I got this email from Nate a couple of weeks ago asking me to if I would be able to preach this weekend,
And I said “sure, I can do that.”
Then he told me that the text for the week was the Calling of Samuel, and I almost regretted saying yes.
It’s a cute little story.
Well, except for the part where the first prophecy God gives Samuel is to tell his guardian and mentor that God’s going to bring down punishment upon his son’s and family without any relief forever, it’s a cute little story.
Cute little stories are awful to preach on. I mean it’s funny how he goes and wakes Eli up three times, and it’s awesome that he turns out to be a great prophet for Israel.
Umm. Conflict? Nope. How about moral questions? Not really.
It’s a call story, but as call stories go, it’s not even an interesting one.
Isaiah gets a huge temple scene with six angels, with six wings each.
Ezekiel gets this psychedelic thing with wheels within wheels and eyes on the wheels, moving in all four directions without veering.
And if you want a really meaty call story, go check out Hosea, “when the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord”
Even Jeremiah got a scroll to eat.
Samuel disturbs an old man’s sleep three times. Yawn.
On top of all that, I’m just not a big fan of the call story genre.
You see, when you’re going to seminary and going through the process to become a teaching elder, everybody wants to hear your call story.
You have to write it up and tell it to your session, then write it up for your seminary application, then write it up and tell it to the Committee on Preparation for Ministry.
Once you’re in seminary and started on the process, you have to tell it in classes. Then you go to field ed and you have to tell it to that church, then you do your chaplaincy and you have to tell it there, and then you have to tell it to your presbytery when you stand for candidacy.
That was about the time I came out, I am not at all sure that part of my reason for doing that was so I could start telling that story instead of my call story.
The assumption was of course I must have a cool call story, that moment where God spoke to me and told me to go try to be a minister. There are so many call stories in the bible, of course everyone who goes to try to be a minister must have a story of their own. Right?
Because there are so many of them in the Bible and because we’ve heard so many of them in the course of our lives, we’ve kind of fetishized the call story.
We talk about them, share them, write hymns about them.
I’ve been so conditioned to it, that I feel like I’m transgressing on some sacred church law by doing a sermon about call stories and not having us sing the ubiquitous “Here am I, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.”
Please don’t rat me out to the church police.
And that obsession has caused a couple of problems through the years.
The first, that I think of as the “Constantine Effect” is how many times the church at large or individual churches have been taken in by somebody who had a great call story, who stood up and said in a very flamboyant way, “God spoke to me and told me that I need to lead you.”
From stories like that we get cults, like The Branch-Davidians, The Westboro Baptist Church, and Focus on The Family.
We even see, today, groups of fundamentalists Christians attributing a call story to Donald Trump in order to justify their support of him.
Somebody pointed out that Peter probably wished that Paul didn’t have such a great call story.
And how different would western history be if Constantine hadn’t seen that cross on the night before battle?
So that’s one problem with focusing so much on the importance of call stories, people get taken in by particularly vibrant ones and that has often lead to some very negative outcomes.
But there’s a second problem that’s less obvious and more insidious, one that has probably cost the church quite a bit more than the stories of charismatic leaders ever has.
Many of you know that I go to House for All Sinners and Saints down in Denver. House has one central motto that we try to apply to all aspects of our church life.
We are “Anti-Excellence and Pro-Participation.” We don’t care how good you are at something, we care that you’re trying to be part of the life of the church.
Each week as people enter for worship, they’re met at the Table of Contents and welcomed by a couple of greeters, who will give them a bulletin, and ask them if they want to do a job.
As the table of contents is set up, there are 20 bulletins laid out on it, each with a job that needs to be done in worship written on the cover. Call To Worship, Communion Server, reading the first text, reading the Gospel, and on and on.
Anybody who walks in the door can take any of the jobs, even if it’s the first time they have ever joined us in Liturgy before, or haven’t been here for months, the jobs are open to who ever wants to do them.
Our founding pastor, Nadia, likes to tell a story about how on my first visit to House I took the Gospel reading and how shocking it waswhen this, in her words “Unattractive trans-woman” that nobody knew stood before them and read the Gospel with such beauty and conviction that it was like believing the words all over again.
The story is not quite true, it was actually my second Sunday, and I don’t know that I did all that great a job of reading the Gospel, but the story is canon now, so what can I do?
Right next to them on the table is a sign “We are anti-excellence and pro-participation.” And often, the people who take the jobs live into the anti-excellence part with abandon. And while that makes some people, myself included, cringe during the service, I think it’s wonderful that those people stepped up and did the work of the church, even if it was not something that they were good at, or comfortable with.
You can probably tell that I like to speak in public. It’s actually, unlike what most people experience, easier for me to speak in front of a crowd than it is for me to have a serious one on one conversation.
And I have some skill at it, both connected to being around the theater for so long and to explicit training in seminary. Before we could take our intro to preaching class, we had to take a required course on the public reading of scripture, and then when we got into Intro, over the course of the semester we each preached three practice sermons that were videotaped. In the week after the practice sermon, we would spend an hour in a one on one session with the professor going over those videotapes moment by moment with the same level of attention to detail that football players go over game footage to see what they’ve done well and where they’ve screwed up. It was excruciating. But it taught us how to be in the pulpit.
My skill at public speaking has even been used as evidence of my call, it’s become part of my call story.
Through my three years plus at House, most Sundays I’ve taken one job or another, most often one of the scripture readings or the poem. I’ve consciously tried not to take any of them too often, because I didn’t want to be greedy, and I didn’t want people to think that my reading was the norm.
Recently I heard that a member had spoken to one of the pastors about how they didn’t like the way we had people who weren’t very good do the readings in liturgy and why couldn’t we have some kind of training so that more of the service was read by people who were good like Meghan.
I hate that. One immediate effect it’s had is that I’ve stopped doing any readings in liturgy. It breaks my heart to think that there’s even one person out there thinking that they can’t take a job because they can’t do as well as I can.
I love standing before a congregation and speaking whether it’s reading scripture or preaching, and I’m vain enough to know that I’m pretty good at it. But I don’t want that to be a stumbling block for others. I don’t want to stand in the way of the next “unattractive trans woman” or whatever who’s willing to take the risk of standing up and joining in the work of the people.
Which brings me back to the second problem with our obsession with call stories.
What about the people who don’t have one?
What about the people who think that God hasn’t spoken to them like he did to Samuel or to Paul? Or that God hasn’t given them a gift for the work like he did for Isaiah or Jeremiah?
Through the centuries, how much has the church lost, because people who could have made a huge difference have said, “that’s not me, I’ve not been called to do that.”
One thing that I think people miss in that case is that, I believe, more often than not, the call comes after the stepping forward.
I haven’t told you my call story, but it is the story of someone who experienced the call after they took the step forward.
I was going to a church in Alabama, Immanuel Presbyterian, and partially because of what I had learned as a youth here at FOC, I signed up to be a liturgist, their equivalent of a lay leader. Certainly not because of any sense of call, but just because it was what one did.
And in that time, in that place, something clicked when I was in front of the congregation and when I was reading scripture. And then I wanted to do it more, so I took a class in the presbytery to be a commissioned lay pastor and I got to go to some other churches and preach and I wanted to do more and more and more and I went to seminary and you know most of the rest.
God never woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me to do those things, I never saw a bright light on the proverbial road to Damascus.
What I did was try, without any of that, and it worked and it changed my life.
So I want to say to you, if you don’t have a Samuel story or an Ezekiel story, don’t let that stop you from giving your time and talents to the church. Maybe a call will come, maybe it won’t, but either way, you will have helped the church.
And that’s far greater than any call story.