Chaim Potok was an intensely religious man; a Jew who explored the dimensions of faith in our lives. As a boy he read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and from that moment on knew he wanted to be a writer. His mother, on the other hand wasn’t so sure. When he went away to college she said, “Son, now I know you want to be a writer. But I want you to think about brain surgery. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying. And you’ll make a lot of money.” To which Potok responded, “No, Mama, I want to be a writer.”
As you can imagine, “No,” was not what Mama wanted to hear. So, every vacation break for four years she would repeat her comments about his becoming a brain surgeon, keeping people from dying and making a lot of money. Always his response was the same. Finally the son had enough, and when the same mantra began, he cut off his mother with exasperation. With great passion he told his mother, “Mama, I don’t want to keep people from dying, I want to show them how to live.”
Our Gospel lesson this morning from John is a “call” story. But unlike so many call stories in scripture this one is not crisp, dramatic or decisive. In this story there is no flashing light, no booming voice, no clear instructions telling disciples what to do. Instead we hear Jesus asking a question. But it is the question, the question that forms the foundation for understanding “call;” for understanding vocation. The question is: “What are you looking for?”
Yet, first think about what the question is not. It is not what do you want to do? What do you want to produce, or achieve, or prove? It is not what do others expect you to do? No, the question is: “What are you looking for? What is important? What is it that will fill your life with purpose and joy and meaning? After struggle and discernment, the writer Chaim Potok was able to answer this very particular question. What was he looking for? He was looking for life – for abundant life for himself and others. Writing novels just happened to be the means for him to find it.
There are a couple of interesting details about John’s telling of the disciples’ call. When Jesus “calls” them, they are already serving as John’s disciples. No doubt they were engaged in the one-upmanship pecking order squabbles we’ll see later. They were probably comfortable following John, and not terribly anxious to upset the applecart by shifting gears mid-stream. But there was something about Jesus and something about his question that hooked them. You see, Jesus invites them into their imaginations. Jesus invites them into their curiosity. Jesus is inviting them into God’s world, not through a sense of duty, but through intuition and passion. And so in midlife, Andrew and Simon jump ship. They move in a new direction.
The second interesting detail in this story is the disciples’ response. The person and the question of Jesus stops them in their tracks. And like those disciples on the Road to Emmaus, the hearts of these disciples seem to burn within them. Friends, there is something about Jesus, something about God, something about the deep question of life that can stop us in our tracks, that turns us around, that changes us – when and if we listen.
So Andrew and Simon respond with a question of their own: “Where are you staying?” They feel so drawn to the spiritual power of this man who asks them the most important question of their lives, so connected to him, that they want to be with him. Though not in a geographical place or an architectural place, but to be with him in a spiritual place. “Where do you stay, where do you abide, where do you rest your spirit and your body?” they ask. “And can we come and stay, can we come and abide, can we come and remain with you?” And Jesus responds immediately, “Come. Come and see. Come and be. Come and abide with me. It’s not important what you do. It’s not important what you look like. It’s not important what you wear. It’s not important who your “people” are. Just come and see—and then the doing will follow. Like water from a fountain, like waves following out of the depth of the sea, the doing will follow the seeing.”
From about age seven, I wanted to be a lawyer. Abraham Lincoln had been a lawyer, great public servants in government had been lawyers. Lawyers made a lot of money. Yet as my senior year in college dawned, with friends ready to head to graduate or medical school or into business I was no longer so sure. Life was full of uncertainty and turmoil during my college years. I was increasingly drawn to activities at church. In an aside during a conversation with a pastor I asked how someone became a minister. He and his colleague began to gently suggest seminary as a place where I could discern what I was looking for.
What was I looking for? I was looking for a steadying force in life. The place where truth, passion and compassion could give voice to the God in me and the God in others –where justice could join hands with joy and outreach for others, where grace would abound. In their care for me during those years, my home church was showing me the person of Jesus. In their ministry I discovered the One who steadies the life of the faithful. And then I knew I was called to abide with Jesus, to stay with Jesus, to become like Jesus in whatever fragile, fallible, finite way I could. But abiding with Jesus happens just as easily in the classroom or the kitchen, the factory floor or the office cubicle. It can happen in the lab or the delivery truck. The call is not to a particular job. It is to a particular relationship – and to a particular vision – and to a particular answer to the all-important question: “What are you looking for?”
Friends, all of us as Christians are called – called through our baptism to be God’s person in the world. But the call is not a digital voice from heaven giving us a printout with specific directions. Rather the call is a lifelong question, burning in our hearts. It is given to us by the One who encourages curiosity, models risk and offers commitment. It is given by the One who invites us to journey with him and abide with him through all the questions and curves of life.
The vocation of Christians is above all a vocation imagine – to imagine seeing what God sees when God looks at the world; to imagine abiding with God in the passionate places where God lives; and to sharing that passion by being God’s presence in the world.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “One midnight I asked God to tell me as plainly as possible what I was supposed to do. ‘Anything that please you.’ That is the answer that came into my sleepy head. ‘What? ‘ I said, waking up. ‘What kind of answer is that?’ ‘Do anything that pleases you,’ the voice said…’and belong to me.’ After that things got much simpler for Taylor. She could pump gas or clean latrines. But as long as she remembered whose she was, her “calling” was a true one. And she realized that God calls us not once, but many, many times.
Sometimes the call is stunning, clear, loud, dramatic, and specific. And that makes it easier for our answer to be equally loud, clear and dramatic. But most of the time the call is much more subtle and much more vague than that. And so, we are left shy, confused, and curious – tentative and tongue-tied – pilgrims on a journey toward the unknown. But, please know that whether you are clear or whether you are confused, God is calling you! God is wrapping warm grace around your restlessness. God’s call gives voice to that ancient prayer of the church: “Lord, we know that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Just over fifty years ago, there was a man who heard a call from God and answered it. He heard God ask him, “What are you looking for?” and he was able to answer. In the same city that will witness this week’s inauguration, that man answered, “I am looking for freedom and justice for all of God’s people.” And so, Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to give voice to the voice of God through the voice of his own passion.
I have a dream that is deeply rooted in the American dream…I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And then all of us will be “free at last.”
Friends, what are you looking for? What are you looking for? It is a cliché to say “now more than ever” people of faith must center on this question. Nonetheless, it is an imperative, the imperative that we ask ourselves the question. For it is by asking and answering that question, with Jesus as your companion, that you will hear God’s “call” to you. And then, you too, will be free at last. And free to be faithful.
© 2017 Gordon B. Mapes III, all rights reserved