There’s an old Hebrews tale of a Rabbi living in a Russian city a century ago. Disappointed by his lack of direction and purpose, he wandered into the chilly evening. With his hands in his pockets, he aimlessly walked through the empty streets, questioning his faith in God and his calling as a Rabbi. As a matter of fact, he was so enshrouded by his own despair that he mistakenly wandered into a Russian military compound. A place that was off-limits to civilians. But he snapped out of it when the evening silence was shattered by the bark of a Russian soldier. “Who are you” and “What are you doing here” were the questions. “Excuse me?” replied the Rabbi. “I said, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’” But after a brief moment of silence the Rabbi asked a very strange question. He asked the soldier, “How much do you get paid every day?” The solider responded, “What does that have to do with anything?” But the Rabbi persisted, “I will pay you that same sum if you will ask me those same tow questions every day: Who are you? And what are you doing here?[i]
Now, I’ve been at this pastor thing for quite some time now, about 16 years or so, and I’ve served and continue to serve on the Division of Church and Ministry working with and reaching out to other UCC pastors in our Association; and I can tell you, we’ve all been there. We’ve all, at one time or another, wondered if we’re on the right track. If we’ve heard God’s call correctly. This call to preach and teach and serve as a leader in the Church? There’s a point in every clergy person’s tenure, probably more than one actually, when we ask ourselves and our God these very same questions. “Who am I?” And “What am I doing here?”
These are two of the great existential questions of humanity, aren’t they? “Who am I?” And “What am I doing here?” I would even go so far as to say that these questions lead us to very heart of theology and philosophy. They’re foundational for helping us to discern our place in the in this world: to discover our calling.
I would be willing to bet that these same questions crossed the mind and perhaps the lips of Paul as well. In the very first words of the Epistle that we have before us today, Paul affirms his own calling to be an Apostle for Jesus Christ. But if we were to walk with Paul through all the triumphs and tribulations, the joyous moments and the times of great suffering, I can imagine that he may have longed for answers like our distracted Rabbi.
In the Book of Acts and through his own writings we experience Paul being imprisoned, almost drowned at sea, struggling with illness… a thorn in his flesh he calls it. We are invited to travel with him on long missionary journeys and to witness his disappointment and sometimes anger against the churches he planted on those long, hard treks. So it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that he might throw up his hands and wonder “why”
But here’s the thing. Paul also gives us, I don’t know, the formula if you will, on how to take a step back from these questions and refocus on what’s truly important. To capture the big picture rather than lingering in the moment. The writings about Paul and by Paul challenge us to remember that it’s finally more important to discover what God is doing through us rather than for us. God’s calling for Paul and for all of us doesn’t proclaim to be easy. The road that lies before us maybe more of a Damascus road than smooth highway. And if you gain nothing else from the teachings of the Apostle, please understand this: Paul wants us to know that God is God and we are not God. Even though these questions may haunt us sometimes, they’re finally just one of many paths that lead back to God.
But these questions aren’t limited to characters in the Bible like Paul or even clergy.
Someone once shared a particularly powerful memory of something that happened when he was attending summer church camp as a child. At the closing campfire, the leader suggested that perhaps during their time together some of the campers may have heard God’s call to service. And those who had were invited to come forward. The first boy approached the leader and whispered in his ear. The leader then gleefully announced, “Michel has received the call to become a pastor.” The leader then vigorously shook his hand and said, “Congratulations Michel!” A girl came forward next. She whispered something to the leader and again he was almost giddy. “Susie has heard the call to become a missionary! Congratulations Susie!” Then the leader asked if there was anyone else who wanted to come forward. A final boy cautiously approached and he too whispered in the leader’s ear. But his time the leader simply patted the boy on the shoulder. Then the boy went back to his seat without another word being said. Now, the person telling this story was that boy, now a middle-aged man, successful in business. But there was still some hurt in his voice when he asked the question, “Can you guess what I whispered in the leader’s ear?” I told him that I was called to teach math.”[ii]
As I read this story I couldn’t help but feel sad that this man’s calling was never confirmed. It wasn’t confirmed because the leader at that summer camp maintained a common misconception about calling. That God’s call is only to the ministry. That’s simply not so.
As a matter of fact, the word “call” itself shares a root with the word “vocation” making them essentially interchangeable. So our vocation then is by definition a calling. God calls math teachers, carpenters, nurses, office managers, as well as, stay-at-home parents, soup-kitchen volunteers, gardeners… whatever, you fill in the blank. Every person has a vocation of some kind, a calling, an invitation to use her and his gifts in a variety of way to meet the needs of others. Frederick Buechner give us a compelling definition of vocation. He says that “…God calls us to the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In other words, God calls us to a vocation, a place or occupation where our deep gladness, where a deep sense of satisfaction and belonging are cultivated. And it’s a place where that call is intertwined with and used to connect us to the world’s deepest longings; a hunger, a hunger for both spiritual and physical foods.
As we leave this place today, sisters and brothers, and as we ponder those deep existential questions; Who am I? What am I doing here? may the answers we receive lead us, call us, into an ever-deepening relationship with each other and with our Creator. Amen.
[i] Cordeiro, Wayne. Doing Church as a Team Ventura CA: Regal Books, 2001 pgs. 32-33.
[ii]Copenhaver, Martin B. Room to Grow: Meditation on Trying to Live as a Christian.
Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2015 pg. 151-158.