This week, I have been thinking a lot about callings. Of course, with Charlie’s ordination to the priesthood this weekend, thinking about callings is not unusual. I have always enjoyed ordinations – and not just because I am a priest. I remember the first ordination I went to there were six people being ordained. I only knew one of the six because she was our new assistant at the Cathedral. But I remember being awed by the service. The six ordinands seemed set apart. As they processed down the aisle, wearing their simple albs, I remember wondering how they came to be called as priests, imagining they must have led a special life or be particularly holy. I remember the swarms of clergy who gathered up front to lay hands on the new priests. I remember how the new priests somehow seemed bathed in light that day – as if they had some special connection to the holy.
Having been through the ordination process myself, I look at ordinands a little differently today. Instead of seeing perfectly pious priests processing, I see people who have come through a great ordeal. I imagine the countless nights of struggling with God about why in the world they should become priests. I imagine the stressful meetings with bishops, priests, and committees and the ambiguity about what would happen. I imagine the exams, the sense of failure after messy pastoral visit, and the countless “no”s that come along in the process. I no longer see perfectly coifed new priests, but instead see the haggard, raw, vulnerable people who have said, “yes,” to what promises to be a life of hard, beautiful, ugly, blessed days. In that way, I do not see the ordained as all that different from the rest of us – a vulnerable group of people who are trying to figure out what in the world God wants us to do with our lives.
That is why I love that we hear Joseph’s story today. Most of us think of Joseph as the stable, quiet figure in Jesus’ life. He is present on the holy night of Jesus’ birth. He protects Jesus from Herod by fleeing to Egypt. He teaches Jesus a trade. He accepts the mighty task of raising a child that is both his own and not his own. In our minds, he is a righteous, quiet, solid man of faith.
While all of those things may be true, what they miss is the mess of his life behind the scenes. [i] Joseph is a typical man of faith, righteously living his life, betrothed to a faithful, promising young woman. He is quietly living his life when his world gets turned upside down. His betrothed becomes pregnant, which must mean she has been unfaithful, and in Joseph’s time, that means his soon-to-be wife must either be stoned or divorced immediately.[ii] Trying to overcome this tremendous disgrace and disappointment, Joseph discerns the best, most gracious path forward. And just when he has settled what is next, God comes along, and flips his world upside-down again. Now Joseph is supposed to not only believe that Mary is magically pregnant through the Holy Spirit, but he is also to stay with her and take the baby in as his own. And based on scripture, we know once Jesus hits the teenage years, Joseph’s story disappears altogether. Even though God calls Joseph to do this tremendous, hard, messy, but beautiful thing, Joseph does not get the spotlight for long. He goes about his everyday life, living out his calling, relatively unnoticed by the world.
One of the things I have loved about mentoring people over the years is seeing just that same phenomenon. Throughout our lives we have distinct seasons of discerning call. Sometimes those moments are obvious: graduating from school, trying to find a job, figuring out how to spend time in retirement. The pattern seems to go a little like this: we hit a point where we need to discern what God is calling us to do; we go through a process of discernment, sometimes formal, but usually informal; we make a decision and take the necessary steps to follow that path; and eventually we look back. In looking back, we rarely find that the call we heard and answered leads us to where we expected or wanted. Invariably, there are twists and turns we never could have anticipated. Invariably, there are failures scattered throughout the successes. Answering a call is never a simple, clean, or easy process.
Just this week, I was reading about a young man from North Carolina who happened to see a traveling ballet company at his church at age seven. Four years later, he found himself practicing six days a week. He eventually joined the New York City Ballet. He says, “I’ve always seen ballet as my way of serving God. I think it’s what God has called me to do.”[iii] What I love about this young man’s story is that whether you are a ballet dancer, cabinet maker, housekeeper, or financial manager, at some point, God has called you to that work for a reason. The ballet dancer admits he sacrificed a lot to follow his call. I imagine he failed a lot before he succeeded. And some day, his body will no longer be able to dance, and he will have to figure out what else God is calling him to do. His story is the messy, beautiful, challenging story of call we all live.
And if we have never struggled with discerning our professional calling, we have certainly struggled to understand what God is doing in our personal lives. Though we are approaching a season of joy and merriment, I know there are many of us who are facing medical diagnoses whose purpose we do not understand. There those among us who are living in relationships – romantic, familial, or otherwise – that are at times loving, hurtful, confusing, and life-giving. And there are those of us who feel lost, lonely, or restless, even though everything in our lives seems to be moving along well on the outside. God is in the midst of the personal too – calling us, challenging us, and shaping us.
If we were ever unsure about God’s presence in our messy professional and personal calls, Joseph stands ready to remind us. He too faces a medical diagnosis that changes his world – a pregnancy that he did not plan, or even participate in, that changes the course of his life forever. He too faces a relationship that seems broken. Even when he feels as though he is choosing a kind, compassionate, and righteous decision, God calls him to take another path. Joseph too understood what feeling lost is like. Just because an angel tells him to take in Mary and adopt the child as his own, I doubt that things are easy sailing at home, on that journey to Bethlehem, or even after Jesus’ birth. Though Joseph is listening to God and following God’s call, he is never promised a simple, peaceful, happy life.
So why do we do it? Why do we listen to God’s call for us if we have no guarantees of a happy, smooth, or peaceful life? We follow God’s call because we have experienced that sense of dis-ease when we do not follow God’s call – that sense that we are not using all the gifts God has given us, or that discomfort that comes from trying to force what we “should” do in life with what God calls us to do in life. We follow God’s call because we have experienced the tremendous grace that comes from answering God’s call. Sure, the road is messy, and hard, and sometimes frustrating. But the road is also full of beautiful surprises, wonderful accidents, and joyful confirmations that we are right where God wants us. And we follow God’s call because we are part of a people who have always followed God’s call: from Abraham, to Moses, to Esther, to Jonah, to Mary, to Joseph. Our ancestors have taught us that when we say “yes,” God does indeed turn our lives upside down. But our ancestors have also taught us that in the midst of that topsy-turvy turmoil is where we find out truest selves, where we meet the world’s deepest needs, and where we find ourselves in Christ’s light and love. So, do not be afraid. God is with us. God is with you. Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation,” December 17, 2013, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961 on December 14, 2016.
[ii] Douglas R. A. Hare, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 93.
[iii] Quote and story from Humans of New York, December 12, 2016, at http://www.humansofnewyork.com/post/154395391126/i-was-first-exposed-to-ballet-at-the-age-of-seven, as found on December 14, 2016. Photo by Brandon Stanton. Subject unnamed.