Today we are honoring the beginning of Bob Gay’s diaconal ministry with Hickory Neck. We do not arrive at this day lightly. Bob and his family had to discern if coming out of retirement was what God was calling him to do. Bob had to confirm that call with church leaders, church members, and Diocesan staff. Bob had to prayerfully consider what a diaconal ministry at Hickory Neck would look like and how that ministry might be different than at other churches. And today, Bob and our community make commitments to not only support his call, but also recommit to our own senses of call. Though our celebration of Bob’s ministry may feel brief in relation to all we do today, the gravity of what we do in and through Bob is serious.
Although I am thrilled to honor Bob’s new ministry among us, sometimes these types of days can leave us with the impression that “calling,” is something that happens to those with collars – people are called to be priests, deacons, and bishops. Sometimes we are willing to expand the notion of calling to certain helping professionals – people are called to be nurses, social workers, fire fighters, and teachers. But we get a little tripped up imagining being called to be other things – a lawyer, an engineer, a stay-at-home parent, an investment banker, or a business owner. And when we are younger, we almost never hear people saying we are called to be a student, a babysitter, a friend, or a sibling. We might think we are good at some of those things, or we enjoy those jobs or roles, but we do not always say we are “called” to do them.
I met a retired priest once, and he said his greatest joy in retirement was in helping parishioners experience God on Mondays. In partnership with the clergy of his church, his “calling” in retirement was to set up what he called “Sunday-Monday Appointments” with church members. He would go visit members of Church on Mondays in their places of employment and talk about where they see God in their everyday life – how they make the connection between what they do on Sundays and what they do on Mondays. Those conversations are meant to help the parishioners name how they experience “calling” in their work place. For some parishioners, that conversation is quite easy. But for others, that conversation is much more difficult. Many of them have never had a priest visit them at work, and they have certainly never prayed aloud at the end of a meeting at work. When the retired priest asks them about their Sunday-Monday connection, sometimes he finds parishioners do not really have a connection. Those two days feel very separate in their minds.
Part of what is challenging in claiming that we are “called” to a role outside of church is we feel intimidated declaring what God would want us to do outside of church. We imagine something a bit like what happened to those around John the Baptist in our gospel lesson today. We do not like the idea of being called a “brood of vipers.” We do not like the idea of being told our ancestry does not matter – that being a descendant of Abraham does not hold sway with God. We do not like hearing about repentance, or axes lying at the root of trees who do not bear fruit. Perhaps if we had been one of those gathered around John the Baptist, we might have simply concluded that the whole baptism thing was not for us. Baptized living sounds hard as John describes baptism.
But before we get too far down the path of defeatism, something interesting happens in our gospel story. Instead of walking away with their heads hung low when John starts calling them broods of vipers, the crowd asks a question, “What then should we do?” After being called broods of vipers, you might expect the eccentric John to tell them to sell all their possessions, eat insects, and live in rags. Instead, John says something quite simple, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Basically, John says, share your stuff when you have more than you need. That is all: share your stuff. We can tell John’s answer is pretty benign because the tax collectors jump in, “Teacher, what should we do?” They ask because although the others get off pretty easy, the tax collectors know they are in a bit of hot water, resembling broods of vipers more than they might like to admit. But John is mild again, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” In other words, John says, “Just do your job fairly.” The soldiers are emboldened now too, asking, “And we, what should we do?” John gives them an easy out too, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” That one is pretty basic too: appreciate what you have, and don’t be a bully.
What scholar David Lose appreciates “is how mundane, if not downright obvious, John’s admonition proves. I mean, this is not rocket-science; indeed, [John’s admonition] is the logic of the classroom and playground most of us first heard in kindergarten: share, be fair, don’t bully. But if somewhat obvious, [John’s admonition] is at least also within their reach. John does not tell the crowds to join him out in the wilderness, he does not ask the tax-collectors to abandon or betray Rome, and he does not urge soldiers to a life of pacifism. Instead, he points them to the very places in which they already live and work, love and laugh, struggle and strive, and suggests that these places are precisely where God calls them to be, where God is at work in them and through them for the sake of the world.”[i]
This month in our Sunday Forum series we are talking about our spiritual gifts. We are hearing diverse voices talk about what gifts each of us have and how we can use those gifts in our various callings. The idea is not simply to discover what gifts we have so that we can use them in the world; the idea is also to name how we are already using our gifts in the world, and to understand the use of those gifts out in the world and within this community as our calling. You know as well as I do that some of us are called to teach children, some to read scripture in worship, some to advise the church about financial decisions, some to plan parties, and others to find and stop leaks in water pipes. And some of us are not called to do any of those things. But each of us has spiritual gifts unique to ourselves, and each of us are invited to use those gifts in the church and the world. Those spiritual gifts can be as simple as the fidelity of a parent or spouse, the attentiveness of a friend, the hard work of an employee, the honesty of an employer, the steadfastness of a volunteer, the generosity of participating in an outreach ministry, or the compassion of visiting the sick or homebound.[ii]
What Bob’s new ministry and John’s invitation in our gospel lesson today do is not send us home thinking we must be ordained or be some crazy wilderness prophet to be faithful to God and live out our calling. What we do liturgically and hear scripturally today is remember that the connection from Sunday to Monday matters. The things we do in our everyday lives are opportunities to stop seeing work, home, school, and community as simply work, home, school, and community, but instead as our mission field – as the places where we live out the calling we discern here on Sundays. And if we are not certain what that calling is, the crowd surrounding John encourage us to ask the same question they ask, “And me, what should I do?” I promise the answer will not be overwhelming. The answer will be simple: show God’s loving-kindness in the workplace, at home, at school, and in the community; be Christ’s light in the grocery store, on the playground, with your loved one, and with the stranger; share the Holy Spirit’s love while driving, while emailing, while eating, and while playing on a team. Our job each Sunday is to keep asking, “And me, what should I do?” and then trust on Monday the answer will be unique to our gifts, within our reach, and fulfilling beyond measure. Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Advent 3C: Beyond Scolding,” December 11, 2018, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2018/12/advent-3-c-beyond-scolding/ on December 14, 2018.