. Sometimes, I got the impression that I was speaking an alien language to the young couple seated on my couch in the office. They’d smile and nod and try to keep their brows unknit. It’s hard, I know that. It’s hard to imagine that there might be occasions when they wonder if this marriage thing is a good idea after all. It’s hard to imagine that there will be moments when the one over whom they are all googly-eyed now might become the source of their greatest frustration one day. So, they would sit politely while I set some ground rules or lay some foundation that someday just might be a lifeline if they remember them. I’ve often wondered what sorts of conversations take place when couples leave my office as we prepared for their wedding. “Can you believe that?” “Like, yeah, as if we would ever disagree on anything!”
It is hard to imagine your destination during momentous occasions like a wedding. Oh, we do, or we try to imagine. But our imaginations are too limited or too slanted or too twisted by a culture that depicts loving relationships in too few ways (for my liking anyway). I have often said that my purpose during premarital counseling is to try to talk them out of it. OK, I’m pretty subtle about it, but that is in the back of my mind when we talk. Because if I can talk them out of it, then they probably shouldn’t be getting married in the first place.
Most of the time, I can’t talk them out of it. Most of the time, they go through with it, even though their vision is limited concerning where they are heading. They launch off into this new way of being without much clue about what they are doing or where they are going. Some folks talk a lot about the number of marriages that fail. I’m amazed by the ones that succeed. Most of the couples I talk to are woefully unprepared for what might be ahead of them. Yet, we celebrate the launch of this new life with tears and with joy. And then we wave goodbye as they set off to a new life, a new land without so much as a MapQuest printout. They just heard the call, and they went.
Newlyweds are like Matthew in the Gospel text. Matthew was just minding his own business, as messy as that business was. And some guy walked by and said, “Let’s go.” And Matthew went. What? Really. Yeah, he went. He just up and left the booth. There were folks standing in line waiting to pay their taxes, and Matthew just left. How long did they stand there waiting for him to come back? I mean, you don’t skip paying taxes because the taxman wandered off, do you?
We don’t get much of Matthew’s story here. Just a verse before Jesus is off at dinner again, hanging with an unsavory crowd and trying to get his point across to the less unsavory people. We don’t know what Matthew was thinking or why he was such an easy mark. We don’t know if he was thinking about his job, tired of the abuse he suffered at those who didn’t want to pay their taxes – and who does want to pay their taxes? Maybe he was upset by what he forced people with little means to do in order to keep right with the law of the oppressor. Or maybe he didn’t think that at all. Maybe he thought he was good at his job, moving up in the messy corporate world. Maybe he was used to following orders to get ahead and Jesus used that tone of voice that his bosses used, that certainty, that authority. And he was halfway down the street after the guy before he started to think, “Wait, what am I doing?” He heard the call, and he went.
Like Abram. You thought I’d never get there, didn’t you? You thought I was lost in my own rhetoric. Well, it happens sometimes, I confess. But getting lost seems to be a part of the job; part of the calling that we people of God have. At least the potential is always there to veer wildly off track. Abram is a case in point.
This is the beginning, of course, of the saga of the patriarch we know as Abraham. But he doesn’t get that name until later. For now, he is just Abram. He is the son of Terah, who just died in Haran, which wasn’t really home. Terah was from Ur, further south and east, almost to the Persian Gulf. But now we’re in what would become Turkey, a long way from home. Yet it became the new home. But it was the home Abram was asked to leave. He was asked to complete the journey his father started. Chapter 11, verse 31 says Terah set off for Canaan, but only made it to Haran.
You know what that’s like. You had a dream; you were going places; you were going to accomplish things; you had worlds to conquer and dragons to slay, so you set off. But somewhere along the way, you settled in Haran. You didn’t accomplish all that you had imagined, but you did well. You didn’t conquer worlds, but you helped make a home for yourself and your family, and that was enough. What seemed so clear and so compelling some years ago now seems like a dream you begin to lose when you wake up. You remember that it was wonderful, heart-pounding stuff, but the details slip away like the morning mist as you suit up to face the day.
Did Abram hear those dreams from his father as they sat around the fire in the evenings? Did the lure of that original, unknown destination work its way into his soul as he tended the flocks? Genesis twelve says God called. What did it sound like? Was there a deep rumbling voice that formed words in Abram’s soul but was thunder to everyone else? Was there, as there so often was in the Bible, a dream that refused to fade in the morning dawn? Or did God sound like Terah, talking of Canaan as though he had been there and was hoping to get back some day?
How do you know? That’s the question we ask so many times. How do you know it is God and not the secret desires of your own heart? We want to know; we want to be certain. They always sound so certain in the Bible. Or do they? "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.” Does that sound like certainty? Oh, sure the narration says, “Now the Lord said to Abram...” But what is said? Go! And there is more about what is being left behind than there is about the destination. “To a land that I will show you.” “Will show you,” not “am showing you,” not that I’ve written out here in these directions, no printout map with a line drawn from where you are to where you’ll end up.
God doesn’t seem to ask for certainty. We don’t have Abram’s inner dialog in this story; we don’t have the questions he must have asked, at least in his own head and heart. All we have is his action – “So Abram went...” That’s it. He went, and he believed. He went as the Lord had told him. And his uncertainty got him into trouble in just a few verses. He took the wrong steps at least as much as he took the right ones. But he went. And that is what God wanted, apparently.
God doesn’t want us to wait until we are certain. God doesn’t want us to figure it all out first, to download the maps and chart our course; he wants us to move. “Move where?” we ask. Anywhere. Somewhere. As the Lord has told us. We don’t know everything, but we know some things. We know God asks us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. We know that Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers and that when you do it to the least of these, you do it to him. Maybe that isn’t enough to build a life on, but it is a start.
And along the way is a blessing. Not just at the end. There is blessing in the going, blessing in the following, blessing in the unseen destination. A wedding is not the only task I have tomorrow. I am also helping another couple renew their vows. It has been five years of marriage, and they want to claim one another again. Maybe they can see a little bit further and want to recapture the promises that held them for so long. Or maybe they want to reorient themselves again to make sure they are still on the path that leads to blessing.
Or maybe they heard that voice again, that voice that might be God or it might be their love for each other or some mysterious mixture of the two – maybe they heard that voice and want to follow.