Jesus calls us, o'er the tumult

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

In the name of God, who, through Christ, calls us, o’er the tumult.  Amen.

You may remember that line from a hymn we sometimes sing.  The first stanza says, “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea; day by day his sweet voice soundeth, saying ‘Christian, follow me!’”

It’s a hymn that we’ll often sing when we hear the stories about Jesus and the disciples on the stormy sea – the tumult.  But I thought of it again this week, as our readings point us toward stories of calling.

Last week, on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, we talked a lot about baptism.  Particularly about our own Baptismal Covenant.  And the covenant is what it’s about.  Baptism is about how we commit to practicing our faith.

But this week, we hear about the commitment’s complement: calling.  Calling is about how we unite our practice of the covenant with God’s will.  And here’s the thing about calling.  It always comes with questioning.  It always involves a little tumult.  It always comes in the midst of “life’s wild, restless sea”.  Sometimes it even contributes to that wild restlessness.

I’m reminded of one of my father’s sermons from when I was growing up.  There’s no telling the hundreds of sermons I heard him preach over the years, but there were a few whose legends lived on.  One of those was on a sermon that he preached about grace.  Now, mind you, this was to a Southern audience, but I think it translates, especially if you know much of anything about Southern culture.

Dad said that grace was like grits.  It just comes.  Even if you didn’t ask for it.  Maybe even if you didn’t really want it.  It just comes.  It’s just a part of the package of a life with God.

I thought of that sermon as I was thinking about calling.  When it comes to discerning God’s will – to trying to make sense of God’s call – questioning and doubt are like grits.  They just come.  You probably don’t want them, at least not at first.  But they come as a part of the package.

We hear two stories about that today.  First there’s the story of Samuel.  A young man, just in the beginning stages of his faith journey.  He’s just beginning to get to know God.  And God calls out to him in the night.  At first, he’s confused.  He goes to Eli, his mentor, thinking the voice he heard was his.  Eli assures him that he hadn’t called the boy, and sends him back to lie down.  But then it happens again, a second time, and the same thing happens.  When Samuel hears the calling a third time, his mentor begins to realize that the call is from God, so he sends him back to listen and respond.  It’s not until that fourth attempt that Samuel is ready to hear God.

In our own experiences with God’s calling, it can often take that many attempts and more before we’re ready to hear God.  We question it, and wonder where its coming from.  Very often it’s not until we can’t ignore it anymore that we start to give in and realize that God is speaking; it’s not until then that we are finally ready to hear and respond.

Then, in the Gospel, we get another story of calling.  This time, it’s Jesus calling two of the disciples: Philip and Nathanael.  So often in these stories of calling it sounds pretty simple.  Jesus says, “Come.” and the people come running.  They left their nets and followed…  They left their father and followed…  But in this story, it’s a little different.

Jesus had already called Andrew and Peter.  Philip, thrilled at the news of the Messiah, rushes to tell Nathanael.  But Nathanael doesn’t just drop everything and go running.  His response to being called to follow Christ is probably a bit more like most of our callings usually are.  He hears it with some contempt and doubt.  You can almost hear his callous smirk as he responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  It’s not until he meets Jesus on his own that he finally embraces his calling.

In both of these stories we hear callings accompanied by questioning.  Samuel didn’t recognize God’s voice when he heard it.  Nathanael heard the call but doubted its legitimacy.  He was, at first, blinded by his own prejudice.

In my own vocation, I initially made the mistake a lot of people make.  Over the course of years, I began to understand my calling to this priestly vocation.  But my mistake was an initial assumption that once I’d worked that out, I’d finished.  As if my ordination was like a graduation from discernment.  Like: Yay!  I’d discerned!  Now I can move on.

But I soon learned that the process of discerning a vocation to the priesthood is just one of many discernments – innumerable discernments.  A big one, to be sure, but in reality, more of a preparation than a conclusion.  It didn’t take me long to learn that I still had discernment work to do, and that I would for the rest of my life.

From time to time I’d have to discern what God was calling me to do with this vocation, and what ministry setting it was for.  I’d often have to use tools of discernment – of listening for God’s call – when confronting problems.  Most weeks I’d have to work hear God call as I prepared to preach.  Practically everything in my life would involve discernment and listening for God’s call and guidance.

And very often I get it wrong.  Very often I have to confront some particular call a lot of times before it will start to really sink in.  Very often I’m blinded by my own preconceived notions and can’t hear my call as clearly as it’s being given.

What I’ve learned is, questions don’t mean that there is a lack of calling.  Doubt doesn’t mean that our call isn’t real.  These things are natural responses to faithful discernment.  If we are truly and faithfully listening for how God intends to use us in the world, we will be beset with questions and doubt.  It just comes.  It’s a part of the package.

Too often we see our doubt as a roadblock.  We’re not 100% convinced, so we assume the path we’re following must not be the right one for us.  But the key is to practice faithfulness.  That’s the only way to answer the questions and doubt that always accompany our work of discernment.  Of course, that doesn’t mean the questions and doubt will go away.  But faithfulness in our discernment, and faithfulness to God is the only way to answer them.

When you question where you’re being called – when you doubt whether you’ve gotten it right or not – remember that you’re in good company.  The Bible is filled with stories of people who weren’t sure.  But we’re not called to surety.  We’re not called to certainty.  But we are called to faithfulness.  We are called to trusting the process, even through our questions and our doubt.

And who knows.  Maybe I’m wrong.  But I am willing to keep listening for the voice of God.  And I think maybe that’s the point.  Amen.